La Vilaine à Rennes

The story of a river

So where does your name come from Vilaine?

The Vilaine is a pretty river that crosses Rennes and there is nothing pejorative about its name (which means ugly in French). It dates back to the first Breton and Celtic designations.

The 10th longest river in France

The Vilaine is a pretty river that flows into the Atlantic Ocean between Muzillac and Pénestin in the Morbihan département, having covered 225 kilometres from its source in Mayenne. Together with the Ille, the other river that passes through Rennes, it forms the name of the département. But where does the name of the 10th longest river in France come from? There are several theories, from the most historical to the most famous.

A sometimes yellow, black or rusty river

The name of the Vilaine is first said to have come from an old Breton denomination, ar ster vilen, meaning literally “the river with water mills”. This is plausible given the many mills that still line its banks today. There is a second explanation, which is even more credible and closer phonetically though. The original name was actually ar ster velen, or the yellow river, due to its muddy colour when the water level rises. Some schist rock could also be responsible for the river’s strange colours, as is indicated in the oldest Celtic name given to the river — Doenna, meaning deep or black river. The same meaning is behind the 2nd-century Greek denomination Herios Potamos, or dark or hazy river. From the 11th century, it was called Visnonia, or the river with rusty waters, a variation of Vicinonia, which became Villaingne then Vilaine in French. Nothing to do with beauty then, even if colour does play a part.

“Each explanation has its own origin”

“When studying place names, there are often several roots combined with associations of ideas. In Brittany, with its Celtic and legendary traditions, each explanation has its own origin, whose meaning changes according to the transcriptions. The Vilaine is no exception to the rule. We associate the river water with everything it carries with it, the colours, the silt…”, explains Gilles Brohan, an architecture and heritage guide from Rennes Tourist Information Centre.

Waters with magical powers

Popular etymology puts forward another explanation, attributing magical powers to the waters of the Vilaine.  This belief is said to date back to the first centuries of the Christian era. During this period, women from Rennes were so well known for their beauty that ungraceful young women would come to bathe in the waters of the Vilaine for its beneficial effects.

A legend at the heart of it all…

Legends form quickly in Brittany and there is one last theory behind the name of the river Vilaine. A tale, sung by Théodore Botrel, recounts the story of a young lame girl with golden hair and a hunchback — hence the name Vilaine, or ugly — who falls head over heels in love with the son of a château owner during the time of Duchess Anne. An impossible love story that ends badly, as the young girl is coldly turned away. Inconsolable, she cries rivers of tears… 

“The child, seeing her love
Disappear without returning,
Sobbed so breathlessly
That her heart broke…
And this is how the Vilaine
departed! ” 

“There where the child cried,
A source appeared
Of which she was godmother:
The river that flows
Since that day is called
“The Vilaine””.

(Extract from La Vilaine – Théodore Botrel)

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