The Pardons of Brittany

A distinctly Breton tradition that has survived into the 21st century is the Pardon. In this context, a religious Pardon is perhaps best described as a communal expression of devotion to a particular saint, from whom grace or a pardon is requested. Since the 15th century, these annual festivals, celebrating and honouring local saints, witness the gathering together of worshippers; some local and others who have made a special pilgrimage from further afield.

It may be difficult to imagine today, as you travel on well-maintained tarmac roads across Brittany in a matter of hours, that the roads of rural Brittany only received serious attention from the government in the second half of the 20th century. Even as late as the turn of the last century, taking part in a Pardon not in your commune required dedication, time and effort. Indeed, participation at a particular Pardon was often undertaken as a public act of penance.

engraving of a Breton pardon procession
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Nowadays, usually observed more in the west of Brittany than elsewhere, the Pardons predominantly begin in March and end in October. Held on a Saint’s feast day, each occasion has a character of its own but generally features two or more masses (some churches repeat their masses in Breton) followed or preceded by a formal procession that sees banners, relics, statues and crosses carried by a cortège of worshippers, sometimes dressed in traditional costume, around the church or chapel and often culminating at a calvary or sacred fountain associated with the saint.

The Pardon is not always tied to an ecclesiastical building as it is the saint who is being venerated and whose presence is invoked during these ceremonies, thus you may find Pardons taking place at sacred fountains which would have been cleaned beforehand by the parishioners and decorated with flowers for the occasion. Some fountains had particular rites attached to them and these traditional practices often bemused 19th century visitors such as this instance, related by Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his A Summer in Brittany (1840) :

“Many [fountains to which marvellous qualities are attributed] are situated in villages where Pardons are held; on those days, in the midst of the crowd, women may be seen rushing to the fountain and exposing their persons in the most extraordinary manner, in order to pour the water over every part of them. Nor have the performers of this ridiculous ceremony, or the numerous spectators of it, male and female, the least idea of anything indecent having been done. The scene is watched by the crowd with the utmost gravity and decorum and most perfect faith in the efficacy of it for bringing about the desired result.”

Sacred fountains were a key part of many Pardon traditions; pilgrims would invoke the saint and enjoy the beneficial virtues of the water which, as noted above, sometimes involved far more than simply drinking the water; rituals, some of great antiquity, were important. Perhaps there are still individual and anonymous practices but the rites of collective immersion in the waters of fountains have long disappeared from contemporary Pardons.

A Pardon in Brittany
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As might be expected in a region so reliant on agriculture, many Pardons specifically involved animals, such as those of the dogs and cats at Laniscat, pigs at Trégomar and Plouisy, cattle at Plonevez-du-Faou or horses at, amongst others, Goudelin and Plérin where the animals were blessed in the water of the sacred fountain. There were even Pardons for birds: on the north coast at Plourhan and on the south coast at Toulfoën. In the early part of the last century, cattle were brought for blessing to the church in Moncontour whose church is dedicated to Saint Mathurin, patron saint of such beasts, while horses were taken to the church at Landerneau.

The practice of holding a candlelit vigil after or before mass on the night before the Pardon was once commonplace but is less so these days. This might be due to a change in tastes but might reasonably be attributed to the fact that most pilgrims now have ready access to reliable transportation and can schedule their arrival at the Pardon. A noticeable contrast to the weary pilgrims of yesteryear who arrived at the Pardon’s location throughout the course of the preceding day. Upon first sighting the church tower, it was once customary for the pilgrim to pause for prayer before resuming the last leg of the journey in song.

For many, the formal procession is the highlight of the Pardon; in times past it was customary to not take breakfast on the morning of the procession and to complete it barefoot and in silence. These processions are usually quite colourful affairs, featuring a long parade of the young girls of the parish resplendent in white gowns, the local clergy, town notables, the devout and the curious; all giving reverence to the scared relics carried aloft and united behind the timeworn, embroidered community banners and pennants held just as high. It was not uncommon for the carriers of relics to be flanked by two wardens carrying stout sticks to vigorously discourage the hands of pilgrims, too eager to touch the holy relic or statue.

the banners at a pardon
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The procession banners were often, in days gone passed, not immune from similarly robust handling. Typically, when the banners of two processions from different parishes met, the banners were lowered and inclined so as to touch one another in a ceremony known as the Salutation of the Banners. Trollope provides a useful history of the practice:

The pride of the villagers in their banners and in the splendour of their processions is connected with a spirit of emulation and animosity against those of their neighbours. Thus, when the processions of two rival parishes met, especially if, as is likely frequently to be the case, the meeting chanced to take place in a narrow hollow way, where it was impossible to pass each other, each was unwilling to give way. It became, however, necessary that one should give place to its rival, and retrace its step. This was a degradation to which neither party were willing to submit. Each maintained the superior dignity of its own saint; and where is the Breton who would not die for the united cause of his own saint and his own obstinacy!

The holy persons, whose figures were displayed on the banners, were supposed to be animated with the same passions, the same zeal for their own dignity and the same hatred for the opposition saint of the next parish, which actuated their followers. The most bitter and lasting religious feuds were thus generated. Desperate battles were fought under the banners and for the honour of the saints. Nothing could better deserve indulgences, and protection and favouritism from a saint, than courageous exertions on these occasions, and victory achieved for him over his enemy and rival of the next parish. Bones were broken, and lives sometimes lost, in these obstinate encounters, which never ceased till the figure of one saint was borne in triumph, amid the shouts of his followers, over the prostrate body of the other.

In order to put a stop to these battles, the priests, from time to time, pretended that such and such rival saints had declared their mutual reconciliation; and. it was publicly announced that henceforward they intended to be the best friends in the world. A solemn peace-making took place and, whenever the friends met afterwards, they were held out to each other by their respective bearers to kiss. Hence, the salutation of the banners.”

Pardon Procession in Brittany
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After the parade, there are prayers and usually a final opportunity for the faithful to see the holy relics before they are returned to their sanctuary. In coastal parishes, the procession often ends at the port where the priest and relics embark on boats in order to bless all the vessels at harbour.

With the serious business of the day done, there usually follows a secular fête, involving a goodly amount of food, dancing and [usually] Breton music. This is not a modern addition to the day, laid-on for the benefit of tourists but a traditional, albeit very secular, climax to the Pardon. In the past, these fêtes featured a great deal of drunkenness, merry-making and robust competitions of all kinds, with contact sports such as gouren (Breton wrestling) and soule (a loosely structured full-contact game similar to rugby football) being particularly popular; much to the consternation of the local priests. The occasion was and remains, a celebration of fellowship and unity in the profession of faith and an opportunity for an often scattered community to come together.

Pilgrimage Brittany
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Over a thousand Pardons continue to be celebrated each year in Brittany. Some are quite modest affairs with just a handful of observers, whilst that of Sainte Anne d’Auray attracts thousands of pilgrims from across Europe. The Pardon of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt (near the north coast town of Morlaix) is another well-attended event with numbers perhaps swelled due to its famous relic and massive bonfire. Bonfires, known as tantad in Breton, are still lit after the main procession at a number of Pardons these days but the practice is nowhere near as widespread as it once was.

Other notable Pardons include those at Notre-Dame du Roncier in Josselin, Notre-Dame de Rumengol in Faou and Notre-Dame de Quelven in Guern. The latter is one of a number of Pardons that still feature a pyrophoric angel – the statue of an angel (some churches use a carved dove) carrying a flame descends on a zip line from the bell tower of the church to ignite the festival bonfire. Attending the Pardon of Notre-Dame de l’isle in Goudelin affords one an opportunity to witness a pyrophoric angel, a traditional celebratory bonfire as well the immersion of horses as part of the blessing ceremony.

Often known as the ‘grand pardon of Brittany’ is the Pardon of Saint Ronan at Locronan, where every six years (the last was in 2019) the Grande Troménie is performed. This festival consists of a 12km pilgrimage over hilly moorland route-ways once sacred to the ancient Celts and marked by twelve stations of the cross; a pilgrimage of 6km is followed in the intervening years.

the Pardon procession
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According to Breton tradition, there were three pilgrimages that the devout had to make at least once. The first was to the Troménie at Locronan but it was not considered completed if you looked, even briefly, in any direction other than straight ahead!  The second pilgrimage was to the Pardon of Saint-Servais. Some believed that if one failed to make this pilgrimage during one’s lifetime, they were doomed to do it in the afterlife, carrying their coffin on their shoulders and advancing only the length of the coffin each day! The final obligatory pilgrimage was to Bulat-Pestivien in order to participate in the Pardon of Notre-Dame de Bulat.

Banned under the revolution, romanticised by 18th century travel writers, sentimentalised by 19th century artists and picked-over by 20th century anthropologists, the Pardons of Brittany remain strong; a harmonious juxtaposition of pious observance and secular celebration that continue to attract pilgrims and curious visitors in large numbers.  If you visit Brittany and have the opportunity to attend a Pardon; I recommend that you do so.

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The Bonesetters of Brittany

In the Brittany of yesteryear, there was a dearth of medical doctors practicing in the rural areas and when one could be found, his professional services were rarely affordable. Traditional healing treatments and remedies were therefore widely used; one of the local healers most commonly consulted was the bone-setter.

The Age of Enlightenment saw great leaps in the understanding and acceptance of the role and benefits of medicine and treatment. Good health was considered the natural state of the body which therefore needed to be maintained and protected, particularly through diet and environment. However, diagnosis and the relationships between illness and cure were not fully understood and many clung fiercely to a belief in the Hippocratic theory of humours which held that a healthy body and mind came from a good balance between the humours that existed as bodily fluids, identified as blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.

An imbalance between the four humours could result in disease; treatments were therefore aimed towards restoring balance. These could be relatively benign such as dietary or environmental changes but were frequently far more aggressive; purges, enemas and blood-letting being the most common treatments. Purging the body of negative humours was regarded as efficient medicine, at times laxatives and emetics were used or deep enemas of water and vinegar administered but blistering the skin and blood-letting were very common.

blood letting
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Indeed, blood-letting was used to treat a very broad range of ailments affecting patients of all ages. Depending on the illness, blood was taken from different parts of the body, although it was traditionally performed at the elbows and knees. The most common, general blood-letting, involved cutting open a vein or artery with a lancet and drawing about a pint of blood at a time but localised blood-letting could also involve the application of cups or leeches.

Initially, in theory at least, doctors in France were responsible for internal medicine while the treatment of wounds and external injuries were the preserve of the surgeon but such boundaries were quite often ignored by both parties. They sometimes even prepared their own medicines but mostly they bought them from apothecaries – whose role was to prepare, preserve and distribute medication – and sold them on to their patients in the form of ointments and plasters. While doctors normally practised only in institutions and in cities, surgeons would sometimes make brief forays into the countryside.

bleeding a patient blood letting
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For most people of the time, securing access to a reliable medical practitioner was difficult if not impossible. Even access to one of the overcrowded charity hospitals found in some large towns usually required ready money. The formal, professional, medical community of doctors, surgeons and apothecaries were concentrated in the cities and large towns and all required hefty payment. Little wonder that much of the rural population of Brittany took their ailments to the local healer or put their faith in the healing waters of a sacred fountain.

In March 1803, the French authorities enacted much needed laws to reform the practice of medicine throughout France. Over the next seven years, the right to practice was linked to the obtainment of two nationally recognised degrees; a Doctorate in medicine or surgery awarded by one of the medical schools and the Bachelor-level qualification required to be licensed as a Health Officer.

These Health Officers existed until the end of the 19th century and were initially modelled on the Ancien Régime’s surgeons “of light knowledge” and were the cause of much debate. Practicing within strict Departmental boundaries, their great advantage was that they necessarily happened to be local; understanding and speaking the languages and dialects of their customers. However, their creation supposed two levels of medical competence and thus two modes of medical practice, calling into question the principles of equality which officially was the foundation of the republic. The usefulness of these demi-doctors was questioned, some thought lowering the academic bar unnecessary even dangerous and that it would be better for the countryside to lack doctors than to receive fatal ones.

In managing the risks Health Officers could potentially generate, their role was tightly prescribed. They were to “limit themselves to the most ordinary care, to the simplest procedures. Deliver first aid to the sick, treat the least serious ailments and take care of common dressings. Their main science was to recognise cases where they should not act.” Minimising the role of Health Officers not only created a two tier healthcare system but significantly undermined their standing in the communities they served. After all, these men were serving as the vanguard of the fight against the very empirics, conjurers, witches and charlatans that the 1803 law set out to eliminate.

bone setting
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The doctor was considered to be a man of learning who focused his science on diagnosis, prognosis and prescription but there was little official expectation that he would ply his science outside the cities and largest towns. Lawmakers of the time argued that the effort and expense spent on becoming a doctor would be rewarded by reputation, glory and fortune and that it was inappropriate to expect a doctor to bury his talents in the countryside and practice his art in a sparsely populated commune. This metropolitan bias was compounded by the suggestion that “the inhabitants (of the countryside) having purer manners than those of the cities have simpler illnesses which require, for this reason,less education and less preparations.”

