The Lore of the Drowned

Surrounded on three sides by the ocean, Brittany has always enjoyed a special relationship with the sea. It has long played an important part in the life and soul of Brittany; its waters have nourished and sustained generations of Bretons since time immemorial but the bargain has sometimes been cruelly struck. A point well made in an old Breton saying that tells: “Who trusts the sea, trusts death.”

By its very nature, folklore often differs quite distinctly from village to village and can be riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. The traditional lore surrounding the drowned in Brittany is no different but there are many areas of commonality across the region. While the cries of the dead were feared and resented, the dead themselves were profoundly pitied by the living. Generally, those claimed by the sea showed no ill will towards those still living whom they often helped by warning of approaching danger.

In Brittany, there once existed a widespread belief that the drowned whose bodies were not found and subsequently buried in consecrated ground, raged forever along the shores, begging for a Christian burial. It was said that these lost souls could be heard at night lamenting among the rocks and deadly coastal reefs; they were popularly known as the krierien-noz (night screamers) on account of their infernal wailing.

Brittany shipwreck

One of the most widely known night screamers was one called Yannick an Aod (Little John of the Shore), whose calls were heard all along the western coasts at night, imitating the cries of people in distress in hopes of attracting people into the water and their doom. Children were cautioned to never tease Yannick by answering his cries; those foolish enough to do so, risked certain death. It was said that if you answered him once, Yannick jumped half the distance separating you, in a single leap. If you answered him again, he would jump half the remaining distance. If you answered a third time; he broke your neck.

On the isle of Sein, the souls of the drowned were known as the krierien and their cry was said to announce an impending storm. Likewise, the ghosts of seven drowned fishermen were sometimes reported on the island; the crew appeared as if they had just been shipwrecked, their oilskins still dripping wet. Locals claimed that the ghosts always appeared in order to warn of an imminent storm and of the necessity of removing their boats from the water.

Some 55km east, around the south coast town of Quimper, it was believed that storms never subsided until the bodies of those who had drowned had been cast ashore. Sometimes, however, the sea refused to yield the bodies for burial and the drowned cried in rage and howled in despair whenever the raging sea pulled their rolling bones away from the shore.

the drowned of Brittany

It was said that those who drowned off the western coast of Brittany were carried by the currents to the Baie des Trépassés (Bay of the Dead in English or Bae an Anaon in Breton) on the Atlantic coast. Here, some desperate souls would emerge from the sea and walk in slow procession to the little chapel near the port of Vorlen. One legend tells that a fisherman, who had moored his craft for the night, noticed lights on the beach and a line of people walking towards the church. He took off his hat and followed them but when he tried to enter the church, the former rector, dead for fifteen years, put his hand on his shoulder and told him to go home because this was no place for the living.

It was once popularly thought that, when the moonlight cast its glow at a particular angle during the nights of Halloween and Christmas Eve, one could see, in the waters of the bay, tens of thousands of heads breaking the surface of the waves; their outstretched arms begging for deliverance.

In a rather more poetical fashion, the Breton author, Émile Souvestre, recounted of the bay: “On the Day of the Dead, the souls of the drowned rise to the top of each wave and we see them running on the crest like a fleeting foam. Each passing wave carries a soul, seeking everywhere the soul of a brother, a friend or a beloved; when they meet face to face, they cast a sad whisper and pass, necessarily driven by the flow they must follow. Sometimes, a confused, prodigious noise quivers on the bay; an inexplicable mixture of soft sighs, hoarse moans and plaintive cries that whistle on the swell. These are the souls who talk and tell their story.”

drowned Brittany

Those who had drowned without carrying the stain of sin were said to eventually be carried to a sea cave a little further along the coast near Morgat. Here, their souls stayed for eight days before finally leaving for the Otherworld. Death was assured to anyone who might have the temerity to venture into this cave and disturb their sacred penance.

Other legends are associated with the Bay of the Dead; it was traditionally believed that this was the point of embarkation for the ancient druids who were buried on the isle of Sein. This early belief may have fed into the more recent traditions that held that, on moonless nights, hosts of the dead waited in silence for the appearance of the Bag an Noz or Boat of the Night.

One local legend tells that, on certain nights, a powerful voice carried over the bay, calling a local fisherman by name; the only man able to hear this voice. The man was not surprised by the call for it was a secret his family had carried for countless generations; he was the hereditary helmsman of the Boat of the Dead. Arriving at the shore, he found the seemingly empty boat lying heavily in the water and cast off quickly. Immediately upon landing on the isle of Sein, he felt it lighten and rise on the water as his passengers disembarked. On his return to the bay, the boat seemed as a shadow and disappeared completely once he set foot ashore.

Drowned tapestry

Tales of a boat of the dead have long been associated with Brittany; the 6th century Byzantine historian, Procopius reported it thus: “The fishermen and the other inhabitants of Gaul who are opposite the island of Britain are responsible for ferrying souls there and for that service are exempt from tribute. In the middle of the night, they hear a knocking at their door; they get up and find on the shore foreign boats where they see no one and yet seem so loaded that they appear on the point of sinking and rise scarcely an inch above the water; an hour is enough for this trip, although, with their own boats, they can hardly do it in the space of a day and a night. The boat speedily unloads and becomes so light that it only rides her keel in the waves. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see anyone but they hear a voice on shore calling out the name and style of those who had disembarked.”

Well into the 19th century, several traditions of ships of the dead were recorded in various parts of Brittany. Émile Souvestre, writing in 1835, noted that near Saint-Gildas, fishermen of bad character who cared little about the salvation of their souls, were awakened at night by three knocks struck on their door by an invisible hand. Compelled by some supernatural force, the men go to the shore where they find long black boats which seem empty and yet are sunk into the sea to wave level. As soon as they board, a large white sail hoists itself to the top of the mast and the boat leaves the port, as if carried away by a rapid current.

Tradition held that these vessels, laden with cursed souls, did not reappear on the shore and that the fishermen were thus condemned to wander with them across the oceans until the Day of Judgement. Some also believed that these boats were doomed to forever travel from beach to beach, from island to island, in search of the bodies of drowned sailors to return them home to the village of their birth.

Boat of the Night Brittany

Around the north coast town of Tréguier it was thought that there were boats which carried the souls of the dead, especially those of the drowned, to unknown islands that sat at the end of the world and from which no traveller had ever returned. It was said that, on summer nights, when the wind is silent and the sea is calm, the oars can be heard moaning and white shadows can be seen fluttering around the black boats. However, anyone who dared to follow the boats at sea was condemned to accompany them until the end of time.

Nearby, around Port-Blanc, people claimed to have seen the spirits of those known to have been lost at sea, land in small boats to stock-up on fresh water. They were said to have walked silently, in a long procession led by an unknown woman. Sometimes, they could be heard whispering to each other in low voices but only one word could be distinguished – yes! The silhouette of their ship could be seen in the distance, as if floating on the clouds.

Like the other night boats, those noted on the west coast were as mysterious as they were sinister. Fishermen who encountered these vessels told of seeing no one aboard or of hails answered only by an invisible chorus of ‘Amens’. Other tales tell of them hearing the sound of oars in the water or the cry of commands to draw-in sails despite nothing to be seen between their craft and the horizon.

Boat of the Dead Brittany

In many parts of western Brittany, the Boat of the Night was thought commanded by the first drowned person of the year but on the isle of Sein, the helmsman was believed to be the last drowned of the year. A tale tells of a widow whose husband had been lost at sea, without his body having been found; saw him holding the helm, one day when the Bag an Noz passed very close to the island.

Not only did this boat carry the souls of the dead but its appearance was also thought to announce some imminent disaster. The boat was said to have possessed a rather indecisive form at nightfall but disappeared completely if approached too closely by another vessel. However, one night, a brave fisherman did manage to get close enough to see that there was no one aboard apart from the helmsman; the boat vanished at the instant the helmsman was hailed.

Many isolated coastal chapels are associated with legends of being visited by the souls of the dead, either alone or in procession, in order to fulfil a promise or prayer made at sea. It was widely believed that anyone who had announced an intention to undertake a pilgrimage had made a sacred vow; if someone died before fulfilling their vow, they were thought to have to honour their obligation in death. Near Saint-Servan, young girls once reported seeing a procession of men emerging from the sea accompanied by a priest and even a choir, fulfilling their vow to make the pilgrimage they had promised whilst alive.

Pilgrimage Brittany

Other legends about the drowned are less wholesome. In times gone by, the fishermen of Trévou-Tréguignec often claimed to have seen the dead hands of drowned men clinging to the planks of their boats when fishing at night. Apparently, the women who had drowned did not cling to the boats but let their hair float on the water so that it entangled the oars.

Some miles east, off the coast of the isles of Ébihens, the noise of the wind around the reefs exposed at low tide was said to have been the moans of three women from Saint-Jacut who drowned there at the turn of the 19th century. The women had been taken to the rocks, in order to gather abalone shells, by a friendly customs officer. However, the turning tide was accompanied by a wind that blew so violently that he dared not take his boat out to retrieve them. Since that day, when the weather is bad, the spirits of the drowned women are said to stir the sea and send tremendous winds to shake the old Customs House.

One curious belief found in parts of western Brittany claimed that those who died at sea did so because of the weight of their sins. This was said to explain why those who had drowned remained caught in the grip of the sea; their deliverance would only be realised when another unfortunate drowned in the same place.

widows Brittany

The methods advised for locating the bodies of those who had drowned seem to have varied from place to place. In the north of the region, it was recommended to balance a wooden bowl filled with bran upon a plank of wood or bundle of straw. A blessed, lighted candle was planted in the bran and the little raft placed onto the water; the candle was believed to show the location of the body. Around the central town of Guingamp, a lighted candle was fixed in a loaf of bread, which was then abandoned to the current; the body was expected to be discovered near the location where the floating loaf had halted. In western Brittany, tradition called for the seeker to a get into a boat accompanied only by a cockerel in a sack. The boat was surrendered to the current and it was thought the rooster would crow when the body of the drowned was near.

In the same part of Brittany, it was believed that the body of the drowned resurfaced nine days after being at the bottom of the deep and that a drowned man would bleed from the nose when removed from the water if one of his relatives was among those present. A variant of this belief held that tears flowed from the eyes of the recovered corpse.

Around Paimpol, it was said that when a fisherman perished at sea, gulls and curlews visited his former home to announce his death by crying and flapping their wings at the windows. However, around the west coast city of Brest, the gulls that flew around the rocks offshore were believed to be the souls of those who had drowned nearby.

searching the seas Brittany

It was once widely accepted here that those who died a violent death were forced to remain between life and death until the time that they naturally had to live had elapsed. This state of being, which is no longer life but not yet death, features in a curious legend from Bro-Bégard that tells of a girl who drowned but who, thanks to the protection of the Virgin Mary, continued to live for six years in a sort of limbo. She was nourished by the bread that her mother gave to the poor and dressed in the old clothes that she distributed to them as alms. Her husband was not really a widower and did not become so until the end of these six years.

The notion of an existence between real life and utter death is found in other Breton legends about drowned people. The victims of the Witch of Lok and the Red Witch of the Île du Château are entombed in water but return to life and the inhabitants of the sunken city of Ker-Is also live, submerged under water, awaiting their deliverance.

This fascination with the plight of the drowned must be placed in the context of a culture where the dead were never far removed from the living. There was a significant absence of separation between the living and the dead who were commonly believed to exist, in close intimacy, together. The dead involved themselves in the everyday life of the living. They did not remain locked in the graveyard but wandered at night along the deserted paths or upon the moors and meadows. They returned to their former homes, by the permission of God, to watch over those they had left behind or to deliver hopes of salvation. However, these privileges were for those who had been consigned to holy ground, those lost at sea had been denied this honour and were thus unable to return to their former haunts; a cause of deep grief to the loved ones they had left behind.

widow of sein

In Brittany, it was once said that three worms lived within the human body; when a person drowned, each of them became embodied in a bone, these three bones detached from the corpse and, three months later, they turned into shells. The fishermen of the coasts used to say, when they heard of a person dead at sea: “One less man, three more seashells.” According to legend, some so-called cursed islands off Brittany’s northern coast were formed from the skeletons of the drowned and such origins were once ascribed to the Sillon de Talbert; a 3km long furrow that stretches out to sea from the tip of the peninsula of Lézardrieux.

Curiously, to dream of drowning was once considered to be a happy omen here!

Tolkien’s Tale of Brittany

The popular memory of JRR Tolkien’s literary output will forever be overshadowed by his novels of Middle-earth, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but other gems are to be found amidst his rich body of work. One of these is a lengthy poem written in octosyllabic rhyming verse in the style of a medieval Breton lay, entitled The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun; a tragic tale featuring several motifs found in the traditional folklore of Brittany.

Believed to have originated in Brittany, lays are long narrative poems that typically explore the nature of love while recounting the deeds of great heroes and marvellous beings. Written in rhyming verse, these poems were initially designed, in medieval times, to be sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.

Tolkien wrote The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun around 1930; some seventeen years after he had stayed several weeks in the up-market Breton resort of Dinard. However, the lay was not published until December 1945 when it appeared in the literary journal, The Welsh Review. Amazingly, another seventy years would pass before the poem became more widely available at the end of 2016 when it was published internationally along with two other similar but complementary poems.

Tolkien Mirkwood Brittany

Several scholars have suggested that Tolkien’s inspiration for this lay came from the pages of Folklore in English and Scottish Ballads (1928) by Lowry Charles Wimberly or even English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) by Francis James Child. However, it is far more likely that Tolkien’s source was ultimately the same as that of both these authors: a collection of traditional Breton ballads set down from the oral tradition by Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué in his book, Barzaz Breiz (1839), where a similar story appears under the title Le Seigneur Nann et la Korrigan (Lord Nann and the Korrigan or Aotrou Nann hag ar Korrigan in Breton). Tolkien is known to have possessed his own copy of this work as well as a number of other volumes of Breton folklore.

The Aotrou and Itroun of the title refer to a long-married but childless Breton lord and lady. Tolkien sets the scene with his customary, tightly expressive language: “In Brittany beyond the waves, are sounding shores and hollow caves; in Brittany beyond the seas, the wind blows ever through the trees.” Over the next 500 or so lines, Tolkien weaves a wonderfully worded tale relating how the lord was haunted by sad dreams of “lonely age and death; his tomb unkept, while strangers in his room with other names and other shields were masters of his halls and fields.” Desperate for an heir, the lord secures the assistance of a witch “who span dark spells with spider-craft and as she span she softly laughed; a drink she brewed of strength and dread to bind the quick and stir the dead.”

In just a few lines, Tolkien powerfully evokes the pall of dread surrounding Aotrou as he locates the witch seated outside her cave in “the homeless hills” whose “eyes were dark and piercing, filled with lies, yet needle-keen all lies to probe.” The old witch gives him a glass phial filled with a magic potion but refuses any payment, saying: “Let thanks abide till thanks be earned” before ominously adding “we shall meet again one day and rich reward then you shall pay, whate’er I ask: it may be gold, it may be other wealth you hold.”

Tolkien Smaug Brittany

Having returned to the sanctuary of his castle, the lord was filled with hope for the future and thus: “A merry feast that year they made, when blossom white on bush was laid; there minstrels sang and wine was poured, as if it were the marriage of a lord.” In acknowledgement of a toast raised by her husband, Itroun drains her glass: “The wine was red, the cup was grey; but blended there a potion lay” and the die is cast.

“Now days ran on in great delight with hope at morn and mirth at night” and the noble couple were “after waiting, after prayer, after hope and nigh despair” soon blessed with twin children; a son and daughter. Completely overjoyed, Aotrou demands to show his appreciation to his wife by gratifying her whims and desires but she does not wish for gold, jewels or silks, telling him only: “I would not have thee run nor ride today nor ever from my side.” However, Aotrou refuses to relent until Itroun expresses a sudden craving for “water cool and clear and venison of the greenwood deer.”

Setting out with his bow and lance of ash-wood, “his horse bore him o’er the land to the green boughs of Brocéliande, to the green dales where listening deer seldom a mortal hunter hear.” Aotrou soon espies a white doe that he hotly pursues, to the sound of dim laughter on the wind, until “the sun was lost and all green was grey.” Finding himself before a fairy grotto and fountain, he sees a female korrigan or fairy sat upon a silver stool combing her long pale hair with a golden comb. “He heard her voice and it was cold as echo from the world of old, ere fire was found or iron hewn, when young was mountain under moon.”

Tolkien Map Middle-earth Brittany

The korrigan now demands her payment but Aotrou is slow to appreciate that this creature is indeed the witch that he had dealt with so many months ago and claims not to know her. Affronted, she responded: “How darest, then, my water wan to trouble thus, or look me on? For this of least I claim my fee, if ever thou wouldst wander free.” She presses him to forget his wife and to marry her but Aotrou refuses to betray his love and is summarily cursed by the korrigan to die within three days.

Once safely home, Aotrou is seized with the realisation that his death is near and instructs his trusted steward to conceal news of his return from his wife in order to save her from any anxiety and grief. However, Itroun does worry about her husband’s continued absence and her questions are repeatedly evaded even when she asks about the tolling of the death bell she hears rung a few days later.

Attending her churching ceremony, she passes a bier covered with a pall bearing the arms and banner of her lord. Her shock is total, her sorrow overwhelming and Itroun dies of grief during the night. “Beside her lord at last she lay, in their long home beneath the clay; and if their children lived yet long, or played in garden hale and strong, they saw it not, nor found it sweet their heart’s desire at last to meet.” The korrigan’s revenge was complete for “deep in dim Brocéliande, a silver fountain flowed and fell, within a darkly woven dell and in the homeless hills, a dale was filled with laughter cold and pale.”

Tolkien Bilbo Barrels Brittany

As is so often the case in both Breton folklore and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, direct encounters between mortal humans and immortal enchanters rarely end well. Tolkien wrote two other, shorter, ballads about human incursions into the world of the korrigans but it is likely that these were written as a means of working-out his thoughts for the fuller tale he would subsequently weave in The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun.

Like the versions collected by la Villemarqué and later by the folklorist François-Marie Luzel, Tolkien’s ballads of the korrigans contain many classic ingredients from traditional Breton folklore: ancient dolmens are the hallowed homes of the supernatural; the forest is a gateway to the Otherworld, a place of magic where supernatural creatures closely guard their sanctuaries and human trespassers are punished by being united with the tutelary spirit or else are destroyed by it; disturbing a female korrigan is to invite her wrath; a white doe enjoys a special affinity with the supernatural world; true lovers remain united beyond death.  

In the folklore of Brittany, there are certain prohibitions in the domain of the korrigans and any mortal who transgresses them is exposed to an unavoidable sanction. Such notions of punishment befalling mortals who betray their promises to the fairy folk are, of course, found in the folktales of other regions. For instance, the 12th century Breton Lay of Lanval by Marie de France sees Lanval repel the advances of King Arthur’s wife by invoking the greater beauty of his own wife, even though he had promised to never tell of her existence. Her sudden appearance eventually saves him from being executed on account of what was regarded as a slanderous lie. Similarly, a 13th century history of Raymond of Poitou tells of his marriage to the fairy Melusine whom he was forbidden to see taking her bath; an instruction he had promised to honour. He eventually broke his promise and saw his wife’s serpent tail; a betrayal that caused her to disappear forever.

Tolkien Rivendell Brittany

Some commentators have suggested that the korrigan in Tolkien’s lay inspired the character of the elf queen Galadriel, “the mightiest and fairest of all the elves” who features in The Lord of the Rings written between 1937 and 1947. Alas, this is probably a piece of wishful thinking. While both characters are described as immortal enchanters with long pale hair and strongly associated with sacred water and a magical phial, these few qualities are far from unique in folklore and in Tolkien’s writings.

Keen-eyed readers of Tolkien might have recognised in his description of the korrigan’s voice, the enigmatic answer given by the sorcerer Gandalf to King Theoden’s question asking whose wizardry had summoned the huorns to his aid during the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Gandalf replied: “It is not wizardry but a power far older; a power that walked the earth, ere elf sang or hammer rang, ere iron was found or tree was hewn. When young was mountain under moon, ere ring was made or wrought was woe.”

Tolkien Morea Brittany

It is worth noting that all of the wonderful artworks used in this post were produced by JRR Tolkien himself and I believe that The Tolkien Estate retains the copyright to most of these.

Brittany and the French Counter-Revolution

Known simply as le quatorze, 14 July is the national holiday of France; a date chosen to celebrate the Revolution. It was on this day in 1789 that the medieval fortress known as the Bastille Saint-Antoine was surrendered to a mob of about a thousand Parisians. It was not concern for the seven prisoners held there that had attracted the mob’s attention but the large stocks of gunpowder stored at this last remaining symbol of royalist power in central Paris. Although not the opening act of the Revolution, this dramatic action came to symbolize the end of France’s ancien regime and the birth of the republic formally established on 22 September 1792.

During the Revolution, large swathes of Brittany and neighbouring Vendée found themselves embroiled in a bitter civil war between the forces of the new Republic and the counter-revolutionary movement loosely known as the Chouannerie.

At first, attitudes to the Revolution seemed rather ambivalent in Brittany but from the summer of 1789, the new National Assembly passed a series of measures that changed the socio-political and religious landscape of France forever. Feudalism was abolished along with the other traditional privileges held by the nobility, as were the special rights enjoyed by some provinces, such as Brittany. The country’s largest landowner, the Church, saw its economic and political power smashed; its properties were confiscated and monasteries dissolved. While the removal of tithes and dues was initially welcomed, the upheavals caused by the draconian decrees issuing from distant Paris saw pro-Church and anti-Revolutionary riots in the city of Vannes at the start of April 1790.

French Revolution Brittany

Towards the end of April, the government decided to sell-off Church property and in July, under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the Church in France was subordinated to the state; priests being forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the Revolutionary government whose authority now held primacy over the Pope. These measures were not well received in staunchly Catholic Brittany where the majority of priests and bishops refused to become civil servants, subject to the French state. The authorities duly appointed new bishops from among those few priests who had sworn themselves to the government.

In early February 1791, several groups representing a score of parishes around Vannes petitioned the authorities against the rumoured removal of the Bishop of Vannes. To protect the Bishop, some 3,000 peasants armed with clubs and pitchforks marched on the city on 13 February but were routed by a combined force of well-armed National Guards, mounted Dragoons and detachments from Walsh’s Regiment who had last seen action during the American War of Independence.

At the end of June, the government declared its right to deport any ‘refractory’ priests who had refused to swear the oath of allegiance. Thousands of such priests were imprisoned or forced into hiding and, inevitably, there was soon a shortage of clergy and many parishes saw their churches locked but continued to worship clandestinely. Only obedient ‘constitutional’ clergy who had sworn their oath were allowed to carry out any duties but most people refused to attend services celebrated by these priests. In Brittany, they were ridiculed as traitors and cowards and frequently jostled in the streets but they were now public officials and could be protected by the full force of the state.

Brittany French Revolution

By the summer of 1791, resentment towards the policies of the revolutionary government had hardened considerably in Brittany and the first serious steps towards an armed counter-revolution were taken by the Marquis de la Rouërie, former hero of the American War of Independence. His experience as a successful military commander in America marked him out as the strongest candidate to lead a revolt and he received backing from the exiled court of the Comte d’Artois for a Breton Association set on defending the monarchy and re-establishing the privileges of Brittany that had been stripped away in 1789. In an echo of his American service, La Rouërie was authorized to place the Association on a military footing, organizing it and initially funding it in a similar manner to the legion he commanded in America.

With disaffection to the revolutionary government rife in neighbouring Normandy and Vendée, La Rouërie planned a coordinated uprising in the West, enforced by a landing of émigré troops in Saint-Malo, for the start of October 1792. This was designed to create a second-front to coincide with a proposed invasion by Austrian and Prussian armies in the East but the French army’s victory over the Prussians at Valmy on 20 September scuppered any chance of success a Breton rising might have then had.

While La Rouërie’s plans for his 10,000 men had been postponed to the following year, a smuggler known as Jean Chouan (a nickname derived from the owl-call that his men used to recognise each other) was actively organising guerrilla-style attacks against government agents in eastern Brittany. The west of the region had seen a series of major uprisings throughout the summer of 1792 but, with the exception of the 10 September attacks on the garrisons at Lannion and Pontrieux, these had been uncoordinated revolts.

Brittany French Revolution

Emboldened by the retreat of the invading armies, the constitutional monarchy was abolished and replaced by the First Republic on 22 September 1792. The calendar was reset with 1792 becoming ‘year one’ and Louis XVI being executed four months later. One of the key repercussions of this regicide was that it now set the kingdoms of Europe, many of whom were tied by blood to the King of France, against the new republic. To meet this challenge, the government decided to conscript 300,000 men to help defend the nation although Republican leaders, municipal bureaucrats and government officials were all exempt from the military draft and it was even possible for the wealthy to pay for a replacement in order to escape the call of duty.

Unsurprisingly, the potential loss of so many young men needed to work on the farms and fishing boats provoked strong reactions in Brittany and Vendée, particularly following so soon after the loss of their nobles and priests and the mass sale of Church property, whose proceeds had been siphoned away to Paris. Revolutionary rhetoric about the freedom of men sounded hollow to the peasants of the region who rose up in armed rebellion in early March 1793.

On 14 March, the recruiting commissioners and their National Guard escort were killed in the central Brittany town of Pluméliau and the recruitment lists burnt before the assembled crowd. Joined by people from neighbouring parishes, 3,000 anti-Republicans then converged on the town of Pontivy. Negotiations to abandon recruitment failed and the town was assaulted in the early afternoon. Despite early advances by the insurgents, they were repulsed by the town’s garrison and finally dispersed by Republican reinforcements from Guémené and Loudéac. Losses to the Republicans were said to have been 30 dead while their protagonists lost over one hundred dead and a further 53 taken prisoner; a dozen of whom were guillotined a fortnight later to serve as an example to others. Further south, the towns of La Roche-Bernard and Rochefort-en-Terre were taken by the anti-Republicans on 15/16 March.

Brittany French Revolution

In the west of the region, riots in Saint-Pol-de-Léon and several other towns over 18/19 March left three soldiers dead and saw the authorities deploy elements of General Canclaux’s Army of the Coasts of Brest. Faced with cannon fire, backed-up by 1,200 troops, the demonstrators soon dispersed but they did not disappear. Instead, in order to split the Republicans’ lines of communication, they destroyed the bridge at Kerguidu; the local Revolutionary Surveillance Committee being convinced this was a precursor to an attack on the city.  On 23 March, 400 soldiers from the city’s garrison, reinforced by men from the National Guard of Morlaix, set out for Kerguidu where they were ambushed by a thousand rebels. Heavily pressed, the soldiers formed square atop a small hill. After two hours of fighting, their cannon were spent and cartridges low but they were saved by the appearance of Canclaux at the head of a column of a thousand fresh troops. Once again, cannon fire proved decisive and caused the rout of the insurgents who are said to have suffered 250 dead, against half a dozen wounded in the Republican ranks.   

At around the same time, beginning with the capture of Machecoul on 11 March, coordinated attacks on officers of the National Guard were staged across Vendée. As in Brittany, riots erupted in many towns and mobs began to ransack and set alight Revolutionary offices whose officials were often forced to seek refuge in wealthy bourgeois enclaves. Here, a number of anti-Republican forces coalesced to form the Catholic and Royal Army whose total membership fluctuated between 45,000 and 65,000 men; rural peasants and artisans with no military experience, uniforms or even boots. Some possessed hunting rifles but the majority were armed with only pitchforks and scythes.

Despite these limitations, the insurgents inflicted several notable defeats upon the professional soldiers of the Republic, seizing control and holding many key towns for several months. While the uprising in Brittany was effectively suppressed by April, that in the Breton Marches and Vendée gathered increased momentum and the government moved to put down the revolt, Determined to make an example of the rebels, tens of thousands of troops were deployed to augment local forces and the Army of the Coasts of La Rochelle. Its commander, General Beysser, wrote to his predecessor: “A man’s death is soon forgotten but the memory of burning down his house lasts for years.”

French Revolution Brittany

Attitudes towards the peasant army were hardening; official propaganda now referred to the anti-Republicans as common brigands. Local authorities began to organise offensive patrols to scour the countryside in search of suspected rebels; mere suspicion was enough to see men brutally beaten and imprisoned but many were summarily executed. Properties were ransacked and looted, often burnt-down as a means of terrorising the neighbourhood but also to deny the rebels potential safe havens.

General de Salomon of the Army of the Coasts of La Rochelle, bruised from the humiliating defeats at Montreuil-Bellay and Saumur on 8/9 June, announced: “This is a war of brigands and calls for us all to become brigands. We must forget all military regulations; fall upon these criminals and hound them mercilessly. Our infantry must flush them out from the thickets so our cavalry can trample them on the plain.” Clearly and ominously, there would be no clemency shown to the anti-Republicans.

With the notable exception of failing to overcome General Canclaux’s well-organised defence of the Breton port of Nantes at the end of June 1793, the Catholic and Royal Army enjoyed a very successful campaign throughout the summer. However, plans to take the offensive further north into Brittany and Maine seem to have been thwarted by division amongst the Army’s leadership. Planning was also not helped by the tendency of their volunteers to return home to work their farms immediately after the defeat or retreat of the Republican forces confronting them.

Briany French Revolution

By the end of August, Republican forces in the region had been further reinforced by the Army of Mainz, 15,000 strong, commanded by General Kléber. However, the counter-revolutionaries continued to inflict stinging defeats over the forces ranged against them, notably at the battles of Tiffauges and Montaigu towards the end of September 1793.

At the start of October, the three Republican armies operating in Vendée were merged to form the Army of the West and immediately launched a new offensive, retaking the important rebel town of Cholet on 15 October. Two days later, the rebels launched their counter-attack but an estimated force of up to 40,000 men failed to dislodge 27,000 well-entrenched soldiers who were able to outflank the attackers whose ranks were decimated by grapeshot. An estimated 2,000 Republicans and 8,000 rebels were killed or wounded during this bloody battle; General Kléber wrote that: “the fields and roads bordering Cholet were strewn with corpses.” He also noted the massacre of 400 injured rebels but other sources suggest the figure was actually twice as high.

Routed, the majority of the rebel army crossed the Loire and marched towards Normandy with the aim of capturing a port that would allow them to obtain aid from Great Britain, against whom France had declared war that February. At this stage, it numbered about 30,000 combatants and 30,000 to 60,000 non-combatants including children. As they crossed Brittany, their ranks were augmented by about 8,000 Breton rebels, including future luminaries Jean Chouan and Georges Cadoudal, but after capturing several cities en route, the rebels were ultimately unable to capture the port of Granville on 14 November. Sick of fighting and ravaged by hunger and dysentery, the men pressed their commanders to return southwards, towards home.

Le Mans French Revolution

While the rebel ranks were thinning thanks to disease and wounds, the Republican forces were reinforced with 6,000 men from the Army of the Coasts of Cherbourg and 10,000 men from the Army of the North. Having captured Le Mans on 10 December, the rebels’ chaotic defence saw their positions overwhelmed just two days later. A retreat to Laval ensued but thousands of rebels, mostly non-combatants, remained stuck inside the town and were massacred. According to the government’s Committee of Public Safety, 5,000 Vendéens died in Le Mans, while Republican losses totalled 30 dead but some claim that as many as 15,000 were killed in Le Mans and during the harassed flight to Laval.

Now numbering just 6,000 to 7,000 combatants, with about the same number of non-combatants, the remains of the Royal and Catholic Army took refuge in the Breton town of Savenay on 22 December. The next day, Republican forces attacked and took the town with the loss of only 30 men. The rebels’ losses were estimated at over 3,000 dead and a similar number summarily executed; a few thousand non-combatants were taken to the prisons of Nantes to await their fate.

It was not only in the aftermath of battle that prisoners were shown no mercy. In Nantes, the Committee for Public Safety’s representative, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, oversaw an emptying of the city’s many prisons between November 1793 and February 1794 by means of what he called “vertical deportation.” The Civil Commissioner of Maine-et-Loire, described it thus: “Here we use a whole different way to get rid of this bad brood. We put all these rascals in boats that we sink to the bottom. This is called ‘sending to the water tower.’ In truth, if the brigands have sometimes complained of starving to death, they will not be able to complain that they are being made to die of thirst. About 1,200 have been taken to drink today.”

Brittany French Revolution

There are no precise figures for the number of people killed during these organised drownings but several historians agree a figure of around 4,860 men, women and children. The first drownings targeted refractory priests; 90 of whom were taken out into the middle of the Loire estuary in a specially adapted barge and drowned. Despite the cold water, three priests survived long enough to be rescued by a nearby warship only to be returned to the civil authorities and drowned the following night.

Eye-witness accounts of the drownings indicate that the prisoners were commonly stripped of all clothing and possessions at the quayside; an indignity applied to old blind men as well as breastfeeding mothers and their babies. We will never know why Carrier decided to despatch these enemies of the Revolution in this fashion although cynics have suggested that it was to conserve ammunition after having already executed, by firing squad, about 3,600 people suspected of disloyalty; a further 200 were guillotined.

Much has been made in recent years of the severity with which the new Republic crushed those who opposed it; excesses were often glossed-over by earlier generations of historians. Some even questioned the authenticity of General Westermann’s infamous declaration to the Committee for Public Safety: “Citizens, there is no more Vendée. She has died beneath our sword of freedom, with her women and children. I have buried her in the marshes and woods of Savenay. By your orders, I have crushed her children under the hooves of my horses and massacred her women who will give birth to no more brigands now. There is not a prisoner who could criticise me; I have exterminated all.”

Brittany French Revolution

While the Royal and Catholic Army had been destroyed as a fighting force, elements that did not participate in the march north, following the defeat at Cholet in October, remained active in Vendée where they defiantly held sway over large parts of the countryside. The isle of Noirmoutier finally fell to Republican forces on 3 January 1794 when the rebels negotiated their surrender to General Haxo who promised to spare their lives. The entire garrison of 1,800 men, including the former chief of the Royal and Catholic Army who had been wounded at the battle of Cholet, were executed; unable to stand due to his wounds, Generalissimo d’Elbée was shot slumped in a chair.

The Committee of Public Safety were now convinced that restoring calm to the Vendée could only be achieved by bringing out the innocent citizens, exterminating the rest and repopulating it as soon as possible with Republicans. To this end, the Commander of the Army of the West, General Turreau, and General Haxo systematically crossed the region with tens of thousands of troops organised into mobile columns adopting a scorched earth policy. Their orders were simple, to “eliminate the brigands to the last man” and between January and May some 25,000 to 50,000 people were killed, without any pretence of judicial process, by these “Infernal Columns.” Writing from Nantes, Carrier urged General Haxo “to burn down all the rebel houses, to massacre all the inhabitants and to take away all their subsistence.”

Sadly, these orders were, more often than not, carried out with alacrity and hundreds of villages were set ablaze by troops who displayed a barbarity, in this Age of Enlightenment, not seen in France since the Hundred Years War of the 14th century. Houses and churches were looted and burnt, crops and livestock destroyed. Rape and torture was commonplace, none were spared; old women and children fell to the bayonet but others were crushed under presses, thrown down wells or even into lighted bread ovens. There are accounts of bodies being flayed in order to tan their skin and of women being burned to collect their fat, “a thousand times more pleasant than lard.” Such outrages and the indiscriminate massacring of the population helped keep the anti-revolutionary flame alive in the region.

Brittany French Revolution

Following the rebels’ defeat at Le Mans, Jean Chouan returned to Ille-et-Vilaine; Georges Cadoudal returned home to Morbihan a short time later, after the defeat at Savenay. While the counter-revolutionary movement became popularly known as the Chouan revolt, Chouan himself was killed in action near La Gravelle in July 1794 but his anti-revolutionary spirit did not perish with him. In Morbihan, Cadoudal set about organising companies of insurgents in each parish, commanded by a captain elected by his men. Sometimes acting alone or in concert with others, these groups fought a classic guerrilla war, striking at Republican targets or ambushing military patrols before retreating back into the shadows.

The death of La Rouërie in 1793 had robbed the counter-revolutionary movement in Brittany of a clear leader but eventually Chouan commanders accepted the authority of Joseph de Puisaye who was installed as Commander of the Catholic and Royal Army of Brittany in October 1794. By this time, Morbihan was effectively controlled by the Chouans, believed to number over 15,000 strong; government authority only really existing within sight of its military garrisons and bayonets.

One of the greatest exploits of the Morbihan Chouans was the capture of the arsenal at Pont-de-Buis, south of Brest, on 17 June 1795. Here, some 300 men, alongside 200 reinforcements who had joined during the 130km march across Brittany, seized more gunpowder than they could carry; eight barrels were loaded onto carts but the majority of the precious powder was thrown into the nearby river. The Chouans all returned home, having successfully evaded the pursuing troops.

French Revolution Brittany

The strength of the Chouans in Morbihan was one of the reasons why the region was selected for the landing of an army of Royalist émigrés, some 3,500 strong, under the command of de Puisaye on 27 June 1795. The landings at Quiberon serve as a catastrophic example of the damage unchecked egos can do to undermine a common enterprise. The British warships transporting the émigrés and supplies for 40,000 men arrived off Quiberon on 23 June but rather than disembark immediately to maximise the element of surprise, de Puisaye suddenly found his deputy, the Comte d’Hervilly, claiming authority to command the expedition and urging extreme caution. D’Hervilly also considered the Chouans undisciplined and unreliable; a haughty attitude voiced by other émigré officers. Cadoudal’s Chouans had meanwhile overthrown the garrisons at Auray, Carnac and Landévant thus giving the Royalists control over these key coastal towns. However, the delay in linking the émigré army with the 15,000 Chouans spread along the coast did not help foster a spirit of trust.

At this stage, General Hoche, commanding the Army of the Coasts of the Ocean, was in Vannes with only 2,000 troops at his disposal but the Royalists’ inaction and their failure to properly liaise with the Chouans resulted in his being able to march against Auray and Landévant on 5 July with a force of over 13,000 men. Hoche pressed his advantage and tightened the noose around the Quiberon peninsula, while the Chouans defending this neck of land were hampered by thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting; a situation made worse by d’Hervilly’s reluctance to commit his troops to the fray.

On 10 July, the Royalists resolved to break Hoche’s stranglehold; sending 6,000 men, mostly Chouans, to be landed in two columns behind enemy lines so as to attack the besieging forces from the rear. However, the first column dispersed after being overwhelmed at the battle of Pont Aven on 16 July and the second was preparing its attack when a messenger, claiming to represent the Royalists, ordered them to disengage from the south coast and instead head north to support a new landing near Saint-Brieuc. Cadoudal, mindful of the use of Faux Chouans (Republican agitators who posed as Chouans in order to infiltrate their ranks to betray or undermine them), suspected a ruse but was overruled by the émigré officers. The column crossed the breadth of Brittany; taking Josselin, Quintin and Châtelaudren before reaching the coast on 24 July where it discovered no northern landings and heard of the total defeat of the southern ones. Disgusted, the Chouans, once again led by Cadoudal, dispersed and headed for their homes.

French Revolution Brittany

Two thousand more émigré soldiers were landed at Quiberon on 15 July under the command of the 24 year old Marquis de Sombreuil, but their offensive the next day was heavily defeated with d’Hervilly himself now added to the Royalist death toll of over 1,500. Hoche launched a major assault on 20 July which was greatly assisted by the desertion of former Republican prisoners of war who had been serving with the Royalists. To limit the extent of the Royalist defeat, de Puisaye now ordered his men to re-embark and 2,225 émigré and Chouan troops, along with 890 civilians were hurriedly taken off the beaches; a scene de Sombreuil described as “cowardly and deceitful.”

The following day, de Sombreuil sued for terms and agreed to surrender against a promise that his men would be spared and treated as honourable prisoners of war. Some 6,300 émigré and Chouan troops were captured; most of the Chouans were eventually released against ransom, along with about 5,000 civilians but the émigrés were imprisoned in conditions that saw 400 quickly perish. The Marquis de Sombreuil and almost 750 of his companions were subsequently shot by firing squads.

Despite this major setback, the chouannerie did not wither away. Cadoudal quickly rebuilt his forces but his relationship with de Puisaye was seriously fractured, causing the formation of two distinct forces; the Catholic and Royal Army of Morbihan led by Cadoudal and the Catholic and Royal Army of Rennes and Fougères led by de Puisaye whose influence also extended into neighbouring Maine and Normandy. Both armies continued to successfully attack and harass the troops and institutions of the Republic but did not maximise their impact by working together.

Brittany in French Revolution

Having been given total command over all Republican forces in the west in December 1795, General Hoche changed tactics; punitive mobile columns scoured the countryside in pursuit of rebels while amnesties were offered to those willing to give up their arms. Resistance in Vendée effectively crumbled after the capture and execution of key rebel leaders in March 1796. With the pacification of the Breton Marches, the Chouans in Brittany, tired of years living in hiding, begin to discuss the possibility of peace. Cadoual eventually agreed to submit on 22 June but de Puisaye refused and went into exile.

However, open rebellion against the Republic broke out again just three years later when the region’s anti-Republicans, including Cadoudal, agreed to launch a new uprising on 15 September 1799.  Cadoudal was quickly able to muster 18,000 men while 26,000 were raised in neighbouring Départments; although the Chouans managed to briefly capture several key cities such as Le Mans, Nantes, Sarzeau and Saint-Brieuc in October, they were repulsed at Vannes and Vire.

In 24 January 1800, at Loc’h bridge near Grand-Champ, 8,000 Chouans fought against 4,000 Republican troops who had taken the town to plunder the reserves of grain and food stored there. After a battle lasting several hours, the Republicans managed to withdraw in good order but the reported casualty figures vary so widely between protagonists as to be unhelpful; it was clearly a Chouan victory but not the decisive victory that they perhaps should have gained. This was the last major action of the chouannerie.

Georges Cadoudal
Georges Cadoudal

The coup d’état of 9 November 1799 that brought Napoléon Bonaparte to power carried significant changes in its wake. Bonaparte introduced a policy of pacification that offered religious freedom and the suspension of the military draft in exchange for the immediate submission of the Chouans; overtures that were reinforced by the presence of the highly effective General Brune and 30,000 experienced troops. Peace overtures with the Chouan leadership began to bear fruit, some commanders submitted to the new Consulate in December but it was not until 14 February 1800 that Cadoudal and his Chouans agreed to set aside their arms. Their surrender effectively brought the organised chouannerie to an end although isolated acts of rebellion would still be noted until the restoration in 1814.

As you might expect, two of the key figures involved in the counter-Revolution and its suppression suffered very different fates. Georges Cadoudal did not live long enough to see the restoration of the Bourbons; he was beheaded in Paris on 24 June 1804 and so lived just long enough to see Bonaparte assume the throne of France for himself. General Turreau, whose ruthless Infernal Columns forever altered the landscape of western France, served as Ambassador to the USA for eight years and was granted a hero’s place on the Arc de Triomphe. The careers and principles of these men were very different but both died convinced that they were true patriots of France.

Brittany’s Street Art

There is probably an interesting conversation to be had regarding the nature of graffiti and public art and another on whether graffiti can still serve as a rebellious expression when it is found on sites approved by the municipal authorities. Does graffiti need to be illegal or subversive to properly wear its tag or is safe street art equally as credible or valid?

This weekend, the capital of my Breton Département of Côtes d’Armor, Saint Brieuc, is hosting the fourth edition of a now popular street art festival. This year, the walls of seventeen buildings across this north coast city are being painted by graffiti artists from across France. Unfortunately, the covid-related travel restrictions have limited the international nature of this year’s festival but previous editions have featured artists from neighbouring Belgium, Germany, Italy and the UK as well as from further afield, such as Peru and Kyrgyzstan.

The images that follow are predominantly works painted in Saint Brieuc as part of the earlier festivals of street art but the header and footer images are from Rostrenen, a sleepy small town near the southern boundary of the Côtes d’Armor.

Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
The photo does not do this one justice!
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany

As you would imagine, selecting the sites to be painted in a modern port city with a historic medieval core surrounded by streets full of imposing early-19th century buildings, is no easy task. This year, having secured agreements with the buildings’ owners and the local authority, officials from Bâtiments de France, the government body responsible for town planning and preserving the nation’s built heritage, threw a rather large spanner in the works when they refused to sanction 18 of the 27 sites submitted to them.

This year, it has therefore been necessary to recycle some sites used during earlier years; inevitably losing the works painted there. Many of the murals painted for previous festivals were always destined to remain no longer than the last of the summer visitors but several frescoes are still adorning the walls of the city today; fading gracefully before the relentless power of the elements.

After this weekend, there should be some 55 officially graffitied facades across the city, as well as a few unapproved ones; the officially sanctioned ones are not tucked away down obscure side streets but are found on the main thoroughfares. If you do decide to hunt them all down, your arty ambling across town can now be directed with the aid of a downloadable phone app!

Street Art Brittany

If I am able to get some decent shots of this year’s murals, then a follow-up post may be in order!

The Rare, the Rude and the Unusual

Travellers who visited Brittany in the 19th and early 20th centuries were often struck by the marked and widespread Christian piety that was such a feature of daily life here. Writing as late as 1917, the author Lewis Spence noted: “Nowhere else, will one find such great masses of people so completely lost in religious fervour during the usual Church services and the grander and more impressive festivals so solemnly observed.”

I have touched on the development of the Christian faith and religious practices in Brittany before and do not propose delving into it again here. However, the inextricable blend of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs and practices that existed here for centuries saw a quite distinct, if not unorthodox, approach to worship emerge. Aside from the localised nature of the saints venerated, this distinctiveness can be noted in the siting of churches, their architecture and the iconography found therein.

Many of the region’s churches were built near, or even atop, ancient devotional sites such as megaliths or fresh-water springs and it is not unusual to encounter ancient steles that have long been re-sited inside churchyards or against churches. However, one of the most striking and original features of Brittany’s religious heritage is the Parish Close, an ecclesiastical architectural ensemble unique to Brittany. Dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, these Closes usually consist of a walled circular enclosure, a monumental gateway styled as a triumphal arch, an impressive discrete ossuary, an ornate calvary and often a separate Sacristy.

calvary Plougonven - Brittany churches
The calvary at Plougonven

While the monumental calvaries usually contain scenes from the life and Passion of Christ, the calvary at Guimiliau is said to portray a local teenager being dragged into the jaws of Hell. Local legend tells that this is Katell Gollet, a 16 year old girl whose beauty was matched only by her depravity; she spent all her days dancing and carousing much to the consternation of her guardian. Uncontrollable, she eventually agreed to marry but only to the man who could dance with her for twelve hours in a row. Many men tried but most fell dead from fatigue until, having invoked the powers of Hell for new musicians able to keep up with her, the Devil himself joined young Katell and danced with her in an infernal jig across the threshold of Hell.

calvary Guimiliau - Brittany churches
Katell Gollet on the calvary at Guimiliau

The churches that became the centrepiece of these Closes almost always display a deep, elaborately sculpted porch with tympanum containing statues of the Apostles crafted in painted stone or wood. Outside, the buildings boasted tall granite bell towers with lanterns and soaring spires, staircase towers and ornate pinnacles; sometimes many being grouped together at varying heights to deliver maximum visual impact. Recesses housed brightly painted statues of saints but nowadays most are missing and, of those that survive, only tantalising traces of their polychrome remain.

porch Kergrist-Moëlou Brittany churches
The porch at Kergrist-Moëlou

The interior of these churches were ornately decorated with highly crafted carved beams, Glory Beams, pulpits, baptismal fonts and altarpieces which were all richly painted and set under vaulted ceilings highlighted in dazzling shades of blue or green. Sadly, the devastation wrought by the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century and the Revolution and Counter-Revolution at the end of the 18th century saw the destruction and loss of much of Brittany’s priceless religious heritage. However, a great deal of what has survived to this day is truly remarkable.

Decorated beams Lampaul Guimiliau
Decorated beams in Lampaul Guimiliau

Although there were a hundred and ten Rood Screens noted in Brittany in the 17th century, less than a score are now extant and only a dozen in their complete state; wonderful displays of polychrome wood with painted panels, sculptured figures and ornamental carvings on multiple levels. Designed to separate the choir from the nave and thus keep the altar out of sight of the congregation, the screens were gradually removed from churches following the Council of Trent in 1563 as part of a move to demystify the rites of the Eucharist and allow the congregation to more easily follow the service. Although the number of survivors in Brittany is small, they represent the largest concentration in France.

Rood Screen - Brittany churches
The Rood Screen at Priziac

Other interesting survivors from earlier times are the Chime Wheels which were once quite common throughout France during the Middle Ages. Some fifteen bells were noted in Brittany in 1909 but only seven now remain, mostly located in the centre of the region. These small bells, each delivering a different note and ranging in number from six to 24, are attached at regular intervals to the rim of a wall-mounted wooden wheel varying in size between 0.6m and 1.75m and activated by a pull-cord or a crank. Officially, the bells were said to have been used as a sacring bell during mass or rung during periods when bells were prohibited or to celebrate special events such as baptisms and weddings.

However, the wheels seem to have been more popularly known as Rod ar Fortun in Breton: the Wheel of Fortune and it was this reputation that famously caused the rector of Berhet to destroy the church’s wheel in the mid-19th century. One pilgrim having noted that: “we paid two sous each time … depending on where the wheel stopped, the omen was favourable or not,” while the wheel at Quéven was said to indicate that fortune would be favourable if it ran continuously but the opposite was held true if it stopped suddenly. Such irreligious attention saw the wheel removed in 1944; much to the consternation of the local parishioners.

