Internationally renowned artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, Renoir, Monet and Chagall all drew inspiration from the tempered light, rich colours and distinctive landscapes of Brittany. So too, countless Breton painters whose work drew additional vitality from the region’s unique cultural heritage. This post looks at a few of these Breton artists whose accomplished work deserves serious consideration in any discussion of the art of Brittany.
From the central town of Rostrenen, Olivier Perrin (1761-1832) was perhaps the first artist to produce quality, objective drawings of everyday peasant life in Brittany. A noted painter, much of his work was engraved and published posthumously between 1835-39, providing subjects and motifs that were subsequently explored by other artists.
The landscape artist from Nantes, Prosper Barbot (1798-1877), is now perhaps better known for his romantic images of Italy and North Africa but he painted this atmospheric masterpiece on home soil before heading to sunnier climes.
Victor Roussin (1812-1903) from Quimper, spent most of his working life as a lawyer and public administrator but was clearly a talented artist, first exhibiting at the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, in Paris in 1838. He specialised in Breton landscapes and scenes of popular life in the province. He was also one of the founding members of the influential Archaeological Society of Finistere.
Jean-Édouard Dargent (1824-1899), also known as Yan’ Dargent, was born in Saint-Servais; a skilled and prodigious book illustrator whose oil paintings, whether created from imagination or reality, deliver a strong visual impact. He also painted frescos in many Breton churches that can still be viewed today. Before his death he had asked to be buried in the town of his birth and that his skull be placed in the ossuary alongside those of his mother and grandparents. By law, disinterment could only take place five years after burial and in October 1907, with full ecclesiastical approval, his body was exhumed. However, the body was not sufficiently decomposed and the supervising abbot had to cut the head off himself; leading to an unseemly legal dispute with Dargent’s surviving relatives.
Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), from Nantes, was an influential painter appreciated for his portrait work and classical scenes but is today best known for his grand murals, such as those that adorn the walls at the Paris Opera house, the staircase of Paris City Hall and the nave of the Panthéon. Despite working on it for fifteen years, this latter commission remained unfinished at his death.
Another native of Nantes, Jacques Tissot (1836-1902), better known as James Tissot, stayed with Dalauney, a family friend, while attending the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1857. Having established a reputation as a painter of medieval themes, he transitioned easily to depicting Parisian high society and continued on this vein after relocating to London in 1871 where his work was in high demand, commanding commensurately high prices.
Tissot declined his friend Degas’ invitation to join what became known as the first Impressionist Exhibition but his refusal did not affect his close friendships with such luminaries of the movement as Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet. In terms of style, colour and light, Tissot’s London work is perhaps a closer fit to that of the Pre-Raphaelites. Tissot returned to Paris after the death of his lover in 1882 and shortly thereafter experienced a strong resurgence of his Christian faith, which seems to have led him to spend the rest of his life focused on painting biblical scenes.
Alexandre Le Bihan (1839-1924) was born in Langonnet, central Brittany, and despite exhibiting regularly at the Salon between 1869 and 1900 is now not particularly well remembered. He lived for a time in Paris but spent almost his entire professional life in Brittany where he was known for his genre scenes and landscapes and was, for a time, Curator of the Lorient Museum.
A native of Lorient, the self-taught Theodore Roussel (1847–1926) was another Breton artist who cemented his artistic reputation in London having only taken-up painting when his military service concluded in 1872. His earliest works were scenes of daily life but his permanent move to London in 1878 ignited a life-long passion for printmaking and etching. Primarily known as a landscape painter, his entry for one of the first exhibitions held by the New English Art Club (an alternative to the Royal Academy established in 1885 by young British artists who had studied in Paris) created quite a sensation at the time.
Maxime Maufra (1861-1918) is another painter who committed himself to his art later than some of his contemporaries although this Nantes-based businessman exhibited, as a hobbyist, at the Salon of 1886. Perhaps it was this success that convinced him to turn his back on commerce and fully embrace his art a few years later in 1890 when he moved to Paris and became the first artist to take up residence in the then unknown Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre. He returned regularly to Brittany where he painted extensively along the southern coast and was particularly accomplished at landscapes and seascapes.
Born in Châteaugiron in the east of Brittany, Jules Ronsin (1867-1937) was a widely exhibited artist who spent most of his working life in and around the city of Rennes.
Edgar Maxence (1871-1954) studied under another native of Nantes, Jules-Élie Delaunay, at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His work mostly focused on medieval and mythical subject matter; his talent allowing him to create convincingly rich costumes and headgear. The header image of this post is his 1906 painting The Breton Legend; a wonderful juxtaposition of the stolidly Catholic and magical pre-Christian Brittany.
Mathurin Méheut (1882-1958) was a prolific artist from Lamballe who was not only an accomplished painter but also a skilled engraver, sculptor, illustrator and designer; he even collaborated with the renowned Henriot pottery in Quimper as a decorator. His work is highly praised for its striking and authentic depiction of daily life in Brittany in the first half of the 20th century.
A wonderful example of how artistic influences inter-weave can be seen with Jeanne Malivel (1895-1926) from Loudeac. Malivel was one of the founders of Seiz Breur (the Seven Brothers), a movement that revolutionised Breton arts and crafts between the two World Wars. Multi-talented, she was a skilled designer of furniture, upholstery and ceramics but is perhaps best known for her skills as a woodcut engraver and illustrator where she took inspiration from Celtic art and the synthetism of Gauguin, who himself had been influenced by the naïve style of English illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) whose drawings in an 1880 guidebook to Brittany were well regarded by the artists of Pont-Aven.
Another member of the Seiz Breur movement was Pierre Péron (1905-1988) from the west coast city of Brest. Like Méheut he is hard to categorise being an accomplished painter as well as cartoonist, engraver, designer and author.
Simone Le Moigne (1911-2001), from Magoar in central Brittany, did not seriously start painting until she was almost sixty years old but left a legacy of several hundred naïve, tender paintings that shine a light on life and rural society in central Brittany between the World Wars; a rural lifestyle that was rapidly disappearing when she began to paint in the 1960s.
I fully appreciate that the word ‘best’ used in the title of this post is highly subjective, as is the term ‘popular’ and perhaps this post should really have been called: ‘My Favourite Breton Artists’. If I have failed to include a favourite of yours please let me know and I will be happy to add them here!
For over two centuries, Brittany has been a great source of inspiration for artists from across the world drawn to the beauty of its landscapes and unique quality of light. Today, it remains one of the regions of France most visited by painters and art lovers keen to explore the same magical sights that have inspired so many.
Visitors to Brittany in the 18th and 19th centuries noted many beliefs surrounding the little folk of the region. This post continues to look at some of the more notable characteristics once attributed to a specific group of fairies, known as the Fairies of the Swells, in the local legends and folklore of northern Brittany.
Fairies who ask to be godmothers to a mortal child are found in several old French tales and a rather peculiar example was also once noted in northern Brittany. Here, a tale relates that a fairy became the godmother of a human baby and was so besotted by him that she cast a powerful spell to ensure that the baby would not grow until he made her laugh. After seven years, the child, though healthy, remained as small as on the day he was born. One day, while riding his pet rat to the river, he was thrown off and landed awkwardly in front of the fairy who laughed uncontrollably at the strange sight; the curse was broken and the child immediately assumed the size of all other seven-year-olds.
Several legends show that the fairies did not guard their good fortune too closely but like all good neighbours were prepared to lend their prized possessions to those in genuine need. They lent their oxen to those neighbours who politely asked for them but they imposed certain conditions; most commonly they demanded that their beasts not be made to work before sunrise or after sunset. If the fairies’ animals made but a single furrow after dusk, they immediately burst and the fairies came to curse the imprudent ploughmen.
It was said that the fairies often kept their cattle stabled in a corner of their vast cave dwellings and that each morning a child from the nearest farm came to fetch them and took them to graze in the meadows. The cows were returned each evening but never once did the young cowherd see the fairies she diligently served but every month, a small cloth bag hung from the end of a rope was found containing the silver owed to her for their care. Likewise, the fairies of Saint-Agnan, who needed milk and butter for their cakes, had cows which were found every morning grazing in the midst of the communal herd and who, at night, suddenly disappeared. On the last day of the grazing season, one of them carried, suspended from its horn, a small bag containing the sum owed to the cowherd.
As might be expected, not all fairies were benevolent, some were even reputed to be evil and were known as such, while others were simply viewed as mischievous. Those mortals who had offended the fairies were sometimes transformed beyond human recognition. For instance, an enormous oak tree near Saint-Pôan was said to have once been a man changed into a tree by a fairy’s curse, while another legend tells that the lumpfish was once a fisherman. One evening, when walking along the seashore at nightfall, a fisherman heard a voice saying that the feast of the queen of the fairies would take place on the next day and that any fisherman who lifted his nets that day would be punished. The man ignored the warning and when he touched his nets, a voice cried out to him: “Unbeliever, you are the cursed of the fairies; be changed into a fish.”
Like the other little folk of Brittany, the Fairies of the Swells loved to dance, especially the circular dance. Traces of their nocturnal dancing were recognised in the morning light by large circles on the ground where the grass seemed greener or in the strange marks in the sand of the most isolated coves. The fairies did not welcome uninvited guests at their soirées; those mortals curious enough to spy on them were almost immediately bewitched. The fairies along the Emerald Coast west of Saint-Malo once invited some hapless men into their moonlit dance and suddenly turned them into cats. Locals reported seeing them wandering on the cliffs on windy evenings, wailing in distress. To regain their human form, they had only to weave, for the fairies, mantles of gold and silver from the grains of sand on the seashore.
Another glimpse into the spiteful nature of some fairies is afforded in a tale about two old maids long tormented by them in their small cottage by the sea. After weeks of anguish and many vain attempts to combat the fairies with charms and prayers, magical amulets and holy rosaries, the two ladies resolved to fortify their home with holy water. Copious amounts of which they sprinkled all over the house, including the doors, windows and fireplace, before retiring to bed. At midnight, the fairies appeared but found themselves unable to enter the house because the holy water burned them harshly. A few minutes later, they were lifting the earthen sods from the roof and throwing them down the chimney, and, walking carefully on these new lawns which they threw out in front of them, they reached the old women’s beds and began to whip them, singing in chorus: “All is not blessed! All is not blessed!”
In several parts of Brittany, it was said that fairies visited people’s homes by means of the chimney, particularly to see if any of the household dared to continue their spinning on certain auspicious days. Around Essé, it was also believed that this was the means fairies used to gain access to a house when they stole the children.
A perhaps more unsettling tale highlighting the dangers of antagonising the fairies lies in the jagged jumble of rocks and boulders that litter the base of the cliffs around Cap Fréhel. Local legend tells that a good house once stood upon the ground now covered by these rocks; home to a family that had repeatedly bothered the fairies of the neighbouring caves. To avenge their perceived offence, the fairies brought down these massive rocks and crushed the house, on the very day when the wedding of the eldest son was being celebrated.
Further west, the debris of the shore, specifically sand dunes, were at the heart of another fairy-related legend. Around the village of Portsall it was said that some fairies, having committed a murder, were condemned to fetch sand from the sea and to count the grains until they had arrived at a figure which the imagination could hardly conceive; the sand dunes that lie between Portsall and the estuary of the Aber represent the piles of sand that each fairy had to count.
Returning some miles east, the cave known as Toul ar Groac’h (Fairy’s Hole) near Loguivy was reputed to be home to a group of fairies who carried a most sinister reputation. As late as the middle of the 19th century, local fishermen preferred to sleep under their boats for the night rather than risk walking home near the fairy’s cave. Interestingly, it was said that the power of these fairies did not extend over women; if those of Loguivy came to meet their men at the end of a day’s fishing, they had nothing to fear as they passed the Toul ar Groac’h.
This area seems to have once been home to many groups of malevolent fairies as it was noted that around the nearby town of Tréguier, evil fairies once killed those who ventured onto the beach at night, while the salt workers of Crec’h Morvan feared the evil fairies that seemed to protect those of neighbouring Buguelès whose salt was reputedly of better quality. If the fairies of this stretch of coast were not evil then perhaps some enterprising smugglers spread such tales in order to keep prying eyes away from the beaches at night?
Further east, around the port of Saint-Cast-le-Guildo, the Pointe de l’Isle was said to be the domain of fairies who whipped human trespassers with the long strips of seaweed. Some 12km (8 miles) across the Bay of Saint-Malo lies the Goule-aux-Fées, just north of the resort of Dinard. Here, popular tradition warned that those people who dared to venture on the clifftops at night risked being seized by a ferocious whirlwind that would drag them down into the fairy cave below, where they would be devoured by the evil fairies chained there.
One of the key characteristics of the fairies was their industriousness, even if their activities were accomplished beyond the sight of mortal eyes. The fairies were reported to have visited their human neighbours at night; knocking on doors asking for the loan of ploughs and horses. It was believed necessary to agree to any request made by the fairies for fear of exposing the household to any evil spells. The fairies were said to have been very careful with whatever items they borrowed and would even return any damaged items fully repaired.
Despite their diminutive size, fairies were attributed prodigious strength as evidenced by certain menhirs which were said to be discarded spindles which they had once used to spin wool. In their aprons they could transport massive stones, such as those that were used to create the world’s largest surviving dolmen, La Roche-aux-Fées (Rock of the Fairies), near Essé. Constructed from 32 upright stones with nine roof slabs, this structure is about 20 metres long by five metres wide and at its highest point is over four metres high. These monumental stones were likely quarried about 4km (2.5 miles) away and dragged to this site some 5,000 years ago but local legend long ascribed the building of this dolmen to the fairies who completed the work in a single night.
A rather touching local legend tells that the structure was built by the fairies to shelter the souls of the just but that these fairies disappeared with the retreat of the forest. Since then, the whistling of the wind between the stones was held to be the lamentations of souls in pain no longer visited by the fairies.
Some 13km (8 miles) away at Saulnières stands another megalith said to have been built by the fairies, La Table aux Fées (Table of the Fairies) to serve as a table where they could eat and rest during their exertions at La Roche-aux-Fées. The presence of many of the neighbourhood menhirs were once explained away as discarded building stones; at the precise moment the dolmen was completed, the fairies carrying their now surplus stones simply dropped them where they stood. It was also said that the fairies had placed a spell of confoundment upon the monument so that no count of the number of stones would consistently tally.
Other significant landmarks were once credited to the skilled craftsmanship of the fairies, such as the 14th century Cesson Tower in Saint-Brieuc and the elaborate portal of the chapel of Saint James in Saint-Alban which is otherwise accredited to the Knights Templar in the 13th century. This was about the time that the castle of Montauban de Bretagne, just 49km (30 miles) away, was built although local lore attributes its construction to the fairies who are also reputed to save sown the forest that surrounds it in order to give it protection.
It was traditionally believed that during the hours of darkness everyone possessed the capacity to see the fairies but during the day this privilege was only afforded to a very small number of people, such as gifted sorcerers and those who had rubbed their eyes with a magic ointment. Many stories tell that it was thanks to this mysterious ointment that the fairies could make themselves invisible or transform themselves.
