Bread and Butter in Brittany

One of the main events in every Breton town is the regular open-air street market which is as much a social event as a shopping experience. The town centre is taken over with every conceivable type of stall – from fresh fruit & vegetables, pâté and cheeses being sold directly by the producer, to beds being sold out of a van or live chickens in cardboard boxes. If you prefer your chickens a little more prepared, there are usually stall-holders selling spit-roasted birds, pork and potatoes.

No market worthy of the name will fail to feature one or two stalls selling artisanal bread, each offering an abundance of fresh loaves and you’ll find such stalls even in small towns with two or three independent boulangeries of their own.

While the number of traditional boulangeries in Brittany, as in the rest of France, has declined markedly over the last decade, thanks, in part, to the relentless march of the national and international supermarket chains; you can still find a boulangerie in most villages. The good ones are usually noticeably busy and fairly easy to spot; in rural villages you’ll notice cars constantly stopping nearby and in towns and cities, there will be queues, sometimes quite long ones.

There are other pointers to look-out for when searching for the best traditional baguettes, rye breads and pastries in Brittany. The best bakers who handle what the French call “the art of bread” will display a sign identifying themselves as an Artisan Boulanger (literally Craftsman Baker). This is a tightly controlled designation with heavy sanctions under French law for those who falsely claim craftsman status.

To be called a boulangerie, a bakery must actually bake the bread on the premises; setting it apart from a Depot de Pain, a shop that simply sells bread that was baked elsewhere. You may find some Depot de Pain have close ties to well-known busy boulangeries but generally most produce bread from frozen dough or by part-baking industrially made frozen loaves.

Once inside a popular boulangerie, your senses are immediately assaulted with the scent of fresh, crunchy baguettes and often a staggering variety of other freshly baked breads, rich viennoiseries and tempting pastries. It can sometimes feel quite overwhelming deciding what to buy with a lot of impatient customers waiting in line behind you. So, here are a few quick pointers on just some of the most popular types of bread you’ll find in Brittany’s boulangeries.

Staple of most French breakfasts, the baguette classique or baguette ordinaire is a popular cheap and cheerful choice. It’s the bread that most people identify with France and you’ll see these long loaves stacked horizontally on shelves or displayed vertically in large open drums. The classic baguette can contain additives such as ascorbic acid and gluten; preservatives and colouring agents are also permissible in its manufacture.

These items are all prohibited in the baguette de tradition. The baguette tradition or pain traditional Français appeared after WW1 and its production must adhere to some strict guidelines, namely: no deep-freezing treatment during preparation; no additives which would facilitate or shorten one or more stages of its creation; only contain water, wheat flour, yeast or natural leavening agent and salt.

This baguette costs more than the classique but you’ll notice the difference in the taste and texture of the bread which takes around five hours to make. Be aware that some boulangeries name their baguette tradition after their baker or locality. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask. Similarly, it is quite acceptable to ask for a crisp, well-done crust (bien cuite) or a soft (pas trop cuite) one.  Both the classic and traditional baguettes are sometimes labelled and sold as a Pain Déjeunette; it’s about half the size of a baguette and often sold with fillings such as cheese and ham.

You’ll also find Pain Flûte which is essentially a larger version of a baguette and almost twice as weighty.  At the other end of the scale is the Ficelle, a long thin loaf that is shorter than a baguette and half the weight. All these breads are best enjoyed on the day of purchase as their quality deteriorates quite quickly.

Up until the end of WW1 the Boule de Pain or Pain Boule was the bread most closely associated with France in the public consciousness. A rustic round shaped bread that can be made of any type of flour, its ball shape helps retain moisture making it slow to dry out and thus stay fresher longer than elongated breads such as baguettes.

A loaf with a similar shelf-life is the Pain de Campagne sometimes called Pain Paysan. This bread is sold in a great variety of shapes and sizes; it’s a hearty loaf with a thick crust and an airy texture usually made with white or whole wheat flour or a mixture of the two. Some boulangeries add sourdough to their recipe but you will usually see sourdough bread labelled as Pain au Levain. Another type of bread that is widely seen in various shapes and sizes is the Pain Complet; a hearty and tasty whole wheat bread.