Chime Wheel Confort Meilars - Brittany churches
The Chime Wheel at Confort-Meilars

The wheels were also believed to possess therapeutic and healing properties. Children with speech impediments or hearing difficulties were often taken to spin the bells of the Confort-Meilars wheel above their heads, in order to be cured by its sound; a practice still popularly noted in the late-1920s.

Another unusual relic of past times are the Lanterns of the Dead, over half a dozen of which are noted in Brittany; ranging in date from the 12th to 17th centuries and from simple granite columns of about a metre high to more elaborate structures standing some seven metres tall. These edifices were used to house a lamp that was lit to herald the death of a parishioner thus perpetuating the ancient rite of light whose function was to guide the soul of the departed. Unsurprisingly, the lanterns were also traditionally lit on All Saints’ Day.

Lantern of the Dead - Brittany churches
The Lantern of the Dead at Guegon

Representations of the Danse Macabre or Dance of Death were first recorded in Paris in 1424 and slowly spread throughout Europe over the next two hundred years. Three examples were noted in the churches of Brittany, two of which are still extant today; sadly, the fresco that once adorned the wall of the church in Josselin is known to have succumbed to the ravages of time at the end of the 19th century. The fresco in the church of Kernascléden dates from the mid-15th century, while the one found in the chapel of Kermaria, near Plouha, is a little later, having been painted between 1485 and 1500.

Danse Macabre - Brittany churches
Dance of Death in Kermaria, Plouha

In the Kernascléden fresco, the Duke of Brittany precedes the King of France in the procession, which is not the case in Kermaria, painted at a time when French influence in Brittany had markedly increased and just over a generation before its controversial annexation by the French crown. Today, of the seven surviving Danse Macabre frescos in France, two are to be found in Brittany.

Ankou La Martyre - Brittany churches
Ankou in the font of the South porch at La Martyre

Some of the iconography found in the churches of Brittany is surprisingly inconsistent with approved Church dogma. Representations of the personification of death, the Ankou, are found adorning the inside and outside of several churches but he is not the character of death sometimes seen in churches elsewhere. The Ankou was believed to announce death and even forewarn people of it, often long before gathering their souls; an important figure that underlined the role of fear in a religion centred on death and the afterlife that was promoted here for so long. Another reminder of the inevitability of death is found in the church in Magoar which contains a tall long-cased clock whose, single-dial, face warns that: “The last hour is hidden.”

Death clock Magoar - Brittany churches

The cult of the Virgin as Mother of God grew significantly in Western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries; being revered as the Queen of Heaven, personification of the Church and Bride of Christ. In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, many towns and villages placed themselves under the Virgin’s protection and churches dedicated to Notre-Dame or Our Lady abound, often bearing quite specific markers, such as Notre-Dame du Bon Voyage (of the good journey), Notre-Dame du Roncier (of the bramble) and Notre-Dame de la Fosse (of the pit). At times, such distinct local identities were noted to have caused a challenge to the local priest when some of his parishioners were convinced that their church alone held the image of the real Virgin; those found in neighbouring towns were regarded as imposters – at best, a sister or cousin of the Virgin.

Representations of the Virgin are commonly found in every Catholic church in Brittany but less common are those portraying the Virgin breast-feeding Christ. That said, there are many examples throughout Brittany particularly in the west of the region. Such statues, carved in wood and stone, seem to mainly date from the 16th and 17th centuries and share certain characteristics; around 1.65m in height, the Virgin’s hair held in place by a wide band, wearing an unfastened top-garment that displays only the right breast although the statue in Tréguron reveals both and is the only one that shows her seated and one of only two (the other is at Kerlaz) that portrays her ample lactation.

Breast-feeding Virgin of Tréguron - Brittany churches
The breast-feeding Virgin of Tréguron

The church in Lanrivain contains a rather charming carved wooden statue depicting a reclining Virgin breast-feeding. Images of reclining Virgins are quite rare in Western Europe but there are ten others, dating from between the 15th and 17th centuries, to discover across Brittany.

Unsurprisingly, the sites of these “Virgins of the Milk” were once popularly visited by expectant mothers or those women experiencing difficulties expressing milk. Although skirting the limits of Catholic dogma, it is clear that such images were not retired even after the promulgations of the Council of Trent in December 1563 which expressly forbade any “image which recalls an erroneous dogma and which can lead the simple astray.” Only images that avoided all impurity and did not generate any provocative attractions were then permitted within the church precepts but such proscriptions clearly had little effect on popular devotion. Many troublesome statues were modified or quietly buried, others were put into closed niches and some were draped with a modesty veil; a practice still noted in two locations here in the late 1960s.

Another fairly unusual feature of some of the 16th and 17th century statues of the Virgin carved in Brittany are the depictions of her trampling evil underfoot, such evil commonly being represented as a horned demon, part woman-part serpent or fish, baring her chest and holding an apple while prostrate upon the ground. Over fifty examples have been noted, predominantly in the western half of the region, and such demons are also found in a dozen of the surviving ‘Trees of Jesse’ carved here during the same period.

Virgin Mary and demons - Brittany churches
The Virgin suppressing the demon of Brennilis

To ensure his churches were operating consistent to the decrees of the Council of Trent, the Bishop of Quimper relayed a fairly strong message in his synod statutes, instructing his clergy: “Images which have something mutilated, profane and indecent; that represent stories contrary to the truth of Scripture, or ecclesiastical traditions, must be carefully removed, without scandal, and hidden underground in the cemetery.”

Rumengol church
The church at Rumengol

Less than 250 years later, in the wake of the Revolution and the rather puritanical inclinations of early 19th century France, many more statues and carvings of questionable morality were disfigured or destroyed. However, many figures rich in sexual symbolism and suggestion seem to have survived these culls and remain in plain view today.

Brasparts church Brittany
The church at Brasparts

Some of these images could, generously, be said designed to edify the faithful and encourage them to denounce lust and other sins; others less so.

Quimper cathedral
Detail from Quimper Cathedral
Tremalo Chapel Pont Aven Brittany
Tremalo Chapel in Pont Aven
masturbating in St John the Baptist church Le Croisty
St John the Baptist church in Le Croisty

This scene from Notre-Dame de Crénénan near Ploërdut of the lady with the distaff has been interpreted to suggest that the distaff symbolizes sex and fertility. Thus armed, the lady catches the tail of the fox – a once popular epithet applied to those predatory men who chased younger women – that has stolen her sausage.

Crenenan church Brittany

In the church in Landerneau, the lady seated on the ground holds her distaff in her right hand and the pig’s tail in her left, while a man braces himself behind her pulling the braids out of her hair. This is thought to represent lust and gluttony but is the piercing of the barrel also symbolic?

Landerneau church Brittany

This, on a beam in the church at Lanvénégen, is possibly a development of the once popular Medieval story of Renart the fox preaching to the chickens?

Renart and the chickens

I can offer no reasonable suggestion as to the reasoning behind this, from the church in Graces, but similar images have been noted in 16th century manuscripts.

Graces church Brittany

Other carved contortions seem to require no comment at all.

Chapel of the Trinity Plumergat
From the Chapel of the Trinity in Plumergat
Ceiling boss Bodilis church
Ceiling boss from the church in Bodilis
Ceiling boss Chatelaudren church
Ceiling boss from the church in Chatelaudren
Ceiling boss La Roche Maurice
Ceiling boss from the church in La Roche Maurice

What these images lack in artistic refinement, they surely make up for in imaginative power and cause one to wonder; if these were thought appropriate enough to survive the various moral culls of the last five hundred years, what might have been destroyed?

The Seven Sacred Plants of Midsummer

In Brittany, the arrival of midsummer was traditionally celebrated by the lighting of massive communal bonfires and their attendant rituals; ancient practices that, despite the best efforts of the Church to suppress them, continued here well into living memory.

It is important to note that in establishing its liturgical calendar, the early Church took care to divert the popular feelings associated with the major pagan festivals by supplanting these with Christian ones. Thus assigning the Feast of Saint John to the twenty-fourth of June was likely a deliberate attempt to displace the Midsummer festivals so popularly rooted in European culture.

As a major celebration of the power of the natural world, we should not be surprised that native plants once played a key role in many of the rites associated with the celebration of Midsummer in Brittany. Sadly, the original names of the most important ceremonial plants have now been lost to us; they having long been dispossessed by designations such as Saint John’s Plant, the Grass of Saint John or Saint John’s Wort and the Herbs of Saint John. In some parts of France, Saint John’s Plant was another name given to Saint John’s Wort but in Brittany it was a term applied to Stonecrop.


Bunches of Saint John’s Plant were used in the ceremonial processions around the Midsummer bonfires; young women, alternating with young men carrying burning torches, would carry it while they circled the communal pyre. After nine circuits had been completed three times, the women held out their branches towards the centre of the fire while the men used their flaming torches to describe a series of three circles above their heads. While the men took their burning brands into the surrounding fields, the women passed their branches through the fire and circulated amongst the crowd as the smoke from the smouldering plant was believed to fortify one’s eyesight over the year ahead. Likewise, Garlic, roasted in the Midsummer fire, was prized as it was believed to be a powerful medicine against fevers.

The Stonecrop branches that had been used by the dancing women were usually retained by them as a charm against illness over the year ahead. They were taken home and often hung from the ceiling beams; if they continued to grow, it was taken as a sign of good luck but if they withered, as an omen of a death in the household within the year. In the local folk medicine, Stonecrop was commonly used as a purgative and also in the treatment of burns.

In the Breton tradition, the Herbs of Saint John were more popularly known as the Seven Sacred Herbs of Saint John; a collection of plants that included Daisy, Ground-Ivy, Houseleek, Mugwort, Sage, Saint John’s Wort and Yarrow. To harness the innate power of these plants, it was believed necessary to harvest them at the most auspicious time – the summer solstice, when the benevolent force of nature was thought at its most powerful; an energy that was said to be transmitted to the plants themselves.

Gathering Midsummer plants

In time, the morning of St. John’s Day replaced actual Midsummer in popular devotion but it was still believed necessary to only gather the plants with the left hand whilst walking backwards, barefoot through the dew in a state of grace and on an empty stomach; such proscriptions were said to help ensure that the hand did not take too much of nature’s bounty.

This ritual bears remarkable similarities to those noted by Pliny when discussing, in his Natural History written in the late 1st century, the remedies derived from the forests by the ancient druids: “Care is taken to gather it without the use of iron, the right hand being passed for the purpose through the left sleeve of the tunic, as though the gatherer were stealing it. The clothing must be white, the feet bare and washed clean, and a sacrifice of bread and wine must be made before gathering it: it is carried in a new cloth.” Like other European traditions surrounding the picking of special plants, yesterday’s Bretons seem to have absorbed some elements of these early rituals for their own plants.

The Dog Daisy or Marguerite was often known as the sun’s flower in Brittany and was once employed against a wide range of ailments. Dried and crushed, the plant’s flower was applied directly to wounds as a treatment but the same compound was infused in cold water when the resultant liquid was used as an eye bath to relieve conjunctivitis. A decoction of the plant, boiled in red wine, was drunk before bedtime in order to reduce a fever but a decoction boiled in water was believed to deliver calming, anti-spasmodic benefits and to aid digestion.

Dog Daisy
Dog Daisy

The plant’s leaves and roots were crushed and macerated in white wine overnight before the compound was applied as a poultice to treat sebaceous cysts although some healers recommended regularly bathing the cyst with this liquid instead. Other healers here thought the ailment was best treated by the application of a hot plaster composed of the plant’s leaves previously boiled in vinegar. When boiled with Walnut leaves, an infusion of the plant’s petals was said to be a useful means of purifying the blood if drunk regularly. Preparations made from the plant were also said to be effective in treating rheumatism.

Ground-Ivy, sometimes also known here as Saint John’s Belt, was a plant more commonly employed in the fight against bronchial disorders at which some healers swore that it was without equal. A length of the plant was crushed and boiled in water which was then left to infuse for a further third of an hour and usually sweetened with a little honey. A few bowls of this concoction was taken three times a day before meals as an effective treatment. When boiled in milk and drunk before going to bed, the plant was believed to alleviate coughs and asthma. A compound of crushed leaves and lard was applied as an ointment to treat burns, while an amulet containing the same mixture was often given to children to wear in the belief that it protected them against night terrors.


In Brittany, Houseleek was once attributed marvellous qualities; Breton households traditionally cultivated one or two plants on the lower parts of their roof to preserve their homes against lightning strikes and to warn against the approach of a witch as the plant was said to immediately wither whenever a witch entered the house. Folk healers most popularly applied the plant’s juice directly into the ear to treat infection and severe earaches but the fleshy leaves were also peeled and applied directly to cuts and burns and even crushed to form a poultice used in the treatment of corns and eczema.

Mugwort is another plant that was sometimes known as Saint John’s Plant and was popularly regarded as a magical herb in the late Middle Ages; it was believed that, if gathered on the eve of Saint John’s Day, the plant provided protection against disease, evil spirits, poisons and all misfortunes arising from fire and water. In the region’s traditional healing remedies, the plant’s flowering stems were used to treat menstrual difficulties and to strengthen the digestive system. Some healers advocated its consumption, before breakfast, after it had been macerated in white wine for eight days while others recommended that it be infused in water for thirty minutes and taken as a decoction three times a day between meals.


The herb Sage is another plant whose effectiveness has been attested to since the days of Ancient Rome. In Brittany, its use was recommended in all manner of treatments for curing various ailments in animals and humans, even rabies. Infusions prepared from the plant’s leaves were taken to aid menstruation and to treat abdominal bloating and diarrhoea; used as a mouthwash, the same concoction was used to combat toothache and bleeding gums. Applied topically, the plant was used as a remedy against skin irritations and minor injuries.

Another plant whose medicinal value has been noted since antiquity, Saint John’s Wort, also known as Saint John’s Beard, was once the key ingredient in a variety of treatments and natural remedies here. The plant’s flowers and leaves produced an effective emollient and skin balm with anti-inflammatory qualities. One popular remedy derived from the plant called for its leaves to be macerated in vegetable oil and exposed to sunlight for three weeks; the resultant oily mixture was then filtered through a cloth and applied directly, as an ointment, in the treatment of burns. The same blend was also massaged into the body to alleviate rheumatic pain and to treat wounds and sores.


Preparations from the plant were also taken in the belief that it purified the blood. Since the Middle Ages, the plant has possessed a reputation as a mood elevator or anti-depressant and modern scientific research would tend to support such beliefs. Alongside its ability to chase away melancholia, Saint John’s Wort was also considered a plant capable of warding off evil spirits. Likewise, Chicory, picked by the root on the morning of Midsummer was said to thwart the evil spells that might be cast against you.

The virtues of Yarrow have been noted since ancient times when it was said to help heal wounds. In the traditional medicine of Brittany, the plant enjoyed a reputation for possessing a multitude of healing properties; preparations from the plant were used to stimulate the appetite, cure digestive difficulties and relieve menstrual pain. An infusion of the plant’s flowers, taken three times a day before meals, was believed to attack intestinal parasites. A decoction of the plant in hot water was taken as a remedy against colds, fatigue, stomach aches and even varicose veins and haemorrhoids. However, some healers advised treating the latter problem with a plaster that had been soaked in the same decoction; this was also the procedure used to treat sore and chapped breasts. One recipe to ease toothache called for a little of the plant’s leaf to be crushed and inserted into the ear nearest to the afflicted tooth in order to gain relief from the pain. The plant’s extracts remain in popular use in herbal medicine in France today.


Typically, all these plants were dried and carefully stored to help cope with the everyday ailments anticipated over the course of the year ahead.  Sometimes, they were mounted in bouquets or wreaths and placed to bring on good luck or to ward off the evil spells. When combined appropriately, this combination of herbs was believed able to counteract most fevers and be powerful enough to repel witchcraft. In the 16th century, bathing in water in which a hot decoction of these herbs had been mixed was believed to aid female fertility.

Midsummer’s Day was also believed to be the most auspicious occasion for gathering the plants that made the strongest love potion, namely: Marjoram, Myrtle, Thyme and Verbena. The dried leaves were ground to a fine powder and taken as a snuff. However, if a woman wanted her partner to love her dearly, it was recommended that she put a Walnut leaf, picked on the eve of Midsummer, in her left shoe while the Nones bell was ringing. An equally bizarre ritual was advised for those whose love was unrequited; it was thought necessary to collect some Elecampane before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day. Once dried, the plant’s crushed leaves were mixed with ambergris and worn in an amulet around the neck for nine days. All that then remained was to somehow get the object of one’s desire to eat, without being aware of doing so, a little of this concoction three times.