A few cautionary tales highlight the dangers to mortals who believe that they can wield the magic of the fairies. One tells that, one evening, a fisherman from Saint-Jacut was walking home along the bottom of the cliffs when he saw several fairies talking animatedly together in a cave. Alas, he heard nothing of their discussion but did see them rub their eyes with some kind of ointment and immediately change shape before walking away from the cave like ordinary women.
When he thought the fairies were far away, the fisherman entered the cave and saw, on the wall of the rock which formed part of the cave, a remnant of the ointment with which they had rubbed their eyes. He scraped a little with his fingertips and smeared it around his left eye, to see if he could, by this means, acquire the magic of the fairies and discover their hidden treasures.
A few days later, a ragged and dirty beggar came to the village where she pleaded for alms from door to door but the fisherman immediately recognized her as one of the fairies he had seen in the cave; he noticed that she was casting spells on certain houses and that she was looking carefully inside them as if she had wanted to see if there was something worth stealing within.
Sometime later, at the Ploubalay fair, the fisherman noted the presence of several fairies despite their various disguises; some masqueraded as beggars, others displayed curiosities or held games of chance in which the country people were taken like fools, one even appeared in the guise of a fortune-teller. He was careful not to imitate his companions and to play the fairies’ games but he could see that the fairies were worried; vaguely sensing perhaps that someone was aware of them. Delighted with the knowledge that he held the upper hand, the fisherman laughed as he wandered among the crowd. Passing by a tent where several fairies paraded on a platform, he quickly realised that he too had been unmasked and that they were looking at him irritably. He wanted to run away but swift as an arrow, one of the fairies used the wand in her hand to burst the eye which their ointment had made clairvoyant.
A similar tale was noted some 30km (18 miles) south, near Gouray, in 1881: A human midwife who delivered a fairy baby carelessly allowed some of the fairy ointment to get onto one of her own eyes. The eye at once became clairvoyant, so that she beheld the fairies in their true nature. A few days later, this midwife happened to see a fairy in the act of stealing and admonished her for it. The fairy quickly asked the midwife with which eye she beheld her and when the midwife indicated which one it was, the fairy immediately plucked it out.
Just 33km (20 miles) east, a local legend from near Dinard tells that a midwife of the town was once called out to attend a mother in labour in a cave on the Rance estuary. Having successfully delivered the baby, the midwife was given a jar of ointment with which to massage the newborn, along with strict instructions to avoid rubbing it around her own eyes. Unfortunately, she was unable to resist the temptation to do so and was startled to find everything around her changed; she now saw the dark cave was as beautiful as the finest castle and that the new mother and her friends were actually fairies dressed like princesses. Careful not to betray any surprise, the midwife completed her tasks and returned home well paid. Sometime later, as she could, thanks to the magic ointment, see the fairies that were invisible to others, she saw one flying and could not help exclaiming aloud. Realising she had been seen, the fairy swooped down and tore out the offending eye.
The invisibility charms woven by the fairies seem to have extended beyond masking their appearance and that of their dwellings. According to popular legend in Plévenon, the fairies of Cap Fréhel used to wash their clothes in a pool on Fréhel moor and spread their laundry to dry in the surrounding meadows. Their linen was reputedly the whitest that one could ever see and whoever could get near it without moving their eyelids would have had permission to take it but none of those who tried ever succeeded, for as soon as they moved their eyelids the linen became invisible.
In this region, fairies were renowned as skilled healers whose remedies were believed to contain compounds from plants that possessed yellow and blue flowers. Secret, bewitched herbs that enjoyed the virtue of curing all diseases were said to have been cultivated along the shorelines by the fairies who employed them to make the ointment which was used in many of their enchantments, although some tales say that the fairies also ate these herbs. Fairies were also said to feed on sylvies; a delicate plant whose downy seeds were sensitive enough to disperse at a fairy’s breath but highly toxic to humans. A fairy’s breath is usually lethal in Breton lore but there is a tale of an old leper on the Île-de-Groix visited one night by an old crone. Discovering him near death, the fairy recited some charms and breathed on the man’s sores, leaving him fully cured.
Most legends here agree that the fairies did not age and were immune to all sickness. However, they were believed susceptible to ailments and even death as soon as any salt was put into their mouths; a belief likely due to the association of blessed salt and the Christian baptismal ceremony. It was even said that all the fairies around Plévenon died at the same moment because a malicious boy, seeing a fairy asleep with her mouth open, threw a handful of salt into it.
About 24km (15 miles) to the east, along the Rance estuary, legends unique to this part of Brittany tell of fairies that appeared during storms and followed a queen who rode a boat fashioned from a nautilus shell, pulled by two large crayfish. It was said that she could command the winds and that she ordered the waves to return the corpses of the drowned. This fairy queen of the Rance sometimes visited the small island of Île Notre-Dame where she was seen landing one day by a young sailor who, having sighted her, quickly hid himself.
Captivated by the queen’s great beauty, the sailor noticed that she had fallen asleep and felt compelled to move closer so as to see her better. Standing over the sleeping queen, he was silently admiring when he was quickly surrounded by other fairies who wanted to throw him into the sea for his effrontery. The commotion awoke the queen who ordered her companions to do the lad no harm and to whom she addressed a few, sadly unknown, words before disappearing in a chariot drawn by butterflies.
The numerous legends of the fairies of the swells represent them as living as part of a family unit or wider community but there are a few notable exceptions. One is the Fairy of Puywho is reported to have lived in a cave popularly known as la Grotte-ès-Chiens (Dogs’ Cave) on the Rance estuary near Saint-Suliac. This fairy was said to emerge at sunset, being initially glimpsed as a white and indistinct vapour that seemed to dance over the ground before slowly evaporating to reveal a beautiful woman whose dress shone with all the colours of the rainbow. She was seen walking on the seashore, sometimes sitting on the grass of the cliffs; a sad, solitary figure who fled at the sight of man.
Local legend tells that this fairy did not always cut such a forlorn figure for she was once sovereign of these lands; her voice commanded the winds and controlled the waves. Recognising her power, fishermen would offer their homage to her before setting out to sea and the mouth of her cave, guarded by a pack of invisible dogs, was always bedecked with garlands offered by the wives and loved ones of those at sea. In return for such devotion, the fairy delivered favourable winds and abundant fishing.
One day, some shepherds found, near the entrance of the cave, a young woman lying close to death. She told them that she had come to this place to wait for her fiancé but she had seen the fairy who told her that her fiancé was dead and that she herself would die soon. The shepherds took her to the village where the priest, having heard their story, quickly gathered his congregation and marched to confront the fairy. At the mouth of her cave, he summoned her to appear and exorcised her but nothing was seen and only an anguished cry heard. Returning from the cave, the people who had accompanied the priest found the dead body of the young fiancé.
Since that fateful day, the Fairy of Puy does not often show herself; she flees from the sight of man because she no longer has any power over him. Her appearance now is said to announce some imminent misfortune and any bloody traces found on the beach are a bitter reminder of her rejection and her fall from benevolent protector to spiteful destroyer. Perhaps the Puy fairy’s journey was typical of others who were more thoroughly lost to the mists of time. It is not too fanciful to see in her some kind of pre-Christian sea deity or sacred oracle that, over time, was greatly rationalised and transformed into just another devilish creature for the superstitiously minded imagination.
One interesting aspect of the legends involving the fairies of the swells is the paucity of any meaningfully direct association with water. Certainly, they had their homes close to the sea but unlike the korrigans who are frequently noted as frolicking in fountains and streams, there are no tales that mention these fairies swimming or bathing and only one of them being said able to walk on water. Nor were they seemingly concerned with catching fish by natural or magical means, preferring to steal their oysters and fish from the catches landed by the fishermen. These fairies thus shared some attributes with other supernatural beings such as korrigans and mermaids but were viewed as a quite distinct, even unique, group.
Some Breton tales tell that the fairies transformed into moles in order to escape the Gospel or else that they were condemned to the darkness by God in punishment for having rejected the early saints. In southern Brittany, it was said that the Gulf of Morbihan was born from the abundant tears that the fairies shed when they were forced to leave Brittany; on this new sea, they threw their garlands which turned into little islands.
Legends surrounding the disappearance of the fairies of the swells are far more consistent than those surrounding Brittany’s other fairies; they left the country, all at once, during the course of a single night. They are said to have left for another country and several legends tell us that their destination was the island of Great Britain. While the exact date of their departure varied from commune to commune, most agreed that it was sometime around the beginning of the 19th century. Towards the end of that century, the Breton painter and author Paul Sébillot, who spent over two decades recording the folklore of the region, claimed to have met only two people who believed in the contemporary existence of fairies and who swore to having personally seen them.
There is no neat answer as to why the fairies left these lands but it is important to remember that primary education was being pushed in rural areas from the middle of the 19th century and was made compulsory in 1881. Young Breton children entering school were officially described as “like those of countries where civilization has not penetrated: savage, dirty and not understanding a word of the language”. Education was the State’s main tool in civilising the savages and “clods” of “the bush” in order to integrate them into national society and culture, specifically the culture of the city, of Paris; the war on superstition was now began in earnest. Over time, children became almost as separated from the world of their grandparents as they were from the court of the King of Siam.
With the existence of the fairies attacked by both Church and State and with the communities that sustained such beliefs changing rapidly, it is little wonder that certainty in the living presence of fairies waned. Perhaps the character Peter Pan summed it up best when he said: “You see children know such a lot now. Soon they don’t believe in fairies and every time a child says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”
I shall end this post on a more positive note because Breton legend assures us that the fairies will, one day, return to this land; perhaps at a time when the Angelus bell is no longer sounded, perhaps at some other time of their choosing. The fairies all left in one night and will likewise all return during the course of a single night in a century that is an odd number. Some people were convinced that the fairies would return in the nineteen hundreds and in the early part of that century, the people of Saint-Cast, seeing women in motorcars for the first time, thought that the fairies had indeed returned.
According to Breton tradition, the fairies abandoned Brittany all at once and over the course of a single night. Local legends differ as to when that time was but at the end of the 19th century it was usually said to have been when one’s grandparents were very young or even during the turmoil of the Revolution; dates so distant that nothing then resembled what exists here today.
The travellers and ethnographers that visited the region in the mid to late 19th century noted many beliefs surrounding the little folk of Brittany. As you might expect, the names given to these diminutive supernatural beings often differed from community to community but there appears to have been fairly broad agreement about the characteristics exhibited by certain beings seemingly based on their habitat.
The fairies of north-east Brittany and along an associated coastal strip about 130km (80 miles) long, stretching roughly from La Fresnais in the east to Saint-Quay-Portrieux in the west, were notably different from others found in Breton folklore or even elsewhere in Europe. In the east of the region, they were known as LesFéesdes Houles (Fairies of the Swells) or Margot la Fée but terms that meant ‘My Godmother Margot’ and ‘Good Ladies’ were also popularly used. In the Breton speaking areas to the west, Groac’h vor (Sea Fairy) was used although Groac’h was also a word that could be used to describe a witch or a crone.
Like the korrigans, the Fairies of the Swells possessed magical powers; they could foretell the future, shapeshift into any human or animal form and were able to travel from one end of the world to another in the twinkling of an eye. Fairies were often spoken of with a sense of reverence for it was widely believed that they refused to be mocked and ruthlessly punished those that ill-treated or disrespected them. They loved to dance but were often shy and wary of human contact and thus made their homes in hidden isolated places such as coastal grottoes or sea-caves.
These fairies were almost always described as beautiful people; fallen angels condemned to an earthly exile for a certain period. Around the areas of Le Mené and Moncontour, it was said that after the revolt of the angels, those left in Heaven were divided into two camps: those who had fought on the side of God and those who had not. These latter angels were sent to live on the earth for a time, some of whom willingly abandoned their parallel world for regular incursions into the daily lives of our ancestors.
Around the fishing port of Saint-Cast, the fairies were said to have dressed in clothing made of white canvas but further inland, near Le Mené, one who claimed to have knowledge of such things in 1880 described: “human-like creatures whose clothes had no seams and no one knew which were men or which were women. When seen from afar, they appeared to be dressed in the most beautiful and brilliant clothes. When we approached, these beautiful colours disappeared but there remained on their heads a sort of cap in the form of a crown, which appeared to form part of their body”.
Local legends generally describe the fairies as well-educated, wise, young and very beautiful although some appeared to have been centuries old, with teeth as long as a man’s hand and with backs covered with seaweed, barnacles and mussels. If these appearances seem remarkable, it is worth noting that the fairies of Cotentin, further along the coast in neighbouring Normandy, were reputed to be very small with breasts so elongated that they threw them over their shoulders to better suckle their babies which they carried on their backs.
As in other parts of Brittany, some of the region’s fairies were said to live in dolmens or under menhirs or other great rocks – locations that perhaps hark back to earlier devotions and ancient stone cults. For instance, during the nights of a full moon, fairies were said to emerge from the dolmen on Île-Grande near Pleumeur-Bodou to dance their favourite circular dance. Likewise, tall, beautiful fairies, dressed in purest white and so luminous that looking upon their faces was like seeing light through a horn lantern were reported to enjoy moonlight dances around a dolmen near Caro each Easter night.
In the area around the towns of Lamballe and Moncontour, fairies were said to live under some of the protruding rocks that emerge from the ground in that neighbourhood but only if they were also sited very near to a stream or pond. Protected by the elements from the overhanging stone, the fairies lit their fires and watched over their cattle. Their presence in the area attested by the markings on the stones said to have been made by their feet or by the nails of their sabots.
Throughout Brittany, both fairies and korrigans were most closely associated with water; the latter usually with springs and ponds, the former with streams, rivers and the sea. Near Saint-Pôtan, the waters of the Guébriand River were said to be home to a fairy that lived in a fine palace hidden by the reeds and aquatic grasses; her blond hair could be seen above the water on nights when the moon was clear and sometimes one could her wonderful singing. This fairy could assume the appearance of an eel or even take a human form and was feared because it was believed to possess the power to petrify unmarried girls.
In central Brittany, a pond in the forest of Huelgoat was said to be the location for a great meeting of fairies who congregated there each year, at the summer solstice, to judge those of their number who had shown themselves particularly spiteful to their human neighbours. Each fairy was able to cast their opinion without fear or favour and those found guilty were condemned to stay at the bottom of the water until the next appearance of the summer solstice.
While Brittany’s islands contain legends of fairies and mermaids, their presence on the more numerous islets were rarely noted but exceptions do exist. On Ebihen, lost in the underground passages said to be hidden there, sleeps a fairy who would marry any man willing to undergo ordeals of water, earth and fire to reach her. A little further along the north coast lies the Île de Bréhat where a fairy famously transformed some shepherds to stone for having leered at a mermaid basking there. Off the south coast, the lake in the centre of L’île du Loc’h was said to be the home of a wicked fairy whose great wealth surpassed that of all the temporal kings combined. Here, she seduced hapless men, turning these unfortunates into fish and serving them as a meal for her guests.
Along the coast of the Bay of Saint-Malo, between La Pointe du Grouin and Cap Fréhel, the myriad caves fronting the sea were said to be the abode of the fairies; some were said no larger than a rabbit warren while others were as grandiose as a cathedral. If one was surprised at the smallness of some caves, legends were at hand to explain that they had not always been like this but had fallen victim to some cataclysmic event or that, like at the Teignouse grotto, they had collapsed the moment the fairies abandoned the country. The largest dwellings were said able to accommodate extended families and their households with only the antechamber visible at low tide; some were said to extend deep into the land, even as far as 40km (25 miles).
In some legends, the caves inhabited by the fairies were not damp, dark holes punched into the earth but a microcosm of the world above them with sun, sky, floral meadows, trees and even stately castles. However, most tales mention only normal but spotlessly clean caves that were sometimes closed by a stone door or hidden behind a nondescript old door covered with wet seaweed and other plants.
Aside from their great age and magical powers, fairies were believed to live their lives as their human neighbours did; albeit with an assumed lifestyle more akin to those Bretons living near the top of the social spectrum. The fairies baked their own bread, they spun yarn, did the laundry and were even held to keep chickens and to tend their own herds of cattle.
A very few tales mention male fairies, known as féetauds, who are almost always described as husbands, brothers or sons; in the fairies’ realm, males were thought to have been fewer in number and held magical powers inferior to the females. Many legends also note that the fairies lived with a unique race of little men or elves known as fions. These men – there were no female fions – served as servants and cowherds to the fairies and were said to be so small that their swords were no larger than bodice pins.
However, some tales talk of fairies marrying mortal men with whom they communicated the mysteries of nature and the secrets of their magic. This select band of men subsequently adapted to a subterranean domestic life, enjoying their new life so much that the passage of time seemed but half as long as it really was. In one tale, the object of a fairy’s affection was an old man who had been long baptized, the fairies baked him in an oven to reduce him to ashes before kneading him anew; a ritual that made the new husband young and handsome.
Courting a fairy was clearly not an undertaking for the fainthearted with human suitors usually subjected to a series of trials and harsh ordeals. Having won a fairy’s heart, the mortal man was generally given a final opportunity to avoid the commitment of marriage by having to agree upon certain, sometimes seemingly bizarre, pre-conditions such as not using harsh words or throwing anything at his wife. The terms were unequivocal; the fairy would give her new husband her total devotion but their union would be irrevocably broken if the husband did not completely observe the conditions he had agreed were acceptable to him. Tales tell of the marital bond between fairy and mortal often being severed suddenly; either due to the over-sensitive nature of the fairy but more often due to the ill manners or falsehoods of the husband.
One story relates that, after a long absence, a lord returned to his castle with a beautiful young woman whom he had married in a distant land. She always wore dresses so long that no one, not even her husband, had seen her feet. Indeed, it was only after having sworn never to look at them that he was able to become her husband. They lived happily until one day he scattered some ash on the floor of their bed chamber. The instant she entered the room, her husband saw the imprint of crow’s feet on the ash. Carried away by anger and pain, the lady, a most powerful fairy, cursed the lord and his lands; the castle sank into the earth with all its inhabitants and was covered by water. The site it once occupied now forms a lake whose depth no one has yet been able to fathom.
Another legend from northern Brittany warns of the dangers of losing the favour of a fairy. It was said that during the wars of the Revolution one of the fairies that lived near Saint-Cast once fell in love with one of the soldiers garrisoned nearby. She followed her lover and kept him safe wherever the army sent him. Indeed, while they were together, the soldier was never injured and only knew the taste of triumph. However, the fairy subsequently abandoned him and all luck left him immediately; he was wounded and all the battles in which he fought ended in bitter defeat.
Sometimes, a fairy’s love was unrequited, such as occurred just across the Bay of Fresnaye. Here, the whirlpool of the Rocher de la Fauconnière near Cap Fréhel was traditionally said to have been feared by sailors, not because they were incapable to handling their vessels there but because the spot was cursed and had been since the day the phenomena was created by a fairy who rushed into the waves at that spot; desolate with grief when a fisherman she loved rejected the love potion she had presented to him.
Like the fairies recorded in other parts of the Celtic world, the Fairies of the Swells sometimes seized the children of their human neighbours to substitute them with their own; now popularly known as changelings. A typical story tells how a fairy mother takes a pretty little girl and replaces her with an ugly creature that appears as old as stone but generally the fairy changelings are almost always males. Such changelings were said to have been insatiable and a burden to their human hosts while the human babies taken by the fairies were believed to have been granted special powers and enjoyed a life so pleasant that twenty years seemed to pass as quickly as one day for them.
Considering that the fairies are almost always portrayed as very beautiful and righteous, the notion of their begetting and discarding extremely ugly children is not without interest because some authors have suggested that legends of changelings and infants that were said to have been ‘taken by the fairies’ began as stories to explain away the appearance of babies born with abnormalities or those that had disappeared altogether. In one notable example from the town of Dinard in the 1850s, a woman in her thirties was described as no bigger than a girl of ten years of age; a condition ascribed to her being a fairy changeling.
For the Breton household desperate to regain their missing child, several remedies were noted as effective in the region’s folklore. It seems to have been important to force the changeling to reveal itself as such and one of the ways this was done was by piquing its curiosity to incite an involuntary reaction, either through song or exposing it to something remarkably bizarre such as boiling water in broken eggshells. Another certain means to expose a changeling was to beat it or even to pretend to beat it: such drastic measures were said to cause the fairies to immediately return the baby they had stolen.
Fairies usually enjoyed a good relationship with their human neighbours and were generally regarded as benevolent; ‘good ladies’ and ‘our good ladies the fairies’. Provided any pact made with them was respected, the fairies were generous and compassionate towards humans, healing wounds and curing local children of diseases such as croup. The fairies around Saint-Cast were even said to have collected the children of fishermen at sea in order to send them to their schools and instruct them in their oldest secrets.
A legend common to several parts of the region tells of hungry fieldworkers politely asking the fairies for a little bread being pleasantly surprised to discover, at the end of whatever furrow they were working on, a fresh loaf of bread or a hot pancake placed upon a clean napkin and accompanied by a sharp knife. Sometimes, the fairies’ benevolent nature was witnessed by their desire to protect people from harm, such as in the legend of a pregnant woman who, in her desperation, tried to drown herself but was saved by the fairies who nurtured her and hid her in their swells.
Another tale tells of a fisherman floundering off the coast, sighting, through the evening mist, a white-clad woman beckoning him ashore. Anxious to avoid the treacherous rocks that skirted the coast, the fisherman tried to tack away from the shoreline but was helpless against the power of the waves. His small boat was quickly engulfed and was smashed against the walls of a cave where he lost consciousness. He awoke the following morning to find himself in a smart new boat filled with clean tackle and a great catch of fish.
Local tradition attests that the land now covered by the moor of Cap Fréhel was formerly cultivated and once supported a large farm. Thanks to the kindness of the fairies who then lived in the neighbouring cliff, the farmer enjoyed the finest crops in the country. One day, a fairy came to his house and, to test him, asked for charity. The farmer, who did not recognize the fairy in the disguise she had taken, pushed her away harshly. The next day an old woman knocked on his door and begged him to give her something to eat: “Do you think I will feed all the lazy people who come to my house! Go away! I have nothing for you”, he cried. As the crone did not move, he took her by the arm and pushed her away but suddenly, instead of the poor woman who hobbled along, he saw a lady as beautiful as sunlight who said to him: “Since your heart is so hard, your harvests that have been so good in the past, will be as bad in the future.” From that day on, despite the farmer’s hard work, his fields produced nothing but thistle and thorn.
Given its importance in Breton society, it is little surprise that the fairies were usually portrayed as exemplars of charitable behaviour; they gave willingly and generously to the poor who asked politely or to those who had unselfishly rendered them some service. Typically, the gift was a piece of bread that never diminished or some other inexhaustible item such as a magical plate or cup. However, in one tale a man was rewarded with the gift of a golden pear that, provided it was kept secretly hidden under his pillow, produced three gold coins every morning. All these precious gifts immediately lost their virtue if one did not fully observe any conditions imposed by the fairies, such as not speaking of them to anyone or not sharing their magical bounty with strangers.
A legend from Port-Blanc recounts the tale of a woman who, one evening, walked past a fairy cave on the nearby Île des Femmes. Seeing a faint light, she ventured into the cave and saw, in the dim shadows, an old woman who motioned for her to approach before handing her a distaff, telling her that she would benefit from it as long as she did not tell anyone of its provenance. The visitor promised her discretion and on returning home spun splendidly for months; the distaff did not diminish and all her thread was sold as soon as it had been spun. The woman would soon have made her fortune but her idle tongue could not be contained. One day, when a neighbour asked how she created such beautiful thread, she boasted that she had been blessed by the Sea Fairy. At that instant, the distaff ran out and all the money the woman had earned was gone.
There are several accounts of the damage wrought by the fairies’ cattle and the responsible way in which they, as good neighbours, handled any reparations. Near the village of Tressé, a cow owned by the fairies was said to have caused some damage in the meadow of a farmer whose anger was swiftly assuages by one of the fairies who gave him a piece of bread in compensation, telling him that it would neither shrink nor harden as long as he kept it a secret.
Another legend tells that a black cow belonging to the fairies once ate the buckwheat growing in the field of a local widow. The woman complained to the fairies who told her that she would be paid for her crop and gave her a cupful of buckwheat in settlement, promising that it would never diminish so long as none was given away. That year, buckwheat was very scarce but no matter how much buckwheat the woman and her family used there was never any less found in the fairies’ cup. Alas, one day a rag-picker appeared at the woman’s door begging for a little food. Never one to refuse charity, the woman, without thinking, gave him one of her pancakes and immediately, as if by magic, all the buckwheat in the cup disappeared forever.
A similar tale was told near Plévenon where a farmer was compensated for the damage done to his wheat field by a cow belonging to the fairies. They gave him a small loaf of bread, telling him that it would not reduce as long as it was eaten only by the family but would vanish if even a single crumb was enjoyed by a stranger. The fairy bread lasted the farmer’s family for over two years but suddenly disappeared when a piece had been cut for a passing beggar.
One curious tale from the same district tells of a group of young men walking home along the shore one evening encountering two ladies who invite them to dinner. When the meal was over, the ladies told them to come back another time when they would teach them things that would be useful to know. The lads dutifully returned to the same spot the following evening and over a meal of bread and meat were questioned, each in turn, on their histories and whether they were farmers or sailors, single or married. We are also assured that the fairies told their guests many useful, albeit frustratingly, unspecified, things.
One of the lads said that he was a father and often struggled to earn enough to feed his family. Reflecting on the young man’s admission, one of the fairies gave him enough gold on which to live comfortably, telling him: ‘When your wife is pregnant again, come back here and I will talk some more’. When his wife quickly fell pregnant with their third child, the young man returned to the seashore where the fairy asked him for the honour of being the child’s godmother. This request was relayed by the man to his wife who was adamant that the fairies would not have her child. Irritated by this stubborn refusal, the fairies took away all the items that had been purchased with their gold and the family became as poor again as they were before.
A long time ago, when magic was commonplace and the fairies still lived amongst us, there was a prince of Poher who had been blessed with six healthy children. This aging nobleman was content that his lands were peaceful and that his wife and children were happy in the realm he had fought so hard to maintain; all save his only son, who seemed consumed with wanderlust and dreams of faraway places.
To indulge his boy, the prince had given him a great deal of gold and silver along with the second-best horse in his stables, with hopes that he might see a little of the world he so longed for before returning home to assume his responsibilities in Poher. Unfortunately, the young prince did not take very long to squander his coins on unfriendly cards and over-friendly women; he had even been forced to sell his horse and fine tackle to pay for his last lodging.
Penniless and with no knowledge of a trade with which to earn a living, the young man resolved to carry on heading eastwards. One evening, he arrived, exhausted with hunger and fatigue, at a poor stone cottage that sat astride a great desolate moor; home to an old tailor and his wife. He asked for a little hospitality for the night but the lady of the house bewailed her situation and explained that they only possessed one bed and had only barley bread and buckwheat pancakes for food. The prince pleaded for pity and only the chance to sleep on the hearthstone; a request that was granted along with an invitation to share what meagre resources the old couple possessed.
The next morning the prince asked his host if he knew of some grand house in the neighbourhood where he might find work as a groom or even as a stable lad. “I know only the poor around here but within a good day’s walk there is an old castle, in the middle of a wood, and maybe you will find what you are looking for there”, replied the tailor. With this encouraging news, the prince thanked his hosts and set off in the direction shown by the tailor.
The sun was setting as the prince arrived under the walls of the castle which the tailor had told him about. To him, it seemed uninhabited and long abandoned; weeds and brambles invaded it on all sides and even covered the towers and roofs. Finally finding a door that would open, he entered the castle’s courtyard but could neither see nor hear any sign of life. However, on entering the kitchens, he encountered, crouched on the stone of the hearth, an old woman with long dishevelled white hair and yellow teeth as long as those of a rake. “Good evening, grandmother,” he announced politely.
“Good evening, my child; what are you seeking? Come and warm yourself by these poor flames and tell me your story,” replied the old woman. So, the prince informed her of his situation and she showed herself well disposed towards him. She gave him some of her barley stew and afterwards led him to a chamber that contained a worm-eaten but serviceable bed. “Sleep there, my child and tomorrow morning I will find you work. During the night, you might hear, in the next room, some noise, which will surprise you but whatever you hear, do not open the door of this room or you will have need to repent”.
Too tired to mull over the old woman’s curious words, the prince immediately went to bed but sleep eluded him as his senses were now too alert. From the next room, he could distinctly hear anguished moans that convinced him that some sick person must be within and likely close to death. After an hour of listening to the most piteous cries, the prince resolved to help in whatever way he could; he got up and opened the door to the adjacent room but immediately recoiled in terror at the sight of a huge coiling snake. The serpent spoke, like a man, and said to him: “Welcome, Prince of Poher! I pity you because I fear that you are to be treated here as I myself have been. You might still avoid this misfortune and save yourself, saving me too, if you do precisely as I tell you”.
The prince was dumbstruck; nothing in his life had ever prepared him for an encounter with an enormous talking snake. “Do not be afraid for you have nothing to fear from me. I only want to save you from my fate but you must act now! Go into the forest that surrounds this castle and cut a strong stick of holly or hazel there and bring it to me”, said the snake.
Having cut and trimmed a very stout branch of hazel, the prince offered it to the snake who told him: “We have no time to lose. Put the staff through my mouth and I will coil around it as best I can. Load me on your back and carry me away from here but take care to make not a sound, lest the old witch should awaken. You must walk straight ahead until you find another castle. When you feel yourself weakening or when you are hungry or thirsty, lick the foam that I have in my mouth and immediately you will feel comforted”.
With the heavy snake loaded on his back, the prince quietly left the castle and began walking. He walked for what seemed an eternity and whenever he felt thirsty, he licked the serpent’s mouth and continued walking as before. Finally, with great difficulty, the exhausted prince arrived at the foot of a high curtain wall and once again found himself in the courtyard of a strange castle. “We are saved!” cried the snake, “Remove the staff!”
The prince withdrew his hazel staff and immediately found himself in the presence of a king rather than a serpent. “My blessing upon you, Prince of Poher,” said the king to him: “Five hundred years ago I was transformed into a serpent by an evil sorcerer. I have three daughters who live in this castle and whom the same magician also kept enchanted and asleep; in delivering me, you have also delivered them and I offer you the hand of whoever pleases you most. Here they are now, calling me, each at her bedroom window”.
The three princesses hurried down to the courtyard and threw themselves on the king’s neck, weeping for joy; then the king said to them, showing them the prince: “Here, my children, the Prince of Poher to whom we owe our deliverance. In payment of that debt, I want one of you to agree to take him for a husband”.
“The Prince of Poher! What or where is that?” replied the two eldest girls, disdainfully.
“I, father, will gladly take him, since it is to him that you owe your deliverance,” said the king’s youngest daughter.
“Fool!” her sisters snapped back, “At least let him first show his worthiness.”
“That seems right,” responded the old king who rushed to a nearby doorway only to quickly return with a great sword in his hands. “Take this enchanted sword and the white mare that you see grazing by the oven wall. Go to Russia, the horse knows the road and will lead you there directly. While you hold the sword you can be without worry, for it has no equal in the world. When you are in a battle, in the middle of the melee, all you have to do is raise the sword in the air, saying: ‘Do your duty, my good sword!’ and immediately, it will cut down, striking of itself, whatever is in its path, except, however, what you tell it to spare.
You will arrive in Russia at the time of a great battle; you will throw your horse in the middle of the fight and tell your sword to do its work and it will do it. Similarly, when you are out hunting, it will pursue and strike the game; all you have to do is watch.
In recognition of the great service that you will have rendered him, the Emperor of Russia will grant you the hand of his only daughter, who is of a marvellous beauty and with whom you will immediately fall in love. Your wife will betray you with one of her father’s generals and they will succeed in stealing your sword, making you quite helpless. You will be killed and your broken body minced, like meat for pâté.
Do not be afraid because, despite everything, you will one day be restored and marry the daughter of the King of Naples. Before your death, ask that they place your body in a sack and that this be put on the back of your horse, that they will set free. The horse will return home and then you will be saved, for with the wonderful water that I have, the water of life, I will resuscitate you and restore your body, as whole and as healthy as it ever was.
As instructed, a few days later, the young prince set his horse towards Russia carrying little more than his new sword and a mind full of confused thoughts. He arrived at the height of a bloody and confusing battle, immediately throwing his horse into the fray. Miraculously, he reached what seemed the midpoint of the fighting and raised his sword with the command: “Do your duty, my good sword!” while indicating the direction to strike. As swift as a lightning bolt, the sword rushed through the enemy ranks, scattering all before it in the blink of an eye.
The Emperor of Russia, saved by such a marvellous and unexpected intervention, took the prince of Poher to his court and showered him with honours and favours. When the young prince saw the emperor’s beautiful daughter, he immediately fell in love with her and asked for her hand in marriage. Openly given, the marriage was soon arranged and duly celebrated with pomp, solemnity and riotous feasts.
However, the new bride cared little for her husband and preferred instead a young and handsome general of her father’s armies. The prince, who had been forewarned of the path of fate, did not seem to care about his wife’s affections and spent most of his time hunting; taking so much game with his sword that everyone was astonished and many were jealous. The young general was particularly intrigued and determined to expose the witchcraft he felt certain was behind the sword’s prowess.
One evening, after a day in which the prince had taken an incredible amount of game, his wife was most effusive towards him, saying: “What a mighty hunter you are, my prince! We have never seen your equal and if you do not moderate yourself, you will destroy all the game in Russia. All of our hunters are vexed and humbled by your exploits, as much as I am proud of them. Tell me, how do you kill so many beasts every day?”
“I will tell you but you must assure me of your absolute secrecy,” replied the prince. “I have an enchanted sword and when I command: ‘Do your duty, my good sword!’, it reaches out and defeats whatever I want, whether in battle or in the hunt.”
“I thought there was some magic there,” answered the princess who also thought to herself: ‘This is better than I hoped. The sword will be mine; I will substitute another sword for his, while he sleeps.’
By the time the sun had risen on the next morning, the substitution had been made. The prince was completely oblivious to the exchange and took the sword which he found under his pillow as his own. As was his habit, he went hunting soon after his breakfast but his sword no longer reacted to his command and, for the first time, he returned home, dejected, without having taken a single prize.
Sadness not bitterness filled the prince’s heart for he now realised that the prophecy of the serpent king was steadily unfolding. Indeed, he had barely dismounted his horse before he was seized and manacled to the stable wall. “I am not blind to this betrayal nor to its ultimate cause,” the prince said to his wife, who had appeared before him an hour or so after the sun had risen the following morning. “I will not beg for my freedom, so, you must do as you think best and I ask no favour of you, save one; if I must die then let my body rest in my own land. Cut my flesh as finely as possible, put my sad remains into a sack and load it onto my horse; she knows the way home.”
Impressed by her husband’s noble manner, the princess described all that had been said to her lover and instructed that her husband’s death be a quick affair and that his last wishes be respected. As foreseen, the white mare carried its unusual burden directly to the court of the Serpent King but the suffocating stench that surrounded her as she entered the stables, caused all who worked there to flee in disgust.
One groom decided that the return of such a fine horse needed to be reported to the king. He was in the process of doing so when the king sprang-up and demanded: “Bring that foul-smelling sack to me immediately!” The groom did as he was bidden and brought the fetid sack to the king who quickly opened it and sprinkled a few drops of his marvellous water onto the shapeless and stinking contents. Almost at once the Prince of Poher emerged, as sound of mind and as healthy in all his limbs as he had ever been.
A few short days later, the Serpent King took the prince aside and told him that he had to return to Russia again. “This time,” he added, “you will go in the form of a beautiful white horse. I will hide a vial of my Water of Life in your left ear because you will need it. When you arrive at the emperor’s court, you will go straight to the stable. There, a young girl, who is employed to keep geese although she is of high birth, will come to your aid.
Her name is Souillon and she will inform your former wife, who has now married her lover, of your arrival. The princess will rush to the stable and, seeing you, will say: “This must be some mischief connected to my first husband!” She will immediately issue orders to kill you and to throw your dismembered corpse into the castle’s furnace but Souillon will plead for mercy and will stroke your head with her hand. It is then that you must tell her, very softly, to take the vial that you will have in your left ear.
Now in the form of a beautiful white horse, the prince once more left for Russia. As predicted, his former wife gave the order to put him to death, to cut his body into pieces and to throw everything into a fiery furnace. However, quick-witted Souillon had already seized the vial of precious water which had been hidden in his ear and sprinkled a few drops onto the thick puddle of curdled blood left by the executioners.
At once, a beautiful cherry tree sprang-up, bearing plump red cherries, and stretched upwards until its crown reached to the window of the princess’s bedroom. Worried by this incredible sight, the princess again feared some magic from her first husband and quickly had the cherry tree cut down and consigned to the fire. However, Souillon had managed to pick a beautiful red cherry before the flames had consumed the tree and she placed this on one of the stable’s stone window ledges before pouring a few drops of the marvellous water on it.
Immediately, a wonderful blue bird emerged, its faltering flight soon giving way to aerial acrobatics that impressed everyone with their grace and dexterity. The bird flew over the castle’s walled garden and its remarkable colour and skilful flight soon captured the attention of the princess and her husband, who happened to be walking there. “That is such a beautiful bird! Let us try to take it,” exclaimed the princess who began chasing after it. The bird seemed to enjoy the game of being chased and flew rapidly from bush to bush, never going so far as to be completely out of reach of its pursuers. In order to be able to run more freely, the princess took off her shoes while her husband removed his sword-belt: now the chase would quicken.
However, the bird swooped in a great arc and landed on the hilt of sword and instantly transformed into a man; the Prince of Poher. He quickly seized the sword and brandished it with the command: “Do your duty, my good sword!” As fast as lightning, the magical sword fell upon the startled princess and her husband and cut off their heads.
A lady of uncommon beauty had entered the garden and slowly approached the prince who recognised her with a gracious smile. It was the youngest of the three daughters of the Serpent King or the King of Naples, who had followed him in all his trials and had become keeper of geese at the court of the Emperor of Russia in order to remain unnoticed. The young couple returned to Naples, where their marriage was soon arranged and duly celebrated with much pomp, solemnity and joyous feasting.
This rather curious tale was first set-down from the oral tradition by the Breton poet and folklorist François-Marie Luzel in 1868 and published as part of his Fifth Report on a Mission to Lower Brittany (1873). Luzel spent over forty years researching, collecting and cataloguing the oral folk tales and legends of Lower or western Brittany. His systematic approach focused on faithfully recording the tales that he heard in Breton and translating these as accurately as possible into French: ‘without taking anything away and above all adding nothing to the versions of my storytellers.’
Luzel wrote that Breton storytellers were usually quite verbose and often liked to insert episodes from other tales into their stories in the belief that such embellishments only added further interest to their own. These literary detours were retained by Luzel when he transcribed his field notes, preferring fidelity to the source over a well-crafted composition. He accepted that the tale recounted above was somewhat confused and incomplete and likely a rather clumsy grafting together of two, once distinct, tales. Luzel collected this story from a beggar that lived just a few miles away from his childhood home and never found another version with which to compare; the tale thus remains unique to a single rural commune in the north west of Brittany.
The constant sequence of religious and secular festivals and seasonal practices forms an endless, familiar, chain that repeats itself around our lives each year. This continual renewal marks a completion of the annual cycle but where should we rightly place the beginning and the end? In much of Europe, the first day of January has been viewed as the first day of the year since the days of the Roman Empire.
However, following the fall of Rome in the 5th century, many nations subsequently adapted the inherited calendar to better reflect local sensibilities. Thus, New Year’s Day transferred to 25 March (the Feast of the Annunciation or Lady Day) or, in some cases, 25 December (Christmas Day).
Major changes to the calendar were instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and one of the chief revisions restored the first of January as the start of the New Year. However, while countries such as France and Spain immediately adopted the new calendar, some countries such as the Netherlands and Great Britain were reluctant to do so. Indeed, for 170 years, those hardy souls that travelled between Barcelona and Boston, England or Boston, Massachusetts or between Paris and London were effectively time travellers able to celebrate Christmas on 25 December in France and again, on the same date, in England, ten days later. The difference in the celebration of New Year’s Day was even more marked: it being some 84 days adrift.
For economies that were totally ingrained into the agricultural cycle, the first of January did not correspond with any major point in the life of the rural peasants of Brittany and elsewhere. To them, a more practical and natural start to the year would likely have been a significant communal event such as the first ploughing or the last harvest. However, a papal bull decreed that the new year begin on 1 January and so, over time, the date developed its own traditions and superstitious practices.
In Brittany, the turn of the year was marked most by the children of the community. On the last day of the year, groups of two or three boys would visit each house in the commune while holding a pilgrim’s staff in their right hand. Typically, they would stop outside the front door of a house and sing a Christmas carol followed by the recitation of a short verse wishing the inhabitants a happy, healthy and prosperous new year and entry to Heaven at the end of their natural days. The boys would then receive thanks by way of gifts of coins or apples, according to the means of the household visited. On New Year’s Day, the girls of the community took their turn to offer their good wishes and collect their rewards.
Although a public holiday here, popular attendance at Mass was not noticeably larger than on any other weekday. However, the day was considered special as it was given over to visiting friends and relations and crowned with a family meal consisting of chotenn (half a pig’s head that had been slowly baked in the communal bread oven).
In the same western regions of Brittany, New Year’s Day was also popularly marked with offerings of buttered bread at the sacred springs; each member of the family offered a piece of bread to the water and the way it floated or sank was regarded as a good or bad omen for the coming year. It was also once customary at New Year to butter as many pieces of bread as there were members of the household. The head of the family would then name each person and toss the bread into the air; whoever’s piece of bread landed on the buttered side was said to die within the year.
Another New Year’s custom thought to allow one to learn the secrets of the forthcoming year called for the curious to stare into a cold bread oven and listen carefully to the noises they heard. More prosaically, if a knife that had been inserted into a fresh loaf on New Year’s Eve was withdrawn and found to have crumbs attached to it, a rainy year ahead was forecast but a year of famine could be expected if the withdrawn blade was wet.
Mistletoe was also once a key part of the new year celebrations and was cut and offered, on New Year’s Day, as a symbol of prosperity and long life, usually accompanied by a spoken charm to assure their onset. Children would run through the streets proclaiming: ‘On Mistletoe, the New Year’. Even into the early 20th century, beggars and children would call from house to house offering a little mistletoe and their best wishes for happiness for the household over the year ahead; being rewarded with a little food or some coins for their efforts.
In several north European traditions, mistletoe was a symbol of fertility and in some places, young women once placed a sprig of mistletoe under their bed in expectation of seeing their future husband in their dreams. In Brittany, kissing under the mistletoe, as a mark of love and affection, was a New Year’s Day not Christmas tradition and a ceremony that often announced a proposed marriage. Perhaps some of the old traditions are due a reboot in the 21st century?
Many thanks to all who have supported this blog over the last year – your willingness to take the time to read what I have written and to then share your thoughts have been much appreciated! I sincerely hope that you all enjoy a healthy and happy new year! Bonne année et Bloavezh Mat!
In Brittany, the magic of Christmas night was once said to have been so complete that no evil could act. It was a time when only the son of man and the toad slept; a moment when animals spoke to each other in the tongues of men and secret, hidden treasures were momentarily revealed.
The old tales told in front of the Breton hearth on a cold winter’s evening were full of magic. Some terrifying, others touching but always entertaining; from the infant Jesus descending the farmhouse chimney to leave sugary gifts for the children of the house, to the Devil striving hard to ensnare innocent souls trudging to church.
The period of the Midnight Mass was popularly believed to be the time when fantastic things happened and key parts of that religious service were said to mark moments of special supernatural power. During the chimes of the midnight bell, it was held that many of the region’s menhirs, uprooted themselves to go and drink from a sacred spring or nearby stream; returning to their home on the sound of the last chime. A menhir near Jugon was said to drink in the Arguenon river, another near Saint-Barthélemy to drink in the Blavet river, while the menhirs of Plouhinec were reputed to drink at the Étel river only once every century. Even the stone alignments at Carnac were said to go and wash in the waters of the nearby ocean on Christmas night.
Local legends once reported that, at the stroke of midnight, one of the menhirs that stood on the summit of Mont-Belleux near Luitré was lifted by a mere blackbird to momentarily reveal a great treasure. Anyone impudent enough to try to seize it was doomed to be crushed to death as only the magical korrigans could move fast enough to take the gold. Sadly, these ancient megaliths were destroyed in the 19th century; the last in 1875 in order to provide hard core for a nearby road. Local tradition cautions against walking on the mountain at night else one encounter the korrigans dancing around the site where their stones once stood; their destruction, a sacrilege still resented by them.
Standing almost six metres high, the menhir of Kerangosquer near Pont-Aven was said to guard a buried treasure whose presence was heralded by a rooster that sang at midnight. As with other sites, this treasure was only accessible during the sound of the Midnight Mass bells when the menhir took itself to drink at a nearby stream. As you might expect, there are several popular tales of men who came to grief, having been crushed by their greed under the weight of returning menhirs.
In Brittany, it was believed that the dry bones stacked in the village ossuary spoke to each other during the time of the Midnight Mass. Anyone with the foolhardy courage to hide in the village ossuary during this sacred service was also thought able to see the Ankou, the Breton personification of death, and learn from him the names of the people of the parish who were to die during the following year.
Another legend tells that the Ankou touches, with his finger, those who will die within the year. To witness this safely, it was believed necessary to have fasted for a full day and when only nine stars could be seen in the night sky one needed to hold their index finger in the holy water font. One Christmas, a man, who had observed the required conditions, immediately lost his curiosity when he witnessed the Ankou approaching and decided to flee the church. Alas, the water in the font had frozen and he could not withdraw his finger in time.
This was also a time when animals too were said to be able to talk with one another. One tale tells of a farmer determined to eavesdrop on these magical conversations. Hiding himself in the barn, he waited patiently until sometime, around midnight, he heard his two oxen speak together: “What will you do tomorrow, old friend?”; “Oh, I will just take the master to the cemetery.” The farmer, furious at being mocked, seized a pitchfork to strike his beasts but, in his haste, he stumbled and injured himself. His injury proved fatal and, so, as predicted, on the following day the ox pulled the cart that carried his master’s coffin to the church.
In some parts of Brittany it was only the donkey and the ox that possessed the ability to speak on Christmas Eve; a miraculous gift granted every year to these two animals in memory of the good offices once rendered to the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. It was said here that donkeys carried a cross on their backs to mark the day Christ entered Jerusalem on a donkey and that, at Christmas, they knelt in silent tribute at midnight. A related belief held that burning the broken pieces of a yoke invited disaster; the ox having been sanctified by its presence at the birth of Christ.
The holiness of the night before Christmas was considered so sacred that no wicked spirit could act with impunity but it was also a time for the dead; Christmas Eve being one of the three solemn festivals (the others being Midsummer’s Eve and Hallowe’en) when the dead of each parish gathered. This was a night when the veil of separation between the living and the dead was particularly vulnerable; a time when the dead wandered freely in the land of the living and returned to visit their former homes before being led, by the ghost of a dead priest, in a long procession to some abandoned chapel, where the only masses celebrated were those of the dead.
A far more sinister being was also held to be active on Christmas Eve; consumed with rage on this anniversary of his greatest failure, the Devil sought to harvest fresh souls. It was said that the verges of the sunken pathways trodden by the devout attending Midnight Mass often glistened in parts. Such reflections were not of moonlight but of gold coins scattered by the Devil to enchant the unwary traveller. Cracks appeared in the earth around the base of the wayside crosses, offering a tempting glimpse of a stream of gold coins but any who tried to enrich themselves were unable to keep hold of their gold. Each coin collected immediately escaped their grasp, leaving on the fingers an indelible black imprint and a terrible burning sensation, like that of hellfire.
It was believed here that evil spells lost their power on Christmas night; it was a time when it was possible to discover the most hidden treasures, a time when the power of their supernatural guardians was suspended. In northern Brittany, the Grand Rocher massif was said to entomb a magnificent lost city that could be seen through a narrow fissure that only opened up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. The city would be reborn, if someone was brave enough to penetrate to the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and quick enough to re-emerge unscathed before the death of the twelfth bell.
An old legend tells how, in thanks for a crust of bread that he had received, a beggar revealed to Scouarn, a young Breton farmhand, a way of gaining his happiness and fortune. He told him that in the middle of the Bay of Morlaix there stood a castle inhabited by a princess, as beautiful as a fairy and as rich as the paladins, held captive by the spirits of Hell. At Christmas, on the stroke of midnight, the sea opened and revealed the castle: if someone could enter it and take possession of a magic wand stored in its inner chamber, that bold soul could become the lord of the land. However, it was imperative to gain the wand before the last stroke of midnight; if not, the daring adventurer would be turned to stone and the sea would reclaim the castle.
Scouarn resolved to attempt the quest and Christmas Eve found him in the shadows on the shore when, at midnight, the sea parted like a bed curtain being drawn to reveal a fine castle resplendent with lights. Scouarn ran as fast as he could and quickly reached the castle’s main door. On entering, he saw the first room was filled with precious furniture and massive silver chests; scattered around the room stood the stone statues of those unfortunate men who had been unable to go any further.
A second room was defended by dragons and sharp-toothed monsters but as the sixth stroke of midnight struck, Scouarn succeeded in passing through the enchanted beasts who moved aside at his approach. He now entered a chamber more sumptuous than all the others and where the fairies of the swells were swaying to sweet music. He was about to let himself be drawn into their circular dance when, fortuitously, he saw the magic wand resting on a cabinet set against the back wall; he sprang forward and seized it in triumph as the twelfth stroke of midnight struck.
However, Scouarn had secured his prize; he held the wand aloft without fear. On his command, the roaring sea retreated away from the castle and the spirits of Hell, utterly defeated, fled, uttering cries that made the cold hard rocks tremble. The delivered princess gladly offered her hand to her valiant saviour and it was not long before they enjoyed a most splendid wedding. Having comfortably settled into his new castle, Scouarn, in gratitude for the saints who had protected him, employed half of his newly won wealth to build a grand chapel to the glory of the Archangel Michael.
During Christmas night, the natural order of the world was thought overturned. When the bell announced the elevation during the Midnight Mass, all the beings that shared the earth were simultaneously revealed: the ghosts of the dead and the drowned; the korrigans of the moors; the fairies of the swells; mermaids; the black dogs and werewolves; the treasure-guarding dragons; the phantom washerwomen of the night and other demons of the dark. At that moment, while the faithful were at prayer, all the frightful fantastic creatures that inhabit the Breton night were displayed.
A quite different Breton legend tells us that when the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem, they found the shepherds there who, having nothing else to offer the baby Jesus, had garlanded his crib with wild flowers. Seeing the rich gifts subsequently presented by the Magi, the humble shepherds were concerned at the paucity of their offering but the Divine baby gently pushed aside the riches in front of Him and stretched His hand towards the flowers, plucked a field daisy, and, bringing it to His lips, kissed it. Since that moment, the daisies, which until then were all white, have displayed at the end of their petals, a colour which seems a reflection of the hopeful dawn, and shown at their heart, the golden ray which fell from the lips of the Divine.
The period from Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Epiphany (24 December to 6 January) was once marked by a number of particular customs and superstitions here. On Christmas Eve, the Yule log was anointed with water from a sacred spring and placed in the fireplace where it was carefully burned until New Year’s Day or even Epiphany. The charcoaled embers were subsequently collected as they were believed to hold beneficial qualities including the ability to purify water. Additionally, small bags of ash were placed under beds in order to protect the home from lightning strikes and snakes over the year ahead. This ash was also said to preserve wheat from rust diseases and to help cows to calve.
It was also on Christmas Eve that calendar bread was made for consumption on Epiphany, except for a small piece kept in reserve to cure certain ailments. All bread baked on Christmas Eve was said to keep for ten years without spoiling. Another belief surrounding bread can be seen in the once traditional practice for the head of the household to carry a piece of black bread in his pocket before attending Midnight Mass. On his return, he would give a little to each of his animals in order to ensure their health throughout the year ahead: black bread was used here in many rituals of protection against evil spells.
Similarly, to ensure a good harvest of apples, the trees in the orchard were surrounded with a little ring of straw after the Christmas Midnight Mass. In some northern parts of the region, the brightness of the moon illuminating those journeying to and from Midnight Mass was said to predict the prosperity of the following year’s apple harvest.
It was during Christmas night that the world’s secrets were revealed to those that knew how to expose them. In eastern Brittany, if a young girl wanted to see who she was destined to marry, it was necessary for her to place three bay leaves under her eyes before going to sleep on Christmas night while reciting the charm: “Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, tell me while I sleep, who will be mine for life.”
During Midnight Mass, at the moment of consecration, spectral candles were said to cast light on the locations where hidden treasures could be found. Not all treasures were buried, for it was said that each hazel bush grew a branch which turned into gold on Christmas night. To pick this prize that was believed to make a wand equal in power to that of the greatest fairies, it needed to be cut between the first and last sounds of the midnight bell but whoever did not succeed disappeared forever. The moment of consecration was also said to be the fleeting instant when the waters of the sacred springs were changed to wine.
On Christmas Day, it was thought necessary to avoid eating plums so as to protect oneself from ulcers over the year ahead. The tablecloth used only at Christmas was considered a powerful talisman in which to store wheat seeds that would deliver a plentiful crop and was thus utilised for these purposes each year. It was also a day on which it was possible to predict the future price of wheat: twelve grains of wheat, each named after one of the twelve months, were placed on a shovel heated in the fire; those that jumped on the hot iron indicated the months in which wheat would be most expensive.
If Christmas fell on a Sunday, it was believed to be an auspicious year in which to sell one’s horse or donkey, while Saint Stephen’s Day was a most favourable occasion for bleeding horses. To avoid misfortune, it was advised not to bake bread or do the laundry between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, with prohibitions against doing the laundry extending to Epiphany. Likewise, eating cabbage on Saint Stephen’s Day also invited misfortune as the saint was thought to have been martyred in a cabbage patch.
During the night of the Epiphany, it was whispered that if one wrote, with their own blood, the names of the three kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, on their forehead and then looked into a mirror, they would see themselves as they will be at the hour of their death. Truly, the most wonderful time of the year.
Nedeleg Laouen ha Bloavezh Mat! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
While outbreaks of bubonic plague and their dreadful death tolls might have been consigned to history and efforts to eradicate coronavirus continue apace, other diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, measles and influenza, were once responsible for extraordinary devastation here in Brittany.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, increases in population density, transport infrastructure and mercantile links were all key factors in giving diseases spread by cross-infection between humans the ability to spread far more widely than those seen in previous centuries.
The first of several deadly outbreaks of cholera that ravaged Brittany in the 19th century was part of a worldwide pandemic that was believed to have started in India in 1826. The seemingly relentless march of this disease westwards saw the French government impose border controls in August 1831 to stop infected people from entering the country. However, the disease reached Paris in March 1832 and the speed which the disease overtook its victims, some dying within a matter of hours, caused widespread panic; some people believed that government agents were deliberately poisoning the drinking fountains.
It seems that the disease first manifested itself in Brittany in May 1832, carried by a master mariner from Toulon who disembarked at Nantes before falling ill near the city of Vannes. Victims of cholera can start to display symptoms between one to five days after infection, so, it is impossible to know how many fellow travellers this diseased sailor infected on his two day journey to the south coast town of Quimper. Suffering from severe vomiting and diarrhoea, the patient was taken openly through the busy streets from his lodgings to the town’s hospice where he died. He was buried the next day and a little of his blood was diluted in water and given to birds to drink to see if they were affected by it. While the birds showed no negative reactions to this bloody concoction, two members of the nursing staff were already displaying symptoms; the first of more than 200 cholera fatalities in Quimper that summer.
Cholera is essentially a bacterial disease that causes an infection of the small intestine which swiftly leads to fairly brutal diarrhoea (sometimes as much as 10-20 litres or 3-5 gallons per day) and vomiting, resulting in severe dehydration and low blood pressure in the victims. Such acute dehydration shrivels the skin, sinks the eyes and usually turns the skin a shade of blue; the disease is therefore sometimes known as the Blue Death.
The disease is spread mostly by water and food that has been contaminated with human faeces containing the bacteria. At the time, people were at a loss to understand the disease as one side of a street could be hit, while the other was spared and it would be another twenty three years before the English doctor, John Snow, identified waterborne microbes as the culprit (it seems that he did know something after all!).
Some contemporary doctors believed cholera to be a contagion, others thought it was due to a miasma; one doctor in Quimper even advised the town in the grip of the epidemic that the disease was not contagious. While the medical establishment strived to understand the disease, two main but contradictory treatments were espoused; one held that cholera overstimulated the body and prescribed cold drinks, blood-letting and opium-laced enemas; the other advocated hot drinks, hot baths infused with vinegar and camphorated alcohol to stimulate the system. Amidst this confusion, charlatans profited by selling miraculous but bogus remedies to the desperate people with little enough to spare.
Unlike childhood diseases, such as measles or influenza, which were mainly only fatal to the elderly, cholera killed as many healthy young adults as any other age group; it is estimated that over 100,000 people died of cholera in France in 1832-34 – a shocking mortality rate of between 25 to 50 per cent – and well over 5000 in Brittany alone. In many towns it was noted that there were often more female than male fatalities, for example, in Morlaix, women represented 65 per cent of cholera deaths. This is likely a reflection of the fact that it was women who traditionally collected the family’s water from the communal fountain; a prospective source of contagion.
Poor hygienic conditions, lack of adequate sanitation, untended rubbish heaps and poorly sited wells were, in the opinion of many visitors, common features of most Breton cities at the time; all factors which contribute significantly to the spread of cholera. All diseases spread by cross-infection between people gain increasing powers of spread with increasing population density and thus cause the highest mortality rates in urban centres compared to the countryside.
There were further major outbreaks of cholera in France in 1848-50 and again in 1853-54; two epidemics that resulted in some 300,000 deaths across the country. In the latter epidemic, eastern Brittany was particularly badly affected early although it seems that the disease ravaged the region on two fronts; from the east and also from the northern port of Morlaix where it spread to other coastal cities.
The epidemic reached the major Atlantic port of Brest towards the end of 1854 and many people claimed to have seen the source of the disease, ‘the Red Woman’, sowing the plague in the surrounding valleys; harking back to the superstitions of previous centuries regarding the semeurs de peste (plague sowers) who spread the contagion by witchcraft. At the time, knowledge of the nature of epidemic diseases was scant and most Bretons considered the plague and diseases such as cholera as divine punishment for their sins; and responded with prayer, coupled with either penitential acts to redeem God’s favour or with stoic fatalism to accept God’s will.
The region was again badly hit during an epidemic in 1865, which saw over 2,500 deaths, and only marginally less so by the epidemics of 1873, 1885-86 and 1893. In the fifty years covering these cholera epidemics, progresses in public health and hygiene programmes, improvements to urban planning and sanitation, coupled with advances in medical understanding and technology, greatly increased our ability to organise efficient countermeasures against epidemics.
However, tackling the human cost of such diseases was more problematical, as noted in 1866 by Jean-Baptiste Fonssagrives, Professor at the School of Naval Medicine in Brest: “Among all the chronic diseases that eat away at the social body, misery is certainly one of the most hideous, the most inveterate, perhaps even the least curable”.