There are two other common signs that you will see on the bread shelves of the boulangeries here; firstly, Pain aux Céréales or Pain Campagrain which are fairly generic names covering a broad range of high fibre multi-grain loaves. The mix of ingredients varies according to the whims of the baker but you can usually expect between two to five grains and some seeds, most commonly the grains are wheat, malted wheat, rye, barley and oats with a mixture of sesame, sunflower, brown flax and yellow flax seeds.

A large number of boulangeries also offer Pains Spéciaux, specially created breads made with walnuts, garlic, olives or even sausage. In parts of north west Brittany, you can find Pain de Roscoff, a bread made with the famous pink Roscoff onions and smoked sausage; this delivers an intense flavour which is heightened by the red wine used to marinate the onions and make the dough. Another speciality bread of the region is often referred to as Pain Breton, made with sel-gris (unrefined local sea salt) and sarrasin (buckwheat flour); a tasty bread which needs only Breton butter for augmentation.

You will not have to spend much time in Brittany before you appreciate how seriously they take their butter here and there are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, Brittany is no stranger to rain, so, the cows have plenty of good grass to eat. The French have a word – terroir – which means something akin to the history of the soil and is a term often heard when discussing wine but this one word sums up a concept that is central to French food and wine. Put another way; it is believed that you can taste what the cows eat as it manifests itself through their milk – rich soil equals rich-tasting dairy butter.

It is not just the terroir that makes Breton butter so special; it also has a high fat content. Butter is mainly milk, particularly cream and Brittany is a big dairy producer. It needs to be, as it takes over 10 litres (2.6 gallons) of cow’s milk to make 450 grams (almost a pound) of butter. While most countries use 80 per cent butterfat in their butter, the French use at least 82 per cent and while this difference may not seem great it does have a noticeable impact on texture and taste. Additionally, in the past, the region was exempt from the Salt Tax and this fostered a culture where foodstuffs were heavily salted to aid the preservation of foodstuffs.

Today, Brittany’s butter is best when it is heavily salted with large flecks of coarse grains of sea salt that crunch when you bite into them but there are versions that do not contain as much salt and even those than omit it entirely. So, there is something to suit all tastes and all are simply delicious when spread on a baguette still warm from the boulangerie. 

The old walled city of St Malo is home to the Museum of Butter but the real attraction here is the attached Creamery and Cheesemonger, La Maison du Beurre, owned by Jean-Yves Bordier, one of France’s most renowned artisanal butter makers.

If you do find yourself in St Malo, it’s worth visiting just to try some of his flavoured butters such as smoked salt or seaweed and garlic & chili.  There are also butters with vanilla and raspberries and even butter with chocolate and shards of cocoa beans but the one to take home is surely Beurre de Baratte a l’Oignon de Roscoff – hand-made butter infused with the tasty pink onions from Roscoff. A wonderful combination delivering great texture and taste especially if spread generously on a slice of fresh bread!

The Pilgrim Trails of Brittany

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

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

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

The Church granted indulgences to those who successfully completed pilgrimages to certain sites, with the amount of merit depending on the distance travelled and hardships endured along with the devotion shown at the sacred shrines met on the pilgrims’ trail and the performance of established rituals at the destination itself. Through these indulgences, pilgrims might hope to save their souls from eternal damnation or even escape Purgatory; for instance, it was traditionally held that a pilgrimage to the relics of St James in Compostela reduced one’s time in Purgatory by half. The medieval pilgrim trail to Compostela across France and northern Spain, known as El Camino de Santiago, was therefore very popular and remains so for the pilgrims of today as well as with religious travellers and hikers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phantom Washerwomen of the Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In central Brittany, the horrifying washerwomen were often thought of as the damned souls of women who had murdered their own children. To the author George Sand (Rustic Legends, 1858) they represented the ‘most sinister of visions of fear’, describing them thus:

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Traditions of Yesteryears' Brittany

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

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

Lit just before the family set off to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the log would burn over several days; some traditions say that it should burn until the Solemnity of Mary or, even longer, until the Feast of the Epiphany. The embers of the burnt log were subsequently collected as they were believed to hold beneficial qualities including the ability to purify water. Additionally, small bags of ash were placed under beds in order to protect the home from lightning strikes and snakes over the year ahead.

A number of other ancient beliefs and superstitions were closely associated with Christmas Eve:

  • Country folk would place straw wreaths around their apple trees in the hope of ensuring a good year’s harvest.
  • During midnight mass the animals in the stables were able to speak in the tongues of men.
  • Again, during midnight mass, at the time of consecration, a candle was said to cast light on the spot where a hidden treasure could be found. At the same time, the water in the sacred fountains was changed into wine.
  • As the church bell sounded midnight, it was thought one could hear in the wind, the chimes of the church bells of Ker-Is, the legendary sunken city of Brittany, ringing in the distance.
  • While the bells heralded the start of Christmas Day, menhirs would free themselves from the earth to drink at the ancient sacred springs; returning to the earth with the echo of the last bell. In some areas, the menhirs were said to be raised into the air by birds; revealing a tantalising glimpse of the secret treasure trove they guarded over.

The holiness of the night was considered so sacred that no evil spirit could act with impunity but it was also a time for the dead; Christmas Eve being one of the three solemn festivals (the others being the night of Saint John’s Day and the eve of All Saints Day) where the community of the dead, the Anaon, of each region gathered. This was a night when the veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable, a time when the dead wandered freely in the land of the living.

The ethnographer Anatole Le Braz (La Légende de la mort en Basse-Bretagne, 1893) described it thus:

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

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

While the beliefs of yesteryear may have died away there is one old Christmas tradition that is still observed in many Breton households; on Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes by the fireplace in the hope that Père Noël (Father Christmas) will fill them with gifts. Just a few generations ago, the children would have left their heavy wooden clogs by the open hearth where blazed the Yule Log.

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

Sacred Springs of Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fountain of Barenton

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

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

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

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

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

Given the crucial importance of agriculture to the region, it should come as no surprise that there are many fountains that were said to protect the health of animals. The waters of the Fontaine du Daourit in Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem were held to provide good health to both humans and horses. Nearby, the 18th century Fountain of Saint-Gildas in Laniscat preserved the health of cats and dogs, the fountain contains three stone basins; the dog fountain, the cat fountain and that of St Gildas.

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

Fountain of St Nicodème

Horses are still blessed in the water of the Fountain of Notre-Dame de L’Isle in Goudelin during the Pardon but since WW1 it has become a rather tamer affair compared to the spectacle recounted by Jean-Baptiste Ogée in his Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Brittany (1778)

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

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

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

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

The Little Folk of Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Korandons live on the sea shore and harbour the same strong feelings of animosity towards mankind as their cousins, the korrils. They are feared because they are said to enjoy provoking storms to create shipwrecks and to light wrecker’s fires at night to lure boats to their doom on the rocks.

At the bottom of the social order of korrigans are the poulpiquets of the marshes. Dark and hairy in appearance with gleaming black eyes and voices like old men, they are compulsive thieves and notorious tricksters.  They like to prey upon human greed by showing travellers golden rings and jewels on the water’s glistening surface but when a person leans-in to pluck their unearned trophy, they are promptly seized and pulled down into the korrigan’s domain.

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

At night, like the fairies of Britain & Ireland, the korrigans love to dance, particularly the circular dance which, in the morning, leaves a ring of mushrooms to mark the presence of their dancing circle. When the moon is clear, they are said to gather near the ancient stones and at crossroads and calvaries, never missing an opportunity to entice a passing man to join them. If he happens to be a good−natured sort and enters into their dance heartily, they treat him well and may even do him some good turn but if he is disagreeable they will make him dance until he collapses with exhaustion. Should the man offend them then he might be forced to dance to death or consigned to an underground dungeon without hope of deliverance.

