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The Legend of the Plank

"They say," said Win, "that the space between the castle and the town was once a meadow. For that matter, they also say that the whole channel between here and France was once so narrow that the Bishop of Coutances used to cross to Jersey on a plank."
("The Spanish Chest" by Edna A. Brown)

The story of the plank first appears in Jean Poingdestre’s "Caesarea" of 1682, in which he mentions a "fabulous tale of the conjunction of Jersey to Normandy by a Plank or by a Bridge". This is elaborated by Plees in his 1817 "Account of Jersey" to mention that persons passing over the plank or bridge paid a toll "to the Abbey of Coutances"; Plees also notes that there is no historical records he can find for this.

The story has undergone variant forms since this, one in 1829 by l’Abbe Manet of St Malo in which the plank was laid down for the Archdeacon of Coutances when he visited. This is attributed to the lifetime of St Lo, around 500 AD, according to an old manuscript which Manet cites as having read, but singularly fails to mention where this could be found.

The evidence of geology is for the split from France taking place many years before historical times, yet there still persist people today who take this story, or its variants, as proof that the separation from France occurred in historical times, possible around 400 AD. But apart from this story, one has to ask what other evidence there is for such a theory. The cave at Belle Hougue is of singular importance for prehistoric times because it supplies evidence (in deer bones) which corroborates the geological record for Jersey being separated from France by a high sea level. One would expect similar evidence in support of this theory, and even better evidence in the form of historical documentation of some description, but none is forthcoming. There is no mention of churches or centres of population in the vast area presumed to have been swept away by the tides. The burden of proof must be on those who would overturn the geological record in favour of one story with poor documentation.

In fact, I see the treatment of the story here very much like that of the Creationists who take the book of Genesis as depicting literal historical events; there is an inability to understand what the story is really about.

The form of the plank story is clearly that of folklore rather than history. The story lacks any historical underpinning, and in its variant forms shifts forward and backwards quite easily, being set at the time of St Lo, around 500 AD, and at later times mentioned in connection with a catastrophic inundation around AD 700. The location of the plank is not mentioned on either side of the divide, but also shifts about. But the key to the story does exist, and it lies in one of the authorities mentioned by later writers - "The History of the Monks of Mont St Michael and of the Order of St Benedict", which contains a reference to a right by the Bishop of Coutance to use the plank or bridge.

Form criticism is the method of examining stories, in which we consider why a story was told in its original setting, and what purpose it had in the community in which it arose, and how the form developed. In stories like the plank, as with stories in which dragons feature, the story is told in a coded form akin to allegory. Symbols are representatives of something else, but this makes the story accessible to everyone, and so it is successfully communicated widely.

If we look at the legend of the plank from this context, we see that above all else it is an argument for the authority of the diocese of Coutance over the Jersey. It is saying that Coutance has religious authority and ties over Jersey, and the people of Jersey must pay respect to this authority. It is a story told when such authority might be a matter of dispute, when the Island might be becoming too independent in religious affairs, and it is set in the distant past precisely to give it the weight of authority; it says that this was the case in the distant past, before the present situation. This also explains the strange connection of the plank with the Bishop (or Archdeacon) of Coutances. Why else tell a story about the connection with France, and just mention a Bishop crossing?

Having said that, when do we date the story, and what communities do we place it in? The fact that one of the authorities ties back to Mont St Michel suggests that it is placed between 1000 AD and 1100 AD, when (according to Balleine) the continental Church was taking significant control over the Jersey Churches. If we place the writing of the Life of St Helier around this time, then we have two stories written to make differing claims.

The Life of Helier was clearly written to establish the independence of the Priory of St Helier from Coutances, while the Story of the Plank does the exact opposite. Notice how the Life of Helier talks of Helier as a hermit on an Island, which could only be reached by boats. The Plank says that this is untrue, around this time Jersey was almost part of France, an Island in name alone, and the Bishop used to visit regularly. It is the answer to the Life of Helier - the counter claim! The medieval map which once existed in Mont St Michel which showed an enlarged Jersey and a small channel between Jersey and France, is the geographical support for the same claim.

This was a time when the practice of forged documents purporting to have ancient provenance was rife. It must not be forgotten that with religious control came economic dues from the area under control, and so considerable wealth was involved; it was not just a religious matter, but one which also involved considerable financial gain!

Of course, the original context became lost in time, and like so many folk and fairy tales, it probably survived largely as an oral tradition, and was in time mistaken for history. People realised that Jersey was once part of France, but were not being able to date this scientifically; in this context, the story was retained as a "just so" story, and with the story of a great inundation around 700 AD, it changed its function.

There may well have been great inroads into the Jersey coast around 700 AD, but linked to the story of the plank, and with the need to separate Jersey geographically by the time of the Norman rulers, what was probably a purely local affair becomes a grand catastrophe, and a new ending to the story of the plank. Now it is Jersey’s own version of a Flood myth, or a Lost Continent (like the myth of Atlantis), where a vast tract of land is wiped out in a deluge, and is lost beneath the waves.


"The Spanish Chest" by Edna A. Brown ( 1875-1944)

Form Criticism: