Brittany’s Beastly Folk Remedies

The health and well-being of valuable livestock exercised the people of yesterday’s Brittany every bit as much as human health. Veterinary medicine, developed in order to preserve the health of domestic animals, was one of the specialist branches of medicine to emerge at the end of the 18th century even if medical treatment for animals was then largely limited to horses. Thankfully, some of the popular remedies and traditional treatments for animal diseases used in Brittany during the 18th and 19th centuries have survived to us to this day, even if their practice has long since died away.

As with the treatments for humans, the use of medicinal herbs was widespread in the remedies designed to treat the diseases in animals but minerals, ordure and magical practices also featured in veterinary folk medicine here for centuries. Indeed, many of the treatments and remedies contain as much unfathomable magic as they do science and vary from the bizarre to the benign. For instance, to treat problems with cows’ urination, particularly urine retention, half the brain of a freshly killed magpie was added to water and given as a drink. Mastitis, on the other hand, was treated with an ointment made from boiling chopped Carrots in some lard.

Breton bull

Bladder stones and problems with the urinary tract were treated with a compound of dried Pellitory which was finely ground and fried in butter; this was then applied as a hot plaster to the animal’s navel. Once cooled, it was wetted with water for two hours to prevent it drying out completely. This herb was also popularly used to treat urinary difficulties in humans.

Some remedies, such as those against rheumatism called for the invocation of God or particular saints, although the Virgin Mary was invoked in a charm to prevent thefts. Sometimes, the disease itself was addressed directly and commanded to leave, such as when treating cattle scab or mange, when it was necessary to pronounce, three times: “Scab, may you dry-up like the dew before the sun”, while making the sign of the cross and making three turns to the left. That done, one needed to recite five Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers. Some other skin diseases were treated with a little mercury oxide and dried Field Horsetail or Boxwood leaves mixed into lard applied directly to the disease.

To aid blood flow and treat abdominal gas, three measures of wine were mixed with vinegar and administered for three consecutive mornings. This drink was followed two hours later by another consisting of a pint of a healthy cow’s milk into which three egg yolks had been well beaten; a third of an hour later, a draft of red wine was also given. Food consumption was kept to a minimum during the three days of treatment. Six raw eggs were also given to cattle and sheep suspected of having eaten poisonous plants.

Battle of Wills by Dupre

A most curious ritual was recommended in the fight against excessive flatulence where it was necessary to walk around the animal three times while holding a blessed candle with which one made the sign of the cross; reciting during each circuit the following charm: “Leave the head where you are tied and go to the land of Arabia where there is neither bread nor wine.” It was necessary to perform this ritual twice so as to have circled the beast six times. Another unusual remedy was the use of Stinging Nettles as an aid to lactation; sometimes as feed and others as an external stimulant.

Animals suffering from high body temperature were carefully monitored as rises in body temperature are usually indicative of an infection by a disease-causing organism. One remedy involved a few ounces of vegetable oil administered on an empty stomach. Against diarrhoea a large handful of wood ash from the oven was mixed with three smaller handfuls of ground Buckwheat flour. This powder was then whisked into a pint of milk from a healthy cow and given to the sick animal on an empty stomach.

Those animals afflicted with abdominal bloating were fed three small balls of white pitch in a bowl of Turnip Rape or Field Mustard oil. This plant was once very widely cultivated in Northern France but since the end of the Second World War has been totally usurped by Rapeseed. Cattle and goats that had become bloated by eating wet White Clover were treated with a feed consisting of Garlic that had been pounded together with soot taken from the chimney. Recurring digestive problems in cattle and horses were often tackled with an infusion of boiled Flax seeds.

Cow and sheep painting by Dupre

Cattle usually lick themselves to ease the itching caused by skin diseases such as scabies. This excessive licking often leads to the formation of hairballs as found in cats but unlike cats, cows do not possess the ability to vomit and thus their hairballs eventually work their way down to one of their four stomachs where they remain forever. One recipe for breaking down hairballs in cattle called for half an ounce of powdered Tobacco to be macerated in lambig for 24 hours; which was then applied as a snuff through the animal’s nostrils. This treatment was augmented by a concoction of ground Peppercorn in urine; a pint of which was given as a drink for three consecutive mornings on an empty stomach.

To treat joint pain and nerve problems, two treatments were once popularly espoused. One called for four large handfuls of Sage, well ground, to be placed in a pot with a pound of fresh butter and boiled together for a third of an hour. The mixture was then applied directly to the body as a plaster. Another treatment also recommended the use of sage; two handfuls of which were boiled with two cow’s trotters until totally de-fleshed. Once separated, the liquid was boiled with half a pound of fresh butter and having cooled, stored in an earthenware pot. This fat was then applied as an ointment when needed. An application of butter was also used to treat injured hooves but it was only thought effective if it had been made during the month of May.

To stop bleeding, one practice involved the recitation of five Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers while scratching a cross the same number of times onto the surface of a nearby tree or stone. Another remedy called for several handfuls of Field Horsetail to be added to the cow’s drinking trough. For cuts and wounds, Lily of the Valley and Fennel root were mashed to a pulp and applied directly as a plaster, as was Wild Chamomile. For shallow cuts, a Cabbage leaf alone was applied to the wound. To treat the wounds made by animal bites, heated pork dripping was applied directly to the injury.

Horse and rider Skeletons

While Saint Stephen’s Day was traditionally the day in which horses were bled, until the early 20th century, bloodletting was the first choice treatment for most horse ailments. Sickness was thought caused by an imbalance of the body’s fluids known as humours and the animals were bled to release corrupted humours, to relieve blood vessels supposedly carrying too much blood, to divert blood from an over-loaded organ and even to cool the blood.

To cure ringworm in horses and cattle, a large Apple was cut into two halves and the seeds replaced with sulphur. The two pieces were then tied together and baked in the oven, after which it was thoroughly mashed. Once cooled, this pulp was rubbed into the affected area; a treatment that continued for nine days. For horses and sheep lacking vitality, a transfer to a pasture rich in Dandelions and Burdock was once recommended.

To treat horses suffering from ulcers and tumours, a white cloth soaked in the water taken from a sacred spring was applied. If this treatment was unsuccessful, a mixture of saltpetre and water was smeared on as a lotion; very serious cases were doused with a tincture of ground Wolf’s-bane root which had been macerated in cow urine. A handful of salt dissolved in human urine was administered as a drink to treat a horse that had become overfed.

Dying Horse

Although toxic to horses, an infusion made from the boiled bark of Boxwood was given to treat rheumatism. Another toxic plant was also used against eye diseases in horses; a powder ground from dried Wolf’s-bane, one of Europe’s most poisonous plants, was blown into the animal’s eyes. Interestingly, in eastern Brittany, people did not pull hair from their horses but cut them instead; if the hairs were pulled out, it was thought the animal would lose its sight.

Dog ailments appear to have been mainly treated with baths or drinks of water taken from sacred springs. The infection popularly known as cloudy eyes was treated by swabbing the eye with a piece of white linen that had been soaked in the water from a sacred spring. Other topical applications involved ointments made from boiled urine and butter. To improve blood circulation, an infusion made from Hawthorn was given as a drink. Dogs, like other animals, were also subjected to bloodletting in order to rebalance their humours. Fortunately, this procedure was applied less frequently to dogs than to other animals as a dog’s body was held to possess a remarkable ability to self-cleanse and would purge the problem naturally through frequent urination.

Maintaining the health of one’s herd and thus one’s livelihood was a constant concern. Confronted with mishaps and setbacks, suspicions too easily fell upon those who might wish to hinder one’s efforts or harm one’s livestock; jealous neighbours, witches and shepherds were all popularly accused of spreading epizootics at will, of making horses lame or of searing the pastures to starve the herds. Conversely, these same people possessed the expertise to cure sick animals with their tested treatments and charms.

Selling Livestock by Cottet

The Infernal Dictionary published by the French occultist Collin de Plancy in 1818 noted several traditional charms for preserving the well-being of horses and sheep. One called for the spell caster to recite certain incantations while kneeling facing their animals and holding a plate of coarse salt grains with their back turned to the rising sun and a bare head. This ritual was then repeated, following the course of the sun, in all the corners of the field and again at the starting point. It was crucial during the ceremony to ensure that the animals always remained to the fore; any who crossed behind the spell caster were likely unsound. It was then necessary to make three full circuits around the animals while throwing salt on them and making further incantations.

Finally, the animals were bled a little, after which a small piece was cut from the hoof of the right front foot with a knife. This nail needed to be cut into two strips that were then formed into a cross and wrapped in a piece of canvas and covered with salt. Another cross was made from the animals’ wool or hair and placed atop the salt on the canvas before being covered with another layer of salt, upon which another cross was placed, made from a Paschal candle, and covered with the last of the salt. The canvas was then tied into a ball with string which was then used to rub the animals while pronouncing the same incantations used when having thrown the salt. Depending on the vitality of the animals, they were rubbed for three, seven or nine days in a row.

As if this ritual was not convoluted enough, several other precautions were noted to ensure its efficacy: the ritual would only succeed if performed at dawn on the Friday of a crescent moon; the animals should only be rubbed during the last word of the charm; horses needed to be spoken to sharply but sheep addressed slowly; care needed to be taken to ensure the canvas ball did not get wet for fear the animals would ultimately perish.

The spell could be undone if someone managed to gain possession of the canvas ball and cut it into pieces, dispersing the fragments by means of a mole, weasel or toad and then buried in an anthill for nine days. Retrieved while reciting certain incantations, the fragments needed to be ground and thrown over the animals’ grazing pasture. Holding stones taken from three different graveyards, the spell caster was thus able to throw a disease over the animals, killing as many as he wished.

Breton Shepherd

There was a time when people believed that sorcerers, acting out of malice or on behalf of a rival, not only stole sheep but destroyed one’s livelihood by destroying their flocks. It was said that one means used to bring about such devastation were poisonous pellets made-up from balls of tow that had been coated with pitch or honey and scattered about the meadow. Many sheep that died for no apparent reason were suspected of having fallen foul of these cursed balls and the stomachs of such sheep were often found to contain these fatal beads.

Sentenced to public branding and six years as a galley slave, a man in neighbouring Normandy was found guilty of having destroyed a flock in this manner in 1791. Fortunately, his demand for an appeal was granted and the Royal Agricultural Society in Paris was consulted. Their investigations concluded that these poisoned pellets were in fact concretions of wool that had developed a thick viscous coating following long exposure to stomach acids. Hairballs are not always fatal but can sometimes cause serious stomach problems which lead to death. Based on these findings, the defendant was acquitted but one cannot but wonder how many people, over the centuries, had been unfairly labelled a witch and punished accordingly.

Many Breton farmers also put their faith in the power of religion and regularly made offerings of cow’s tails and butter at one of the many churches dedicated to the protector of cows, Saint Herbot. Likewise, butter was offered to Saint Hervé to keep cattle safe from wolves; the saint, stricken with blindness, was once led about by a wolf. Candles were lit alongside offerings of horsehair and money at the many shrines devoted to Saint Eloi, the protector of horses and patron saint of farriers and ploughmen.

Blessing horse in stable

This saint was by far the most popularly invoked for the heath of horses and was represented in over a third of all churches in western Brittany alone. On 30 November, the eve of the saint’s feast day, celebratory bonfires were once lit in a large number of the region’s villages. On the following morning, the horses would be taken to the nearest chapel dedicated to the saint and made to circle it, or its associated fountain, three times against the sun. Water from the scared fountain was then applied to their heads, ears and rumps in hopes of protecting their health and ensuring their vigour. These rites were augmented with a lengthy prayer invoking the saint’s protection and were thought most effective if recited before the remains of the pyre erected in his honour.

We know that, into recent times, over two dozen saints’ Pardons were specifically devoted to animals; such pilgrimages were popular in the expectation that the blessings obtained protected the animals from illness or misfortune over the year ahead. The rituals involved varied from parish to parish; cattle were blessed at the church in Moncontour and horses at the church in Landerneau; in Montauban and Bignan, the horses were taken to drink the water from the saint’s fountain before being blessed by the priest. At Plouarzel, horses were made to leap over the channel of the holy fountain before being anointed on the head and rump with its waters. Near Pontrieux, the water of Saint Jorand’s fountain was collected on the day of the Pardon and taken home in containers; it was subsequently poured into the food of animals, as needed.

Many of Brittany’s sacred fountains were said to possess miraculous qualities that protected the health of animals. Water from Saint Jean’s fountain in Squiffiec was thought beneficial for pigs. The waters of Saint Eloi’s fountain in Nicolas-du-Pélem were said to ensure good health for horses and was splashed into their ears. Nearby, the Fountain of Saint Gildas in Laniscat preserved the health of dogs and cats. The fountain in Saint-Nicolas-des-Eaux featured a basin whose waters secured the health of horses while the waters from the nearby fountain of Saint Corneli were given to cows to keep them from illness. Stronger virtues were attributed to water from the Saint Eden fountain near Plouescat; it was said to cure all diseases in cattle.

Blessing the horses at Pardon

Today, horses can still be seen being blessed during several Pardons across Brittany; the biggest spectacle is probably at Goudelin where the horses are blessed in the deep pond that lies near the chapel. However, even this display does not come close to reproducing the enthusiasm noted in earlier years when, at Plouye, horses would be mated after receiving holy water or when, at Plerin, people drew water from the fountain and threw it in the vagina of their mare and rubbed it over the testicles of their stallion in the belief that the water had prolific virtues.

Another popular horse ritual bath of long-standing was practiced around Audierne Bay on Brittany’s Atlantic coast on 8 September, Marymas; a feast first instituted just over the Breton border in Angers in the 5th century, following a revelation in which angels celebrated the Virgin’s birth. This was also the occasion of the great Pardon of Notre-Dame de Penhors in Pouldreuzic when thousands of people descended on the seaside chapel in celebration. After mass, horses from the surrounding parishes were ridden into the sea in a yearly ritual that provided not only an opportunity to wash their hides after the heavy labours of August but also a cleansing that was believed to bring them as much health as a priest’s blessing.

The practice was still extant before the Second World War but gradually waned thereafter. Although no longer attracting the numbers it once did, the Pardon is still celebrated and continues to attract over a thousand pilgrims each year. Several examples of the ritual sea-bathing of horses at harvest-time have been noted in other parts of the Celtic fringe; leading some to suggest that the practice was perhaps a survivor of those that once formed part of the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasa.

Breton Pardon

Possibly other echoes of ancient beliefs lay hidden somewhere amongst some of the old superstitions surrounding the health of domestic animals? For instance, it was once believed that when horses were afflicted with colic, the only remedy was to have them change parishes. An agitated bull was said to immediately relax once tied to a Fig tree. To rid sheep of worms, it was necessary to attach to their necks an amulet of three or nine different kinds of wood. One cure for the highly contagious disease known as sheep pox required the farmer to steal the ear of a plough and bury it under the threshold of the sheepfold before driving his sheep over it. It was also necessary for the animals that died there to be buried to prevent the others from suffering a similar fate.

Other practices were also once widely observed: on Palm Sunday, five leaves of blessed boxwood were placed in the cows’ water to purge them; Field Eryngo or Panicaut was gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Eve as sick animals were believed to be cured if pricked with this thistle. Likewise, three drops of wax from a Candlemas candle, dripped into their drinking water, was also said to cure sick animals.

To preserve their health, cows’ hooves were rubbed with a paste of ground herbs gathered before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day and in some places, cows’ udders were rubbed with the morning dew on May Day in hopes of the same result. 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, before dawn, on the previous Midsummer. Similarly, farmers drove their cattle through the embers of the Midsummer bonfires in order to preserve them from sickness and the malice of the korrigans over the year ahead.

Sick horse footbath

Many farmers here once hung strings of Garlic in their stables to fight-off transmissible skin diseases, while the presence of a goat in the stable was said to protect the other animals against disease, evil spells and misfortune. The toad was frequently associated with the evil spells cast to injure livestock and in Finistère, one was often nailed to the stable door to ward-off evil. 

It was once believed that certain supernatural beings took pleasure in teasing farmers; witches and korrigans were said to raid the stables after dark and ride people’s horses furiously all night long. How else to explain why the horses were sometimes found hot and sweating in the stable in the morning? Inextricably entangling the manes of horses overnight was another crime usually levied against the korrigans and the Bugul Noz. To protect the animals from the latter, it was customary to place a cross made of Rosehip branches in the stable. To defend against the mischief of the korrigans, inflated pig bladders, holding nine grains of Wheat, were hung from a stable beam. To guard against witchcraft, Elderberry branches were hung from the walls and a double-rooted Bramble fastened above the stable door.

Certain prescriptions designed to preserve animals’ health were linked to the feast days of saints; sheep were not moved on 29 November, the feast day of the 3th century martyr Saint Saturnin who died while being dragged behind a bull, lest the sheep twist their neck. Similarly, it was thought to bring bad luck if horses were worked on 1 December, one of the feast days of Saint Eloi. Conversely, other auspicious days afforded enhanced opportunities to protect one’s animals, such as on Christmas Eve when a little blessed bread was fed to the cattle and horses in the stable to ensure their health over the year ahead.