The nocturnal dancing of the korrigans is often said to be accompanied by singing, a favourite song being the days of the week: ‘Di Lun (Monday), Di Meurzh (Tuesday), Di Mercher (Wednesday), Di Iaou (Thursday), Di Gwener (Friday).’ It is claimed that they are unable to recite all the days due to the sacredness of the full week and there are many tales involving men who have added days to the korrigans’ song with tragic consequences. There is even a tale of an over-excited korrigan adding ‘Di Sadorn’ to the song and was instantly cursed with a hunchback for his eagerness.

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

Female korrigans are a quite distinct group; described as no more than two feet high and beautiful, with sparkling red eyes and flowing blonde hair that they brush with a golden comb in the moonlit reflections of the water of the springs and ancient fountains which they inhabit.  It is said that they are able to shapeshift into animals, foretell the future, heal any illness and can also travel from one end of the world to the other in the twinkling of an eye. Lest you start thinking that these are the sweetest korrigans, be aware that they are given to stealing the babies of men and substituting them with ugly changelings. If disturbed, especially on a Saturday, the day of the Virgin, they will not hesitate to breathe their lethal breath on the hapless trespasser. They are also notorious for their attempts to bewitch and seduce any man who chances to pass by, cursing them to death if their advances are rejected.

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

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

An Icon of Brittany

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

The headdress worn by the women from Bigouden, a small area SW of Quimper, is known as the Bigoudène. The size was originally quite modest but evolved between WW1 & WW2 to reach heights exceeding 35cm. Initially made of canvas, it changed to embroidered lace as its size increased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wearing of the headdress fell out of fashion in the years following WW2 and by the early 1960s it was a rare sight. However, the headdress has not been consigned to the history books and can regularly be seen worn at some Pardons and at many folk festivals. Thanks, in part, to the work of the Celtic Circles who have done much in recent years to successfully re-connect younger Bretons with their rich cultural heritage.

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

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

Piety and Pride in Brittany

It has been said that 19th century travellers to Brittany were often struck by three key aspects of the distinctive local culture; an ancient language thriving in daily use, widespread Catholic piety and a notable reverence of the dead. Then as now, one of the most striking and original features of Brittany’s religious heritage was the Parish Close (Enclos Paroissial) an ecclesiastical architectural ensemble unique to Brittany, particularly west of the Saint Brieuc – Vannes axis. Typically, such enclosures consist of a church, a monumental gateway, a calvary, an ossuary and an enclosing wall.

Originally, enclosing walls were built in order to create a marked delineation between the secular and the sacred. This demarcation seems to have begun in the early Middle Ages and allowed for control of access to the churchyard, an area that was very much the social hub of a Breton village where people would meet, play and attend to business. Regular markets were often held in churchyards, some housed communal bread ovens and it was not unknown for people to actually live there. The wall separated the sacred precincts; limiting access for villagers and, importantly, preventing entry by the dogs, pigs and cows that often disturbed the churchyard graves.

Monumental Gateway, Ossuary and Calvary at Saint-Thégonnec

Entry to the sacred space was through an ornate monumental gateway styled as a triumphal arch. Use of this gateway was usually reserved for special days in the church calendar and for noteworthy local events such as weddings and funerals. Access to the enclosure was otherwise by means of small, stepped openings in the wall. Some of these gateways, such as that at Sizun were massive structures; the gateway at La Martyre is topped with a calvary, while others like the one in Guengat were rather more modest affairs.

Monumental Gateway and the Ossuary at Sizun

Inside the close was an ossuary where the disinterred bones from the graveyard were housed [futher details on the development of ossuaries can be found here]. In time, some ossuaries developed into funerary chapels such as the one in Saint-Thégonnec which has an altar, while the ossuary in Guimiliau also features an external pulpit.