Saint John's Wort
Saint John’s Wort

Additionally, Midsummer was also a time very closely associated with some of Brittany’s magical plants, many of whom were also reputed to carry harvesting rituals similar to those reserved for the Seven Sacred Herbs of Saint John. Gathering these plants on the night before or on the morning or evening of Midsummer was believed to protect their magical virtues.

The fern or, more properly, the spores of the Eagle Fern collected on the eve of Midsummer were held to be effective in helping one find hidden treasures and to read the secrets hidden in people’s hearts. It was said to ensure victory in a struggle but also to grant invisibility to whomever held it in their mouth. Belief in the supernatural power of the fern, particularly its ability to resist all magic spells, was widespread enough in Europe for the practice of collecting ferns during Midsummer to have still been proscribed by Church Synods into the early 17th century.


Sometimes said to emerge spontaneously on Midsummer’s night, the Grass of Oblivion was thought to make it possible to understand the language of animals and to find lost items. It was also believed able to allow one to thwart the malice of witches but whoever unknowingly stepped on it, immediately lost their way and at risk of finding themselves at the mercy of the mischief of the korrigans.

Panicaut gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Eve was believed to be cure sick animals, while the health of cows was thought preserved over the year ahead if their hooves were rubbed with a paste made of the ground Herbs of Saint John gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Day. Similarly, to protect against witchcraft over the year ahead, it was necessary to assemble, at dawn, all one’s sheep at a crossroads on Midsummer’s Eve and smoke them with the Herbs of Saint John picked on the previous Midsummer.

Such fires, lit at crossroads, were said to prevent witches passing there during the night and some have suggested that the ancient fire festivals of Europe, such as the bonfires of Midsummer, were, in fact, rites aimed at cleansing the land of curses and the malevolence of witchcraft in an attempt to ensure a fruitful harvest and healthy livestock over the year ahead; once such key concerns for our ancestors.

The Mermaids of Brittany

The bestiaries of the Middle Ages included fantastic beasts such as unicorns, mermaids and dragons but popular belief in such creatures did not entirely die away after the Age of Enlightenment. Along Brittany’s wild coastline, stories of sailors and seashore gatherers encountering mermaids remained commonplace well into the 19th century.

In May 1636, the Duke de Retz, Marquis of Belle-Île, reported the presence of a merman seen seated on a rock near the Pointe des Poulains on his island’s north coast; the creature’s “body appeared to be the size of a barrel of wine, covered to the shoulders with hair, very big and rather white. His beard was similar and went to his stomach. His eyes were very big and rough.” Credible witnesses claimed “they could not see whether the legs and feet were of a man or of a fish tail, although some assure the latter,” and that “the arms and hands were very well proportioned, for the hands which he had were extraordinarily large and white on the inside and the arms a little short.”

The following day, boats were sent out to try and capture the creature; it broke the pursuers’ nets without any difficulty and even overturned one of their vessels. Eventually caught in a net, the merman managed to escape and for the next fortnight showed himself in inaccessible places around the island’s north coast. It was shot by an arquebus but no one was sure whether the creature was wounded as it plunged under the waves and was never seen again.

mermaid of Belle Ile

The poet Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant, who was then staying on the island, also related this episode but described a creature with green eyes, azure hair and a body covered in scales. Having added further poetical flourishes such as a mother-of-pearl horn, coral plumes, pearl scarf and amber perfume, Saint-Amant’s account sadly owes more to his imagination than anything seen by genuine witnesses.

The same summer that the creature was sighted off Belle-Île, fishermen and merchants travelling from there to the south coast city of Vannes, on the Breton mainland, reported something similar on rocks near the Chaussée du Béniguet: “he had no beard and very long hair, and assuredly, instead of legs, he had two fish tails shaped like a salmon.”

Off Brittany’s west coast in 1725, the thirty-two man crew of a ship from Brest reported that for two hours their vessel was taunted by a merman some eight feet long, who possessed human ears, black hair and webbed hands and feet. However, the sighting might have carried more weight if the creature was not also said to have been overly enamoured by the ship’s figurehead of a shapely woman.

Mermaids 18th century illustrations

In June 1761, a respected physician announced the beaching of a mermaid on the shore of the Île de Noirmoutier just six miles off the south coast of Brittany. He recounted that two local girls had been collecting shellfish when one came across an “animal in human form” lying in a small cave. The November 1761 edition of Mercure de France noted that: “As soon as it saw her, it stood straight and leaned on both hands. She called her companion, who being armed with a dart, pushed it into the heart of the beast, which made a moan similar to that of a person. Both girls cut off its hands, which had well-formed fingers and nails with fins between the fingers. The island’s doctor was called and he reported that this sea monster was the size of the biggest man we can imagine; that its skin was white, of a colour like the flesh of a drowned man; it had a very well formed female breast, a flattened nose, a large mouth whose chin was adorned with a species of beard formed of delicate scales and that it had similar scattered clumps all over. Its tail was that of a fish and at the end there were a kind of feet.”

A few years later, in January 1763 a naval officer from Brest reported a stranded merman near the west coast town of Le Conquet and in the following year a naval doctor from the same port described two “sea monsters” discovered stranded near Brest which he described as the “devil of the sea.”

Writing of his tour of the province in the mid-1790s, Jacques Cambry in his Voyage dans le Finistère (1799) noted: “There are few sailors on this coast who do not say they have heard the wail, the cry of the mermaid.” He also recounts a tale of the mermaid of the Pointe du Raz that an ill-advised fisherman from Douarnenez tried to capture. Seeing him approach with nets, she rushed into the sea and immediately invoked a terrible storm that threw twenty broken boats ashore.

Mermaid Brittany

The rocks lying off the Pointe du Van on Brittany’s Atlantic coast were said to be a preferred haunt for mermaids as late as the end of the 19th century. The Breton ethnographer Hyacinthe Le Carguet reported the first-hand testimony given to him by a fisherman in 1886: from the cliffs of Kerbesquerrien, he had seen with his own eyes a mermaid frolic not far from shore, disappear and then reappear again. She let her long hair float on her back and from time to time uttered a veiled call as a song. He assured Le Carguet that he had been able to observe the creature for a long time over two days before it disappeared, heading north towards the Basse-Jaune reef.

Le Carguet tried to convince the fisherman of another explanation for the phenomenon; the maritime authorities had recently reported that a buoy topped with a foghorn had broken its chain and carried by the current, must have drifted into the bay before being caught by the ebb. The mermaid’s song was the muffled sound of the foghorn and a mass of entangled seaweed, her hair. Unfortunately, Le Carguet’s scepticism displeased his interlocutor, who, like many at the time, believed in the existence of mermaids.

Other witnesses, whose sincerity cannot be doubted, also claimed to have seen mermaids, most often in the classic pose of sitting on a rock, combing their golden hair. One account collected in the 1950s recounts how, in his youth in 1890, the Dean of Goulien was in a rowing boat, sea-fishing with friends when deteriorating weather forced them to return to port. As they were doing so, a mermaid approached and swam around their boat. The young men first tried to catch it but succeeded only in antagonising the creature who then became threatening, diving several times under the boat as if to capsize it. The fishermen tried to strike her with their oars and the waves picked-up markedly thus making it impossible to access the cove that served as their harbour.

The mermaid followed the boat for more than an hour as the men struggled against the waves to bring their vessel into another anchorage. “I saw it well, she had a fishtail and her upper body was like that of a woman; a beautiful woman with red cheeks and black hair that floated on the water,” described the Dean who was unable to report on the creature’s chest and hands because they remained constantly submerged.

Mermaid Byrne Jones

This account corresponds to the well-established belief once widely held by the fishermen of western Brittany, that before a storm, mermaids were often sighted; foreshadowing a drowning. It is, of course, likely that the creature the men encountered was a seal but the power of the imagination, coupled with popular tradition, evoked in them the image that custom dictated they should see: a mermaid. The authentic flavour of the story comes from their efforts to reconcile the reality that was before their eyes with the ready-made image conjured by the tales they had grown-up with. 

In Breton folklore, mermaids (sirènes in French) are usually portrayed as small, mischievous creatures well-versed in the dark arts of magic and evil spells. Like the sirens of antiquity, their songs were said to possess the power to bewitch any man that heard them and they are often depicted taunting young fishermen with their amorous solicitations. These traits appear little changed from the many descriptions noted in the bestiaries of medieval Europe where mermaids symbolised lustful, faithless women.

Richard de Fournival’s mid-13th century Bestiary of Love noted: “There are three types of mermaids, two of which are half-woman, half-fish and the third is half-woman and half-bird. All are musicians: one plays the horn, another, the harp, and the last sings with a female voice. The mermaid’s melody is so pleasant that there is no man who can hear it, no matter how distant, without being compelled to come to her but when he draws near, he falls asleep and when the mermaid finds him, she kills him.”

Mermaids medieval bestiary

Writing at about the same time, Dante’s guardian and tutor, the philosopher Brunetto Latini, claimed they were “harlots who deceived travellers and reduced them to poverty. If history says that they had wings and claws, it is to symbolize love, which flies and strikes; and if they dwelt in the water, it is because lust is born from the wet.”

Clearly, physical descriptions of mermaids have varied over time; the one depicted in the 12th century Cambridge bestiary possesses a fish’s tail, the talons of an eagle and a skirt of bird feathers and fish scales. However, the 7th century Liber Monstrorum or Book of Monsters, says that “from the head to the navel they have a maiden’s body and are most like the human form but they have the scaly tails of a fish which they always hide in the sea.” This image of the mermaid is the one most commonly found in Breton lore into the 19th century when “the sailors of Trégor assure that they have seen it sometimes and more often heard it: it has the head and breast of a woman, the rest of the body is a fish.”

Cambridge bestiary - mermaid
© Cambridge University Library (MS Ii.4.26)

Just as described in the seventh century, Brittany’s mermaids were believed to use their beauty and enchanting songs to lure hapless men to their destruction and damnation. Calling out to the men aboard the vessels at sea, the mermaids were said to sing so marvellously that no mortal could resist the temptation to join them in their undersea domain; inevitably resulting in shipwrecks and the deaths of sailors. Their beauty and fatal sensuality personified not so much the wantonness of women but the allure and dangers of the sea itself.

In Breton lore, mermaids were rarely encountered in the open sea; they were believed to prefer staying close to the coast, particularly near the mouths of rivers or the entrance to grottos. Breton sailors claimed that the appearance of a mermaid always announced bad weather. In western Brittany, it was believed that it was enough to see a mermaid, or even to accidentally touch one, to start a fierce storm. On the coast of Finistère, mermaids were often known by the name of Mac’harit an gwall amzer or Margaret Foul Weather; their voice was said to possess the power to make the sea rage or to reduce the wind to dead calm. An old proverb warned that: “When Mac’harit starts to sing, the sailor starts to cry.”

Legends from the south east of the region tell of mermaids’ warning men not to touch their hair; to do so would risk calamity and death, while other legends equated the mermaid’s touch with certain death. As a creature that had rejected God’s word, the touch of a mermaid was sometimes thought enough to condemn a man to suffer the saddest fate faced by a Christian; condemned never to rest in the troughs of the waves and with the mark of baptism forever effaced from his forehead. Never would the unfortunate know the joy of resting in holy ground; never would he have a grave where his loved ones might come to pray for his salvation.

Mermaid Brittany

Mermaids here were also widely believed to have the power to take their victims to the depths of their underwater lair by a single touch; even the slightest touch of a part of her body was thought enough to force a man to rush irresistibly into the sea. It was this magical ability that explained how the mermaid of the Pointe de la Latte was able to abduct a large number of young men: as soon as she had managed to touch only one of them with the tip of her finger, they could not avoid following her into the depths.

An 11th century account of the life of Saint Tudual tells of religious students walking along the banks of the Tréguier River, when the last of their group, who was remarkably beautiful, stopped talking mid-sentence. When his companions turned around, they could see no trace of him. Having searched in vain, they invoked Saint Tudual and a moment later the young man emerged from the water, his right foot tangled in a silk belt.

Once calmed, he explained: “Mermaids seized me and dragged me under the waves of the ocean. Although taken by them far away, I still heard your voices. Then before me, a venerable figure, dressed in priestly garb, appeared. With a mighty arm he tore me from them and through the mighty waves he brought me back to the shore. When they saw him, the mermaids fled but one of them forgot to unfasten the belt she had wrapped around me; it is here as proof of my abduction.”

Mermaid Brittany

It was said that an inaccessible sea cave on Brittany’s west coast, near Crozon, was once home to a group of mermaids. One evening, a local lord was travelling home along the cliff-top path above this cave when he came across a baby girl, seemingly abandoned in a basket. He took her home and he and his wife raised the child as though she had been their own. However, the girl was a mermaid and often, at night, disappeared from the crib where she had been laid, without anyone knowing what had become of her.

When she reached her teenage years, the people of the castle often heard, at dusk, the sound of a horse in the courtyard; it was a folgoat or water horse calling the young mermaid who seemed to answer its cries with a dazzling light before disappearing, sometimes for weeks on end. Those who had raised her tried in vain to hold her heart to theirs but one day she left and did not come back. According to legend, she still lives in the cave at Crozon; home to the last mermaid.

On Brittany’s north coast, the mermaid of La Fresnaye was said to have preferred spending her time in the little cove watered on each side by the two rivers that flow into the sea there. It was in that spot that, on the rising tide, one could see her gliding on the waves and hear her soft voice floating over the water; wherever she passed, the sea shone like sunshine. One day, having fallen asleep, rocked by the waves, the mermaid was floating a short distance from shore when she was captured by a clog-maker. She was the size of an eight year old girl; on her head floated golden hair and her polished white body resembled that of a woman but instead of feet she had fins and a fishtail. Ignoring her pleas to be returned to the water, the clog-maker took his prize home to his wife who was minded to eat the poor creature.

mermaid of La Fresnaye

After reminding the clog-maker’s wife of the instant death that befell anyone who desecrated the flesh of a mermaid, she again pleaded to be put back in the ocean and offered to grant the family their hearts’ desire, for she possessed the power of the fairies. The clog-maker and his wife eventually carried the mermaid back to the sea and soon their wish for food, good clothes and gold was granted. After a year, the gold had all been spent and the clog-maker once again asked the mermaid for a full purse, which she duly granted before forever leaving Brittany for India. Another legend tells that a once stranded mermaid gave a flute to a fisherman as a reward for returning her to the sea; whenever he played this magical instrument, the mermaid would appear and deliver whatever aid she could.

Another tale tells that two women of Ouessant were collecting shellfish when they encountered a mermaid drying her treasures in the sun, spread out on two beautiful white cloths. The curious girls reached her without being seen and the mermaid, surprised to see that the girls were gentle, gave them each a gift wrapped in her fine cloth, on condition that they did not to look at them until they had returned home. One of the girls, too impatient to discover what she believed to be some marvellous treasure, unwrapped her cloth and found only horse dung. The other girl went home and opened her gift before her parents, to discover fine pearls, precious stones, gold and rich fabrics. The family became fabulously wealthy and it is said their descendants still live on the island in comfort today, thanks to the mermaid’s treasure.

Some Breton tales tell that mermaids are grateful to mortals who return any stranded beauties to the sea, offering favour and fortune to those who have shown them consideration and kindness. The mermaid saved by the mother of the Breton hero Rannou had given her, for her son, a conch shell filled with a magical potion; thanks to her gift, Rannou became the strongest of all men. However, in the folklore of western Brittany, such benevolent mermaids are exceptional; most tales represent them as treacherous, evil or cruel creatures.

Brittany and mermaids

On the Île de Groix, the cliff chasm known as Trou de l’Enfer was said to be home to a fierce merman; a thickly furred beast with the head of a man displaying disjointed teeth and fingers of abalone shells. This merman was reputedly the instigator of shipwrecks because his voice allowed him to imitate those of boat captains and give fatal counter-orders to their crews. Thankfully, it was said to be active only between November and March. Further along the coast, the jagged cliffs of Pen Men concealed the lair of a vicious mermaid who crushed children to death against the rocks for her amusement.

In The Mermaid’s Blood (1897), the Breton author Anatole Le Braz tells of a young man’s trip to the Île d’Ouessant to collect the legends of the island. Whilst there, he meets the beautiful and charismatic Marie-Ange and hears tales of the twelve virgins; a colony of mermaids as beautiful as angels but as perverse as demons, who once lived in one of the island’s coves. A local fisherman had caught one in his nets and the unlikely couple fell in love and even married. The mermaid made her husband a commander of the sea and the winds and waves obeyed him, bringing him fish and wrecks aplenty. Alas, the other mermaids, jealous of their sister’s happiness, cursed her and all her descendants. Since then, each girl born of the mermaid’s bloodline would be the most beautiful of her generation but would be cursed to lose her husband to the sea which would never return his body for a Christian burial.

