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As Long as We Remember...

June 16, 2005


Wile E. Delaplaine

Ermines, Mastiffs and the Faithful Corsairs of St. Malo – Part Two

The Symbols of the Seal of St. Malo. The modern seal of St. Malo employs the same elements used in the early 17th century, notably: two chained, snarling dogs on either side of a metal grate; atop the grate scampers a scarfed ermine; above the ermine are ramparts; at the seal's base is the curious slogan, "Semper Fidelis” familiar to Americans from the U.S. Marines.

The dogs, in fact, made their appearance on the very early town seals, well before the rest, and with it, one of the earliest mottos, "Cave Canem," or "Beware the Dog." Widely known today in France is a proverb that loosely translates: "Going to St. Malo? Say goodbye to your legs.”

From the 12th through the latter half of the 18th century ferocious mastiffs mounted security. During the twice a day low tides, the ships off the ramparts were left high and dry, stranded in the sand and mud. To protect them and to protect the entrance to the city from thieves of the night, daily, at 10pm, a trumpet would sound and a pack of half starved bulldogs were released on the ramparts and ran outside the walls. They were supplied with barbed collars to prevent them from eating one another as well as to keep would-be intruders from attempting to grab them by the neck. The dogs were allowed whatever they happened to come across until locked up again at dawn.

This charming custom met its end in March of 1770 when a brash marine officer decided to attempt to enter the city at night. The canine guards were not put off by his swordsmanship. The hapless man then threw himself into the sea, yet the dogs pursued and ripped him to shreds. Several days later the town ordered the dogs poisoned.

The seal’s ermine comes with a romantic story.

In 1532, the Duchess Ann of Brittany married the French king, linking the previously independent duchy to the French crown. A legend goes that around that time the duchess was accompanying a hunting party.

The expedition’s dogs chased an ermine to the edge of a muddy bog. Ann saw that the creature, rather than sully its beautiful white coat by crawling through the mud, had decided to let itself be killed by the dogs. Ann, so moved that she spared the ermine’s life, created the motto of Brittany, "Better death than to sully one’s name." This motto appears on the ermine’s scarf in Breton, which is a Celtic language still spoken in certain corners of Brittany.

As for the slogan, "Semper Fidelis", shortened by U.S. Marines to "Semper Fi," I cannot say with certainly, but I assume that “Always Faithful” here refers to Malouins’ past allegiance to the French crown.

But St. Malo wasn’t always faithful. During a four 4 year period in the 1590s, the Malouins refused to be ruled by protestant King Henry IV of France. Declaring their independence, they developed yet another motto still cherished by people today: “Ni Français, Ni Breton, Malouin suis.” Neither French, nor Breton, but Malouin I Am.” (Presumably the climate changed when Henry converted to Catholicism, declaring Paris worth the price of a mass.)

Perhaps St. Malo remains faithful today to the Republic, but it is still the Malouin flag which flies over the ancient fort and not the colors of France or Brittany.

Links used for reference which should be acknowledged:

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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