Another key element of the parish close is the calvary or at least a crucifix or cross.  These can vary in style from a simple stone cross such as that at Rochefort-en-Terre, to monumental structures like that at Guimiliau which has over 200 figures carved around its base. Some calvaries simply depict the crucifixion of Christ often flanked on another level by the two robbers crucified at the same time. Others also feature carvings or statues of the Virgin Mary with carved scenes depicting episodes from the life of Christ around the base of the monument. The congregation at Guimiliau must have either been extensive or keen on open-air preaching as its calvary has a bespoke platform allowing the priest to better press home the biblical references in his sermons to his mostly un-educated parishioners.

Guimiliau Calvary

The churches that became the centrepiece of these closes almost always display an elaborately sculpted porch with tympanum, bell towers with lanterns and spires, staircase towers and ornate pinnacles, sometimes many being grouped together at varying levels for maximum visual impact.

The interior of these churches was not overlooked and the rich ornamentation – highly crafted carved beams, cross beams, pulpits, baptismal fonts and altarpieces – were often highlighted with gold paint with dazzling shades of blue and softer shades of red and green set against brilliant white.

Detail from the ceiling of Locmélar church

The construction of these parish closes seems to be concentrated in the 16th and 17th centuries; an era that coincided with a prolonged period of economic prosperity in Brittany, largely based on mercantile shipping, commercial fishing and a thriving trade in linen, canvas and flax. This wealth gave rise to a broader flourishing of ecclesiastical building activity with new churches built and older ones extended & embellished and simple crosses replaced by more decorative calvaries.

It was during this period of increased wealth and religious fervour that the most beautiful parish enclosures were built and by the end of the 17th century, most parishes in western Brittany boasted some, if not all, of the features of a parish close.

The development of the parish church in Guengat offers a useful illustrative timeline typical of so many parishes in western Brittany at the time. The church itself was rebuilt in the 15th century, with two further chapels added in the following century. A monumental gateway and enclosing walls appeared in the second half of the 16th century, which was further embellished by a calvary and an ossuary towards the end of the century. We see a similar timeline some 22 miles south in Argol; here the church was re-built in the mid-16th century, a calvary raised in 1617, a monumental gateway and walls enclosing the churchyard added in 1659 and a discrete ossuary in 1665.

Such fine (and expensive) building works completed to the glory of God were a source of much local prestige. Unfortunately, pride’s bedfellow is envy and a form of inter-parish rivalry soon developed with parishes vying with each other to build the finest enclosure. This de facto competition for the realisation of the most beautiful architectural ensemble ensured decades of work for architects, builders, sculptors, glassmakers, cabinet makers, artists and craftsmen from across Brittany and further afield.

Alas, the decline in the linen trade in the 18th century effectively ended the development of parish closes and this helps explain why there appears to be a uniformity of appearance in the various closes. Unlike churches that move stylistically from Romanesque to Gothic and Flamboyant Gothic et cetera, the parish closes were frozen in time; maintained but not re-developed.

Today, Brittany’s parish closes attract visitors from across the world and it’s quite feasible to visit as many as five or six in a day. However, today’s travellers do not enjoy the same visual impact as the visitors of yesteryear but a few towns are now offering tantalising glimpses into the past by measured illuminations. For instance, the calvaries at Guimiliau and Plougastel-Daoulas are treated to coloured lighting, pushing aside the dull granite hues with vivid shades of blue, red and ochre; reminding us that these structures were originally polychrome. After all, these were works that served a pedagogical purpose and were designed to inspire awe amongst the parishioners.

The Calvary at Plougastel-Daoulas

The five most well-known parish closes are ranged in a relatively small area south of the town of Morlaix, namely at Guimiliau, Lampaul-Guimiliau, Saint-Thégonnec, Plougonven and Pleyben.

Each is well worth visiting as each boasts its own unique features. For instance, at Guimiliau, the massive calvary contains 200 figures, many clad in 16th century garb. The glory beam at Lampaul-Guimiliau features a striking procession of gilded & painted carvings enacting scenes from the Passion of Christ. The calvary at Saint-Thegonnec features a caricature of King Henri IV, while the church contains stunning ornamental carvings. However, experts have identified a further hundred parish closes across Brittany ranging from the smallest forgotten sites with a demolished ossuary and just a small wall and simple cross to the highly elaborate and oft visited places.