At the beginning of the 19th century smallpox was a major global endemic disease, responsible for the deaths of between 50,000 to 80,000 people in France each year. During 1773–74, Brittany experienced a particularly deadly smallpox epidemic which helped to highlight the importance of inoculation; then a relatively novel practice and pursued with some vigour in Brittany by an Englishman, Simeon Worlock, who had been summoned from Nantes to work in Brest after the death of 600 children in that port.
It is therefore not surprising that France was one of the first nations to fully exploit Jenner’s pioneering work on vaccination; teams of doctors spent decades crossing the country inoculating those willing to receive the vaccine, often struggling against public trepidation and downright hostility. The vaccination programme quickly succeeded in reducing cases of smallpox across France but this highly infectious disease was particularly virulent in Brittany again in 1871, resulting in about 20,000 deaths. The last outbreak in Brittany was centred on the cities of Brest and Vannes in 1955 and involved almost a hundred cases, of whom 20 patients died.
It is difficult to neatly define dysentery epidemics as the disease is of great antiquity and was an ever present feature of daily life for our ancestors. The disease is usually the result of a bacterial infection which works its way through the bloodstream to the gut, manifesting itself in abdominal pain, sickness and bloody diarrhoea (up to over one litre or a quart of fluid per hour), leading to extreme dehydration, anaemia and often the poisoning of vital organs by bacterial toxins. Like cholera, the bacteria that causes dysentery is commonly spread by dirty water or foodstuffs having been contaminated with human waste; it is contagious and can be rapidly transmitted from person to person.
The spread of dysentery was facilitated by the rather basic living conditions of the Breton countryside; people and animals typically shared overcrowded dwellings, folks shared boxed beds while the farmyard was rich in dung-heaps and cess pits. In the towns and cities, the health situation was no better; open sewers, streets cluttered with rubbish and foodstuffs’ markets held on busy public roads. All these elements played a part in the rapid transmission of the contagion especially amongst bodies that were generally undernourished. Although, at the time, it was believed that the disease, like so many others, was caused by lethal miasmas and the main medical treatments, for those that could afford them, were purges, emetics and blood-letting. Those that could not afford the medical professionals trusted to the recuperative power of a few bunches of elderberry.
It is no exaggeration to say that epidemic dysentery was one of the worst blights to affect Europe and the wider world throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. There were major outbreaks in Brittany in 1639, 1676 and 1719. The disease was widespread in Brittany between 1738 and 1740, the epidemic of the latter year was especially fatal amongst children but there was an even deadlier outbreak in 1741 which claimed well over 30,000 lives; in some Breton towns, the mortality rate was over 45 per cent. There were smaller outbreaks in 1749, 1765 and 1777 but in 1779 Brittany and other parts of western France were ravaged by an outbreak that took some 175,000 lives with over 50,000 dead in Brittany alone.
The disease continued to take its heavy toll throughout the 19th century, with the last notable outbreak recorded here in 1900. Scientists have identified more than 330 strains of the bacteria that cause dysentery but it is worth noting that 99 per cent of strains have now developed a resistance to antibiotics and while dysentery may sound to many of us a disease of the past, it remains a major killer in some parts of the world today.
Typhus and typhoid fevers were other diseases that ravished the Brittany of yesteryear. The former is a louse-borne disease that thrives on a host’s poor personal hygiene and can survive on its host for some time. A particularly pernicious outbreak of both diseases spread across Brittany in the years 1741-42 and caused an estimated 40,000 deaths; other major epidemics occurred in 1757 and 1779. In 1793-94 an epidemic of typhus in Nantes is estimated to have resulted in the death of 10,000 people.
Many have described typhoid fever as endemic in Brittany by the mid-19th century but focused improvements in public health and basic hygiene, particularly relating to the supply of clean, uncontaminated water and the evacuation of wastewater meant the death tolls from the epidemics of 1874 and 1892-93 were less severe than those seen in earlier years. The western part of Brittany was particularly badly affected due to the disease spreading on account of the fairly itinerant habits of agricultural labourers and mariners and the migrations of people from the countryside to the towns. As an example of how significant such urban movements were, between 1856 and 1911 the population of the arrondissement (administrative region) of Quimper swelled from almost 81,000 to over 204,000.
Outbreaks of influenza have always left heavy death tolls, particularly amongst the elderly and poorer sections of society but the virulent virus behind the influenza pandemic of 1918-20 caused the most severe pandemic in recent history. This contagious viral infection attacked the respiratory system and was inexplicably most deadly for young adults; it has been suggested that this might be because older people had built-up a degree of immunity as a result of the earlier flu pandemic of 1889-90. Pneumonia or other respiratory complications brought-on by influenza were often the main causes of death. Estimates vary as to the number of deaths caused by the disease but it is believed to have infected a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people; over 240,000 in France alone.
Despite significant advances in medical treatment and care, influenza remains a significant public health issue today with annual seasonal outbreaks affecting between 2-8 million people in France every year, with influenza-related deaths estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 per year.
It is important to view the epidemics and pandemics noted above within the context of their time; these diseases took root and spread thanks to the circumstances then existing. Generally poor living conditions and hygiene; undernourished bodies less able to fight infection; low degrees of medical knowledge surrounding the nature of bacteria and the transmission of diseases – all conspired to make it an insurmountable task to moderate the impact of a virulent epidemic disease, despite the best efforts of the medical establishment of the time.
Improvements in living standards, town planning, public health, hygiene and sanitation, coupled with massive advances in medical knowledge and technology have helped to greatly reduce the worst ravages of epidemic mortality that were once an accepted part of our ancestors’ lives. Even as late as 1950, the majority of deaths in Europe were due to infectious diseases. Since then, life expectancy has soared and diseases such as polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, whooping cough, smallpox, measles, mumps and rubella have been virtually wiped out. Yet, despite the massive leaps in medicine, infectious diseases have been controlled rather than conquered; they remain a threat that can never be truly extinguished.
It is still too early to see where the current coronavirus disease pandemic will sit amongst the long history of pandemics; to date, over 160,000 people have died as a result of the disease in France alone and we are, unfortunately, in the midst of yet another rise in infection rates. The disease will eventually be brought under control but its social and economic legacy will likely be as profound as many of the other blights once endured by our ancestors.
With its extensive coastline and key position alongside major trade routes, Brittany has long enjoyed a close relationship with the sea. However, it was not just the region’s fishermen and traders that commanded the waves; generations of Bretons long constituted the backbone of the French Royal Navy, playing a leading role in the colonisation of New France and the West Indies. Some of these Breton mariners have left an indelible mark on history while others are perhaps more famous for their misdeeds.
Breton pirates or privateers – there are legal differences between the two terms but the paths from one state to the other were well sailed in the murky waters of diplomatic niceties – such as Jean de Coatanlem, Duguay-Trouin and Robert Surcouf amassed great prestige and wealth from their buccaneering exploits on the high seas. Other Breton pirates are perhaps not as well known today as they once were and the adventures of two particularly remarkable women are well worth retelling here; stretching as they do from one of the bloodiest conflicts of Medieval Europe to the golden age of the pirates of the Caribbean.
An element of the Hundred Years’ War, the Breton War of Succession (1341–1364) saw the House of Montfort, supported by the King of England, battle against the House of Blois, supported by the King of France, for the right to rule Brittany. The chief claimants were Jean de Montfort, half-brother of the last Duke of Brittany, and his niece, Joanna de Penthièvre, who was married to Charles de Blois, the French king’s nephew. After a protracted conflict, de Montfort emerged victorious after winning the decisive battle of Auray in 1364.
However, one of the war’s early battles took place under 14km (10 miles) away in the city of Vannes. Having declared for de Montfort within weeks of his brother’s death, control of the city changed hands through four devastating sieges in 1342. During the final siege, the Breton commander of the de Blois garrison, Olivier de Clisson, was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for the English Earl of Stafford and a relatively modest ransom which was seized upon by the de Blois camp as indicative of de Clisson having intrigued with the besiegers.
Towards the middle of the following year, de Clisson and a dozen other Breton nobles were invited to attend a grand tournament in Paris; here they were promptly seized and imprisoned. De Clisson was accused of ‘several treasons and other crimes perpetrated against the king and the crown of France’ and summarily executed. To add insult to injury, his body was publicly humiliated; his corpse hung from a gibbet in Paris and his head displayed on a pike in the city of Nantes – outrages usually reserved for low-born criminals.
The treachery of the King of France, Philippe VI, consumed de Clisson’s widow, Jeanne de Belleville, who swore revenge. Selling her estates before they could be confiscated by the French king, she raised a small army and began attacking French forces in the Breton Marches; her wrath first falling on Château Thébaud whose occupants, including women and children, she slaughtered, leaving just two men alive to tell of the stronghold’s fate. The forces of France pursued her vigorously, forcing her to flee into Brittany and after a brief sojourn in the north-west of the region, to eventually re-group with Bretons in England.
Finding land attacks impractical, she acquired and outfitted three ships; painted deathly black, flying blood red sails, and would personally lead her ‘Black Fleet’ from her flagship, My Revenge. Her fleet scoured the waters of the Channel and the north coast of France in search of targets; all French vessels whether warships or traders, were fair game but de Belleville did not play fair. She became renowned for her ruthlessness; killing entire crews and beheading nobles and anyone linked to the exercise of French authority, sometimes she was even said to have wielded the axe herself.
It seems she always left at least one survivor who was charged to tell the French king of her revenge. Her exploits clearly affected French maritime trade along its northern coast and it is said that, at times, she even sacked coastal settlements although there is no real evidence to support the latter charge. At the request of King Philippe VI, Pope Clement VI unsuccessfully petitioned England’s King Edward III to put an end to the actions of this “Breton Tigress”.
Some authors claim that de Belleville’s violent vengeance spanned some 13 years and that she continued to attack French shipping after the death of King Philippe IV in August 1350. However, this is unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, in late 1344, her flagship was wrecked after a battle with a French warship and in 1348 she married one of King Edward III’s military commanders, Sir Walter Bentley. Bentley had served in Brittany since 1342 and famously staged a night-time raid on the French forces besieging Vannes that year.
In September 1350, Bentley was appointed Governor or King’s Lieutenant in Brittany. During his tenure he forbade pillage and to help prevent the potential attraction to it, he secured increases to his soldiers’ pay – both unusual actions for a Medieval leader. An active commander, he lifted the sieges of Ploërmel and Fougeres in 1351 and took the war into France, raiding along the Loire valley and later led an outnumbered Anglo-Breton force to a bloody victory in the battle of Mauron where he was severely injured in August 1352.
It was not just the forces of the French king that Bentley battled against; he and his wife had to deal with the machinations of Ralph of Cahors, the King’s Lieutenant in the adjoining province of Poitou, who had wrested control of de Belleville’s estates from France and now considered them his own. In 1349, the King of England ordered that the estates be returned to Bentley but after he was replaced as Governor in April 1353 he was instructed to transfer his wife’s estates as part of a treaty with the new Duke of Brittany. This Bentley refused to do and he was consequently imprisoned in the Tower of London while the King considered his case; eventually finding in his favour.
The Bentleys enjoyed great estates in Brittany and settled in the castle at Hennebont, west of Vannes. The Duke of Brittany seems to have borne no grudges against this medieval power couple because in January 1357, he granted them the Barony of La Roche-Moisan. Sir Walter died in December 1359, followed just weeks later by his wife; a rather comfortable end for a pirate whose actions had once earned her the sobriquet: ‘Lioness of the Sea’.
Born into a minor noble family in central Brittany in August 1661, Anne Dieuleveult is another of the very few reputed female pirates. It is not known how she came to end up in the Caribbean; some have suggested that she was taken there from the north coast town of Morlaix by the man she subsequently married, while others believe that she was one of the contingent of Filles de Roi or ‘Daughters of the King’ – mainly impoverished young women who were provided with paid passage to New France in order to marry settlers and increase the population of the colonies.
Dieuleveult is thought to have arrived on the island of Tortuga, off the northwest coast of Hispaniola, sometime before 1680. This was a settlement that owed its very existence to pirates and privateers who had, time and again, wrested it from Spanish over-lordship over the previous fifty years. From being a hideaway to careen ships, replenish fresh water supplies and hunt for game, the island was now home to a motley assortment of multilingual and multinational pirates, privateers, hunters, planters, traders, indentured servants and African slaves.
The island gave birth to the word buccaneer as we now understand it and was an important base for pirates and privateers, being the home of the notorious confederation of buccaneers knows as the ‘Brethren of the Coast’. The majority of the island’s buccaneers were men from France, England and the Netherlands but there were also sizeable numbers of escaped slaves in their ranks. Life in 17th century Tortuga was not for the fainthearted; deaths from disease and violence were commonplace and women, particularly those of European descent, were very scarce.
We do not know how Dieuleveult fared in her early years in the colony but she married another Breton, the former buccaneer Pierre Lelong in 1684. Lelong seems to have given up his career in piracy when he and a dozen adventurers settled Cap François (now Cap-Haitien), on the north coast of Hispaniola, in 1670, subsequently establishing successful plantations. (His settlement flourished and later became the capital of the colony of Saint Domingue which in the 18th century was the world’s leading producer of sugar cane and an important hub in the slave trade.) In July 1690, just six years into the marriage, Lelong was killed in a brawl and Dieuleveult soon married another buccaneer, Joseph Chérel. The couple survived the capture and plunder of Cap Francois by Spanish forces in January 1691 but Chérel died during a brawl a few years later, leaving Dieuleveult a wealthy widow with two children to raise.
Legend tells that she made quite an impression on the man who would become her next husband; notorious former Dutch pirate, Laurens de Graff. It was said that de Graff insulted Dieuleveult who promptly challenged him to a duel of honour; de Graff unsheathed his sword only to find himself facing a cocked pistol whereupon he remembered his chivalry and declared that he could not fight a woman. He was apparently so impressed that he made an immediate proposal of marriage. We will never know what truth lies in this tale but we do know that the couple married in July 1693.
De Graff was described by no less a judge than Henry Morgan as “a great and mischievous pirate” and seems to have enjoyed a long and lucrative career on the Spanish Main, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. References to his exploits span over two decades: in March 1672 he was one of the leading figures in a pirate raid on Campeche in Mexico, taking the town and a merchant ship loaded with over 120,000 silver pesos. De Graff was known to often change his flag ship by upgrading to a stronger captured vessel and by 1679 commanded 200 men aboard his 28-gun frigate, Tigre. This he surpassed in 1682 with the bloody capture of the 240-ton Spanish Armada de Barlovento frigate, Princesa, along with the payroll for the Spanish garrisons on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico; over 120,000 silver pesos.
The following year, de Graaf, now in possession of a privateering licence from the Governor of Saint Domingue, joined forces with two other privateers for an attack on the Mexican port of Veracruz; the combined party amounted to five large ships and eight smaller vessels with over 1,300 men. The town fell to the pirates after just thirty minutes and was plundered over the following days. Many of the townsfolk were tortured to reveal their treasures and a sizeable ransom was demanded for the freedom of the town’s 6,000 inhabitants.