Martyrdom of Saint Saturnin

The ailments suffered by animals and the ways in which they were perceived and treated by farmers and professional veterinarians were to change considerably over the course of the 20th century.

The Fool’s Quest

First set down from the oral tradition in the middle of the 19th century, the tale of Peronnik the Idiot has often been described as a Breton re-telling of Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th century romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail. However, others maintain that the story is truly a surviving descendant of one once transmitted orally by the Celtic bards of old and that the tales of Peronnik, Perceval and the medieval Welsh romance Peredur all share the same ancient, lost source.

It is said that, in the year in which the following events took place, the great forests of Brocéliande, Loudéac and Quénécan were but one vast expanse of enchanted woodland; a primeval and magical belt around the girth of Armorica. It was to a small farm nestled close against these woods that Peronnik, the feeble-minded son of a poor widow, came one afternoon in hopes of securing a meal and perhaps a measure of fresh milk to wash it down with.

By chance, the lady of the house was scraping the remains of lunch from the sides of her cauldron when she heard the lad’s voice asking, in the name of God, for a little food. She stopped her cleaning and thrust the iron basin towards him, saying: “Here, my poor fool, eat the remainder and say a prayer for our pigs, who seem unwilling to get fat.”


Peronnik seated himself on the ground, put the cauldron between his legs and eagerly scraped its sides with his fingernails. Unfortunately, his efforts met with little reward, for the family’s spoons had done their work thoroughly. Nevertheless, he licked his fingers and made an appreciative grunt as if he had never tasted finer fare. “It is millet”, he murmured, “millet flour soaked in the milk of a black cow by the best cook in the land.”

The farmer’s wife was delighted to receive such fulsome praise: “Poor innocent,” she said, “although there is very little left, I will add a scrap of rye-bread.” So, she brought the boy a cut of bread which he bit into ravenously, declaring that it must have been kneaded by none other than the baker to the Bishop of Gwened. Flattered, the woman responded by saying that nothing elevated the taste of good bread better than a spread of freshly-churned butter and to prove her words, she brought him some in a bowl. After taking this, Peronnik declared that this was living butter, not even excelled by the butter of White Week itself. Overjoyed, the farmer’s wife quickly added a piece of dripping left over from the Sunday soup to the lad’s bowl.

Praising every mouthful, Peronnik swallowed everything as if it had been fresh spring water; for it was very long since he had enjoyed such a meal. The farmer’s wife watched him as he ate and was therefore startled to hear the sudden appearance of a horse. There, in front of her house, a powerful white mare was held at the bit by a fully armoured knight who addressed the woman; asking her for directions to the road for the castle of Kerglas. “Good Heavens, Sir,” exclaimed the farmer’s wife, “are you really set on going there?”

Mounted knight

Yes,” replied the knight, “and I have come from a land so distant that I have travelled night and day these past three months to reach this far on my journey.”

“And what have you come so far to seek at Kerglas?” asked the Breton woman.

“I have come in quest of the bowl of gold and the diamond lance.”

“These must be two very valuable things?” asked Peronnik.

“They are more valuable than all the crowns on earth,” replied the knight; “for not only will the golden bowl instantly produce all the food one could desire but one need only drink from it to be cured of all ailments; the dead themselves are restored to life by touching it with their lips. As for the diamond lance, it destroys all that it touches.”

“And who does this diamond spear and golden bowl belong to?” asked a bewildered Peronnik.

“To a sorcerer named Rogear, who lives in the castle of Kerglas,” answered the farmer’s wife. “He is to be seen every other day near the forest pathway yonder, riding upon his black mare and always followed by a young colt. No one dares molest him, for he always holds that dreadful lance in his hand.”

“Yes, that is also my understanding” replied the knight, “but the command of God forbids him to make use of it within the castle. So, as soon as he arrives there, the lance and bowl are deposited at the end of a long, dark underground passage, sealed by a door which no key will open; therefore, it is in the castle that I propose to tackle the sorcerer.”

“Alas, you will never succeed, my good sir,” replied the farmer’s wife. “More than a hundred gentlemen have already attempted it but not one amongst them has ever returned.”

“I know it, my good woman,” answered the knight, “but they had not been instructed, as I have, by the hermit of the Blavet.”