The parish closes are unique to Brittany and offer a fascinating testament of an artistic tradition at the service of religious fervour in the 16th and 17th centuries. Travellers to Brittany should make a point of exploring the great closes in the Élorn Valley south of Morlaix but there are also hidden gems to discover.

Twelve Christmas Markets You Should Visit In Brittany

With under six weeks to Christmas, towns across Brittany are starting to hang their festive decorations and many are gearing-up to host Christmas markets; there certainly seems a lot planned this year. With so many to choose from, it can be difficult deciding which ones to visit as some can be a little underwhelming, especially if you’ve travelled from afar. So, to help you avoid the turkeys, here are 12 Christmas markets & outings that will give you a wonderful festive experience.

Rennes : 22 November to 31 December 2019

As you would expect from the largest town in Brittany, there are several Christmas markets taking place in the run-up to Christmas this year. The largest of which, with about 45 stalls, is on the Mail François Mitterrand and runs from 22 November to 31 December. There are a range of great dining options here and a special gourmet market every Wednesday.

Rennes Photo: Philippe Cherel

For a great view of the Breton capital, take a ride on the illuminated Ferris wheel that dominates the market. A quick stroll through the bustling town centre bedecked with festive lights & decorations takes you to the Place du Parlement de Bretagne where you’ll find the monumental Palace Carousel; a unique ten meter high, two-storey carousel open from 30 November to 5 January. This year, the Town Hall’s facade will be brought to life by a Sound & Light show inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The Son et Lumiere runs every evening from 20 December through to 5 January. 

Le Domaine de Trévarez : 23 November to 5 January 2020

The grand Château de Trévarez stages a Christmas spectacle throughout the festive period and this year will transform itself into the palace of a thousand and one splendours as it showcases its take on the Tale of a Thousand and One Nights. The castle along with its beautiful formal gardens will be illuminated with spectacular colours & lights, leading you to discover oases, magical fountains, hidden princesses and genies.  Let your imagination roam and expect the unexpected!

Rochefort-en-Terre : 29 November to 5 January 2020

A picture postcard perfect village regularly ranked among the most beautiful villages of France and recent winner of the coveted title of ‘Favourite village of the French’; this is a village that knows how to display itself to best effect and at Christmastime it does so spectacularly. There seem to be tastefully hung garlands & decorations wherever you look. The streets and alleyways are beautifully illuminated with the sparkling of tens of thousands of pretty lights.

Rochefort-en-Terre Photo: Alessandro Gui

A visit here at Christmas is a feast for the senses. The shop fronts vie for your attention with sumptuous displays that draw even the most jaded eye, enticing you in. Your sense of smell will be bombarded by roasting chestnuts and freshly made Breton delicacies like crepes and kouign amann. Tasty homemade spiced cake and hot mulled wine will ensure your taste buds get a thorough work-out too as you stroll through the ancient streets soaking in the festive spirit. 

Saint Malo : 30 November to 5 January 2020

You’ll find St Malo’s Christmas market at Le Jardin des Douves, set out at the base of the impressive ramparts of this historic old walled town. There will be about 35 chalets selling handmade toys and local handicrafts and food stalls selling tasty festive goodies such as fresh pretzels, roast chestnuts, gingerbread and nougat. Don’t worry about the calories as you’ll be able to burn them off on the large outdoor ice rink across the road!

Vannes : 1 December to 5 January 2020

If you like your Christmas illuminations set against a stunning backdrop then the medieval city of Vannes will deliver; from the projections on the massive ramparts to the curtains of light spread over the cobbled streets of the old town. It’s a wonderful time to visit this beautiful city. A large ice rink, along with a smaller ice garden set aside for toddlers, will be set-up in Place Maurice Marchais from 20 December to 5 January.  On this same square, there will be stalls cooking fresh crepes & waffles and serving hot chocolate and mulled wine.  Take Santa’s Little Train down to the marina where you’ll find the Christmas market, featuring about 25 stalls. If you visit on 15 December then you’ll be well placed to greet the arrival of Santa Claus’ boat!