This notion that the countryside only needed Health Officers more practiced than learned in theory, to treat mild ailments and minor accidents, totally overlooks the obvious; that without proper trusted care, people will remain with or soon revert to the traditional healers of the locality. Throughout the 19th century, the vast majority of the professional medical practitioners in Brittany were based in the prosperous coastal cities, with the greatest concentration in the two cities of Brest and Lorient due to the presence of the prison and naval yards; solid, regular payers. In the middle of the 19th century, the ratio of medical professionals to the Breton population was 1:5740 against a national ratio of 1:1890; the rural interior of Brittany simply did not have access to these professionals. If a patient could afford the time and cost of travelling to the city then the cost of a formal medical consultation, likely in a language they could not understand, would have been found exorbitant.

traditional healer
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Given the dearth of accessible and affordable medical professionals, the rural folk of Brittany sought relief from their ailments in their sacred fountains and traditional folk healers such as witches, homeopaths, herbalists and bonesetters. After all, what could the science of a “paper doctor” do against the sacred power of the saints?

The stoic nature of the Breton character was highlighted by the author Émile Souvestre most markedly when recounting the cholera epidemic of 1832; while the Parisians blamed the government for poisoning the water, Bretons largely accepted that the sickness was a form of divine punishment and cries of “God has touched us with His finger! God has delivered us to Satan!” were heard across the region. This fatalistic approach was noted by Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his travelogue, A Summer in Brittany (1840):

“It is in the hour of sickness and of death, when all men most feel the necessity of it, that the undoubting stern faith and sombre religion of the Breton are seen in the most striking manner. It is rarely that he thinks of appealing to human aid in illness. A few years ago, according to M. Souvestre, the peasants never had any recourse to medical men at all and, at the present day, confidence in their utility is very far from being general.

The more ordinary and more favourite resources are vows to some popular saint, prayers and masses, together with, perhaps, some traditional remedies, whose efficacy is often supposed to depend more on times and places and the observance of various ceremonies, than on any inherent quality in the medicine itself.”

healing fountain
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For millennia, sacred springs were considered powerful sources of healing in Brittany and such convictions were still widely held long after these ancient fountains had been given a Christian gloss and patron saint. While waters from all sacred fountains were regarded as possessing therapeutic or curative properties, many fountains and particular saints were believed to hold qualities that tackled very specific ailments from anxiety to leprosy and even madness. One of the sacred fountains associated with the semi-legendary Saint Diboan was believed to cure ear infections but he is more widely known as ‘the saint without suffering’; a saint to be invoked to relieve the pain and suffering of the sick and dying. At the saint’s fountain in Plévin, the water was used to divine the fate of a sick loved one; if the fountain’s basin re-filled noiselessly, the sick person would be sure to recover. In extreme cases, it was necessary to collect water from the fountain and pour over the body of the sick person; this would either bring about relief or death, both would see an end to the patient’s suffering.

The traditional healers (louzaouer in Breton) were found in nearly all communities in Brittany; sometimes several being active in the commune and covering a range of specialities. For instance, local witches and herbalists – it is not easy or sometimes even necessary to draw clear distinctions between the two labels – prepared and administered medicines derived from what we would now call medicinal plants. These were mostly composed of a mixture of bark, flowers, fruits, leaves, roots and seeds although animal products such as butter, eggs, honey, milk and even dung were also used along with minerals such as sea salt, alum, antimony, lead, mercury and sulphur. Animal fats were also held to contain healing properties; for instance, to cure a fever, a patient’s chest would be rubbed with the fat of a gull killed on a Friday.

For almost every ailment in everyday life, there were traditional remedies that were long regarded as more effective than the expensive cures prescribed by a medical professional. In Brittany, the boiled root of the yellow dock plant was commonly used as a purgative, poultices made from walnut leaves used to treat toothache; pennywort was used to treat sores while ear infections were cured by the juice of a houseleek or by dropping-in some freshly expressed milk from a nursing mother. To reduce a swelling of the body, broom root was boiled in water and drunk; sores in the mouth were treated with the application of spoonwort. Whooping cough was held to be alleviated by carrot juice or, in persistent cases, the milk of a white mare. Urine was often thought to sterilise a small cut which would then be protected by the slime from a slug which would act as a collodion. Incantations, charms, amulets and sachets containing bespoke concoctions were also prepared and administered to those seeking relief and cure.

un-bewitcher
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The Breton countryside also featured healers known as the diskanterezed (a hard word to translate literally but it means one who can undo or peel away/take off). It was believed that only children who were born feet-first possessed the gift necessary to be a diskanterez and that only a skilled practitioner could identify which child was worthy of initiation into the mysteries of the craft. Commonly consulted for their expertise in handling benign ailments each diskanterez often specialised in a limited number of afflictions such as removing warts or healing eczema.

Healing was achieved by the precise recitation of chants and the execution of very specific gestures. For example, to heal eczema, the diskanterez would recite the following three times in a single breath while making the sign of the cross with a silver coin: “Go away, go away! This is not your home. Neither here nor anywhere. Between nine seas and nine mountains and nine fountains, turn northwest!”

Diseases of the eye were sometimes seen as a manifestation of the presence of an evil spirit and nine grains of salt were squeezed onto a pilewort leaf and applied to the little finger of the hand apposite the infected eye. If a child appeared anaemic, the diskanterez would hunt for signs in the contours of the infant’s head, probing the fontanel or soft spot for confirmation of the klenved ar penn (literally, a head disease). A sharp tug of the hair and the fontanel was explored again, the treatment repeated until the diskanterez judged that the evil had been expelled. Another treatment involving a seemingly unrelated part of the body concerned that for ailments such as rheumatism or gout; the soft palate was scored and a piece of mucosa lining torn out before the patient gargled with salt water.

The diskanterez was not called upon trivially or for matters involving childbirth – unless there were serious complications. Otherwise, the older women of the community acted as midwives and advisers on children’s health; most women preferring the advice of experienced mothers known to them rather than doctors and surgeons whose theoretical health care advice often led to mortality for infants and mothers.

female bone setters
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Pierre-Jakez Hélias tells us in his memoir of life in rural Brittany between the World Wars (The Horse of Pride, 1975) that “With the holy healers, you have to believe, it is understood otherwise it is not worth it. The pretences and formulas of ‘old gossips’ and ‘health peddlers’ are nothing other than superstition or junk witchcraft but nothing prevents you from going to see it, if only for a laugh. And laughter is always good. The bonesetters know their job and do it well if they are reasonable enough.

Another healer found in most localities was the bonesetter who would be consulted on a broader range of issues, such as stomach aches, headaches, heart and circulation problems, than simply bones. A certain degree of physical strength was needed to be a successful bonesetter and after the reforms enacted in 1803 most had an official primary or secondary occupation to protect them against charges of practicing medicine illegally. As the name implies, bonesetters were adept at re-setting broken bones and dealt with all manner of fractures, dislocations and sprains; manipulating bones, joints and muscles to heal the neighbourhood sick at prices that were affordable.

bone setter re-setting a bone
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“For broken limbs, strains, sprains, we prefer to go to a bone repairer. In the canton, there are several, more or less declared. In general, they are millers. These people, whose job is to carry very heavy bags of grain, know from father to son how to put bones and muscles back in place. When they do not succeed, you have to get on a charabanc to go to Quimper on a fair day. There, around the Place des Chevaux Gras, outside the walls of the old town, two or three famous bonesetters receive the mutilated in the back rooms of cafes. They never miss a shot.” Pierre-Jakez Hélias (The Horse of Pride, 1975).

The author and photographer Charles Géniaux described some of his meetings with bonesetters in Upper Brittany in the works La Vieille France (1903) and La Bretagne Vivante (1912) and they provide an interesting insight into the bonesetter’s craft:

“The bonesetter of Saint-Gourlay.. inherited his practice from his mother… wins over the others for two specialties: healing the demented and caring for the heart. The parents of a fool lead him to the bonesetter for treatment. With a wooden stick he hits the sinciput, then the side walls of the skull, until the patient howls. At this moment, he declared that he had found the lesion and, fortified by this result, he showered the unfortunate with plenty of water. Finally the parents will have to apply poultices on the sick part.”

bone setter in brittany
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“I will introduce to you a bonesetter named Josso, or more properly, Big Josso, as he is usually called. Big Josso is not only a bonesetter but also a gardener and the owner of an inn and would work only for reliable farmers of the region. Usually, the client enters his bar and they start to speak together. The customer complains of his ailment and in this case, he fell from the loft.

bone setter at work
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Josso proposes to help and both of them go where they are sure that nobody will disturb them. The operation starts, the bonesetter feels the painful area. Most of the time, the bonesetter can operate alone but it can be more complicated: Three or four strong men are called for assistance. Two of them are instructed to pull as mightily as they can while the other prevents the body from moving using a large cloth. At the same time, Big Josso is placing the bone at the right place.”

“A farmer seeks treatment for kidney pain. Without being moved, the great Josso made him sit astride a chair, and putting his knee on the patient’s spine and grabbing him strongly with his hands criss-crossed across his chest, he twisted backwards, reducing the lumbago by an effort in the opposite direction.”

bone setter at work
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In rural Brittany, bonesetters and other traditional healers filled the void created by the severe lack of medical professionals; they enjoyed the trust and support of the local populace. These were not peripheral figures operating at the margins of society but a key part of that society.

In 1951, after pressure from local doctors, a successful bonesetter and miller from Landrévarzec was prosecuted for practicing medicine illegally. A practitioner of some repute, he gave consultations at his mill but also held weekly surgeries in the nearby towns of Douarnenez and Quimper. During his trial, dozens testified on his behalf and reports state that there were up to a thousand protesters outside the courthouse demanding his acquittal. He was found guilty and fined, subsequently being carried by supporters through the city in triumph.

It was not unusual for the professional medical profession to push for the prosecution of traditional healers such as bonesetters whom they regarded as uneducated and thus dangerous, unfair competition. In earlier times, there existed a profound paradox; doctors claimed they could not settle in the countryside because of unfair competition from healers but since there were few doctors, the locals had no alternative but to consult the healers.

The range and specialisms of these traditional folk healers was, and to some extent, remains, very broad. In addition to the homeopaths, herbalists, diskanterezed and bonesetters there were sourciers who doused for a variety of health-related issues; bandagistes who claimed to heal hernias and rheumatisms with bandages; stomach lifters who acted on the viscera; fire-cutters who healed burns but were also called upon to stem bleeding and reduce pain. There were even healers known as uromantes who studied a person’s urine in order to detect traces of diseases such as diabetes or kidney disorders. The gifts that these healers claimed to possess were, by their very nature, difficult to define and even harder to prove empirically by science. Whatever the source of the healers’ legitimacy, the anxieties and superstitions of the Breton countryside were thus fertile territory for the charlatan.

magnetiser
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In many countries, these traditional healing practices are regulated but in France, the framework is rather vague. Officially, healers are not allowed to practice and like their predecessors of yesterday, run the risk of being charged with practicing medicine illegally. However, plenty of grey areas exist and there is a significant amount of official toleration. Acupuncture, homeopathy and naturopathy are officially recognised and probably the most frequently consulted types of alternative healing but there are also many other popular non-biomedical practitioners such as magnétiseurs (magnetisers), radiesthésistes (dowsers), iridologists and aromatherapists. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to find a magnétiseur who is also a radiesthésiste or a bonesetter, sometimes re-badged as an osteopath or chiropractor.

Today, over 400 different alternative medical practices are available across France and it has been estimated that as many as four out of ten French people resort to alternative practices, even if only to gain a second opinion after visiting a doctor. While the medical profession may frown upon the continued popularity of practices that might have been expected to drop away with advances in 21st century healthcare, it is perhaps interesting to note that my local Yellow Pages records 580 General Practitioners and 360 bonesetters active today.

Witchcraft in Brittany

In 1917, the author Lewis Spence claimed that sorcery “in the civilised portions of Brittany is but a thing of yesterday, while in the more secluded departments it is very much a thing of to-day. The old folk can recall the time when the farm, the dairy, and the field were ever in peril of the spell, the enchantment, the noxious beam of the evil eye”.

In the 17th century, the division between natural and supernatural differed markedly from our modern-day notions. The concept of the natural world was not restricted to things corporeal and observable but included the incorporeal and unobservable. It was not considered irrational to believe in the existence of spirits causing natural effects and it was widely accepted that demons and witches existed in nature, acting according to its laws.

Witchcraft helped some to explain the world around them; whether that was a hailstorm in summer or a pail of fresh milk turning sour overnight. Thus the activities of witches were regarded as natural phenomena by most people. A notable sceptic being the noted 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who held that belief in witchcraft originated in ignorance of natural causes and was promulgated and encouraged by self-serving priests.

While the word witch is now almost exclusively applied to women, it was not always so. Derived from the Old English word wicce which related to magic and sorcery, the word evolved into wicche in the Middle English period and did not differentiate between masculine and feminine subjects. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the current spelling was in use and described a woman who attempted to control and manipulate natural or supernatural forces in order to effect changes.

the shameful kiss with the Devil
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In the late Renaissance period, the accepted characteristics of a witch varied but a little across Europe; they were held to engage in illicit or dangerous practices usually in secret, carried the power to use evil forces and possessed an innate capacity for harm. In Brittany, they were also held to have the ability to talk the languages of the beasts. However, some distinctions were made between witches along the lines of what we would nowadays call ‘white witches’ and ‘black witches’.  The ends of the spectrum being, on the one hand, the cunning folk or folk healers who treated ailments, cured illnesses, enhanced fertility, divined springs or misplaced items and marshalled fair weather. On the other hand were the witches who practised sorcery invoking, usually, malevolent spirits in pursuit of selfish aims or to cause harm to others. In French, the word sorcier encompassed the full spectrum of witchcraft.

At this time, accusations of witchcraft generally included accusations of Satanism; the witch being accused of having rejected God and entered into an alliance with the Devil. Unfortunately, examples of such trails were not rare throughout 17th century Europe; one of the most notable cases taking place just over the Breton border in Loudun. Where, in 1632, a group of nuns from the local Ursuline convent claimed to suffer strange visions and hallucinations causing them to behave erratically with displays of fits and convulsions. Under investigation by Church authorities, the nuns accused a parish priest, Urbain Grandier, of sexual assault and of having bewitched them, sending Asmodeus (the demon of lust) and other demons to commit evil and impudent acts upon them.

Despite his vow of celibacy, Grandier was known to have had sexual relationships with a number of women and had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer around town, much to the ire of husbands and fathers alike. As hysteria around the events at the convent increased, Grandier’s enemies seized upon the opportunity to orchestrate his downfall. Public exorcisms during which nuns barked, spoke in tongues, screamed blasphemies and performed obscene contortions were performed to no avail. These mass demonic possessions were regarded as powerful witchcraft and Grandier was accused of having acted as the agent of evil.

In 1632, he was arrested on charges of witchcraft, interrogated, tried and convicted by a tribunal directed by a special envoy appointed by Cardinal Richelieu; a magistrate well practiced in trying witches and a relative of the convent’s Mother Superior. This lady provided one of the key pieces of evidence used against Grandier – a document purporting to be his pact with the Devil and helpfully signed by him, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, Astaroth, Leviathan and Elimi.

We, the all-powerful Lucifer, seconded by Satan, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Elimi, Astaroth and others, have today accepted the pact of alliance with Urbain Grandier, who is ours. And we promise him the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of nuns, worldly honours, lusts and riches. He will go whoring every three days; drunkenness will be dear to him. He will offer to us once a year a tribute marked with his blood; he will trample under-foot the sacraments of the church, and he will say his prayers to us. By virtue of this pact, he will live happily for twenty years on earth among men and will later come among us to curse God. Done in hell, in the council of demons. . Signed by Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, Astaroth, Leviathan and Elimi and set down by Baalberith.

Urbain Grandier pact with the Devil
Grandier’s pact with the Devil

My lord and master Lucifer, I acknowledge you as my God and prince, and promise to serve and obey you while I live. From this hour, I renounce the other God, as well as Jesus Christ and all the saints and the apostolic and Roman church, all the sacraments and all the prayers and petitions which might be made for me. I promise to adore you and pay you homage thrice a day and to do the most evil that I can and to lead into evil as many others as possible. I renounce chrism, baptism and all the merits of Jesus Christ and his saints. And if I fail to serve you, I give you my life as your own, having dedicated it for ever without any will to repent. Signed, Urbain Grandier, from hell.

On 18 August 1634, Grandier was sentenced to be tortured and burned alive at the stake; his ashes scattered to the winds. There was widespread public interest in the trial and Loudon was swelled with thousands of onlookers who had come to town in anticipation of a guilty verdict; the sentence was therefore carried out immediately.

The ropes, boards, and mallets used in the torture known as The Boot were exorcised to ensure no demons would interfere and relieve Grandier’s suffering. It took almost an hour before his legs were completely crushed to a pulp and still he refused to confess to witchcraft. With a rope around his neck, he was hauled through the streets on a cart to beg forgiveness for his sins. At the place of execution, a piece of iron was used to keep his broken body upright against the stake which, along with the straw and wood, was exorcised to prevent any intercessions by his diabolical partners. Grandier made several attempts to speak but his words did not reach the baying crowd as Capuchin friars silenced him with buckets of holy water and blows to his mouth with an iron crucifix. After the pyre had burned itself out and embers cast to the wind, the crowd surged forward to scavenge any detritus; the relics of a witch being popularly believed to form the basis for powerful charms and spells.

Urbain Grandier burned at the stake
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Another notorious witchcraft trial in Brittany happened in the town of Fougères in 1642 when Isaac Marais was accused of having used curses and incantations to the devil in the treatment of the plague some years earlier. It is unclear whether, under torture, he denounced Mathurin Trullier, chaplain of the Saint-Sulpice church in Fougères and an accomplice with whom he had been involved in conducting alchemical experiments in search of the Philosophers’ Stone. Trullier was arrested and also charged with sexually assaulting a young girl and of possessing grimoires. The two cases were heard together at the Breton Parliament, then sitting in Rennes. On 19 January 1643, the pair were convicted of lèse-majesté divine for having used magic arts and spells; a rather vague charge that could cover transgressions ranging from petty counterfeiting to high treason. Both were sentenced to death, Marais to the gallows and Trullier condemned to be tortured and burned alive.

After enduring the torture of The Boot and neither confessing their crimes or denouncing others, Trullier and Marais, with ropes around their necks, were led to door of Saint-Peter’s Cathedral to beg for forgiveness. Trullier was taken through the cheering mob to the pyre set-up in the nearby Place des Lices where he was tied to the tall stake and burnt; the fire’s ashes being subsequently scattered to the four cardinal points of the compass. Marais swung from the gallows nearby.

The persecution and prosecution of witches in the 16th and 17th centuries mainly focused on the notion that they were heretics who had renounced God and made a pact with the Devil and in some countries this new concept was even introduced into criminal law, making witchcraft an offence under both ecclesiastical and common law. Slowly perceptions about witches turned from the harmless traditional healer to a dangerous sorceress in league with the Devil, the source of her magical powers and the object of her adoration. Closely related to this, was the idea that witches who made pacts with the Devil also worshipped him collectively and engaged in a number of blasphemous, immoral and obscene rites in gatherings known as Sabbaths.

devils and witches Sabbat dance
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This new perception of witchcraft was propounded by the Papal bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus issued by Innocent VIII in 1484 and refined in the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer) issued by Dominican Inquisitors in 1487. The effect of these two documents over the next two centuries was profound; recommending deception and torture to obtain confessions and extermination rather than redemption seen as the only sure remedy to contain witchcraft.

The Malleus Maleficarum describes how women, rarely men, become inclined to practice witchcraft, arguing that women are more susceptible to demonic temptations through the innate weaknesses of their gender; the demon assails them in particular, being weaker in faith than men. Men could sometimes be witches but the impetus behind male witches was attributed to ambition and a desire for power rather than from faithfulness or lust, as was claimed for female witches. Women possessed loose tongues, a temperament towards flux and were defective in all the powers of body and soul. Lest there be any doubt that women were being targeted as the villain, the very title of the document uses the feminine noun, Maleficarum! The result of this deeply misogynistic text was that over three quarters of those subsequently prosecuted as witches in Europe were women.

A Jesuit priest, Antoine Boschet, described 17th century Brittany as being in the primitive age of the Church, a place where one witnessed something akin to what the pagans experienced when the first Apostles preached to them. Superstitions and witchcraft flourished, talismans and charms abounded, prayers were addressed to the moon and relics of paganism were noticeable everywhere. The region was therefore a prime target for Christian revivalists and evangelical missions abounded.

The principal 17th century Jesuit missionary to Brittany, the Blessed Julien Maunoir, kept an extensive journal of his 43 years work in the region and these formed the basis for Xavier-Auguste Séjourné’s biography, Histoire du vénérable serviteur de Dieu (1895). In it, he recounts that nine years into Maunoir’s mission he met his first ‘follower of hell’ in Saint-Guen in 1649. A young man he met said he was persecuted and threatened with death for having deserted a secret society. He spoke of nocturnal assemblies held on a large, deserted moor.

There, by torchlight that gave the light of day, a noisy crowd engaged in all kinds of games of chance such as dice and cards, while others danced around a golden throne on which sat a horrible monster. He was the king of this empire of darkness. Above all, it was necessary to pay him homage of fidelity. In return, he promised happiness that would last as long as life. Adore him, give him shameful kisses, give him body and soul, such were the tributes demanded. Furthermore, he demanded the merrymakers deny God, Christ, the Virgin, the sacraments, the Holy Church, that they renounce the faith of His baptism and the worship of saints especially Saint Anne and Saint Corentin. The unhappy culprit admitted to having submitted to these infamous conditions and to seal the infernal pact he had concluded, he had been struck on the neck with an indelible mark and his name written in a black book with the blood that had been drawn from one of his fingers. Thereafter, for many months, he took his share of the banquets, dances and abominable secrets of which the Sabbath was the theatre.

a witches sabbath
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Maunoir feared that ‘the evil’ had deep roots in central Brittany and was much more extensive than he had thought. “The Sabbath was the meeting not of a small number but of a considerable multitude. We saw people of all ranks and all conditions: men, women, young people, daughters and children whom their parents had devoted to the Devil from their birth, sometimes even before. The gentleman struck the country shepherd there; the woman of the lowest condition, the high-born lady; and in the middle of this filthy bog, one could distinguish priests. The place where they met was not always the same but most often it was a huge heath which was called the crossroads of the Seven Ways”.

Séjourné relates other instances of what Maunoir called the Iniquity of the Mountain around Saint-Guen: “A man whose name and authority inspired all confidence, had asked a young girl to accompany him to a meeting where she would find, he told her, a lot of pleasure. When she got there, she was in the middle of the Sabbath. She was immediately asked to renounce Jesus Christ and worship the Devil.

Another time, one of the most daring characters in the sect – must we say that he was a priest? – had offered to an old peasant woman at a Sabbath, an enchanted mirror where he showed her Father Bernard and Father Maunoir surrounded by demons. They taught her to mould portraits of the two missionaries in wax. The operation finished, she had to prick the effigy with a needle every day while reciting certain cabalistic formulas. To this stratagem, their death was assured at short notice. Two years later, the two Fathers visited a parish near the one where this woman lived. She had never seen the missionaries except through her enchanted mirror. Great was her surprise to recognize them and especially to find them alive. The obvious uselessness of her spell became the cause of her conversion.”

The missionaries were not surprised to encounter witches and what they termed Devil worshippers in parts of Brittany; it was no more remarkable than in other parts of France and Europe yet the extent of religious ignorance, even amongst the native clergy, alarmed them. Re-building a deeper faith took time and zeal; mission priests worked in pairs, parish by parish, staying in each for up to six weeks every five years or so, not leaving until the entire adult population had made confession. “How to confess so much sacrilege, blasphemy and turpitude? Had these people not renewed every month, between the Devil’s hands, the promise to descend into hell rather than disclose anything to a confessor of their monstrous attacks against God, Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints?”

depiction of hell in church
Fresco depicting the torments of hell from the church at Kernascléden

Maunoir had been given a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum by his predecessor and mentor Dom Michel Le Nobletz in 1641 with the words “A day will come when you will draw from this book of great lights to lead the souls deceived by the Devil”. It was a work he drew heavily from when framing instructions for his missionaries in search of witches. He noted that demons enter their victims through dreams and tempted them to assemblies with pleasures of the flesh.

Thus, when interrogating a virgin, it was necessary to ask her of her dreams: did she dream of beasts or of men? Did they offer her gifts and make promises to her, as lovers do? Did she feel the weight of their body on hers as she slept? Did she think about her dreams during the day? If the penitent was married, the questions turned to her children; how many does she have and how many did she sacrifice to the Devil? The question of abortion was also to be confronted, interrogators were instructed to ask how many children the woman had lost and whether the Devil had told her that she had too many children and that neighbours would mock her because she had not the means to feed them all. Had she ever desired the death of the unborn child she once carried?

Such questions were strikingly similar to those asked of women in Brittany a hundred years later, long after the witch-hunting frenzy had died away, as part of a typical official investigation to assess a woman’s honour. The key difference being that positive answers in a witch-hunt carried demonic as well as criminal implications. Unfortunately, the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment did nothing to enlighten attitudes towards women and in the 18th century, the position of women in Brittany was little better than it had been in previous centuries. Even Europe’s most influential Enlightenment era philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considered that “there are no good morals for a woman outside a withdrawn and domestic life”.

Lone women in particular were open to accusations of immoral living and punishments were severe with public humiliation, confiscation of all assets, prison and even banishment. False accusations – and an accusation was often enough to completely destroy a woman’s reputation and livelihood – were an all too easy means of ridding oneself of a rival whether in business or love. As in the witch-hunts of earlier times, women were also the common accusers of other women and just as in the witch-hunts, an accusation was enough to kick-start formal investigations. It was almost impossible to successfully defend oneself against charges as vague as moral misconduct. Conviction for crimes against morality rarely required any more evidence than a denunciation and a supporting testimony. It was often enough to simply show that a woman had been in the ‘wrong’ place or in bad company or even badly dressed!

Similarities between 16th and 17th century witch-hunts and an 18th century ‘honour trial’ do stand scrutiny. The methods of detection and punishment were similar and both targeted non-conformist or unconventional women and relied on evidence that could almost always neither be proven nor disproven. Both were predominantly trials by suspicion, usually based on anonymous and vague denunciations, a standard pro forma wording of accusations and the general non-conformity of the accused; usually masterless women or societal misfits who could be punished on the most cursory of evidence.

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The vast majority of those accused of witchcraft or dishonourable conduct were women; who were expected to uphold standards never expected of men. Many have claimed that the majority of women accused of witchcraft were probably guilty of nothing more than possessing a forceful and forthright personality and were likely well known in their neighbourhood as being unconventional or notorious for behaving in a way that was regarded as contrary to society’s notion of proper female decorum.

The psychologist Léon Marillier, writing in 1893, proposed that Bretons still possessed a state of mind where the explanation of a natural phenomenon, illness or death, which immediately comes to mind, is a supernatural explanation; a manifestation of the human tendency to treat objects of the imagination as real entities. So, we should not be too surprised to see that despite the formal disdain of society, people continued to consult the Groac’h or local witch to assuage ills, retain livelihoods by inviting her intercession to ensure the health of livestock and crops, seeking her assistance in affairs of the heart or as a fortune-teller. With many witches adept at healing or popularly held to be gifted in lifting curses through charms of un-bewitchment, the witch’s position in rural society was often an ambivalent one.

One of the most well-known witches of modern times was Naïa, the witch of Rochefort-en-Terre, who lived in the ruins of Rieux castle just outside the picturesque small town. Daughter of a local bone-setter, she claimed never to eat and relished in the air of mystery that surrounded her. A herbalist of some skill, she was a popular yet marginal figure at the same time; a loner who lived at the very fringe of society. In her time, she was quite well known in southern Brittany and was consulted by a broad cross-section of people, from star-crossed lovers to litigants in property disputes. The author and photographer Charles Géniaux described his meeting with Naïa in the Wide World Magazine in 1899.

“She stood there, in her majestic ugliness, solemn and imposing like Pythia of ancient times. We watched each other in silence. Her eyes inspired dread: sunken in their sockets, creamy in colour, glassy like those of the dead. Her hands, large and bony, were resting on a thorny staff and a sort of colourless shawl, partially covering her head and shoulders, fell to her feet. Long strands of white hair slid out of her hood. An indomitable will was imprinted on her wrinkled face, with an expression of intelligence even more striking than the hideous ugliness of her appearance.”

“The oldest among the old men remember Naïa. Their early childhood was lulled by the magical tales of her exploits. They have always known her unique silhouette, that is to say the same appearance, an invariable costume, neither newer nor older, and her gait, her features, her vigour, would escape the attacks of age. From there, they conclude to the immortality of Naïa.

There was a touching unanimity to convince me of this: namely that Naïa did not eat or drink and that, in memory of man, she had not entered a farm, a house or a shop to buy or ask what the common people usually dispense daily in the uses of life.”

Naia the Breton witch
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He recounts the experiences of Jean Élain, a farmer from Pluherlin, with Naïa: “While I was telling my story, my tongue sometimes went into my throat from what I saw. First, she started a wood fire with smoke that I sneezed at every moment, and my eyes stung horribly. Then she threw dry herbs into the flames, which she removed from the pockets of her apron. Instantly, the fire started to speak. Yes sir! She would make little cries and chuckle with laughter. Suddenly, Naïa picked up the red coals with her fingers and placed them in her hands like a bouquet. I couldn’t speak but I heard myself called by my dead wife whose voice I recognized. Thereupon, Naïa gnashes her teeth and crushes the red coals between her palms. So, she started to tell me such shenanigans that a cunning lawyer would have gotten lost and thanks to her, I won my case.”

“Finally, and this borders on demonism, a notable family from Rochefort told me that, on the same day, the witch was met at very distant distances by two brothers. One, disembarking at Malensac, met her near the vast abandoned slate quarries, and the second, who was at the Questembert fair around the same time, swore to me that Naïa had called him by name.”

Naïa clearly had a sense of the dramatic; among her last words to Géniaux, she asked that he report their meeting thus: “Tell them also that I am not a foolish good woman, like their city sleepwalkers. I have the power! Me! And Gnâmi is stronger than death. He is The One Who Can, The One Who Wants, The One We Do Not See.”

The Pilgrim Trails of Brittany

Leaving behind home, loved ones and all that was familiar; undertaking a pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was a serious and often costly affair. It could take several years out of one’s life and involved facing considerable risk while travelling across distant lands; bad weather, wild beasts and brigands accounting for countless ill-prepared or overwhelmed pilgrims over the centuries.

Typically, before embarking on a distant pilgrimage, a pilgrim was required to settle their affairs which involved the payment of all outstanding debts, seeking and granting forgiveness for past wrongdoings and making a solemn vow to complete their journey. Most pilgrimages were undertaken out of religious devotion or to petition for special favours and gather indulgences; pilgrimage as expiation of sins or as an act of anticipatory penance being a key motivator. Sometimes, a pilgrimage was ordered as a public act of penance; the sinner often bound to walk barefoot or even naked, rarely spending more than one night in a particular place and having to beg for food along the way.

Procession Brittany
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Pilgrimages can be defined as journeys to holy places such as shrines, undertaken as labours of love for the Divine and spiritual quests for grace. For Christians, this sometimes involved the long, difficult voyage to the Holy Land but other sites of significance such as churches containing the relics of saints were also places of pilgrimage for the pious. Amongst the most notable were the churches of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Rome, the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury cathedral, the relics of the Magi of Bethlehem at Cologne cathedral and the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The Church granted indulgences to those who successfully completed pilgrimages to certain sites, with the amount of merit depending on the distance travelled and hardships endured along with the devotion shown at the sacred shrines met on the pilgrims’ trail and the performance of established rituals at the destination itself. Sometimes, the pilgrimage was undertaken to earn indulgences for the dead and not necessarily by a loved one; pilgrimage by proxy was not uncommon and one professional pilgrim in late 19th century Brittany was noted to have carried out at least 64 pilgrimages on behalf of other people.

Through these indulgences, pilgrims might hope to save their souls from eternal damnation or even escape purgatory; for instance, it was traditionally held that a pilgrimage to the relics of St James in Compostela reduced one’s time in purgatory by half. The medieval pilgrim trail to Compostela across France and northern Spain, known as El Camino de Santiago, was therefore very popular and remains so for the pilgrims of today as well as with religious travellers and hikers.

Pilgrim routes in Brittany
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Brittany was an important stage on the journey to Compostela for medieval pilgrims travelling from Ireland and western parts of Great Britain. As you can see in the map above, the main starting points for the Camino de Santiago are near to some of the key ports on the Atlantic and Channel coasts. After disembarking, pilgrims are faced with a further journey of 2,000km (1,250 miles) to Compostela. For an idea of scale, the distance covered by the pilgrim trail illustrated from La Pointe Saint-Mathieu to Clisson is over 500km (325 miles).

One of the starting points for the camino on Brittany’s west Atlantic coast is the former abbey at Pointe Saint-Mathieu. This was built over the remains of a 6th century monastery which was once said to hold the relics of Saint Matthew but accounts differ markedly as to how and when parts were moved to southern Italy. Stripped-out after the French Revolution, it is quite difficult to imagine now how significant the abbey and supporting town of some 40 streets once was; even as late as the end of the 16th century.

The former abbey of Beauport, on Brittany’s the north coast, is the departure point for another important camino route through Brittany. Founded in the mid-12th century, the abbey once held significant holdings in the British county of Lincolnshire. It was spared the ravages of war that often befell other sites, such as the abbey at Pointe Saint-Mathieu, but met the same fate during the French Revolution. Happily, the abbey buildings were not stripped of their stones and the ruins today remain quite substantial.

Most of the routes take you through open land on country lanes, canal tow-paths and graded bicycle trails. The terrain covered is fairly flat and affords the traveller a variety of landscapes predominantly rural in aspect, passing through villages and small towns and crossing just a few historic cities. The Association Bretonne des Amis de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle can provide practical guidebooks for the various routes that traverse Brittany.

Several routes merge at Redon, a small town on the confluence of the Vilaine and Oust rivers, where pilgrims traditionally converged before moving onto Nantes and beginning the long journey south to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and into Spain.

Another long-distance pilgrimage trail in Brittany is that of the Tro Breizh (Breton for through or tour of Brittany) or the Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints; a journey of over 600km (375 miles) connecting the cathedrals and relics of the founders of the first seven bishoprics of Brittany. These early bishoprics are closely linked to the first Christian evangelists who arrived from Celtic Britain in the sixth century and are considered together as the Seven Founding Saints, namely: 

Saint Pol whose shrine is at Saint-Pol-de-Léon; Saint Tudwal’s shrine is at Tréguier; Saint Brioc whose principal shrine is at Saint-Brieuc; Saint Malo at the town bearing his name; Saint Samson whose shrine is at Dol-de-Bretagne; Saint Padarn at Vannes and Saint Corentin whose shrine is at Quimper.

Tro Breizh
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In medieval times this journey was expected to be carried out once in a lifetime to ensure entry into Heaven and a Breton legend tells us that whoever does not make the Tro Breizh at least once in their lifetime will be condemned to complete it after death but by advancing only the length of a coffin every seven years.

There is some debate about the age and importance of this pilgrimage in medieval times; some scholars trace the Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints back to the time of King Nomenoë who, through a series of political, religious and military actions, split the Breton Church away from the ecclesiastical province of Tours in the 9th century. Other historians argue that the collective cult of the Seven Saints probably dates from the end of the 10th century. The first documented reference to this pilgrimage is found in the canonization inquiry for Saint Yves in 1330.

The Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints was traditionally completed in one journey which typically took a month to complete. Pilgrims walked from one saint’s shrine to another, essentially making a circuitous pilgrimage through the heart of Breton Brittany, passing neither of the big cities of Rennes or Nantes. There is no final destination or order to respect – you can start and stop anywhere – although it was once the custom to follow the course of the sun.

Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints Brittany
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In the modern era, not many people can devote an entire month to a pilgrimage and so, in 1994, when the pilgrimage was officially re-launched with the full support of the Vatican, it was suggested by the association Les Chemins du Tro Breiz, that it be limited to one week annually and thus completed over the course of seven years. Each summer, the association organises a walk of one stage of the Tro Breizh covering about 150km (90 miles) over the course of a week. Additionally, the association handles the Tremen-Hent, a pilgrims’ passport or credential, whose completion is necessary in order to apply for the Certificate of Pilgrimage. These organised pilgrimages attract over two thousand participants each year; a combination of devout pilgrims and casual hikers.

According to Breton tradition, there were three pilgrimages that the devout had to complete at least once during their lifetime. The first was to the troménie at Locronan but it was not considered completed if you looked, even briefly, in any direction other than straight ahead and deviated, even slightly, from the route supposedly taken by Saint Ronan. The second pilgrimage was to the Pardon of Saint-Servais; if one failed to make this pilgrimage during one’s lifetime, they were doomed to do it in the afterlife, carrying their coffin on their shoulders and advancing only the length of the coffin each day. The final obligatory pilgrimage was to participate in the Pardon of Notre-Dame de Bulat in Bulat-Pestivien.

Participation in the extended processions of two other Pardons were also widely regarded as obligatory pilgrimages: that of Notre-Dame du Yaudet near Lannion and the troménie known as ‘the tour of the relics’ in Landeleau. It was said that whoever failed to accomplish the pilgrimage to Yaudet was condemned to go there three times after death, while those who missed ‘the tour of the relics’ were condemned to undertake this troménie after death, carrying their coffin but advancing only its length each day.

Pilgrimage in Brittany
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It was believed that announcing one’s intention to undertake a pilgrimage constituted a sacred vow; if you had died before fulfilling your vow, you would honour your obligation in death. However, the dead were said to have been unable to go on a pilgrimage alone; they needed to be accompanied by at least one living person. This was why, sometimes, those performing their pilgrimages often heard, without seeing anything, a rustling in the hedgerows or the sounds of footsteps upon the path; the souls of the dead fulfilling their vows of pilgrimage.

In Brittany, most pilgrimages commenced, with prayers, from the steps of a calvary. This was not necessarily one associated with the local church or even one dedicated to the particular saint being invoked by the pilgrimage; the nearest roadside calvary was thought sufficient. However, if the pilgrimage was being undertaken in order to intercede for the soul of a dead loved one, the journey began with prayers at the grave of the deceased.

It is possible to follow the established pilgrimage routes, in whole or in part, at any time of the year. The routes are mostly marked and will lead you, via the most beautiful cathedrals in Brittany, to historic chapels, sacred fountains, remarkable calvaries and across wonderful and varied landscapes. Whether hiked or biked, travelling even a part of the old pilgrimage routes, affords a special opportunity to connect with the past and to discover today’s Brittany in peace.

Some Lost Christmas Traditions from Brittany

Each country marks Christmas in its own way; even countries that are geographically close such as France and the UK have very varied traditions surrounding the celebration of this festival but there are also notable regional differences too. The folk customs and traditions regarding the celebration of Christmas differed from region to region in France, as elsewhere, and those in Brittany were once quite distinctive.

One tradition that was once widespread across much of Europe was that of the Yule Log. In Brittany, this was known as the “Kef Nedeleg” (literally, the Christmas trunk in Breton). As the name suggests, this was usually a massive log or even a stump of oak or some other slow-burning local hardwood such as beech or chestnut that had been specially selected and set aside for the purpose. Once hauled into the hearth, a prayer was said before the log was sprinkled with grains of salt and a little water taken from a sacred spring. A few 19th century accounts note that some families embellished the log with branches of evergreens but this does not appear to have been a custom widespread in Brittany.

Dragging the Yule Log
The Yule Log

In households that contained children, the fireplace was usually scrubbed clean in honour of the anticipated nocturnal visit by the Infant Jesus who was believed to descend the chimney in order to leave a gift rewarding good behaviour over the previous year. It was believed that Jesus entered the house via the chimney because the doorway was habitually used by those stained with sin whereas the chimney was constantly purified by fire. It is worth noting that the figure of Santa Claus was almost unheard of in Brittany until around the time of the Second World War.

Lit just before the family set off to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the Kef Nedeleg would burn over several days; some traditions here claimed that it should burn until the Solemnity of Mary or, even longer, until the Feast of the Epiphany. The embers of the burnt log were subsequently collected as they were believed to hold magical, 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.

Gathering the faggots in the snow - Jules Breton
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A number of other ancient beliefs and superstitions were once closely associated with Christmas Eve in Brittany:

  • Country folk would place straw wreaths around their apple trees in the hope of ensuring a good year’s harvest.
  • During midnight mass, the animals in the stables were able to speak to each other in the tongues of men.
  • Again, during midnight mass, at the time of consecration, a candle was said to cast light on the spot where a hidden treasure could be found. At the same time, the water in the sacred fountains was changed into wine.
  • As the church bell sounded midnight, it was thought one could hear in the wind, the chimes of the church bells of Ker-Is, the legendary sunken city of Brittany, ringing in the distance.
  • While the bells heralded the start of Christmas Day, standing stones known as menhirs would free themselves from the earth to drink at the ancient sacred springs; returning to the earth with the echo of the last bell. A menhir outside the town of Pontivy was said to drink at the nearby Blavet River; its momentary absence revealed a hidden treasure. In some areas, the menhirs were said to be raised into the air by birds; revealing a tantalising glimpse of the secret treasure trove they guarded over.
Menhirs on Christmas Eve
Flying menhirs on Christmas Eve
  • On Brittany’s north coast, the Grand Rocher massif near Plestin-les-Grèves was said to entomb a magnificent lost city which could be glimpsed through a small fissure that only opened-up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. It was said that the city would be resurrected, if someone was only bold enough to venture into the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and swift enough to re-emerge before the sounds of the twelfth bell had died away.
  • In western Brittany it was widely believed that the bells of midnight mass on Christmas Eve marked the end of the parish priest’s ability to metamorphose into an animal, most usually some form of black dog; an ability he was often held to possess during the period of Advent.
  • Upon returning home from midnight mass, the farmer would give a small piece of bread to his animals to ensure their good health over the year ahead and protect them against the bite of a rabid dog.
A wolf in winter
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In some Breton families, it was customary to have the Christmas meal after returning home from mass on the night of Christmas Eve; this feast usually consisted of a thin pork stew that had been steadily gaining flavour in the cauldron set-up in the open hearth.

The holiness of Christmas night was considered so sacred that no evil 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 the night of Saint John’s Day and the eve of All Saints’ Day) where the community of the dead, the Anaon, of each region 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.

The Wayside Cross at Rochefort en Terre
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The Breton ethnographer Anatole Le Braz in his book La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (1893), described it thus:

On Christmas night, we see them parading by the roads in long processions. They sing with soft and light voices the song of the Nativity. One would think, to hear them, that it is the leaves of the poplars that rustle, if, at this time of the year, the poplars had leaves.

At their head walks the ghost of an old priest, with curly hair, white as snow, with a slightly hunched body. In his emaciated hands, he carries the ciborium. Behind the priest comes a small altar boy who rings a tiny bell. The crowd follows, in two rows. Each dead man holds a lighted candle whose flame does not even flicker in the wind. This is the way to some abandoned chapel in ruins, where no more masses are celebrated than those of dead souls.

Father Christmas Brittany
Father Christmas in Brittany!

While the beliefs of yesteryear may have died away there is one old Christmas tradition that is still observed in many Breton households today; on Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes by the fireplace in the hope that Père Noël (Father Christmas or Santa Claus) will fill them with gifts. An echo of a practice noted just a few generations ago when children left their heavy wooden clogs by the open hearth where blazed the Yule Log in hopes of the gift of a little sugared sweet.

Nedeleg Laouen ha Bloavezh Mat!  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

An Icon of Brittany

Immortalised by artists such as Gaugin and adorning countless postcards, biscuit tins and souvenir plates, the traditional women’s headdresses of Brittany, the c’hoef (or coiffe), are one of the region’s iconic images. Descended from the religiously-inspired headgear of the Middle Ages, the now emblematic knitted embroidered headdresses evolved gradually over time, reaching their apogee in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Bigoudene headdress
The Bigoudène headdress was originally quite modest but evolved between WW1 & WW2 to reach heights exceeding 35cm. Initially made of canvas, it changed to lace as its size increased.

At its core, the traditional Breton headdress of the 17th century had four main elements created from the two large quadrangular sections of the, once popular, medieval veil: the visagière surrounding the face and extended by two wings that hung down to the shoulders. At the back, a simple cap which covered the hair and edged at the bottom by the bavolet, a flap designed to cover the neck. Together these formed a shape akin to a monastic hood or camail which adjusted slowly to the demands of practicality and the dictates of fashion. The camail was too heavy for labouring in fields, so, it was cut; the shellfish gatherers of the coastal regions found the wings too often sodden with sand and seawater, so, cut them in half; the shopkeeper and craftswoman, cramped in their working environments, removed the cumbersome wings completely.

The overall similarity of form can be largely attributed to three main factors: similar climatic necessity; the power of cultural norms and the influence of the large number of religious communities amongst the population. Maintaining the religious character of the headdress was important to the pious folk of Brittany, so, changes were slight: a tighter lace; a fold at the base of the cap; the careful application of pins to raise the wings above the head or even to form a rosette at the crown or simply use knots to tighten them to the chin. These were small adjustments that completely changed the character of the wearer’s face while remaining within the traditional style.

This adherence to tradition is key – in the Brittany of yesteryear what you wore formed as important a part of one’s sense of identity as the dialect you spoke; proudly anchoring you to your, identifiable, roots. Headdresses differed from region to region here and studies have shown that the disposition of each type roughly corresponds to the territories of the old deaneries. The parishes of each of these ancient deaneries shared the same basic headdress but, as noted above, subtle differences in design and arrangement meant that one headdress was not quite the same as that sported in a neighbouring parish. This created a uniqueness that was a significant source of local prestige and spurred the development of the headdress as parishes sought to express their distinctiveness by crafting and wearing finer items than their neighbours.

Headdresses were usually made at home either by the family or by a travelling artisan adept at the difficult art of coarse canvas sewing. The use of hemp or finer linen reflected the wearer’s social status but the headdress was also an indicator of the age and marital status of the wearer.

There were generally two types of head wear – a covering for everyday wear and a finer item worn during formal events, such as fetes, church pardons, confirmations and weddings. Often headdresses were handed-down through the generations and it was quite usual for the headdress worn for a girl’s confirmation to be used later for her wedding ceremony. Widows’ periods of mourning were also reflected in their headdress; in some regions bespoke headwear was worn, while in others black ribbons were added to existing head gear.

The late 18th century saw the emergence of more intricate sewing and embroidery techniques and an increased use of lace; likely a result of the abolition of the sumptuary laws after the revolution. It is worth recalling that for centuries before the revolution, modes of dress and adornment had long served in France as one of the most visible indicators of social status so it is not surprising that clothing and dress were profoundly affected by the tide of post-revolutionary changes.

Towards the latter part of the following century, the then fashion for knitted netting was steadily absorbed into the making of headdresses in Brittany.  The embroidered knitted net was found to be an ideal material for the caps as it comfortably accommodated various types of embroidery and styles of netting. Many headdresses retained the character of earlier headdresses while others made an ornament of the hair. Some were frequently made in net, such as ‘the sardine head’ from Douarnenez and the Penn Kolvez (named after the town of Corlay) which in the town of Carhaix was paired with a lace collar.

The headdresses continued to evolve into the 20th century but retained two key elements: the wings and the bottom. Some became smaller, like ‘the wheelbarrow’, the headdresses of Pays Pourleth (around Guémené-sur-Scorff), others went taller, like the Bigoudène from Pays Bigouden (a small area south west of Quimper); some became bonnet-like, such as the headdresses of Léon while others remained stylistically close to the shape of the caps of the 19th century.

The materials with which the headdresses were made differed, in the main, according to the period, the region and the wealth of the wearer. Initially fashioned from a coarse canvas, headdresses were later made from tulle, organdy, fine lace and even synthetic fibres.  

The wearing of the headdress fell out of fashion in the years following the Second World War and by the early 1960s it was a rare sight. However, the headdress has not been consigned to the history books and can regularly be seen worn at some Pardons and at many folk festivals. Thanks, in part, to the work of the Celtic Circles who have done much in recent years to successfully re-connect younger Bretons with their rich cultural heritage.

Some sources claim that there were once as many as 1,200 distinct regional headdresses worn in Brittany although others put the total figure closer to around 700. Whichever figure you choose, it represents a staggering level of diversity in a region just a little larger than Belgium or the state of Maryland and about half the size of Tasmania.

The gallery of headdresses below are taken from Les Coiffes Bretonnes – 100 Modèles Différents by Maurice Bigot; a work published in limited numbers in 1928.

To me, these images form a wonderful record of the individual grace and rich regional distinctiveness that is now, sadly, mostly lost to us.

Sacred Springs of Brittany

In ancient times, the sources of that most important of elements – water – were widely venerated by peoples across the world, including the Celts of antiquity. To what extent the ancient Celts actively worshiped streams, fountains and springs is a matter of some conjecture but early writings and modern archaeological discoveries of votive offerings in and around such sources indicate that these were indeed places of significance for the Celts.

We know very little of the religious beliefs of the Celts but the evangelising saints of the 6th and 7th centuries found a pagan, mainly polytheistic society with an established water cult involving sacred springs and wells, each possessing its deity or nymph. These early Christian evangelists seem to have tolerated some of the native convictions and were careful not to abrogate all the ancient beliefs of Brittany immediately.

a sacred spring in Brittany
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The importunate foreign priests recognised that establishing the Christian faith necessarily needed to precede teaching Christian doctrine and, over time, cleverly subsumed the natives’ traditional religious sentiment towards springs and fountains, attributing to them protective Christian saints. Often these saints were assigned the powers of the ancient deities who inhabited those sacred water sources that were traditionally held to hold curative powers. A Christian statue or symbol added to the rude structures that collected the water would emphasise that the power of the waters was due solely to the grace of God. The ancient deities were recast by the new religion as maleficent creatures and eventually reduced to the realm of stories and superstition.