“And what did the old hermit tell you?” asked Peronnik.

“He counselled me on all that I must do,” replied the knight. “Firstly, I shall have to cross an enchanted wood wherein every kind of magic and deception will be put in force to terrify and bewilder me from my quest. Great numbers of my predecessors have lost themselves there and sadly died of hunger, fatigue or madness.”

“And if somehow you succeed in crossing it?” said Peronnik.

“If grace remains with me and I get safely through,” continued the knight, “I shall meet a korrigan armed with a flaming sword, which reduces all it touches to ashes. This evil korrigan keeps watch beside an apple tree, from which it is necessary that I should gather a solitary apple.”

The Tree of Knowledge-1 by Bill Bell
The Tree of Knowledge ©Bill Bell

“And then, what then?” Peronnik asked in wonder.

“Then, I shall discover the laughing flower guarded by a fierce lion whose mane is made of vicious vipers. This flower I must also gather; after which I must cross the Lake of Dragons to fight the black man, who throws an iron ball that always hits its mark and returns of itself to its master. Then I shall enter into the Vale of Delights where everything that can tempt and stay the feet of a good Christian will be arrayed before me. Once through, I should reach a raging river which has but a single ford and there I shall meet a lady clad in black whom I shall take upon my horse when she will reveal to me all that remains to be done.”

The farmer’s wife did her best to persuade the stranger that it would be impossible for him to survive so many arduous trials but he dismissed her concerns saying that a knight’s quest could not be understood by a woman such as she. Thus, after being shown the right track into the forest, the knight set off at a gallop and was soon lost among the trees.

Heaving a heavy sigh of pity, the woman shook her head, declaring that another soul had left for his judgement before the Lord; then giving another crust of bread to Peronnik, she bade him go on his way. He was about to follow her advice, when the farmer returned home from the fields. This man had just released his flighty young cowherd from his service and the sight of Peronnik was to him most welcome; he thought he had been sent the very aid he sought. After putting a few questions to Peronnik, he asked him whether he would stay at the farm to look after the cattle. Peronnik would have preferred having no one but himself to look after, for no one had a greater aptitude than he for doing nothing but what suited him. However, the taste of that meal still clung to his lips and so he let himself be tempted and accepted the farmer’s offer.

Paul Gauguin - Little Breton Shepherd

Whereupon the good man conducted him to the edge of the forest and there counted aloud all his cattle and having cut him a stout stick of hazel, bade him to bring them safely home at sunset. So, Peronnik now found himself a proper cowherd; running from the black to the white and from the white to the red, in order to keep them from straying.

Whilst he was thus running from side to side, he suddenly heard the sound of horse’s hoofs and saw on one of the tracks, the giant Rogear seated on his mare, followed by a colt. From his neck, hung the golden bowl and in his hand the diamond lance, which shone like flame. Peronnik, terrified, hid himself behind a bush; the giant passed close by and went on his way but as soon as he was gone, Peronnik re-emerged and despite looking all around him, could not tell which direction the sorcerer had taken.

Well-armed and expensively mounted knights continued to pass the farm; a seemingly unceasing passage of adventurers in quest of the castle of Kerglas. None of whom was ever seen to return. Meanwhile, the giant continued his regular forays out of the forest. Peronnik, who had at length grown bolder, no longer thought of concealing himself when he passed by but stared after him enviously for as long as he was in sight; every passing day saw the desire to possess the golden bowl and the diamond lance grow stronger in his heart. Sadly, such things are more easily desired than obtained.

One day, when Peronnik was alone minding the cattle, he noticed an elderly man with long, unkempt hair and a flowing white beard had paused at the entrance of the track through the forest. Taking him to be some fresh adventurer, he asked the stranger whether he sought the castle of Kerglas. “I seek it not, since I already know it well,” replied the old man.

“What? You have been there and the evil one let you live?” exclaimed Peronnik.

Shamok the sorcerer

“Certainly! In any event, he has nothing to fear from me,” replied the stranger. “I am Shamok the sorcerer and am Rogear’s elder brother. When I wish to visit I come here because, despite my, not inconsiderable, powers, I cannot cross the vastness of the enchanted wood without losing my way. I must therefore call his black colt to carry me.”