Dinan : 6 December to 24 December 2019

The pretty medieval town of Dinan exudes seasonal charm at Christmas and the switching on of the Christmas lights on 29 November heralds a month of festive activities. The Christmas market at Place Duclos will have about 30 chalets as well as a range of food stalls.  This year, there will be an outdoor ice rink set-up in the centre of the market.

Dinan Photo : Monique Descaves

On 14 December, children will love the fairy show ‘the Dream of Herbert’ while a pyrotechnic show on the following evening is sure to entertain older children. The following weekend sees a spectacular ‘fairy parade’ through the historic centre of the town on 21 December and a fireworks display from the castle on 22 December.

Dinan

Locranon : 7 December to 5 January 2020

One of the real beauties of Brittany, the picturesque small medieval town of Locranon is decked with lights and festive illuminations guaranteed to envelop you in seasonal cheer. The narrow cobbled streets, courtyards and town centre buildings are adorned with lights and decorations creating a delightful atmosphere in which to wander around this beautiful town. This year, a monumental 45m² crib, previously on display at Notre-Dame-de-Paris, will also be on show.

Locranon

The Christmas market is expected to have 30 chalet-style stalls selling handicrafts, handmade toys & games and local produce. There will also be crepe stalls, roast chestnuts, mulled wine and cider to keep out the winter chill. Street performances and horse-drawn carriage rides will also add to the festivities.

Saint Brieuc : 7 December to 26 December 2019

This year, the town boasts a staggering 6km of garlands, 220 street decorations and over 190,000 Christmas lights. Follow the illuminated pathways to the Polar Village at Parc des Promenades, here amongst the illuminated firs you’ll find a magical realm of ice where igloos, penguins and polar bears surround Santa’s Grotto. Take a carriage ride as dusk falls and take-in the festive lights as you browse the food stalls. Towards the pedestrianised centre of town, you’ll hear the sound of music coming from one of many planned performances and discover creative illuminations, Sound & Light shows and a 25m toboggan run!

Saint Brieuc

Street bands will be performing around the town centre on 15, 16 & 22 December before reaching the Polar Village. On 15-16 December, don’t be surprised if you come across two massive, fully articulated Indian cows. Part puppet, part machine, these massive creatures seem alive thanks to the talents of their team of manipulators. Enjoy the spectacle as they sway to the music or interact with each other and the public! As if two crazy machines were not enough, the afternoons of 22-23 December will see the Mekanibulle (imagine a steam-punk velocipede driven by Chaplin & Keaton and you’re about there!) loose in the town centre.

Quimper : 7 December to 31 December 2019

Historic Quimper is a beautiful setting for a traditional Christmas market set-up amongst the half-timbered buildings surrounding the Place Terre au Duc.  Festive lights and decorations form the backdrop for wandering carol singers, street entertainers and vendors of hot chocolate, mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. An ice rink, located in the Espace Évêché, will be open from 13 December to 5 January and there’s a Christmas circus staged between 11 and 15 December.

Morlaix : 8 December to 31 December 2019

Under the shadow of Morlaix’s landmark 62m high viaduct will be found the Christmas market at Place des Otages. Featuring a range of stalls selling a variety of handicrafts & local produce, the market is the centre for a host of activities and games such as making Christmas wreaths, fir decoration contests and treasure hunts. Entertainment for children is the main focus here with readings of Christmas fairy tales and Santa’s Grotto.  Next to the market will be a small children’s fun-fair and an outdoor ice rink suitable for all ages. Carriage rides and circulating carol singers are guaranteed to add to the festive feel. On 22 December, a Christmas tale for children will be projected onto giant geometric structures, nicely setting-up the main event – the arrival of Santa Claus, abseiling from the top of the viaduct!