When the folklorist François-Marie Luzel visited the isles of Ouessant and Molène in 1873, he found that the oral tradition of the islands had preserved the memories of mermaids who had once frequented their shores. Interestingly, the people of Ouessant believed that a distinct tribe of merfolk lived, until relatively recently, just a short distance from their island. These creatures were held to have been more benevolent towards humanity than other mermaids and counted both males and females amongst their numbers; the mermen were called morgans, the mermaids morganes – Breton for sea-born. They were frequently to be seen frolicking amongst the seaweeds near the shore or drying beautiful treasures under the afternoon sun. Such marvels could be seen provided only that the onlooker did not move their eyelids, for everything vanished at the first blink of an eye. Sadly, it was said that the increase in the number of strangers visiting the island since the advent of the steam ferry from the mainland, exposed the merfolk to the malice of humanity and since then, they were rarely seen.

Mermaid family

The ocean depths around Ouessant were thus home to the morgans; a tribe of merfolk of great beauty. Only Mona Kerbili, a young girl of the island, could equal their beauty and grace. One day, the King of the Morgans, dazzled by her beauty, seized the girl and carried her to the bottom of the ocean. In his brilliant palace, surrounded by magnificent riches, Mona’s beauty shone brightest and the old king fell desperately in love with her.

Unfortunately, the king’s son was also captivated by Mona and begged his father to give her to him in marriage but the king forbade such an alliance and instead forced his son to marry a morganes, daughter of one of his counsellors. While the folk of the palace attended the wedding ceremony, Mona was ordered to stay in the kitchens and prepare the wedding feast but she had been given only empty pots and a promise of death if an excellent meal did not await the party’s return. Having been made aware of Mona’s plight, the groom returned to the palace on some pretext and recited a charm as he touched the cooking pots that soon produced a marvellous meal. The banquet was well liked by all but the king realised that Mona had received aid from some quarter and resolved to be rid of this daughter of the soil.

When the newlyweds eventually retired to their bridal chamber that night, the king ordered Mona to accompany them and to stay near the door, holding a lighted candle in her hand; the death of the light would signal her own. The king stood in an adjoining room and from time to time asked: “Has the candle burnt down to your hand?”

“Not yet,” answered Mona. The king repeated the question several times until, when the candle was almost entirely consumed, the prince said to his new bride: “Take, for a moment, the candle from Mona’s hands and hold it, while she lights us a fire.”


Completely oblivious to her father-in-law’s intentions, the newlywed duly took the candle just as the king again asked: “Has the candle burnt to your hand?”

“Answer yes,” demanded the young prince of his wife, who willing did so. Hearing this, the king burst into the room and threw himself upon the girl holding the dying light and with one mighty blow from his sword, separated her head from her body.

The following morning, the prince told his father that he was now a widower and begged permission to marry Mona. When the king’s anger had abated, he reluctantly consented to the marriage of his son with the daughter of the soil. The wedding duly took place and the young couple lived in happiness in the palace under the waves. The prince treated his wife with kindness and consideration but Mona missed her Breton hearth and begged her husband’s permission to return to the land to visit her family but the prince was reluctant to allow Mona to leave as he was afraid that she would not return to him.

However, seeing his wife grow sadder each day, he eventually relented and promised to lead her back to her father’s house. The prince spoke a magical incantation and immediately a beautiful crystal bridge appeared; a glass arch that led from the bottom of the sea to the land above. Mona’s husband advised her to return at sunset and to take pains to not to let any man kiss or even touch her hand. In the excitement surrounding her return, Mona forgot this one recommendation and the wind soon chased away all memory of everything that had happened since her departure for the land of the morgans. At night, she often heard cries on the wind and during one stormy night, she distinctly recognized the voice of her husband, reproaching her for having abandoned him. Mona instantly remembered everything and found her husband behind the door of her father’s house. She threw herself into his arms and has not been seen by human eyes since that moment.

Mermaids Breton art deco

The tale of Mona and the King of the Morgans presents an image of an alternate world existing on the sea-bed and other tales tells that beneath the waves there lies an enchanted world containing well-tended fields where strange plants grow and long avenues lead to beautiful castles made of mother-of-pearl and crystal; it is so pleasant a place that mortal visitors find that years pass there no longer than days.

Such is the domain where mermaids held their victims; those men that had attracted their fancy or even those who had been shipwrecked at sea. Some tales tell that these men married the mermaid who had kidnapped them and that, apart from the freedom to return to land, they had everything they could wish for; living a long, happy, pampered life at the bottom of the ocean, losing all memory of their earlier lives. Typically, it was men who were held in this enchanted realm because it was believed inhabited only by mermaids; the notable exception to this tradition being the merfolk off Ouessant.

A legend collected on Île Molène, talks of mermaids as eternally young seducers driven to despair by their insatiable passion. Living in rich palaces on the sea-bed, by day they display the splendour of their unveiled beauty while slumbering amid the coolness of grottos. By night, they allow themselves to be lulled by the waves breaking over the rocks. At their touch, sea-foam crystallizes into gems as dazzling as that of her body. By moonlight, they caress their hair with a comb of fine gold and sing a plaintive song whose charm is irresistible. The sailor who listens to it feels himself drawn toward the mermaid, without power to break the charm that pulls him to his doom; his craft is broken upon the reefs: the man is in the sea and the mermaid shrieks in pure joy.

Dahud first Breton mermaid

In some Breton legends, the first mermaid was Dahud, the damned daughter of King Gradlon who ruled the city of Is which Dahud had surrendered to the Devil, causing its destruction by the sea. Since that time, the fishermen of Douarnenez Bay often reported seeing, in times of rough weather, the cursed princess sitting on the rocks, exciting the storm. A Breton ballad collected from the oral tradition in the 1830s ends with some verses depicting Dahud as a mermaid: “Did you see, fisherman, the mermaid combing her golden hair by the shore, when the sun shone bright? I saw the white girl from the sea, I even heard her sing, her song was as sad as the waves.”

Dahud’s transformation into a mermaid is sometimes attributed to God as a punishment or to the Devil as a reward, while another version tells how Saint Guénolé took pity on her as she fell from her father’s horse while escaping the waves, saying: “You will live as one of the merfolk, living in the sunken palace of Ker-Is for eternity.” This accords with another tale which says that Ker-Is was not destroyed by the sea, only submerged and that it is now populated entirely by merfolk.

In addition to merfolk, other legends of fantastic fish are found in the folklore of Brittany where it was said that the lumpfish was once a fisherman. A tale tells that one evening, a fisherman was walking along the seashore at nightfall when he heard a voice announcing that the Fairy Queen’s feast would take place on the following day and that any man who set his nets that day would be punished. The fisherman ignored the warning and when he touched his nets, a voice cried out and cursed him to forever assume the form of a fish.


The northern coasts of Brittany were once the playground of the Nicole; mischievous nymphs believed to tangle or tear fishermen’s nets and loosen the anchor cables of the men who worked the bays of Saint-Brieuc and Saint-Malo. It was said that these creatures often waited until the fishermen were about to draw-in their nets before leaping all around them, freeing the fish. They were also blamed for entangling the boats or even moving them whilst the sailors were asleep. Nicole most often displayed itself in the form of a large fish that sometimes appeared above the waves to laugh at the struggles of the fishermen. Some legends say that its name derived from a naval officer who, at one time, commanded a company of conscripted fishermen whom he treated harshly. His brutal reputation had long lingered in these coastal communities who said the troublesome spirit was none other than Nicole, transformed into a fish, who still amused himself by tormenting them.

For others, the Nicole was a lost soul, a former fisherman who had always been too hard on his fellows and who continued to torment them after his death; still others regarded it as the Devil himself. It was in this capacity that he was exorcised by the rector of Saint-Jacut, although some say it was the priest of Saint-Cast, who mounted its back only letting go after having made it sign a pact promising not to torment his parishioners any longer.

Similar to other supernatural beings such as the korrigans and fairies, mermaids once held an important place in the popular Breton imagination; mysterious, magical beings who willingly abandoned their parallel world for regular incursions into the daily lives of our ancestors. Little wonder therefore that some suggest that, like the korrigans and fairies, the mermaids of Brittany might have been the final echoes of ancient water divinities worshipped here in days of yore.

Medicinal Plants of Brittany

In the rural Brittany of yesteryear, where doctors were exceptionally rare, the populace were happy to utilise the healing power of plants and other natural remedies. Sometimes, the intervention of the local healer or witch was sought but often people were content to apply the ancient wisdom that had been transmitted within the family from generation to generation. The remedies needed to treat the most common diseases and ailments were well known and families had long learned what plants were essential to cultivate near the home.

In Brittany, healers were generally believed to have been bestowed with their curative powers at birth although certain circumstances were thought more auspicious than others. The most powerful healers were held to be found amongst those born on Good Friday afternoon or on the first day of August or on a Friday in March, provided that day was one of the odd days of the month. Similarly, the seventh child born of a family where all six siblings were of the same but opposite sex, was considered destined to be a great healer.

Medication was typically administered here according to the complaint to be treated. The most common remedies involved herbal infusions and decoctions which were either drunk or poured over the seat of the disease. For external ailments and wounds, parts of the plant were directly placed on the body or else the remedy was applied as an ointment in a plaster or as a poultice.

Gathering plants

Some healers never applied healing ointments directly to the seat of the disease in the belief that to do so would ‘push’ the ailment deeper inside the body. Instead, the salve was applied to an unaffected part of the body; the healing power of the remedy was thought to enter through the skin and circulate via the bloodstream before attacking the disease which was eventually overwhelmed and expelled in the sweat and excreta of the patient.

Sometimes, plants were worn about the body to cure or protect against illnesses; a Horse Chestnut carried in a pocket was said to protect against rheumatic pains and prevented haemorrhoids. An amulet containing Wormwood or nine cloves of Garlic, worn at night, was said to repel intestinal worms in children; it being popularly believed that worms could travel up to the throat, causing a cough in the patient. There was therefore some method behind the apparent madness of wearing a repellent around the neck to chase away worms.

Diseases were often believed able to be transferred to a plant which, in decomposing, allowed healing in the patient. In other cases, the plant was believed to act as a simple poultice and drain the disease from the patient, such as Garden Heliotrope leaves for abscesses; the smooth face of the leaf was said to extract the disease causing it to dry-out, the rougher side was then applied to dry-out the wound itself.


Some disorders were associated with notions of corrupted blood in the body which had to be removed or purified. For instance, hematomas were considered indicative of bad blood because they could develop into an abscess and a draught of Myrtle leaves macerated in white wine was drank, on an empty stomach, for three consecutive mornings as a means of removing the tainted blood. Boils were often seen as the visible manifestation that one’s blood was tainted and it was then held necessary to drink a decoction of Dandelion roots whose diuretic action purified the blood. Similarly, a decoction of Walnut leaves drunk at the onset of spring and autumn was thought a powerful depurative that refreshed one’s blood.

To cure eye ailments, bunches of Stonecrop that had previously been passed through the smoke of the Midsummer bonfire fire were lit and the resultant smoke was used to fumigate the diseased eye. Similarly, an eye-bath made from Elderflowers picked on the Feast of Corpus Christi were also believed to heal eye complaints, due more to their mystical association with an auspicious day rather than any particularly beneficial chemical ingredient.

To treat an eye disease popularly thought to betray the presence of an evil spirit, a compound consisting of the leaves of Lesser Celandine and nine grains of salt was applied to the little finger of the hand opposite the infected eye. Another remedy involved making the sign of the cross with nine grains of Wheat which were then thrown, one by one, into a bucket of water, while reciting certain charms. The bubbles which then appeared were said to be the evil leaving the patient.

To cure a sore throat, a poultice made of ground Agrimony fried in lard was put on the throat and massaged into the skin with six drops of vinegar. A poultice of crushed Leeks worn against the patient’s neck was also thought effective although the same remedy, placed hot on the lower abdomen, was used to help those who experienced difficulties urinating. Another treatment for a sore throat involved a plaster made from Wheat flour, milk and pepper; the hot dough was wrapped in a cloth and applied to the throat for two hours. To treat swollen glands, Bugleweed root cooked under hot ash with a little salt was eaten twice a day as a remedy.


An infusion of Wormwood and Sage in water was applied directly, twice a day, to treat earache. However, the juice of the Houseleek, sometimes called Wild Artichoke, was the most popular remedy used against earaches here. The plant was thought to possess other wonderful qualities; many Breton farmers cultivated one or two Houseleek plants on the lower parts of their farmhouse roof to preserve their homes against lightning strikes. The plant was also said to immediately wither whenever a sorcerer or witch entered the house.

Hearing difficulties were often confronted with a potion made from equal quantities of Onion juice, ant egg juice and fresh water. Having been left to stand overnight, three drops of this liquid were introduced into the ear canal of one ear before breakfast; three drops were applied to the other ear on the following morning, the treatment being continued for a fortnight.

Two of the most common treatments for toothache involved the application of hot poultices. The first was made solely from Walnut leaves while the other consisted of a compound made from Figs, milk and breadcrumbs applied to the cheek. However, one daring remedy for toothache involved the prolonged chewing of Sea Holly while the healer recited, nine times, a special charm that ended with an invocation to Saint Apollonia, the 3rd century Christian martyr whose teeth were shattered during her torture in Alexandria. A less vigorous remedy was noted in eastern parts of the region, where a Privet branch, cut before dawn, was placed in the fireplace without the patient’s knowledge, in expectation of bringing-on a cure for toothache and other oral maladies such as thrush in infants.

Sea Holly

Once cooled, a compound made from crushed Bay leaves that had been cooked in boiling bacon fat, was applied as an ointment to heal burns. The petals of Lily flowers, macerated in vegetable oil, were also used to treat burns but the plant’s petals macerated in lambig (cider brandy) were believed able to heal even the most malignant wounds when directly applied for three consecutive days. This treatment was thought effective in preventing infection and promoting healing.

One cure to treat a cold called for a hole to be carved into an Onion which then needed to be filled with mutton fat and cooked in the ashes of a fire. Once cooked, the burnt skins were removed and the onion applied, as hot as possible, as an ointment to the patient’s feet and stomach. Another unusual remedy against the common cold called for a hot poultice made of boiled Barley flour be placed on the patient’s neck and roasted bacon fat in their ears.

Chest colds and acute bronchitis were treated by drinking a herbal tea made of Apples, Figs, Mallow flowers, Plums and Raisins along with two spoons of honey; the whole boiled for an hour before being filtered and the resultant liquid drunk between meals. This treatment needed to be augmented by rubbing the patient’s neck and chest with a piece of zinc for two minutes, twice a day.

The carnivorous Sundew plant has long been reputed to possess multiple medicinal properties and it was once used against warts, burns and even syphilis. However, it was most widely used to make concoctions that were recommended against painful or incessant coughs, whooping cough and asthma. Many of today’s pharmaceutical drugs and cough syrups contain active components found in Sundews and extracts from the plant are also found in commercial wart treatments. The juice of a Dandelion leaf was also popularly applied directly onto warts in the belief that they would soon disappear.


Tuberculosis was treated with a mix of dried and ground Couch Grass, Marjoram, Mint, Nettle and Thyme that had been macerated in white wine overnight. This concoction was then filtered through a cloth and the resulting liquid drunk in the morning for four consecutive days, followed one hour later with a breakfast of a freshly laid egg.

To rupture boils and abscesses, a plaster containing a compound made of soap, boiled cream and a handful of Sorrel leaves was applied direct to the seat of the disease. A plaster made of Duckweed leaves was also used for the same purpose. The Sorrel’s tender leaves were thought to possess purifying and diuretic properties and laxative broths were often prepared from an infusion of them. Likewise, the boiled root of the Yellow Dock plant was commonly used as a purgative and laxative. Kelp was another plant that was popularly boiled and eaten as a laxative.

Although poisonous when eaten fresh, many remedies for easing the symptoms of gout involved concoctions derived from the petals and leaves of the Buttercup. However, here they were most popularly ground to make a plaster that was worn over the pulse of the wrist. The plant’s leaves were also used to treat headaches; a piece of cloth soaked in vinegar in which Buttercup leaves had been macerated for a fortnight was worn across the forehead as an effective cure. 