A few months later, de Graaf led another joint enterprise preying on coastal traffic around the busy Colombian port of Cartagena. The Spanish Governor sent out three heavily armed ships to see off the pirate flotilla but the pirates chose to fight rather than flee and their audacity and superior seamanship saw them prevail in a bloody four hour long battle. De Graff now transferred his flag to the newly captured, 40-gun vessel, San Francisco.
In July 1685, de Graaf joined his forces with another veteran pirate to create a flotilla of ten ships, six sloops and over a dozen smaller craft for a raid on the Mexican port of Campeche. After a protracted battle, including seeing off two Spanish relief columns that arrived five days after the initial assault, the town was taken but the spoils were disappointing. Over the next two months, troops of pirates ravaged the surrounding countryside in search of plunder while a hefty ransom was demanded for the town and its inhabitants but this time the Spanish Governor refused to pay. In their frustration, the pirates set the town ablaze and threatened their hostages. Met with another refusal to accede their demands, the pirates began their executions but de Graaf halted the slaughter before the death toll reached double figures. A strong Spanish squadron was despatched to bring de Graff to justice and after hunting for over six weeks finally tracked him down in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, de Graff managed to outmanoeuvre and outshoot his pursuers in a battle that lasted all day.
Having become a French subject in 1685, de Graaf seems to have moved away from outright piracy to mixing privateering with an official position on the Governor of Saint Domingue’s staff and the outbreak of the Nine Years War in May 1689 found him serving at Cap François. This is likely the time that he first met Dieuleveult. In December 1689, de Graff began a five month blockade of the northern cost of Jamaica, capturing many English ships and plundering plantations along that coast.
At the end of June 1694, de Graff, with the dual role of buccaneer chief and King’s Lieutenant, was appointed Second in Command of a fleet of 22 ships, including naval warships and 3,200 men assigned for the invasion of Jamaica. At the end of the following month, he commanded the landing party of 1,500 men who overran the 250 men defending Carlisle Bay and plundered the area.
In retaliation, a joint Anglo-Spanish force crossed into French Saint Domingue towards the end of May 1695 and quickly brushed aside de Groff’s defenders, capturing Cap Francois and plundering the town and its surrounding plantations. In June, Port-de-Paix was blockaded and the town fell the following month; amongst the captives taken were Dieuleveult and her children. The invaders did not press their advantage and take the colony; international cooperation disintegrated over petty quarrels about the division of the spoils.
De Graff now seems to disappear from the records and is not noted in the musters of the massive French invasion force that captured Cartagena in April 1697. Perhaps there were questions about his role in the defence of Cap Francois or the terms of ransom for his wife forbade action against her Spanish captors? Dieuleveult and her children were released in 1698 and returned to Saint Domingue. Upon the death of de Graaf in May 1704, his wife inherited a sizeable estate and successful sugar plantation and died at home in January 1710.
There are stories that claim Dieuleveult accompanied de Graaf on his buccaneering raids, fighting by his side and sharing command of his ship. Some elaborations even go so far as to say that she took part in the invasion of Jamaica in 1694 and that she took command of de Graaf’s flagship after he was killed during an attack on a Spanish ship, fiercely leading the crew in an ultimately unsuccessful fight. Alas, these stories are likely fictional; by the time of their marriage, de Graaf was no longer a buccaneer but an officer of the Crown and an independently wealthy one at that.
It is unclear when or where Dieuleveult died and perhaps that is just as it should be. Sometimes, remarkable lives lead to forgotten ends and what better way to end a pirate story than with the mist of a little mystery?
Plants once played an important role in the traditional medicine of rural Brittany, being employed in a wide variety of remedies to treat all manner of ailments. Most of the tried and tested herbal recipes were tightly guarded secrets only handed down within the family unit. Fortunately, many of the old remedies were captured for posterity by forward thinking people keen to ensure the knowledge that had sustained generations of Bretons was not lost forever in the march to the modern world.
The folk remedies recorded below were noted in use in the eastern part of the region at the very end of the 19th century and do not, as far as I have been able, repeat any of the treatments and cures detailed in previous posts which predominantly focused on the healers of western Brittany.
Popular treatments for childhood maladies contained many of the same ingredients brought to bear against sickness in adults. A cure for colic was said to lie in the film of fat that sometimes adhered to the lids of cooking pots in which pork had been boiled; the greasy lid was pressed against the stomach of the patient to affect a cure. When colic was complicated with diarrhoea, an infusion of Knotweed in hot water was drunk as a curative. Soot from the patient’s own hearth was mixed with sweetened fresh cow’s milk and drunk every night, for a week, to treat intestinal worms in children or else the patient was made to sleep on a mattress made of Male Fern plants.
One remedy recommended against croup called for the child’s neck to be surrounded by a poultice made from a mixture of goose dung, Celery, white Peppercorns and white wine vinegar. Sadly, there is no record of how long this peculiar necklace needed to be worn in order to be effective. A three or six day treatment was advised for those battling whooping cough; the patient needed to drink a cup of freshly drawn mare’s milk in the morning before breakfast. Another wholesome remedy to treat the same ailment recommended drinking hot milk in which pulverised Hazelnuts had been boiled.
The treatment of epilepsy in children ranged from some kind of fumigation where the patient inhaled the smoke blown up their nose by someone smoking a pipe of Tobacco, to drinking a herbal tea made from water macerated with Peony roots and Pyrethrum flowers.
Tobacco also featured in a remarkable treatment for ringworm in children; a treatment that began with shaving all the hair from the patient’s head. It was then necessary to crush Houseleek and Elderberry root in a bowl of curdled milk, to which was added a piece of Tobacco leaf; the concoction was then allowed to marinate overnight. The child’s head was thoroughly washed each morning and night before being completely coated with the prepared ointment; healing was thought complete after a month of such treatment.
To cure a headache, it was recommended for the patient to cover their head with a heavy cloth and to hold their head, for as long as possible, over a cauldron in which Hayseeds were boiled in water. If Hayseeds were unavailable, Ground-Ivy was believed just as effective. A similar head covering was used to treat toothache but it was necessary for the patient to open their mouth to the steam that rose from the pot in which quartz stones were boiled in vinegar. Toothache was also said to have been relieved by rubbing the back of the ear nearest the troublesome tooth with the sap of Petty Spurge or Milk Weed. If a tooth required extracting, the application of Asparagus root to the diseased tooth was thought to prevent the patient suffering any pain during the procedure.
For earaches, the oily sap of the inflorescences found on Field Elm was applied directly into the ear but relief was also said to be granted to those who used the sap of Ash branches in the same manner. Ear ailments in infants were usually treated with a few drops of milk, expressed directly into the affected ear by a nursing mother.
Inflamed and sore throats were cured by drinking very hot cider in which butter had been melted, or else a draught of cow’s milk in which Laurel leaves had been boiled. Others recommended applying to the throat a poultice made from mashed Potatoes that had been cooked in the ashes of the hearth. One of the old cures for tonsillitis recommended that the sufferer slept with the sock removed from their left foot wrapped around their neck; the sock needed to be filled with ash warm from the grate to be effective. However, this treatment was said to have been dangerous for girls who had reached puberty.
Two leaves of Greater Periwinkle, chewed until only the fibres remained, were said to immediately stop a nosebleed. Other remedies were slightly more invasive as one called for the tender leaves taken from the top of the Nettle to be rolled into balls and pushed into the patient’s nostrils; another cure recommended that the nostrils be stuffed with Puffball spores instead. Forcefully squeezing the little finger of the patient’s left hand was also claimed to be an effective way of stopping nosebleeds, as was immersing their hand into very cold water.
Eye ailments were popularly cured by eye washes with water that had been macerated with Elder flowers but only on condition that these flowers had been collected between the two Sundays of Corpus Christi. Ophthalmia and other eye inflammations in adults were also treated with an eye wash of hot water in which Greater Plantain leaves had been boiled. Styes were said removed by the application of raw veal or else passing a gold ring over them.
Clear vision was assured to those that passed over their eyelids a freshly laid and still warm chicken egg or those that washed their eyes with the milk in which the Scarlet Pimpernel had been boiled. Meanwhile, patients suffering with bloodshot eyes were recommended to pound the stem of Robert’s Grass together with some coarse salt and apply the compound as a poultice on the wrist of the arm opposite the affected eye; a procedure that needed to be repeated each night for three consecutive days in order to be effective.
To refresh and purify one’s blood, it was recommended that Chervil, Cress, Fumitory, Sorrel and Ryegrass be pounded together. The juice of this herbal concoction was added to a little water and drunk every morning, before breakfast, for nine consecutive days. Another remedy, called for the roots of Catchweed, Curly Dock and Dandelion to be macerated in water before being boiled until half the water had evaporated. A cup of the remaining broth was drunk every morning before breakfast; a process repeated daily until the volume of blood that one wanted refreshed had been drunk.
Those suffering from oedema were advised to split a living rooster in half, with a single axe blow, and to wrap the bleeding carcass around the swollen ankles. For those afflicted with sore feet, more pleasant remedies were suggested; a foot bath of hot water mixed with either crushed Mustard seeds or those of the Greater Celandine. Corns and calluses on the feet were cured by the direct application of a cut Leek, although a foot bath consisting of crushed Garlic and Houseleek leaves macerated in vinegar was claimed an equally effective remedy.
Severe bruising was mostly treated with the direct application of a poultice made from a compound of coarse salt and Vervain or Verbena that had been pounded together into a thick paste. Alternatively, an equally efficacious poultice was said to be made from pounding a lichen known as Tree Lungwort or Pulmonary Moss with the white of a chicken’s egg.
As the name would suggest, Pilewort or Lesser Celandine was used in a number of treatments for haemorrhoids. In one, the roots of the plant were placed in a small cloth bag that was attached to the bottom of the patient’s shirt; the plant’s proximity to the seat of the discomfort was believed enough to begin the healing process. Another treatment called for the plant’s sap to be mixed with a little lard and applied to the affected area as an ointment.
Two other plants were also popularly used to treat this same affliction; the sap of Houseleek leaves, mixed with boiled lard, was applied directly as an ointment but a treatment involving Water Hemlock also called for a certain degree of ritual. In this instance, the highly toxic plant was thoroughly washed in running water before its tubers were pounded and mixed with some lard. The resulting compound was then slowly boiled over the embers in a new earthenware pot thus creating an ointment that was described as most effective.
Menstrual complications were often treated with poultices made from Tree Moss that were applied to the body near to the kidneys, or else a poultice made of boiled Parsley was applied to the patient’s stomach. The stomach was also the preferred location for a poultice of boiled Pellitory, also known as Bottle Grass, which was applied there to ease those suffering from urine retention; the water in which the plant had been boiled also needed to be drunk by the patient in order for the cure to be effective. Drinking herbal teas made from an infusion of Chicory and Peony roots was said to bring relief from constipation.
The remedies recommended for treating burn victims seem to have varied from healer to healer but the most popular called for the burn to be covered with a grated Potato or for the afflicted part of the body to be immersed in cow’s milk that had been churned; care being taken to ensure the milk was renewed as soon as it seemed hot. Another by-product of the cow was also acclaimed effective in treating burns but only if it was very fresh. To that end, it was said necessary to be ready to receive, in a sack, a delivery of freshly expelled dung which was then quickly applied to the burn or, if a hand or a foot had been burned, the affected limb was plunged directly into the sack.
One practice used by some local healers to treat burns involved ritual magic rather than practical medicine and was noted in eastern Brittany as late as 1938. Here, the healer took a cup of water and, having wet their fingers in it, drew the sign of the cross above the burn, while reciting a charm invoking Saint Lawrence, the third century Christian martyr who died upon a gridiron and whose feast day is observed on 10 August. The ritual was not complete until the healer then blew on the burn. In the west of the region, it was Saint Barbara, another late third century martyr tortured by fire, who was invoked.
Numerous remedies were noted for dealing with minor cuts and wounds here. For instance, a pinch of snuff tobacco was sprinkled liberally on the cut, or else cobwebs taken from working millstones were used. When applied as a poultice, the leaves of the Ribwort Plantain, also known as Saint Joseph’s Herb or Five-Seam Grass, were also believed to quickly heal cuts; an attribute shared with a poultice made from the pounded leaves and stems of the Nettle.
Deep cuts were treated with an application of Lily leaves that had been soaked in brandy, or else Geranium leaves, wrapped in cobwebs, were placed on the cuts as a sort of bandage. Another remedy for healing wounds called for the leaves of the Greater Mullein and Mallow plants to be boiled with a handful of bran. The wound was then washed with this water before being covered with a poultice made from the boiled compound. It was said necessary to renew this procedure every morning until healing was visibly complete.
Uncomfortably painful leg ulcers were managed by the direct application of a plaster made-up of a compound created by boiling together a mixture of wax, Olive oil and resin. This plaster needed to be changed twice a day for the first week but only daily thereafter and was regarded a certain cure for even the most stubborn ulcer.
Disorders affecting the skin must once have been quite commonplace if the number and varieties of cures provide any indication upon which to form a judgement. Eczema and skin lesions were treated with the direct application of Goundsel leaves or else a plaster made from Greater Celandine, known as the Grass of Saint-Clair or Witches’ Milk, which had been pounded with coarse salt to form a thick paste. Similarly, soot taken from a hearth where only wood had been burned was mixed with andouille (a sausage made on the farms from pig intestines) fat and applied to the affected skin. An alternative remedy advised boiling the soot in the milk that had escaped from the churn when butter was beaten and applying this compound as a poultice.
To treat the skin infection known as erysipelas or Saint Anthony’s Fire it was necessary to fumigate the affected skin with Elderberry bark before applying a poultice made from the crushed flowers of the same tree used for the fumigation. However, a poultice made from Common Duckweed was also believed to cure the same complaint. The skin/nail infection whose clinical name is paronychia was treated by placing the infected finger or toe into a fresh chicken egg that was sat in boiled water or else by putting the digit into very hot fatty broth. Marseille soap, resin and cow’s milk were then boiled together to create an ointment that was applied to the infected part before bed. Alternatively, the leaves of Wall Pennywort, also known as the Navel of Venus, boiled with pork fat and breadcrumbs were also pounded together to make a suitable ointment.
Chestnuts boiled in water and pounded into a paste were applied as a hot poultice to treat chilblains, whereas dry, cracked skin was treated with a very basic ointment made-up only of barely formed butter. The old healers also even carried recipes for removing freckles. One such remedy called for a freshly made Buckwheat pancake to be placed on a plate; it was then necessary to rub the face with the condensated water droplets, known as pancake sweat, that had formed under the hot pancake. Another, simpler, treatment required the face to be rubbed with a paste made from the pounded leaves and the flowers of the Cowslip.
In this region, two quite different beverages were once recommended in the fight against a fever. One called for the patient to drink a cup of white wine that had been infused with Privet leaves or the bark of the Willow. However, another remedy called for a chicken’s gizzard to be thoroughly washed and left to dry-out by the fireside. Once fully dried, the gizzard was ground into something resembling a powder which was then added to a cup of white wine and drunk twice a day.