Morlaix

Auray  : 13 December to 31 December 2019

On the south coast, Auray is offering visitors and locals a range of festive treats centred around a Christmas Village, including: animated displays, games, musical performances, an outdoor ice rink, horse-drawn carriage rides and even a special Escape-Game. The Christmas market runs from 13 to 31 December and about 80 stalls are anticipated

Auray Photo : ludo.passionphotos.over-blog.com

Santa Claus will arrive, by boat, at the picturesque harbour of St Goustan on the evening of 13 December, just in time to join the grand parade the following day! There’s also a fireworks display on 21 December.

Abbaye de Bon-Repos : 22 December to 5 January 2020

Renowned for its spectacular summer Sound & Light shows, the 12th century Abbey of Bon Repos showcases the year’s main artistic installations; the captivating 7 metre high Celtic ‘Wish Tree’ sculpted out of wicker branches and ‘Stellar Dreams’, a re-imagining of the legend surrounding the founding of the Abbey crafted with over 30km of strained yarn. There will be special exhibitions, readings, puppet shows and childrens’ workshops between 26 December and 4 January. As dusk falls, wander the grounds as the abbey is transformed with lights and effects.

This is, of necessity, just a tiny snapshot of the many Christmas markets and fairs being staged here throughout the festive season; most are beautifully paired with delightful festive illuminations. So, keep your eyes out for signs to a ‘Marché de Noël’ and drop in; some of the small village markets are great fun and very welcoming to visitors.

The Dry Bones of Brittany

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

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

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

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

Stone-built monumental ossuaries (known as garnals in Breton) began to appear in Brittany in the 15th century and were relatively widespread within a hundred years or so.

‘..over one half of the surviving ossuary monuments were constructed between 1550 and 1600. After a period of slow but persistent monument construction in the first third of the seventeenth century, a second notable phase of ossuary building occurred between 1630 and 1680. After 1700 there was little new construction; of the ossuaries erected in the eighteenth century, some were second or third ossuaries for the same churchyard or the reconstruction of existing structures.’ The Changing Face of Death (1997), P C Jupp & G Howarth (Editors)

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

Whether also serving as a funerary chapel or not, many ossuaries benefited from the same degree of architectural richness and detail as their associated churches, becoming ecclesiastical masterpieces in their own right, perhaps most notably at Ploudiry,  Pleyben, Saint-Thégonnec and Sizun.

It is the abundance of such well-designed and strongly built stone structures within a relatively small region that sets the ossuaries of Brittany, particularly to the west of the Saint Brieuc-Vannes axis, apart from those of elsewhere in Europe.  While the use of ossuaries was widespread throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages, the practice was in terminal decline by the end of the 17th century.

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

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

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

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

It is difficult to pinpoint when the practice of placing skulls in decorated boxes began in Brittany, although the earliest written references are from the late 18th century and the practice seems to have continued up until WW1. The procedure began with the exhumation ceremony which was usually a collective affair with the procession to the ossuary accompanied by prayers and song ; ‘Let us go to the charnel house, Christians! Let us contemplate the relics! Of our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers! Here, no more nobility, neither riches nor beauty. The earth and death have confused all.’   The skull would then be separated from the other bones and placed in a wooden box, known as a ‘boîte à chef’ (skull box), painted with the individual’s name and age at death. These boxes were then placed in the church or ossuary, often on special ‘Étagères de la Nuit’ (Shelves of the Night), or sometimes in a niche in the churchyard wall but always in view.

Skull Boxes in St Pol-de-Leon

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

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

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

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

Pleyben ossuary

The ornate ossuary at Pleyben dates from around 1560, making it one of the oldest monumental ossuaries in Brittany, and serves as a useful example of how some of these buildings were used over time. After restoration in 1733 it was used as a mortuary chapel and subsequently to house a school, the Town Hall and a Post Office. It now serves as a museum, as does the beautiful, two-storey ossuary at Sizun – both are well worth visiting by those keen to explore Brittany’s heritage.

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