The belief in the power of the water from springs and fountains remained so strong that in 743 the Council of Leptines ordered all bishops to see to the complete abolition of pagan beliefs, explicitly highlighting the oblations made to fountains; a charge reinforced by a capitulary of Charlemagne promulgated in 789.

Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die completely. Jesuit missions to Brittany in the first half of the 17th century were pained by the extent that distortions of the faith and primitive superstitions held sway; prayers were addressed to the moon and sacred springs considered the sources of healing.  A contemporary of the Jesuit evangelist St Julian described faith in Brittany at that time as being “as in the primitive age of the Church.” It must have seemed as if Christianity had adapted itself to a pagan mentality and strenuous efforts were therefore made to revive a purer Christian faith and mould a suitable Christian lifestyle in tune with the realities of rural life.    

It was around this time that small structures were built or re-built over the basins where water appeared. These edifices are quite charming and often took the form of a stone porch, some took on the air of small open chapels with carved decorations and a niche to hold a statue of the patron saint. Sometimes an oratory or a chapel was built nearby.

There is some uniformity in the architectural characteristics of those structures erected in the 17th and 18th centuries. In rural districts, it was common for the fountain to be reached by one or more sets of descending stairs. A large stone basin received the water, usually directly from the spring but occasionally via a spout. This basin was covered by a small porch with, at times, moulded arches and sculptured figures and escutcheons. This kind of fountain is frequently seen decorated with figures of the Virgin Mary or of saints and sometimes with the coat of arms of the local nobility.  Very often, the water itself provided the only ornament of the structure. A large number of these fountains are to be found in Brittany and indeed throughout most of France.

A form more common in the towns was that of a large open basin with a column at the centre, from the lower part of which were arranged channels or spouts that would flow into other basins. The columns took various forms, from that of a simple geometrical block, with plain or grotesque water spouts, to very ornate Gothic structures with elaborate carvings and religious statuary.

Many sacred fountains have long been ascribed miraculous powers that can be broadly categorised into three main groups which sometimes overlap.

Firstly, the healing fountains where it was necessary to either drink the waters or to splash or rub the water over the body.  While waters from all sacred fountains were regarded as possessing therapeutic or curative properties, many fountains were believed to hold qualities that tackled very specific ailments. For instance, Saint-Fiacre’s Fountain in Le Faouët was considered to heal leprosy and skin diseases, Saint-Mériadec’s Fountain in Pontivy to cure deafness, Sainte-Anne’s Fountain in Plonévez-Porzay cured rheumatism.

Pierre-Jakez Hélias, in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars (The Horse of Pride, 1975), notes that the fountain at Treguennec was considered to cure leg problems such as limps and recalls that “On the day of the Pardon, around 1925, I saw groups of mothers waiting their turn to splash the sacred water over their babies from waist to toe. Still in 1969, some grandmothers rubbed their little children with this water. The last grandmothers who perhaps held the old beliefs and nourished a little of the old hope.”

At Notre-Dame de la Clarté in Combrit, a cloth soaked in the water of the fountain served to heal eye ailments  The fountain of Saint-Bieuzy in Pluméliau-Bieuzy cured headaches (the saint died from an axe wound to the head) and toothaches but only if the fountain was circled three times with one’s mouth full of the sacred water. Rheumatism could also be cured at the Fountain of Saint-Guyomard but it was necessary to rub your body against the great stones nearby immediately after drinking the water. The Fountain of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Fontaine-Blanche in Plougastel-Daoulas cured rickets if the child was immersed in the water three times.

In addition, therapeutic virtues were given to several fountains for healing abscesses, coughs, colic, stomach aches and, at the Fountain of Saint-Colomban at Locminé, even madness. Sainte-Anne’s Fountain in Plonévez-Porzay also remedied madness and warded off evil and others were held to cure haemorrhoids and to ease PMT.

Fountains possessing multiple benefits were not unusual. At the 17th century Fountain of the Seven Saints in Bulat-Pestivien the spring water falls into seven basins, each dedicated to one of the founding saints of Brittany and each with its own distinct beneficial quality. Nearby, the 16th century Fountain of the Rooster (named after a once-present carving) is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and had universal therapeutic properties but it was also said that, after performing the right ablutions, one could read their destiny in the water. Within the parish close is the 18th century Fountain of the Virgin whose waters were prized by expectant mothers and mothers who had difficulties expressing milk.

The 16th century Fountain of Saint-Gilles in Saint Gilles Pligeaux is actually two fountains, fed from the same source, dedicated to three saints; one structure has niches dedicated to Saint-Gilles and Saint-Loup and the other to Saint-Laurent. While the waters were widely regarded for their restorative qualities for rheumatics and epileptics, the saints individually were accorded special powers; St Gilles for protecting children, St Loup to dispel fear and St Laurent for curing burns.

One of the most unusual cures was noted in the far west of the region, where it was once believed that one could be cured of werewolfism if they drank the waters of a colonnaded fountain but only if they had approached the water from the east.

There were also divining fountains, the most well-known being the Fountain of Barenton in the heart of the forest of Brocéliande, famous for its association with Merlin and Viviane, which was said to possess a particular characteristic; whoever drew water from it and sprinkled the stones therewith, produced a terrific thunderstorm accompanied by thick darkness.

Merlin's Fountain of Barenton
Fountain of Barenton

At Saint-Laurent’s Fountain in Ploemel, seafarers and their families would throw pieces of bread upon the water; if they floated, it was taken as a sign of good weather ahead. At other oracular fountains, pins were considered effective mediums: if they floated, one’s wishes were granted. In other fountains, a shirt was dropped into the water: if it floated, the ills of the owner would be lifted. Saint-Diboan’s Fountain in Gourin was thought to foretell the fate of a sick person. For this, it was necessary to empty the fountain and allow it to refill. If the new water gushed gently, the patient would heal but would fatally succumb to their illness if the water level refilled in a convulsive fashion.

Saint Eloi’s Fountain in Plozevet seems to have had two divining rites associated with it. The shirt of a sick person was dropped into the basin; if the collar of the sodden garment remained floating, then the person would recover. Additionally, the shirt of a newborn was cast onto the water; if the collar sank first, it was a sign that the baby would not live long.

If a person was anxious (having not been cured of anxiety at Sainte-Barbe’s Fountain in Gouesnac’h) to know how much longer they were to live, they had only to look into the water of the Fountain of Death at Plouigneau at midnight on the first night of May. If an image of a skull was reflected instead of a face, they knew that death was near. There was another ‘fountain of death’ just five miles away in Plouégat-Guérand.

May Day was also the day to visit these fountains of divination with an infant under one year of age; their feet were immersed in the water, if the child removed their feet it was seen as a sign that they would suffer an early death.

Fountains of protection and good fortune were numerous, widespread and popularly frequented but perhaps most keenly by those seeking marriage or children. The power of many fountains was held to work best if pins, or occasionally coins, were dropped into them and they were often thrown into the water to attract the saint’s favour but it was not unheard of for disgruntled visitors to turn the saint’s statue in his niche if favour had been denied them. Pins also had other functions at some sites, for instance in Ploumanac’h, the 12th century Oratory of Saint Guirec is only accessible at low tide but if an intrepid and unmarried girl manages to put a pin into the statue’s nose without it falling out, she would be married within the year.

Probably the most impressive fountain related to those desiring a marriage is the Fountain of Quinipily. This monumental structure is topped by a nine foot stone pedestal on which stands a seven foot high statue of Venus believed to date from 50BC. It possesses a massive water basin, hewn from a single block of granite and originally also featured a basin of about 325 square feet where women bathed naked in the hope of securing a marriage. Childless couples also bathed together in the hope that they might be favoured with a child. To be sure of delivering a healthy baby, pregnant women would circle the fountain three times while touching their stomach; bathing in the basin after childbirth was also part of the ritual. The strong pagan undertones of these rites saw the statue broken down twice by the Church in the 17th century. It was retrieved on both occasions and re-sited on private land some miles away in 1701.

Given the crucial importance of agriculture to the region, it should come as no surprise that there are many fountains that were said to protect the health of animals. The waters of Saint-Anthony’s Fountain in Tressignaux fortified the health of pigs, while those of the Saint Eloi fountain near Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem were held to provide good health to horses, whose ears were doused in its waters. Nearby, the 18th century Fountain of Saint-Gildas in Laniscat preserved the health of cats and dogs, the fountain contains three stone basins; the dog fountain, the cat fountain and that of Saint Gildas.

The elaborate gothic fountain in Saint-Nicolas-des-Eaux is dedicated to three saints; Nicodème, Gamaliel & Abibon with the Fountain of Saint-Cornely just a stone’s throw away. The water from St Nicodème’s basin guarded against skin diseases but was also considered especially auspicious for protecting the health of horses while the waters from St Abibon’s basin were taken for protection against bad luck and death. Unfortunately, the qualities once attributed to St Gamaliel’s basin have been lost to us but the water from St Corneli’s fountain (built in 1790, almost 200 years after the monumental triple fountain) was given to cows to protect them against disease.

Healing fountain in Brittany
Fountain of St Nicodème

Horses are still blessed in the waters flowing from the Fountain of Notre-Dame de L’Isle in Goudelin during the Pardon but since the First World War such horse blessings have become rather tamer affairs compared to the spectacle recounted by Jean-Baptiste Ogée in his Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Brittany (1778)

Near Plérin is a chapel dedicated to Saint Eloi, whose feast is celebrated in June. The peasants of the surroundings made this saint the patron saint of horses. Every year, on the feast day, the inhabitants of the parishes of ten places around come there on pilgrimage. After their prayers made in the chapel, they go to the fountain which is near, draw water from it with a bowl and throw it in the matrix and on the ears of their mare, and water the testicles of their horse in the persuasion that this water has prolific virtues. This opinion is so engraved in the minds of these good people that it would be impossible to uproot it.”

As illustrated earlier, drinking the water was sometimes not enough; rituals were often required for some healing waters to be effective. The Fountain Notre-Dame des Trois Fountaines in Briec was said to cure problems with breast-feeding; after drinking the water it was necessary to wash one’s breasts in it and empty the basin. As the basin refilled from the spring, the breasts would fill with milk. In Baud, to cure colic, the sick were expected to rub their torso with stones and only then drink the water of the fountain. The water of the Fountain of Notre-Dame du Niver in Edern was thought to enhance a woman’s fertility if she offered three pins to the water before sprinkling it over her stomach and breasts.

Distinguishing a holy fountain from a profane one or a healing fountain from a divining one is only possible through an understanding of the historical foundations of a fountain, its function over time and the traditions surrounding the distinctive qualities of the water and any special rites performed there. The quality of the architecture and the presence or absence of a saint can be misleading determining elements; sometimes the traditional performance of a rite alone can qualify a fountain as special.

To date, there is no definitive list for the numbers of extant sacred or special fountains in Brittany but over 1,500 have been noted by the anthropologist Sylvette Denèflein in the territories of Léon and Cornouaille (roughly the western Department of Finistère) alone. We can only wonder how many existed just a few centuries ago when the sacred fountain was at the heart of life in Brittany. Unfortunately, thousands of fountains were filled in the 19th and 20th centuries; razed and buried during a period that saw widespread development, land consolidation and a levelling of the landscape. Changes that forever distorted the ancient places; the traditions and practices once so rooted there, slowly sank into oblivion for want of being transmitted and are now lost to us.

The Phantom Washerwomen of the Night

In a land rich in legend, myth and fable, the phantom washerwomen of the night stand out as one of the most striking and baleful characters in the folklore of Brittany; spectral women doomed to spend eternity labouring over their laundry from sunset to sunrise, terrifying unfortunate and unwary souls in the darkness.

Across the length and breadth of rural Brittany, there are many tales that feature the washerwomen of the night (known as kannerezed noz in Breton or lavandières de la nuit in French) and there are often quite marked differences in the, sometimes contradictory, characteristics attributed to them.

All accounts agree that the washerwomen – there are usually three of them, all tall and unnaturally strong – are condemned to forever haunt the washing places and wash their linen at night to atone for past misdeeds. Sometimes the washerwomen are the spirits of women once known in the locality, at other times, anonymous ghosts. Depending on the tale, they work noisily in silence or sing loudly, stopping only to address a passer-by, often by name, to ask for help in wringing out the washing. Although the women toil every night, some tales say that they can only be seen during the nights of the full moon or just on the night before All Hallows’ Day.

Phantom Washerwomen of the night
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The washerwomen of the night mainly appear only to men, particularly the drunkards who meander their way home from the tavern at night following the path which runs alongside the river or past the wash-house. If an unwary man stops to help these washerwomen wring their sheets, they are inevitably found in the morning with broken bones and enveloped in this white shroud.