Drinking an infusion made from Mallow flowers or Quackgrass boiled in spring water was believed a most effective treatment against the common cold. Similarly, drinking cow’s milk in which the leaves of the small fern known as Wall Capillary or Maidenhair Spleenwort had been boiled was also recommended. The water that had been used to boil Ground-Ivy, also known as Saint-John’s Belt, was another efficacious treatment but only if some Oats had first been boiled in the same cooking pot.
We know from the sheer volume of extant folk medicine cures for rheumatism and joint pain that such ailments must have once greatly troubled the people of Brittany. In some areas, sufferers were advised to beat the afflicted limbs with Nettles but other remedies required the patient to induce sweating by covering themselves with a blanket and branches of Birch that had been heated in a bread oven that had just baked bread. Sleeping on a mattress made of Ferns was also believed to relieve sufferers of their pain, especially if, during the day, their skin also remained in contact with the leaves of the Broadleaf Plantain; sewn inside their shirt for such a purpose.
To treat the pain caused by a blow or a fall, Burdock leaves were heated on a skillet before being mixed with lard which was then rubbed into the affected part of the patient’s body. Although another remedy claimed that the most effective cure was for the patient to drink a bottle of white wine which had been infused with six small branches of Myrtle. The annoying pain caused by a side-stitch was believed cured by the direct application of hot Oatmeal that contained the white of a chicken’s egg.
Those believed to have suffered a stroke could be assured a cure if they caught and killed a mole; the little creature was bled and the resultant blood then applied to the affected parts of the patient’s body. Other unusual treatments included drinking an infusion of Knotgrass in water in expectation of being cured of dysentery. Or a treatment for rabies that advised making a compound of Dog Roses, powdered Walnuts and chicken eggs; applying half this raw omelette directly to the bite, the patient ate the other half in hope of a cure. The treatment for those suffering from night sweats called for the patient to wear a bag or stocking around their neck when going to bed; the stocking was filled with Meadow Saffron, also known as Naked Lady or Dog Killer, bulbs; the one part of the plant that is not highly toxic.
Many treatments for warts were noted here; from the simple to the dangerous. One remedy called for the patient to bite their own warts before breakfast each morning for a week. Another called for the offending warts to be rubbed by the patient in the morning, on an empty stomach, with Buckwheat leaves or with the juice from the stem of the Greater Celandine. Similarly, the milky sap of the Fig tree, the mucus of a de-shelled snail, the halves of an Apple picked from a tree ordinarily used for making cider or the toxic sap of the Spurge were all also claimed to provide effective cures for warts. However, the most infallible remedy was said to have been provided by the application of the rag that had been used to clean the bread oven.
To prove the old adage of yesterday’s healers that we carry about us the remedies that can cure our ills, one treatment for insect bites here recommended that the patient should cover the bite mark with their own ear wax. However, the juices exuded from the leaves of the Ribwort Plantain were also regarded as an effective treatment against all manner of bites and stings. The aggravating wounds caused by skin punctures from thorns were treated with an ointment made from a handful of Ground-Ivy, pounded with a small spoonful of butter, lard and resin into a paste that was heated over a fire before being directly applied to the skin.
The most effective cure against the bite of the viper, the region’s only poisonous snake, was believed to be to be offered by the head of the culprit itself. If one could capture the snake that had bitten you and crushed its head against the bite, one was thought cured immediately. However, it was said that although cured, you would always feel unwell and even experience a swelling of the skin, each year on the anniversary of the attack.
While we may have abandoned the old natural remedies that long served our ancestors so well, the use of plants for their medicinal qualities is being revisited today by homeopathic practitioners and multi-billion dollar corporations alike; fresh eyes re-discovering old knowledge for new generations.
The legends of Brittany attribute marvellous origins to many of the structures that litter the local landscape. Some Neolithic megaliths were said to have been created by the enchanter Merlin while others were assigned to the magical korrigans and fairies or to the giant Gargantua. Many Medieval buildings were, sometimes rightly, attributed to those great builders, the Romans or else to the Knights Templar. Similarly, local lore often attests that various notable landmarks, predominantly bridges, churches and mills were built by the power of the Devil; some were even said to have demanded a human sacrifice.
A little south of the old Breton city of Nantes, a rocky formation is revealed during the hours of low tide seemingly stretching out from the village of Notre-Dame-de-Monts towards the Île d’Yeu lying some 16km (10 miles) offshore. This natural feature is known as Pont-Saint-Martin because local legend tells that this saint, frustrated at his inability to cross to the island to the west, accepted the Devil’s offer to build him a suitable bridge in just one night.
Unfortunately, the bridge was not quite completed when the rooster crowed to nullify the Devil’s bargain. At that instant, the building blocks carried in the air by the Devil’s demons escaped their grasp and crashed down to earth; falling into the positions which they still occupy to this day. On the island, a different legend was one told, for here it was said that the bridge was built by the Devil at the request of the islanders who had agreed, in exchange for the bridge, to surrender to him the body and soul of the first to cross. As soon as the bridge was complete, the wily islanders threw a big cat upon it; the Devil’s bargain was thus fully honoured. Angry at being outwitted by simple fishermen, the Devil returned during the following night and destroyed the bridge whose debris can still be seen at low tide today.
A similar legend is found further west along the coast in the Etel estuary between the towns of Auray and Locmiquélic, the upper reaches of which contains the small picturesque island of Saint-Cado. Tradition asserts that the island was once a sanctuary for the 6th century saint who sometimes had need of peace from the bustling monastery he had established nearby. To ease his passage to the island, a small bridge was built but this structure did not survive its first tempest and so another construction was started under the supervision of the Devil himself. In exchange for his labours, the Devil demanded of Cado the soul of the first creature to cross it. The instant the bridge was completed, the saint is said to have thrown a cat on it, much to the Devil’s disgust.
Another of the early evangelists, Saint Gwenole, is also associated with the Devil and a bargain for a bridge. It is said that Gwenole had grown weary of making the difficult journey between the Île de Sein, lying off Brittany’s Atlantic coast, and his abbey at Landévennec. He therefore resolved to build a bridge that would connect the island to the mainland and it was while considering this project that he was approached by a handsome young man whose sweet tongue and cloven hoofs betrayed the presence of the Devil himself.
“I want to go to that island I see in the distance. I know you are planning a bridge and I shall use it when it is built,” said the Devil. Saint Gwenole was adamant that he would never allow the Devil to reach the innocent souls on the island and declared that he would not now build the bridge if there was a chance the Devil might use it. “Then you will be denounced as a liar, for you gave the people your word. You will lose your holiness and will be doomed to become my disciple because the lie will stain you forever,” sneered the Prince of Liars.
Seeing Gwenole’s dilemma, God offered him the opportunity to perform a marvellous miracle and so the saint quickly threw a bridge of ice across to the distant island. Gloating in triumph and enticed by all the pure souls that he would now be able to corrupt, the Devil rushed onto the bridge but with his first few steps, his burning hooves melted the ice and he was cast down into the swirling waters below. His violent reaction at being tricked accounts for the fierce currents that still separate the island from the mainland today.
Although no longer the seat of a bishop, the 14th century cathedral in the northern town of Tréguier is the site of another curious deal with the Devil. Legend tells that the priests responsible for supervising the building’s construction had exhausted all their funds of money when it came time to build the steeple and so reluctantly accepted the aid of the Devil. In exchange for building the steeple, he was granted the souls of all who died within sound of the cathedral bells between Sunday Mass and Vespers. The priests soon relented their sacrifice of so many souls and adopted a cunning solution; no sooner had Mass concluded than the cantor intoned the first psalm of Vespers.
The notion that the Devil demands a heavy price in exchange for his assistance is a key feature of the tales highlighted above but all may not be as it might seem. For instance, if we strip away the Christian overtones of these tales, what remains is an impression that the first to cross a bridge and perhaps by extension, enter any new building is expected to surrender their life as some form of sacrifice.
The Scottish anthropologist Sir James Fraser, in his marvellous book The Golden Bough (1890) noted: “In modern Greece, when the foundation of a new building is being laid, it is the custom to kill a cock, a ram or a lamb and to let its blood flow on the foundation-stone, under which the animal is afterwards buried. The object of the sacrifice is to give strength and stability to the building.” The prevalence of similar practices throughout the history of the Germanic people was also highlighted by the German author Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology (1835). Grimm also notes how human sacrifices were formerly made at river crossings to bring good luck and to act as protective spirits; some unfortunates were even walled-up alive in basements and ramparts for the same end.
The strength and longevity of important constructions was believed only assured if certain rites had been performed at the intended site beforehand. Such rituals were designed to appease the ancient deities on whose domains humanity was encroaching and also to implore the favour of those who might have an influence on the solidity of a structure or on the happiness of its occupants. The vestiges of likely ancient rituals can be seen in some of the superstitious practices noted just a few hundred years ago, such as burying a calf under the entrance to a barn, a horse in newly opened graveyards or a cat under the corner stone of a house.
The Breton artist and author Paul Sébillot noted, at the end of the 19th century, a belief around the town of Dinan that when the ancient Romans had completed a road, they sacrificed a man and offered his blood to the spirits of the earth in order to ensure the strength of their work. Little evidence exists to suggest that human immolation has been practiced in Brittany since the earliest times but there are some intriguing references in the region’s folklore.
In 1888, a journal published in Paris brought to the attention of its readers an account of the popular tradition surrounding the failure to maintain a bridge at Rosporden in western Brittany. It was claimed that each new bridge was swept away by floodwater almost as soon as it had been completed. Confounded by the fact that their best efforts were meeting with no success, the people of the town suspected witchcraft and consulted a witch who told them that if they wanted to have a strong bridge, they would need to bury a four year old boy alive in the foundations. It was also necessary for the child to carry with him a blessed candle in one hand and a piece of bread in the other.
Sadly, a desperate mother, willing to submit her child for sacrifice, was found and the little boy was walled-up alive as directed. The bridge was duly completed and, for centuries, has withstood all the ravages of the elements. It is said that the boy’s mother went insane shortly after the sacrifice of her son and that the little boy’s cries are still to be heard in the wailing of the winds and the sobs of the rains that fall upon Rosporden today.
A similar legend is associated with the Pont Callec bridge near Caudan in southern Brittany; to save the bridge from constantly collapsing, a young boy, bought for a high price in Scotland, was locked inside a barrel buried under one of the bridge supports. The child’s sacrifice was said to have ensured the longevity of the bridge and the health of those who crossed it. The same solution was said to have been resorted to at another bridge in Morbihan; having collapsed several times, the sacrifice of a living man immediately reversed the fortunes of the builders.
The notion of the necessity for a sacrifice to ensure the success of a bridge was also noted further north in the central town of Pontivy. Here, local legend tells that when a bridge was built around the town, a sacrifice was once offered to the deities of the river; an offering that included as many men as the bridge had piers. It was said that prisoners were mostly chosen for this dubious honour and that it was customary for the victims to be buried under the first stone of each pier.
Offering sacrifices to the waters, or to the gods who could control them, was once fairly widespread, with many examples cited by the writers of antiquity through to the anthropologists of the modern era. While we may have no reports of human sacrifices along the Breton coast, traditions of offerings made to freshwater divinities were noted in the south of Brittany. Indeed, even Christian ceremonies to bless the sea were seen here regularly into the 20th century.
It was once believed here that the Breton peninsula sat atop an underground ocean and that vast subterranean passages connected this underground sea with the waters surrounding the coast. The fear that the earth might collapse into this inland sea, at any moment, was particularly noted in Morbihan; specifically a swathe of country that stretched from Vannes on the south coast to Pontivy some 50km (31 miles) to the north. Interestingly, people also thought the reason that their homes had not disappeared under the waves was thanks to certain sacrifices that had been made.
In this part of the region, it was said that every seven years, an unknown lady, richly dressed, travelled the land in search of a poor and large family whose father and mother would agree, for a consideration, to sell her one of their children. Once this child had been obtained, the mysterious woman contained it in a barrel with a three-pound loaf of bread and a large lit candle; the sealed barrel was then delivered to the waves.
The ocean seized its proffered gift and tossed the barrel around for seven years before allowing it to be seen again by the eyes of man. The recovered barrel was opened and if the child has only lost its arms, it was once again cast to the waves for another seven years. If the barrel was empty, the sacrifice was thought consumed but the divinity of the sea required fresh prey and so the unknown lady set out again on her ghoulish mission. It was said at the end of the 19th century that one of the sea’s last victims was bought from Guern; a village very close to Pontivy.
According to another version of the tale, the sacrifice was offered, not to the sea itself, but to the ‘Eye of the Sea’ which was located in the countryside but which communicated directly with the ocean. Each year, a new-born child, recently baptized, was sealed inside a barrel with a blessed candle and a pound of bread and delivered as an offering to the guardian of the waters on the eve of the New Year. The ‘Eye of the Sea’ was thought to be connected to the Blavet River to whose waters the barrel was consigned. Unfortunately, the power of such a sacrifice was thought only to appease the water deities for a year. With life, light and sustenance consumed, another offering was required and the sacrifice repeated again until God took pity on the bereaved mothers and transformed the ‘Eye of the Sea’ into a clear fountain.
Sometimes, the rituals and offerings made to ensure the longevity of a building or the health of its inhabitants was far more pedestrian, even if their origins were likely equally as ancient. In Brittany, builders often buried prehistoric stone tools, popularly known as Thunder Stones, under the foundations or near the threshold of buildings. Such talismans have also been discovered hidden in the walls of medieval churches, above stable doors and even inside old hearths.
The remains of animals, predominantly toads and cats, have also been discovered in the walls and under the foundations of many old buildings here. Perhaps these were substitutes for the human sacrifices of old or perhaps it was the sacrifice of a life that was important; the life force, whatever it was, giving vitality and protection to the builder’s edifice? A similar tradition was once noted around Pontivy where it was customary, in the 18th century, to sprinkle the foundations of houses and churches with animal blood, mainly that of an ox. Some 45km (28 miles) away, in the southern town of Quimperlé, the foundations of new houses were regularly sprinkled with the blood of a rooster as late as the early years of the 19th century.
Formerly, belief in the importance of paying due homage to the ancient guardians, of waters and other places, was profoundly inscribed into the Breton psyche and it is interesting to consider whether such deeply ingrained traditions were not at the root of the once popular belief that death must pass through a house for it to be safely inhabited. In western Brittany, it was thought that death personified, the Ankou, demanded this tribute and that as soon as the stones of the threshold had been set, the Ankou waited to claim the soul of the first person to cross it.
According to local tradition, there was only one way to keep death away and that was to give him some other life and so people would ensure that a hen or a cat were the first to cross a completed threshold although, in some parts of the region, an egg was deemed sufficient for this purpose. Once safely into a new home, it was important for the new occupants to assuage the spirits of the place by leaving, in each corner, an offering of a piece of bread and a little salt. Over time, such concerns were forgotten, leaving just a quaint superstitious ritual to attract good luck upon the household.