For those suffering from anaemia or a loss of appetite, drinking an infusion of Gooseberry leaves in hot water was recommended; as much as half a litre, taken on an empty stomach, daily. A more frequent dose of this same drink was used to relieve diarrhoea and dysentery. To ease the pain of a very sore throat it was held necessary to boil the plant’s leaves in water for a third of an hour; while still hot, the patient would then gargle with this water and prepare a plaster, to be worn on the neck, with the boiled leaves. Drinking a herbal tea made from an infusion of the plant’s bark was advised for those people who experienced difficulties urinating.

Growing children were fed Radish to help calcify their bones and to fight rickets and eating the plant’s leaves with a little salt was recommended in order to keep teeth healthy. Similarly, Garden Spurge, also known as Mole Grass, was chewed in the belief that it strengthened teeth. The plant is toxic and when swallowed burns the mucous membranes of the mouth and oesophagus before inducing severe stomach pains. Nevertheless, the plant’s seed capsules were often placed on or in a decayed tooth to ease cases of severe toothache.

To protect against night terrors, children were often given an amulet to wear containing a compound made from Ground-Ivy and lard. Additionally, in the north of the region, Water Arrow, also known as Arrowhead, was put under the beds of boys and balls of Oats under those of girls to help preserve them against such discomfort. To cure children of incontinence, a spoonful of Nettle seeds was mixed into a handful of bread dough; once cooked, the child had to eat a third of the bread each morning before breakfast for three consecutive days.


Weak children, particularly those experiencing difficulties in walking, were sometimes taken to the sacred spring dedicated to Saint Idunet just outside the village of Pluzunet. Here a curious ritual was performed; the ailing child was made to lie on a stone slab popularly known as ‘the saint’s bed’ – local tradition held that this stone was an old druidic altar that the saint had once repurposed as a bed – and restrained there whilst prayers were said for its recovery. The child’s back was then beaten with branches of Broom which were then used to sweep the surface of the stone bed but only after the child’s body had been sprinkled three times with water taken in a cupped hand directly from the fountain. After rubbing the child’s kidneys, the surrounding earth was also sprinkled three times with the fountain’s water. These rites and their focus on two of the primary elements were believed to magnify the healing power of the fountain.

Another curious ritual was also once recommended in the folk medicine of western Brittany; to be rid of ringworm it was said necessary to capture a grey crow while it was building its nest. The bird was tied to a length of string and lowered to the bottom of a dried-up well where it was kept captive for three days. Each morning, before sunrise, it was essential to challenge the crow with a formula that essentially demanded that it reveal the cure in exchange for its freedom. It was said that the remedy would be found at the end of the third day, having been left near the well by the captive’s kinsfolk to secure its deliverance. This plant was Frogbit; a small floating plant resembling the water lily and it was rubbed on the patient’s head for seven days each morning before breakfast as a cure. However, the treatment was believed only effective if delivered to the patient by birds.

Breton well

In eastern Brittany, it was said that a pregnant woman who touched or even stepped over Common Rue would induce an abortion. The roots to this superstition likely lie in the fact that the plant, when ingested, has been widely noted as a powerful abortifacient since Ancient times. In other parts of the region, an infusion made from Rue was thought to quell nosebleeds. Sometimes an abortifacient medicine, such as a decoction made of Laurel, Mint and Peony, was used to treat epilepsy.

Aurone, also known here as Lemongrass, was another abortifacient that was also used to ease abdominal pain, particularly menstrual pains. The plant, boiled in salt water for ten minutes, also produced a potion that was used to wash infected wounds and external ulcers. A plaster made from a mixture of ground Hemlock and coarse salt was also applied in the treatment of abdominal pain. A wash made from an infusion of Mistletoe berries was recommended for the treatment of female genital ailments. Mistletoe was regarded as a wonderfully versatile plant; made into a poultice, its crushed leaves and berries were used to treat sciatica and rheumatism. To treat jaundice, nine Mistletoe berries were soaked in the urine of a young boy and put into a cloth sachet placed on the patient’s head.

Dried Mistletoe leaves, macerated overnight in cold water, were drunk three times a day to relieve convulsive asthma, whooping cough and jaundice. The same tonic and dosage was also held effective against nosebleeds, haemorrhages, convulsions and epilepsy. One recipe against epilepsy called for Mistletoe leaves to be dried in the oven and ground into a fine powder. During the last three days of the new moon it was necessary, every morning, to drink a little of this powder that had been allowed to macerate in white wine overnight.

Mistletoe medicinal

A variant of this treatment for epilepsy required a small branch of Oak Mistletoe, complete with berries and leaves, be dried in the oven and finely ground. A little of the resultant powder was taken in wine or cider each morning and evening during the three days before and the three days after the full moon. Thankfully, given its rarity, Oak Mistletoe could be substituted with Apple Mistletoe without any loss in efficacy. Belief in the plant’s efficiency against epilepsy was still strongly held here well into the 20th century.

To treat scabies and other skin diseases, a decoction made from Elderberry leaves, the stems and leaves of the Common Mallow and the root of the Marshmallow was blended with hand-crushed Marshmallow flowers, some Flax seed flour and a little ointment made from Hibiscus flowers; the resultant compound was applied as a poultice. Another poultice to treat the same ailments involved breadcrumbs boiled slowly in milk, to which was added dried and chopped Henbane leaves.

Sometimes, syrups made by boiling the juice of the Common Fumitory or the Wild Pansy together with a little sugar were taken against skin diseases. Another popular treatment involved fumigation or a steam bath of the vapours of boiling Agrimony, Knapweed, St. John’s Wort and Rupturewort together in a cauldron. Other diseases that manifested themselves on the skin, such as eczema, boils, scrofula and herpes, were treated by an infusion of Walnut leaves in water; three leaves were boiled for a third of an hour and the infusion drunk on an empty stomach each morning. However, to deliver a lasting improvement for the patient, it was believed necessary to continue treatment for a very long but unspecified time. Lining the patient’s bed with branches of Bramble was also undertaken as a treatment for eczema; the plant was said to absorb the disease as it wilted.

Walnut leaves

The treatments for scrofulous diseases ranged from the straightforward to the elaborate. At one end of the spectrum, a strong infusion of ground, dried Acorns in hot water produced a kind of acorn coffee; two bowls of which were drank each morning and evening as a tonic. The roots of Horseradish and Gentiana were mixed with dried Spoonwort and Water Clover leaves as a treatment for scrofula. Having been macerated in white wine for three day, the medicine was ingested each morning before breakfast and in the evening, before dinner. Likewise, a decoction made from the crushed roots of Burdock, Elecampane, Soapwort and Horseradish was drunk three times daily against the same disease.

At the other end of the scale, a mixture of Fumitory flowers in Scabious juice was taken, before breakfast, in the water in which a chicken had been previously boiled. This treatment was supplemented an hour later by drinking a pint of a decoction made from the roots of Impatiens and Elecampane that had been poured, boiling hot, over a handful of Fumitory flowers and allowed to infuse. To this infusion, an anti-scorbutic syrup made from Spoonwort or Horseradish was added before being drank by the patient.

Another popular remedy for all scrofulous engorgements called for the juices of Sorrel, Chicory, Watercress and Soapwort to be blended in equal parts and mixed with a syrup made from a decoction of the roots of Elecampane, Impatiens and Horseradish with a little Barley; taken in the morning before breakfast, a cure within twelve days was expected.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo : Summer

One remedy to dispel fevers required the patient to wear, on one of their pulse points, for two days a plaster made from five cloves of Garlic, five roots of Parsley, a pinch of coarse salt and a little soot taken from the chimney. Another treatment recommended boiling Horse Chestnuts in sweetened milk; the milk was drunk and the Chestnuts eaten every morning before breakfast for three consecutive days. Patients suffering from a pernicious fever were vigorously rubbed, over all parts of their body, with a bouquet of Wormwood while the healer recited certain charms. This done, the healer typically made the patient walk three times around the thorn bush nearest to the house.

While the seeds of the Eagle Fern were long held to possess magical qualities, the plant’s stems were also believed to possess medicinal qualities and these seem to have differed from place to place, for instance in Maël-Pestivien in central Brittany it was applied to treat injuries but just 10km west in Callac it treated skin disorders and another 40km west, haematomas.

Preparations made from Hawthorn Mistletoe were believed to alleviate colic and cure a fever. To treat renal colic, an Onion macerated overnight in white wine was ground to a pulp and passed through a loosely woven cloth before being drunk. Colic in children was thought calmed by an infusion of Cherry stems, Bran and honey while children suffering from hernias were relieved by the application of a Duckweed plaster. The taproot of the Carrot was fed to children in the belief that it made hair grow although a lotion prepared from Boxwood leaves was thought to encourage hair growth in adults losing theirs. However, rubbing one’s cheeks with ant eggs was advised for those who did not wish to have too thick a beard. Another peculiar remedy called for a concoction made from the bark of the Golden Willow that was held good for removing freckles from the face and for drying out wounds.

Lucien Simon : Breton healer

If we have now abandoned the old medicinal practices which were once so deeply woven into daily life and popular belief, the use of plants for their therapeutic and curative properties remains. Today’s allopathic and homeopathic medicine are re-discovering and re-appropriating the old knowledge for the benefit of future generations.

Armchair Travelling – Bangladesh

With increasing signs that this month will see the lifting of the outstanding restrictions imposed on daily life here in the fight against the spread of Covid-19, this might be the last bit of armchair travelling necessary for a while. That being so, I thought a virtual visit to a country that does not often sit atop the Asian travel bucket-lists might be in order; beautiful Bangladesh.

Dhaka houses on stilts
Dhaka boats
Dhaka traffic
Dhaka underpass
Sonargaon Bangladesh
Sonargaon Bengal
Bangladesh fishing
Bangladesh water level
Bangladesh well
Bengali fishing
Bangladesh bicycle
Chai stall - Bangladesh
Cox's Bazar Bangladesh
Bangladesh boats
Cox's Bazar - Rickshaw sunset
Dhaka sunset

Many thanks for joining me on this virtual journey through many different parts of Bangladesh!

A Book Tour of Brittany

Generations of writers, from across the world, have long drawn artistic inspiration from the unique atmosphere found in the small corner of Europe that is Brittany. Stimulated by these surroundings, locals and visitors alike have often put pen to paper with notable success; this post highlights some authors and their books not featured in an earlier literary tour of Brittany.

“I shall go to some quiet place in France to get right again; I don’t mean to live with anybody, even my own family but to occupy myself thoroughly.” These words were written by the English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) not long after the death of his wife, the arguably greater poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Seeking solitude, Browning decided that Brittany offered the desired conditions. After his wife’s death, he stayed near Dinard for three months in 1861; the summer of 1863 was spent in Sainte-Marie, “a wild little place in Brittany,” a small coastal hamlet beside Pornic.

Here he wrote most of the collection that would be published as Dramatis Personæ in 1864; a volume that contained some of his finest work, including James Lee’s Wife and Gold Hair: A Legend of Pornic which carries all the flavour of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Browning spent the following two summers in Sainte-Marie and it was during his last stay that he saw the gypsy girl who inspired Fifine at the Fair; a reflective piece contrasting the exciting but ephemeral quality of lust with the steady permanence of love and the essence of truth in life and art.

Washing Beach, Pornic, 1850
The Washing Beach, Pornic , circa 1849

In June 1866, after a spell in Dinard, he moved to Le Croisic, a little town on a small promontory that protected the salt flats of Guérande from the Bay of Biscay: “a spit of sandy rock which juts spitefully north.” Here he took “the most delicious and peculiar old house I ever occupied, the oldest in town,” and enjoyed discovering the area of Brittany that Honoré de Balzac had immortalized in Béatrix (1839). He returned in 1866 when he wrote Two Poets of Croisic and again in 1867 when he penned a spirited tribute to the modest bravery of the French sailor in Hervé Riel. When it was published in 1871, he immediately sent his £100 payment to the Paris Relief Fund.

After a stay in Quimper, he spent the summer of 1868 in Audierne, on Brittany’s Atlantic coast, “a delightful, quite unspoiled little fishing town,” with the ocean in front and green hills behind. His son, Pen, joined him in Brittany on a few occasions but also visited on his own account; he was a successful artist at one time, studying sculpture under Rodin and painting in Brittany.

Born in the north coast town of Tréguier, Ernest Renan (1823-1892) left for Paris to continue his studies in late 1838. Noting the contradictions that existed between the metaphysics he studied and the faith he professed, he realised that a career in the Church was no longer for him. He instead became a biblical scholar of some repute but also wrote on archaeology, history, linguistics and philosophy. Perhaps not as well known outside France as he once was, Renan’s best known work is his seven volume opus A History of the Origins of Christianity (1863-1883) but his attachment to his native land features heavily in The Breton Soul (1854) and the autobiographical Memories of Childhood and Youth (1883). He spent each summer, from 1884 until his death, in Perros-Guirec, a small fishing village near Tréguier. The 1903 erection of his statue in the cathedral square of Tréguier was seen as a deliberate provocation by the staunchly Catholic populace whose protest descended into a melee.

Ernest Rean statue Treguier 1903

In 1847, the author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and his friend and fellow writer Maxime Du Camp, toured Brittany, primarily on foot; it was a long trip which lasted around four months. The pair wrote an entertaining, if slightly condescending to modern susceptibilities, travelogue of their journey; the chapters written by Du Camp were published in serial form from April 1852, those by Flaubert were eventually published in 1881, the completed work being known as By the Fields and By the Strikes.

Flaubert was an exacting writer and known to have laboured over every word he used, often taking a week to write a single page of text. His most famous novel, Madame Bovary (1857), took five years to complete; a year longer than he spent on writing his second novel, Salammbô (1862); a marked contrast to the literary output of his contemporary Balzac, who regularly wrote for ten hours, or more, a day and published two or three substantial new works every year.

A similar tour of Brittany was undertaken at about the same time by the author Anthony Trollope’s elder brother, Thomas Adolphus Trollope (1810-1892). His travelogue, A Summer in Brittany (1840), is an easy read and shares many of the same impressions of delight and disgust at local customs and culture subsequently noted by Flaubert. Later that same decade both the Trollope and Browning households settled in Florence where the families were renowned for their generous hospitality and vocal support for Italian independence.

Peasant of Quimper from Trollope's Travels in Brittany

The English novelist and playwright Jerome K Jerome (1859-1927) is today best remembered for his most successful work, Three Men in a Boat (1889); a humorous and almost timeless tale recounting a leisurely trip down the river Thames. In 1914, his latest play was taken off the London stage due to its celebration of German drinking songs and upon the outbreak of war, Jerome volunteered for military service. Rejected by the British Army on account of his age, the 56 year old writer volunteered as an ambulance driver with the French Army in 1915 and served in Verdun during the following year; this was one of the longest, bloodiest battles of the Western Front. “Those who talk about war being a game ought to be made to go out and play it. They’d find their little book of rules not much use,” he said.

It was during this terrible time that Jerome wrote the short story, Malvina of Brittany (1916). A charming tale about the fairy Malvina, onetime favourite attendant to the Queen of the White Ladies of Brittany, who was expelled from the realm of the fairies four thousand years ago only to reappear to a British flying officer who had landed to make some minor repairs to his aircraft in the depths of Brittany in 1914.

In 1891, T E Lawrence (1888-1935) and his parents moved to Dinard where the unmarried couple were able to live quietly for the next three years. In August 1906, Lawrence returned to Brittany with a school friend and spent the month touring the north-east of the region by bicycle, returning the next summer with his father to explore the castles of eastern Brittany and the Breton Marches. The following year, he completed a 3,500 km Tour de France, from Le Havre to Montpellier and the summer of 1910 saw him again return to Brittany and Normandy to visit the medieval battlefields and cathedrals, devouring French classics in their original text.

T E Lawrence and Brough Superior
Lawrence on his preferred cycle

Lawrence is one of those characters that almost defies being pigeon-holed and so, I shall not make the attempt. His most well-known works are Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), an account of his experiences during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 that the American diplomat Charles Hill described as ‘a novel traveling under the guise of autobiography’ and Crusader Castles (1936), his university thesis which was partly built upon the observations recorded during those many pre-war visits to Brittany and France.

Another noted author who made a point of visiting several castles during her time in Brittany was American writer Louisa M Alcott (1832-1888). Best known as the author of Little Women (1868) and its sequels, the financial success of that novel allowed the author, her sister May and their friend Alice Bartlett to visit Europe. The party stayed in Brittany for over two months in 1870 and a brief account of their sojourn is included in her collection of short stories, Shawl Straps (1872). As an artist of talent, May was particularly charmed by the province, subsequently describing it as a place where “an artist can rest with delight for many months” in her guidebook for women artists, Studying Art Abroad and How to Do it Cheaply (1879).