With these words, he used the tip of his elderberry staff to trace a pattern that resembled three overlapping circles into the dirt before him while murmuring an incantation such as demons teach to sorcerers in a voice that was barely audible. Suddenly, he snapped his head into the east wind and cried aloud: “Colt, unbroken, wild and free; I am here; Come, come and get me.” Within minutes, the black horse galloped into view and stopped, head-bowed, before Shamok. The sorcerer took out a leather halter from his canvas sack and having secured it, mounted the beast and allowed it to return home.

Not one word of this singular event did Peronnik reveal to anyone. Indeed, he had resolved to closely guard what he now knew; the first safe steps towards the castle of Kerglas lay in securing the colt that knew the way. Unfortunately, Peronnik knew neither how to trace the three circles, nor to pronounce the magic words needed to summon the colt. Some other means needed to be found to master the horse and, once it was captured, of gathering the apple, plucking the laughing flower, escaping the black man’s ball and of crossing the valley of delights.

Breton countryside

Peronnik considered the problem for a long time before one day finally deciding that success was attainable. Those who are strong, confront danger head-on and too often perish because of it but the weak need to meet their challenges with subtlety. Having no hope of braving the giant, Peronnik resolved to employ cunning and guile. He was not afraid of the difficulties that lay ahead, did not his mother always say that medlars are hard as stone when picked but always yield with a little straw and much patience.

He therefore set about making all his preparations for the hour when the giant usually appeared at the entrance to the forest. He first made a halter from black hemp and a snare to capture woodcocks, the ends of which he dipped in holy water. He stitched together a square canvas bag which he filled with a pot of glue and lark’s feathers, rosary beads, a whistle that he had fashioned out of an elderberry twig and a piece of bread crust rubbed with rancid bacon. All these items, he stashed carefully into his large travelling sack. Finally, he crumbled the bread given to him for his lunch along the path usually followed by Rogear and his mare and colt.

As anticipated, all three duly appeared at the usual hour and crossed the pasture at their customary spot. However, to Peronnik’s delight, the colt started to sniff the ground and soon identified the crumbs of bread; stopping to tease up a few morsels, the beast was quickly beyond the giant’s sight. Cautiously, Peronnik crept towards the animal; once adjacent, he quickly threw his halter over the colt and jumped upon its back. After a firm nudge from the lad, the black horse, left free to follow its own course, promptly set off down one of the wildest paths into the forest.

Entrance to the Enchanted Forest

Peronnik found himself trembling like a leaf; all the enchantments of the forest conspired to tease and terrify him. He could hear people whispering close behind him and all around were the sounds of a great beast moving through the undergrowth; above his head, the noise of some invisible bird flapping its wings in flight. One moment it seemed as if a bottomless chasm had opened-up before him; the next, all the trees appeared on fire and he found himself surrounded on all sides by walls of flames; sometimes when crossing a stream, it became a torrent and threatened to carry him away; at other times, whilst following a trail along the foot of a gentle hill, immense rocks seemed to break loose and roll towards him as if to crush him to dirt.

Terrible screams and the mad wailing of babies rent the air but all Peronnik could see were ghostly green lights moving erratically amidst the trees. Although he kept telling himself that these were the sorcerer’s deceptions, he felt his very marrow chill with fear. Finally, he decided to pull his hat down over his eyes so as not to see any more delusions and trust in the colt to lead him onwards.

In time, both thus arrived safely upon a featureless plain where all enchantments ceased and the colt’s pace markedly slowed. Peronnik pushed up his hat to survey a most barren landscape; as quiet as a grave and sadder than an unvisited cemetery. Traversing this drab, grey country, he was pained to note the plethora of rusted armour scattered about and the bleached bones of so many men who, like him, had come in quest of the castle of Kerglas. Horror and pity filled his heart when he recognised the colourful mantle worn by the foreign knight he had met just months ago; the proud knight’s broken body lay across a block of cut stone which seemed to serve as a table for the three grey wolves then gnawing at his leg bones.

At length, master and beast found themselves upon the soft grass of an enormous meadow; so broad that Peronnik could not even glimpse its boundaries. However, it was not the rich verdant expanse that captivated his eyes but the solitary apple tree that totally dominated the field; so laden with fruit that its branches hung low upon the ground. In front of the tree, standing sentinel was a korrigan, holding in his bony hand the sword of fire which reduced everything it touched to ashes.