Anne Plumptre (Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in France, 1810) relating some superstitions prevalent in Brittany during her stay, recounted that:

There are a set of washerwomen called ar cannerez noz, the nocturnal singers, who wash their linen always at night, singing old songs and tales all the time: they solicit the assistance of people passing by to wring the linen; if it be given awkwardly, they break the person’s arm; if it be refused, they pull the refusers into the stream and drown them.”

Rural washing points and communal wash-houses, known as lavoirs in France, were, of necessity, sited near a river or spring at the periphery of a village, sometimes at quite a distance from the nearest house. The lavoir was an important part of women’s lives and carried a significant social function; a woman-only domain, each with its own traditions and hierarchy. For instance, the spot nearest the captured water source was customarily reserved for the oldest washerwoman.

Washerwomen in Brittany
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Pierre-Jakez Hélias (The Horse of Pride, 1975) recounts in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars: “For the women, the big wash was a chore of great importance. Like all the really serious jobs, it lasted for three days, which corresponded to Purgatory, Hell and Paradise, in that order.” Soaking and drying were usually done at home but the hard tasks of scrubbing, paddling, rinsing and wringing took place in the communal lavoir.

Most of the structures that remain today were built between the 17th and early 20th centuries although some are hundreds of years older. With the coming of piped mains water and drainage, the lavoirs gradually fell into disuse in the early 1960s but the structures remain a familiar sight throughout rural Brittany today.

an abandoned wash house in Brittany
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In some tales, the washerwomen of the night are harbingers of death as the time and manner of one’s death is always known to the washerwomen; others imbue them with the power to grant wishes but only to those who answer the three questions they pose truthfully. If a question is answered dishonestly, the washerwomen will know and violently strangle the liar between their wet sheets.

Most commonly, the phantom washerwomen are held to be the spirits of women expiating at night, the sins committed during their lifetime.  Such sins seem to vary by locality and encompass a very broad range of socio-religious transgressions; from working at night or during the sacred days of rest to murdering children.

Walter Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911) quotes a description of the washerwomen given to him by Goulven Le Scour:

The lavandières de nuits were heard less often than the korrigans but were much more feared. It was usually towards midnight that they were heard beating their linen in front of different washing-places, always some way from the villages. According to the old folk of the past generation, when the phantom washerwomen would ask a certain passer-by to help them to wring sheets, he could not refuse, under pain of being stopped and wrung like a sheet himself. And it was necessary for those who aided in wringing the sheets to turn in the same direction as the washerwomen; for if by misfortune the assistant turned in an opposite direction, he had his arms wrung in an instant. It is believed that these phantom washerwomen are women condemned to wash their mortuary sheets during whole centuries; but that when they find some mortal to wring in an opposite direction, they are delivered.”

In many accounts from Lower Brittany, they are the ghosts of women who were once washerwomen who skimped on cleaning agents and instead used rough stones to scrape clean the laundry in their charge, damaging the clothes and linen of those who mostly had little enough to spare. To punish them for their greed, they were sentenced to eternally wash clothes that were cursed to remain forever dirty.

the washer-women of the night
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Some versions of the old tales say that the washerwomen of the night were the souls of washerwomen who had contravened the religious precepts surrounding Sunday rest, an observance that was followed quite strongly in the wake of the Catholic Counter-Reformation; as a result they were sentenced to work for eternity. Such prohibitions against working also applied to Childermas, New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Ascension Day; defying these prohibitions was said to bring death upon oneself within the year.

In central Brittany, the horrifying washerwomen were often thought of as the damned souls of women who had murdered their own children. The 19th century folklorist Paul Sébillot noted that, in some tales of the phantom washerwomen, the laundry that they presented to passers-by, sometimes contained the body of a screaming, bleeding newborn baby. To the author George Sand (Rustic Legends, 1858), they represented the ‘most sinister of visions of fear’, and she described them thus:

The real washerwomen are the souls of infanticide mothers. They incessantly beat and twist something that looks like wet linen but which, when seen closely, is nothing but a child’s corpse. Each has their own, if she has been a criminal several times. We must beware of observing or disturbing them; for, even if you were six feet tall with muscles in proportion, they would seize you, beat you in the water and twist you no more and no less than a pair of stockings.

Breton Banshee
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While some stories identify the washerwomen of the night with the souls of the dead who were buried in a dirty shroud, others claim that they are in fact the spirits of widows who had buried their husbands in a filthy shroud; consigned to wash these shrouds until the appearance of a Christian saviour. It was sometimes believed the washerwomen were souls trapped in purgatory undergoing penance for having wilfully brought on an abortion by their work or for having strangled their own baby and it is interesting to note that the belief that the washerwomen had no power over mothers with young children was quite widespread.

Muttering a prayer and making the sign of the cross were said to offer protection for those people that ventured abroad at night and happened across the washerwomen. Ignoring them, even if one was the tormented spirit of a close relative, was sometimes not enough to avoid their deathly clutches; they were known to give chase but were unable to do so over freshly ploughed fields.

The origins of the tales of the phantom washerwomen of the night are lost to us but we should guard against immediately jumping to the assumption that they were merely Christian homilies about the need to respect the Holy Days, being dutiful to one’s family or not staying overlong in a tavern et cetera. In some tales, the washerwomen serve as both a warning and a lament but other tales are simply spooky fireside stories, perhaps first told to explain the unfamiliar nocturnal noises carried on the night wind.

The concept of ghostly night-women exists in other parts of France as well as in the old folklore of many Celtic nations. Whatever their genesis, they are perchance another reflection of water’s timeless association with the mystical.

The Little Folk of Brittany

One of the most commonly found creatures in the rich canon of Breton folklore are the korrigans; a race of capricious magical dwarves who now live underground surrounded by vast wealth and are variously described as blonde haired or black haired; benevolent or malicious; as household helpers but also as fiendish abductors of babies.

The world of magical creatures is notoriously inconsistent and irrational; tales about korrigans differ from place to place in Brittany and, as with all tales, the storyteller omits and embellishes thus altering the tale a little more each time. Such fluidity means that defining the nature and role of korrigans is difficult and even the nomenclature is not without issues. Korr is the Breton word for dwarf and igans are diminutive suffixes, so, literally a small little dwarf but the 19th century folklorist Paul Sébillot noted over fifty names given to korrigans and lutins (the French word for sprites) in western Brittany alone. In general, the names given to korrigans vary according to the locale and their particular traits and habitats but distinctions can be blurred further when korrigans and lutins seem interchangeable characters in essentially the same tale.

Some tales claim that korrigans share the same roots as fairies, some that they are the descendants of the giant first men of Brittany and others that they are tormented souls, condemned to wander in the dark through the lonely places of the world.

surrounded by the korrigans
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It is said that in ancient times, mankind and the korrigans shared the Earth and lived together in harmony but the arrival of Christianity upset the balance between mankind and the korrigans and the other mysterious creatures of the country. To the korrigans, the spread of Christianity amounted to their being driven out of their ancestral lands and sacred spaces. Wounded by, what they considered, the betrayal of men who had turned away from them, some took refuge underground while others receded to hide in the remote corners of the world. Scattered and divided, the korrigans became sullen and resentful and now strive to repay man for their exclusion from their lands and seek to reclaim the scared places of the ancient deities.

All tales agree that the korrigans live underground where they guard the treasures of the Earth. Hibernating during the coldest winter months, they emerge with the first warmth of spring and roam abroad between dusk and dawn. Haunting the ancient sites, particularly the megalithic monuments known as menhirs and dolmens, fountains and springs; they amuse themselves by disturbing the peace of the countryside and the sleep of men, playing tricks on passing travellers and mocking the new faith with their raucous dancing around remote chapels and wayside calvaries.

As mentioned above, korrigans can be very broadly divided into several large groupings or tribes and classified according to their habitat.

korrigan dwarf fairy
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The desolate moors of Brittany are home to the korrils who are said to live under the ancient menhirs and dolmens which serve as a gateway to their underground domain full of gold and jewels. They are usually described as small, unusually strong, lean men who perpetually carry a large stick and wear a mocking grimace. Some stories say that they are garbed in coarse cloth and have small horns, cat’s claws or even goat’s hooves and a long tail. The korrils emerge from their subterranean lair at night when they engage in long frenetic dances accompanied by much noise and revelry until just before dawn’s first light. They are said to be intelligent and mischievous, playing tricks on humans that punish greed and stupidity but often reward intelligence and humility.

The korikaned are the wildest of korrigans and their domains are the ancient forests that once covered most of Brittany. Renowned as marshals and protectors of wild animals, they are never without their sounding horn and are masters of the bow. They are a proud people who consider their culture to be closest to that of the first korrigans which may account for their intense hatred of mankind whom they strive to avoid. Jealous guardians of their domain, they are said to be able to control the weather in order to disperse human hunters. They are also noted shape-shifters!

Korandons live on the sea shore and harbour the same strong feelings of animosity towards mankind as their cousins, the korrils. They are feared because they are said to enjoy provoking storms to create shipwrecks and to light wrecker’s fires at night to lure boats to their doom on the rocks. Some accounts claim that they possess the legs of a goat, the hooves of which are made of iron. At night, the crashing of pebbles upon the beach, stirred by the waves, was said to be the trampling of their iron feet dancing wildly.

korrigans fairies of Brittany
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At the bottom of the social order of korrigans are the poulpiquets of the marshes. Dark and hairy in appearance with small, gleaming black eyes and with broken voices that sound like old men, they are portrayed as compulsive thieves and notorious tricksters. They are often said to wear a leather purse reputedly full of gold but those who steal it will find nothing within but dirty horsehair and a pair of scissors. They like to prey upon human greed by showing travellers golden rings and shimmering jewels on the water’s glistening surface but when a person leans-in to pluck their unearned trophy, they are promptly seized and pulled down into the korrigans’ domain.

Some korrigans who originally dwelt in the meadows have long since put themselves in the service of men; cleaning houses, scouring cooking pots, rocking restless babies and finding lost objects. In some areas of Brittany these creatures are called teuz. It was once customary in parts of rural Brittany to leave a small flat stone in front of the hearth for the korrigan to sit upon to enjoy the warmth after his day’s work was done. While these korrigans work without reward, they are said to swiftly quit a house if they are mistreated or unappreciated.

At night, like the fairies of other Celtic traditions, the korrigans love to dance, particularly the circular dance which, in the morning, leaves a ring of mushrooms to mark the presence of their dancing circle. When the moon is clear, they are said to gather near the ancient standing stones and at crossroads and calvaries; never missing an opportunity to entice a passing man to join them. If he happens to be a good−natured sort and enters into their dance heartily, they treat him well and may even do him some good turn but if he is disagreeable they will make him dance until he collapses with exhaustion. Should the man offend them, then he might be forced to dance to his death or be consigned to an underground dungeon without any hope of deliverance. Other tales tell that only if a man carries a plough-stick – a stick that has been used for scraping the clods of earth from a plough – can he enter this dance with impunity.

korrigans dance
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One way of saving yourself from the mischief of the korrigans was to distract them. They were said to be unable to pass a scattering of objects without resisting a compulsion to tidy them into a neat pile. Some people therefore overturned a vessel containing a large number of grains or positioned one in hopes that the nocturnal visitors would accidentally knock it over. Before they could re-start their mischief, the korrigans were said to be obliged to pick up the gains and count them but being unable to do so before the crowing of the rooster, they usually abandoned the task and retreated.

In parts of western Brittany, before leaving the house after a meal of pancakes, it was once believed essential to eat a small morsel of bread first; otherwise one risked being taken by the korrigans. Other practices were also said to help defend one against the mischief of the korrigans, such as wearing a sprig of flowering gorse or hanging an inflated pig bladder, containing nine grains of wheat, from a ceiling beam in the home.

There is a tale of a musician who, despite the protestations of his friends, decided to teach the korrigans a new dance and took his biniou (Breton bagpipe) to a particular dolmen one Saturday night. His friends feared to approach the dolmen and hid behind a gorse bush several hundred metres away and soon heard the joyful accents of the biniou drifting on the night air. However, the music became melancholic not long after midnight and as the night wore on, steadily descended into a confused series of inconsistent notes and incoherent frenzy, slowly dying out to sound like a fly trapped in a bottle. At dawn, his friends approached the dolmen and there on the moor, lay the cold dead body of their companion and it was, they said, impossible to pull the pipe of his biniou from his teeth.

The nocturnal dancing of the korrigans is often said to be accompanied by singing; a particularly favourite song being the days of the week: ‘Di Lun (Monday), Di Meurzh (Tuesday), Di Mercher (Wednesday), Di Iaou (Thursday), Di Gwener (Friday).’ It is claimed that they are unable to recite all the days due to the sacredness of the full week and there are many tales involving hapless men who have added days to the korrigans’ song with tragic consequences.