Louisa May Alcott sketched by her sister May Alcott, circa 1865
Louisa M Alcott sketched by her sister May, circa 1865

In 1875, Émile Zola wrote to his friend and editor that he wanted to discover Brittany and so, the following summer, the pair set off to explore the Guérande region and rented a house in Piriac where they were subsequently joined by their wives. The beauty of the wild coast captivated Zola almost as much as the ability to eat freshly-caught seafood; his friend even noting that ‘his nervous fingers so trembling with happiness when he had clams for breakfast, that he could not eat them at first.’

Inspired by his stay in Brittany, Zola wrote The Shells of Mr Chabre (1884) in which he tells the story of the bourgeois Mr Chabre who takes his wife for an extended stay in Piriac with hopes of ridding themselves of the curse of infertility in the belief that eating seafood would facilitate the birth of a child. A prodigious and versatile author; more than half of Zola’s novels were part of the twenty-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, which detail the history of a single family over five generations and published between 1870 and 1893.

September 1895 found author Marcel Proust (1871-1922) staying on Belle-Île-en-Mer as a guest of the actress Sarah Bernhardt before moving on to Beg-Meil near Concarneau on Brittany’s southern coast, where he stayed until the end of October. The atmosphere and the beauty of the region inspired him and he wrote the first pages of Jean Santeuil (1952) whilst there. Unfortunately, following the critical reception of his first book, The Pleasures and the Days (1896), Proust gradually abandoned Jean Santeuil between 1898 and 1899. Nevertheless, this novel is regarded as a precursor to Proust’s most significant work, In Search of Lost Time, published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927; often cited as one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. Many of the themes developed within In Search of Lost Time find their first articulation in Jean Santeuil, including the enigma of memory and the importance of self-reflection.

Joseph Conrad in Brittany
Joseph Conrad

The author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) married at the end of March 1896 and almost immediately set-off to honeymoon in Brittany. After a few days in the north coast town of Lannion, searching for a suitable property to rent, the newlywed couple moved to a house on nearby Île Grande where they stayed until the end of August 1896. During his time in Brittany, Conrad began working on The Rescue, a novel that he would periodically cast-aside but which he eventually finished in 1920. He did, however, complete several short stories here; The Idiots (1896), The Lagoon (1896) and An Outpost of Progress (1896). The Idiots is not your typical honeymoon fare, featuring as it does a murder, a loss of mental reality, abandonment of faith and a suicide. Conrad is sometimes said to have been one of the greatest English language novelists and is perhaps best remembered today by Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900) and The Secret Agent (1907), all of which have often been adapted for television and cinema.

Pierre Souvestre (1874–1914) was born into a renowned Breton family; his father was sometime Prefect of Finistère, his mother, the daughter of the Breton artist Victor Roussin and his great-uncle was the noted Breton author Émile Souvestre. Pierre joined the Paris bar in 1894 but gradually focused most of his attention on writing for newspapers and periodicals, taking a particular interest in motor car racing and sports journalism. In 1907, he hired Marcel Allain as his secretary and a collaboration was born that saw the serial publication of a joint novel in L’Auto, the predecessor of L’Équipe, in 1909.

In 1911, they created their most memorable character, Fantômas, a ruthless, enigmatic criminal genius and master of disguise whose hand was behind almost any unsolved crime. Much like Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, the amoral, sadistic Fantômas is doggedly pursued by the one man capable of tracing his involvement in all manner of ghastly crimes and always remains one step ahead of his pursuer, often assuming the identity of his victims. With a flair for the dramatic, his crimes often involve bizarre and over-elaborate procedures, such as trained plague-ridden rats or rooms that slowly fill with sand. One of the most popular characters in the history of French crime fiction, Fantômas appeared in 32 books as well as in a number of film and television adaptations. Pierre Souvestre died in Paris in February 1914 but lies buried in the cemetery of his Breton hometown, Plomelin.

Fantomas movie poster 1947

One of the founding members of the Society of Friends of Fantômas, Max Jacob (1876-1944) was born and brought-up in the south coast town of Quimper but moved to Paris as a young man, where in 1898 he became an art critic and a well-known figure amongst the artistic crowd of Montmarte. For a time, he shared a room with Picasso who subsequently became his Godfather on his conversion to Christianity in 1915. Abandoning journalism, Jacob took on a series of odd jobs and sold horoscopes, paintings and poetry to fund his rather itinerant lifestyle.

Jacob’s poetry was heavily influenced by Surrealism, Symbolism and Cubism as well as his life in Brittany and Paris. His prose poetry, especially The Dice Box (1917) is often cited as an important bridge between the Symbolists and Surrealists while his free verses, such as the collection published as The Central Laboratory (1921) have long been applauded for their inventiveness. Despite his reputation as a poet and writer, it was his painting that provided the main source of his income.

Tired of the Bohemian lifestyle, he returned to western Brittany to escape the excesses of 1920s Paris and later moved to a monastery at Saint-Benoit in 1936.  Having lost both a brother and sister to the Nazi death camps, it was perhaps inevitable that the Jewish-born, homosexual Jacob fell under the Gestapo’s gaze. He was arrested on 24 February 1944 and transferred to a holding camp where he was assigned a place on the next convoy for Auschwitz. Frantic efforts, coordinated by Jean Cocteau, were made to secure his release but he died of pneumonia the day before his scheduled deportation.

Washerwomen at the Flower Bridge, Quimperle by Max Jacob 1909
Max Jacob : Washerwomen at the Flower Bridge, Quimperle (1909)

The first four novels written by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, popularly known as Colette (1873-1954), were published under her writer husband’s pen-name ‘Willy’. Following their separation, she carved out a successful living appearing in music halls, often portraying characters from her own novels; a period she recounted in her novel The Vagabond (1910), which deals with women’s independence in a male-dominated world.

Following her divorce, in May 1910, Colette arrived in Dinard in hopes of finding a home which was as far removed from the literary circles of Paris as possible; by the end of the following month, she had found a magnificent house, set amongst “the most beautiful landscape on earth” just above the beach of Touesse in Saint-Coulomb, near Saint-Malo. Colette spent her holidays here until her third and final marriage in 1925; the new couple preferring the warmer climes of Saint-Tropez. By this time, Colette had become an established and successful author under her own name and is perhaps best known today for her novella Gigi (1944) which became an award-winning Hollywood musical in 1958.

Colette : presentation copy of her 1934 novel, Duo.
Author’s dedication in a copy of her 1934 novel, Duo.

Published almost 75 years ago, Albert Camus’ (1913-1960) novel The Plague (1947) became a publishing sensation again in 2020 thanks to its focus on the effects of a deadly epidemic. The book imagines an outbreak of plague in the Algerian city of Oran; the impact of which is, at first, downplayed by its inhabitants. As the plague’s grip tightens, people are forced to quarantine; such isolation feeding claustrophobia and fear. Each character in the book responds in their own way; some accept their fate, others seek to apportion blame but a few, like the narrator, have the courage to resist the fear that has enveloped the city. The book is widely regarded as an allegory for the Nazi occupation and the lives lived under an atmosphere of threat, separation and exile in which the occupied lived. 

Camus finished the book in Brittany in Les Moutiers-en-Retz, about 10km south of Pornic, in the summer of 1946 and considered his collaboration with Louis Guilloux of Saint-Brieuc so significant that he noted that his friend had “written this book in part.” Camus travelled to northern Brittany to stay with Guilloux in 1947 and during this visit discovered his father’s grave; he died in Saint-Brieuc as a result of wounds contracted on the Western Front during the First World War.

Camus was not overly enamoured with Brittany; the sun was too often absent and the size of the tidal ebbs made sea-bathing an uncertain affair for a man accustomed to the Mediterranean. He drew from the region an impression, an atmosphere that would nourish the writing of his unfinished autobiography The First Man (1994). His encounter with his father’s grave inspired a key scene in this book. In the chapter entitled ‘Saint-Brieuc’, the hero feels a shock in front of the grave: “He read the two dates 1885-1914 and made a mental calculation: twenty-nine years. Suddenly an idea struck him which shook him to his core. He was forty years old. The man buried under this slab and who had been his father, was younger than him. The flood of tenderness and pity which suddenly filled his heart was not the movement of a soul that carries the son towards the memory of his dead father but the upset compassion a man feels in front of a child, unjustly murdered.”

Saint Brieuc

A native of the north coast town of Saint-Brieuc, Louis Guilloux (1899-1980) was himself a highly regarded author and his most famous work, The Black Blood (1935), was an immediate and international success when published. After the liberation of Saint-Brieuc in 1944, he returned from hiding to serve as an interpreter for the Allied military tribunals, an experience he recounted in his novel OK, Joe! (1976), which also highlighted the racism he witnessed in the US Army at that time.

André Breton (1896-1966) was born in Orne but spent most of his formative years with his grandfather in Saint-Brieuc and his grandmother in Lorient on Brittany’s south coast. In February 1915, he began his artillery training in Pontivy in central Brittany but transferred to the medical corps in Nantes where he worked as a neurological nurse. Breton never seriously pursued his early interest in psychoanalysis but his subsequent thinking was heavily influenced by psychological theories.

One of the founders of the Surrealist movement, Breton believed that poetry transcended reason and logic. His Magnetic Fields (1920) is usually regarded as the first work of literary Surrealism, while his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) was one of the movement’s defining texts. Other major works include the novel Nadja (1928) and Mad Love (1937), the latter, a celebration of love, being a particularly difficult book to categorise contains many references to southern Brittany. The Czech artist Toyen was one of the founders of the Surrealists Group in Czechoslovakia in 1934 and her meeting with André Breton the following year marked the start of a lifelong friendship. Having settled in France in 1947, she visited Brittany several times with Breton.

Toyen : Portrait of Andre Breton (1950)
Toyen : Portrait of Andre Breton (1950)

“As a child of Brittany, I like the heathlands. Their flower of pauperism is the only one not faded in my buttonhole,” wrote Chateaubriand, to whom Breton replied in Entretiens (1952): “I also embrace these heathlands, they have often shattered me but I love this flickering light they maintain in my heart.”

Not as well-known as some other 20th century French poets, the works of Danielle Collobert (1940-1978) seem born of the trauma she experienced in her home town of Rostrenen, central Brittany, during the German occupation. She left for Paris at eighteen years of age but appears never to have settled; a restlessness that saw her travel extensively and one that seems to have condemned her to always revisit herself. She destroyed all unsold copies of her first self-published collection of poetry, Chants des guerres (1961) and although her first novel, Murder (1964) received some critical acclaim, a subsequent volume was rejected by the publishers. A few further works were published, including Say (1972) and Survive (1978), in very limited numbers, before her thirty-eighth birthday, when she took her own life.

Collobert’s writing style was then quite unique; she used minimal punctuation and unorthodox grammar, particularly around pronouns and other gender markers to create a deliberate impersonalisation that can be unnerving for the French reader accustomed to strict assumptions based on grammar and gender. Her writing is steeped not in melancholy but in oppressive pain and the notion of death, from the personal experience to its impact on the human condition, transcends her writing. In an introduction to her work, the French writer Jean-Pierre Faye noted that it “presents a cosmology of pain. An incredible pain, majestic one would dare say, rooted in a helplessness to live. Pain that avoids pathos and that never shows a desire to strike a pose: we feel that Collobert is not lying.”

Danielle Collobert

Brought-up on tales of being descended from Breton nobility, Jack Kerouac (1922 -1969) the American novelist and sometime post-war counterculture icon is best known for his novels On the Road (1957) and Big Sur (1962) whose hero roars to the ocean at night: “I am a Breton!” to which the darkness responds “The fishes of the sea speak Breton.” In his book Satori in Paris (1966), Kerouac recounts his, ultimately fruitless, visit to Brittany in the summer of 1965 in search of his ancestral roots. Undeterred, in 1967, Kerouac and Breton poet Youenn Gwernig agreed to return to Brittany together to make another attempt, based from Gwernig’s hometown of Huelgoat in central Brittany. Interestingly, over thirty years later, researchers managed to uncover the truth of Kerouac’s ancestry: accusations of theft had driven the son of a village notary from Huelgoat to escape Brittany for the anonymity of New France in 1720 and it was this de Kervoac that proved to be the elusive ancestor.

I have devoted a previous post to Jean-Marie Déguignet (1834-1905) and his autobiographical Memoirs of a Breton Peasant (1998). Born into rural poverty, Déguignet escaped a life of begging and drudgery by joining the French Army in 1854, and over the next fourteen years saw active service in the Crimea, Lombardy, Algeria and Mexico as well as attending Napoleon III’s coronation ceremonies and losing his religion. An autodidact, he read widely on history, philosophy and politics but returned home to make a bad marriage and enter farming, eventually falling back into dire poverty. Deguignet’s radical thinking often found him at odds with his contemporaries and his memoirs were only re-discovered in 1984.

Another view of life in roughly the same corner of Brittany can be found in The Horse of Pride (1975) by the Breton writer Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1914-1995). This entertaining book offers some wonderful insights into life in Breton-speaking rural Brittany between the World Wars and was adapted for the cinema in 1980. Hélias also wrote several books of poetry in Breton and produced numerous novels and collections of folktales in French. Thankfully, the English translation of this book retains the conversational charm of the French original.

The Horse of Pride _ Pierre Jakez Helias

A Gift from Brittany (2008) by Marjorie Price (1929-2020) is the autobiographical tale of a young American artist who finds herself living in a hamlet in rural Brittany in the early 1960s where she discovers a world little-changed from the end of the Middle Ages but on the verge of disappearing forever. As her marriage unravels, she develops a deep bond with an elderly, illiterate neighbour who has never left the village. This seemingly unlikely friendship transcends the many boundaries that separate the two women; transforming and enriching both their lives.

An amusing, affectionate account of life in a small Breton town from the perspective of an outsider can be found in two books by the American writer Mark Greenside (1944-  ). Having made a snap decision over twenty years ago to buy a house in Brittany, the unique peculiarities of daily life in rural France continue to confuse and challenge him. I’ll Never Be French, No Matter What I Do (2008) and Not Quite Mastering the Art of French Living (2018) are set in Plobien, the fictional yet typical west Breton town where he happily spends his summers.

The first novel of Franco-English author Joanne Harris (1964-  ) in 1989 met with limited success but her third novel, Chocolat (1999) became an international bestseller and was subsequently adapted for the cinema. One of her novels, Coastliners (2002) is set on a small island off the coast of Brittany, Le Devin. A fictionalised island but loosely based on one that the author visited every summer for long stays in her grandfather’s house. It tells of the return of a prodigal daughter of the island and her battle to save the little village she once called home. Two rival communities having fought for generations over the island’s resources, it seems as if her ancestral home has lost all hope of survival until our heroine takes up the fight to stop the decay and breathe new spirit into the community.

Chocolat movie poster

Her Mother’s Secret (2018) by Rosanna Ley is another book that deals with a prodigal daughter returning to her Breton island home to confront the secrets, lies and guilt that have cast a long shadow over her and her family’s relationships. Against the well-drawn and atmospheric backdrop of Belle-Île-en-Mer, our heroine peels away the many comfortable deceptions of the past to secure her future.

The prolific German author Nina George (1973-  ) now lives in Brittany and is, at present, best known for her novel The Little Paris Bookshop (2013); the English language edition of 2015 turned it into an international bestseller. Another of her books to have enjoyed an international surge in sales since the appearance of an English language edition is The Little Breton Bistro (2010). It tells the uplifting, life-affirming tale of a desperately unhappy woman’s suicide attempt during a trip to Paris. Recuperating in hospital, she becomes obsessed with a scene of the small Breton port of Kerdruc which she resolves to visit. Once there, she gradually finds new hope and a renewed passion for life, discovering a better version of herself but is eventually tracked down by her husband who expects her to return to her old life with him. An English translation has been available since 2017 but note that the US edition is titled The Little French Bistro!

Tirant lo Blanch (1490) Brittany

Written while Brittany was still an independent nation and published in Valencia in 1490, the novel Tirant lo Blanch by Joanot Martorell (1413-1468) is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of Hispanic literature and was a major influence on the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The book follows the many adventures of a knight from Brittany whose travels from England to the Holy Land and from Constantinople to North Africa reveal that chivalric tournaments, courtship, love and bloody conflict are not so very different from each other; cruel yet intoxicating for all protagonists. Martorell’s entertaining prose unfolds at an often frantic pace and makes great use of unspoken narrative to drive the plot forward.

Some commentators have claimed that the book illustrates the relationships between the Breton and Iberian peninsulas although I think that this is a little wishful thinking but I include it here nevertheless. After all, how else would I manage to cover almost 530 years of Breton literary inspiration in a single post? 😉

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