In one such tale, the keen man is seized and thrown into the sky with such force that he lands on the moon where he is cursed to remain until his place is taken by another victim. There is even a story of an over-excited korrigan adding ‘Di Sadorn’ to the song himself and being instantly cursed with a hunchback for his eagerness. Although another tale tells that the song was once completed by a woman with a hunchback; the korrigans were so delighted that, to thank her, they removed her bump.

Korrigans dance
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It is clear from the old tales that the korrigans retain a festering hatred for the Church and this is likely an echo reflecting the strong views of the early evangelising saints of Brittany against the old deities and the difficulties the Bretons had in reconciling their beliefs in mysterious beings such as fairy folk with the new Christian religion. Thus, to some, the malevolent korrigans symbolise the early resistance of Brittany to Christianisation and it is perhaps noteworthy that one of the few ways to repel a korrigan is by the use of holy water.

Female korrigans are a quite distinct group; usually they are simply referred to as korrigans although sometimes the same stories refer to them as groac’h which is a Breton word that is also applied to witches and crones. In some later, French-language, tales they are, at times, referred to as fées. Whatever their appellation, these female korrigans are usually described as standing no more than two feet tall and beautiful, with sparkling red eyes and flowing blonde hair that they brush with a golden comb in the moonlit reflections of the water of the springs and ancient fountains which they inhabit. It is said that they are able to shape-shift into animals, foretell the future, heal any illness and can also travel from one end of the world to the other in the twinkling of an eye. Interestingly, these are all attributes that were once thought to have been possessed by the Gallicenae; the nine Celtic priestesses who dwelt on the Île de Sein.

Lest you start thinking that these are the sweetest of korrigans, be aware that they are given to stealing the babies of men and substituting them with ugly changelings. Paul Sébillot, in his Local Legends of Upper Brittany (1899), recounts how “They [the korrigans] also liked to kidnap children and put in their place ugly little beings who did not grow up, always suckled and had an old-fashioned figure. A woman had taken her son into the fields; the korrigans took him and substituted one of their offspring for him. As he was not growing, the woman went to consult a neighbour who advised her to put a dozen eggshells filled with water to boil in front of the fire. When the little boy woke up, he exclaimed: “I am ninety years old and never have I seen so many boiling pots“.

breton fairies
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If disturbed, especially on a Saturday, the day of the Virgin, these female korrigans will not hesitate to breathe their lethal breath on the hapless human trespasser. They are also notorious for their attempts to bewitch and seduce any man who chances to pass by, cursing them to death if their advances are rejected. Lewis Spence in his Legends and Romances of Brittany (1917), tells us:

Many are the traditions which tell of human infants abducted by the Korrigan. But it was more as an enchantress that she was dreaded. By a stroke of her magic wand she could transform the leafy fastnesses in which she dwelt into the semblance of a lordly hall, which the luckless traveller whom she lured thither would regard as a paradise after the dark thickets in which he had been wandering. This seeming castle or palace she furnished with everything that could delight the eye, and as the doomed wretch sat ravished by her beauty and that of her nine attendant maidens a fatal passion for her entered his heart, so that whatever he cherished most on earth – honour, wife, demoiselle, or affianced bride – became as naught to him, and he cast himself at the feet of this forest Circe in a frenzy of ardour.

But with the first ray of daylight the charm was dissolved and the Korrigan became a hideous hag, as repulsive as before she had been lovely; the walls of her palace and the magnificence which had furnished it became once more tree and thicket, its carpets moss, its tapestries leaves, its silver cups wild roses, and its dazzling mirrors pools of stagnant water.

These seductive korrigans are also renowned for their hatred of the Virgin Mary and the celibate clergy who serve her. Indeed, their depiction as intractable enemies of the Church is possibly unique across the surviving body of Celtic mysterious beings. Many stories say that the female korrigans were once Celtic princesses who refused the Gospel brought by the early saints and were accordingly cursed by God. This Christianised gloss is, again, likely an echo reflecting the struggle the early Bretons had reconciling the different notions of the nature of the divine feminine inherent in their old religion and their newly adopted Christian faith.

The dance of the fairy korrigans
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With the notable exceptions of the Lais of Marie de France and an Arthurian romance, the old folktales and legends of Brittany were not really set down in writing until the boom in interest in regional folklore took hold in France in the early 19th century. It is therefore difficult to definitively establish the age of many of the korrigan legends. Happily, the tales continue to be told and new tales created and today’s weary parents still caution their children against misbehaving with the cautionary refrain that ‘…the korrigans will get you!’

The Dry Bones of Brittany

Containing the bones of the dead within an ossuary – a receptacle which could range from a simple stone casket to an entire elaborate chapel – was an ancient practice once quite widespread in the Near East and Europe; the role and nature of an ossuary being heavily influenced by a combination of social factors and religious beliefs. In Europe, they were a simple solution for handling the problem faced by having limited burial space for the dead and served as a useful marketing tool for the teachings of the Church.

In the early Middle Ages, burial grounds were established against and around parish churches but inevitably, given the relatively short life expectancy of the time, these plots, most of which contained large common graves, were soon filled. Sometime around the 14th century, it became common practice for local churches to clear their burial grounds to create much needed space for new burials.

Typically in the western European tradition, bodies in these places would initially be interred for several years to allow the body sufficient time to decompose. The skeletal remains would then be exhumed, the bones cleaned, dried and sorted according to type; skulls, small bones and long bones, before being  placed in an ossuary where they were stored together in stacked groups. These could be sited in a crypt or in the loft inside a church but spaces here too were limited and usually reserved for the clergy or privileged nobles, so, other solutions were needed.

Inside the ossuary

Some parish churches chose to create special niches set within or against their churchyard walls which, over time, often developed into quite elaborate affairs. Some created annexes contiguous to the south wall of the church whilst others constructed discrete purpose-built buildings close to the church or graveyard with window openings faced to the east.

Modest ossuary near Rosporden
Attached ossuary at Gouarec

Stone-built monumental ossuaries (known as garnals in Breton) began to appear in Brittany in the 15th century and were relatively widespread within a hundred years or so. It has been estimated that over half of the surviving monumental ossuaries were constructed between 1550 and 1600. After a period of steady monument construction in the first part of the 17th century, a second notable phase of building occurred between 1630 and 1680. After about 1700, there was little new monumental construction here; of the ossuaries erected in the 18th century, some were second or even third ossuaries for the same churchyard.

This boom in construction in the 16th and 17th centuries coincided with a prolonged period of economic prosperity in Brittany, largely based on mercantile shipping, commercial fishing and a thriving trade in canvas, linen and flax. This increased wealth gave rise to a broader flourishing of ecclesiastical building activity with new churches built and older ones extended and embellished. It was during this period of increased wealth and religious fervour that arguably the most beautiful parish enclosures were built and by the end of the 17th century, most parishes in western Brittany boasted some, if not all, of the features of a monumental parish enclosure.

Whether also serving as a funerary chapel or not, many ossuaries benefited from the same degree of architectural richness and detail as their associated churches, becoming ecclesiastical masterpieces in their own right, perhaps most notably at Ploudiry, Pleyben, Saint-Thégonnec and Sizun. The ossuaries at Guimiliau and Kermoroc’h are particularly noteworthy as both contain external preaching pulpits.

It is the abundance of such well-designed and strongly built stone structures within a relatively small region that sets the ossuaries of Brittany, particularly to the west of the Saint Brieuc-Vannes axis, apart from those seen elsewhere in Europe.  While the use of ossuaries was widespread throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages, the practice was in terminal decline by the 17th century but not in Brittany.

Monumental ossuary at Sizun
Monumental ossuary at La Roche Maurice

However, this was not the case in Brittany where 18th century moves by Church and State to shift burials from churchyards to edge-of-town cemeteries were quite strongly resisted; the use of ossuaries remained widespread here long after such practices had died out elsewhere, much to the consternation of some visitors.

‘A very strange practice reigns in Brittany. The kinfolk of the deceased unearth the dead after several years, when they believe that the soil will have absorbed all of the decomposed flesh. The recovered bones are then placed in a small building constructed near to the church, the ossuary. Sometimes one takes the head of the dead, puts it in a box and places it in the church inscribed “Here lies the skull of N.” It is impossible to imagine nothing more repulsive …. Often, great zeal does not allow time for the complete de-fleshing of the corpse and shreds of putrefying flesh attract dogs which no-one cares to chase away.’ Notes d’un voyage dans l’Ouest de la France (1836), Prosper Mérimée

inside an ossuary in brittany
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The author Gustave Flaubert toured Brittany with Maxime Du Camp in 1847 and, noting a very crowded village cemetery near Quiberon, observed the ossuary ‘contains skeletons that have been exhumed in order to make room for other corpses. Who has said: “Life is a hostelry and the grave is our home?” But these corpses do not remain in their graves, for they are only tenants and are ejected at the expiration of the lease.’ He continued:

‘Around this ossuary, where this cluster of bones resemble a jumble of faggots, is arranged, man-high, a series of small black boxes, six inches square, covered with a roof surmounted by a cross and pierced in front in the shape of a heart to reveal the skull inside. Above the heart are painted letters: “This is the head of –, died such year and such day.” These heads did not belong only to persons of a certain rank and he would pass for a bad son if, after seven years, he did not give his parents’ skulls the luxury of one of these little chests. The rest of the body is sent to the ossuary and 25 years later the head is thrown in. Some years ago they wanted to abolish this custom. A riot ensued and it remained.’ Par Les Champs et Par Les Greves (1886), G Flaubert & M Du Camp

It is difficult to pinpoint when the practice of placing skulls in decorated boxes began in Brittany, although the earliest written references are from the late 18th century and the practice seems to have continued up until the First World War. The procedure began, at least five years after burial, with the exhumation ceremony which was usually a collective affair with the procession to the ossuary accompanied by prayers and song: ‘Let us go to the charnel house, Christians! Let us contemplate the relics! Of our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers! Here, no more nobility, neither riches nor beauty. The earth and death have confused all.’  

skull boxes
Skull Boxes in St Pol-de-Leon

The skull would then be separated from the other bones and placed in a wooden box, known as a ‘boîte à chef’ (skull box), decorated with the individual’s name and age at death. These boxes were then placed in the church or ossuary, often on special ‘Étagères de la Nuit’ (Shelves of the Night), or sometimes in a niche in the churchyard wall but always in view.

Aside from providing a long-term storage solution for the remains of the dead, the ossuaries of Brittany were designed to provide the people with a visible display of the dead. Ossuaries attached to the wall of a church were usually colonnaded or arcaded and the windows of the grand chapel ossuaries left unglazed for the same purpose – the illumination and exhibition of human remains. The sight of such earthly remnants was meant to serve as a vivid reminder of the inevitably of death the leveller and to encourage the faithful to reflect on the transience of human life and the consequent need to commit to a permanent Christian existence to secure salvation through the Church.

Ankou Brittany
This Ankou once decorated the ossuary font at La Martyre but now stands in the south porch

The iconography associated with Breton ossuaries shared the same themes and designs as other parts of Catholic Europe such as portrayals of death, judgement, repentance and salvation but there were quite distinctive Breton elements too, such as the depiction of the Ankou – the Breton personification of death who guides the souls of the dead to the Otherworld. A figure also sometimes represented on and inside many churches in western Brittany.

Ankou Brittany
Ankou set above the ossuary font at La Roche Maurice

The ossuaries of Brittany are a key part of the region’s unique religious heritage; they are distinct, in part, due to their abundance and the sheer longevity of their functional use by the people. Hundreds of these buildings, of all sizes, survive to this day and can be visited freely.

Most ossuaries were cleared of their bones during the last century but you can still encounter ones that have clung tightly to their precious charge, for instance at Lanrivain, Trégornan, Gouarec and the half a dozen skulls in the ossuary at Plouzélambre. Similarly, most skull boxes have been removed from the churches and ossuaries or are now hidden away in vaults but you may still chance to happen upon some on display, such as those in Saint-Pol-de-Léon, Saint-Fiacre, Kermaria-an-Iskut and La Méaugon.

monumental ossuary in brittany
Monumental ossuary at Pleyben

The ornate ossuary at Pleyben dates from around 1560, making it one of the oldest monumental ossuaries in Brittany, and serves as a useful example of how some of these buildings were used over time. After restoration in 1733, it was used as a mortuary chapel and subsequently to house a school, the Town Hall and a Post Office. It now serves as a museum, as does the beautiful, two-storey ossuary at Sizun – both are well worth visiting by those keen to explore Brittany’s built heritage. However, take care not to visit during the night of Christmas Eve as that is when the bones in the ossuaries are said to talk to one another and list those who will die in the year ahead!

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