Korrigan and the apple tree

Sighting Peronnik, the korrigan uttered a cry that sounded like that of an angry sea crow and raised his sword menacingly but, without appearing to be surprised, the lad politely took off his hat. “Do not be alarmed, little prince”, he said, “I just want to pass-by to get to Kerglas, where Lord Rogear is expecting me.”

“Expecting you? You? By my mother’s beard, who are you then?” demanded the dwarf.

“Why, I am the new servant of our master, of course; the one he is waiting for!”

“I know nothing of it, nothing at all” replied the dwarf, “and you look like a liar and a cheat to me.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Peronnik, “but that is not my calling. I am a bird catcher and I can train them too. For Heaven’s sake, do not delay me long, for our master is relying on me; as you can see, he even lent me his colt so that I might arrive at the castle sooner.”

The korrigan had indeed noted that Peronnik was riding the sorcerer’s colt and began to think that he was perhaps telling the truth. The lad looked so innocent, that one could barely suspect him capable of such quick-witted artifice; yet the korrigan remained suspicious and asked what need had the sorcerer of a simple bird catcher. “The greatest need, it seems,” replied Peronnik, “for the master said that all that ripens in the garden of Kerglas is too quickly devoured by birds.”

Unconvinced, the korrigan scornfully asked: “So, what will you do to prevent them?” In response, Peronnik showed him the little trap that he had made and declared that no bird could escape it. “Then, that is what I will make sure of,” said the korrigan. “My apple tree is also ravaged by birds; set your trap and if you catch them, I shall let you pass.”

Peronnik accepted the challenge. Tying his horse to one of the tree’s branches, he fixed one end of his snare to the tree trunk and called the korrigan to hold the other end, while he prepared the skewers. The latter did as bade; immediately Peronnik pulled the noose tight and the korrigan found himself caught like a bird. He let out a savage cry of rage and tried to pull away but the laces, having been soaked in holy water, withstood all his efforts. Peronnik picked the brightest apple he could reach and remounted his horse, which continued on its way until the curses of the korrigan could no longer be heard.

Peronnik and the korrigan

Having reached the end of the plain, the country again changed and our travellers found themselves in front of a wonderful grove composed of the most beautiful plants. There, amongst a carpet of celandine and daisy, were orchids, roses of all colours, myriad types of lush lilies, tall bird of paradise flowers, dahlias in vast congregations. Above all, rose the mysterious laughing flower around which prowled a lion with a mane of writhing vipers, grinding its great teeth like two millstones.

Young Peronnik stopped and bowed low, for he knew that in front of the powerful a hat is less useful on the head than in the hand. He wished the lion and all his kin the greatest measures of good health and prosperity and washed him in the silver words of utmost flattery before asking casually whether he was indeed on the road to the castle of Kerglas. Instantly alert, the lion raised his head of snakes high and demanded to know what business a simple man had at the castle.

Summoning his courage, Peronnik quietly explained that he was in the service of a lady, a friend of Lord Rogear, who had entrusted him to deliver a gift to the sorcerer; all that was needed to make the best lark pie in the land. “Larks!” repeated the lion, licking his moustache, “I have not tasted them in more than a century. How many do you carry?”

“As many as my sack can hold, sire, but I have also a little suet, some lard and the finest flour in Brittany. If it pleases you, I might perhaps be able to spare you a bite of good veal,” said Peronnik.

Medieval lion

However, the lion would not be dissuaded from the songbirds: “I did not ask of all that you carried. I asked how many larks you carry. You must have at least a dozen larks for a fine pie but I strongly suspect that you are carrying two or three spare birds!”

“I have only what I carry in this bag, sire,” replied Peronnik, pointing to the canvas square that he had earlier filled with feathers and glue. He continued his deception by mimicking the twittering of the larks; a call that further aggravated the lion’s keen appetite.

“Let me see,” said the lion, drawing closer, “show me your birds for I must know if they are plump enough to grace our master’s table.” Peronnik reluctantly explained that this was impossible lest the birds fly away. The lion’s yearning for the little birds was not so easily dismissed: “Do not toy with me boy! Just open it a little. Open it for me now,” demanded the salivating beast.

This was just what Peronnik had hoped for; he proffered his bag to the lion, who eagerly stuck his head inside to seize the larks and found himself entangled in feathers and sticky glue. Struggling to avoid the darting snakes, Peronnik quickly tightened the drawstring of the bag around the lion’s neck and made the sign of the cross over the knot to make it indestructible. Roaring with rage, the lion bucked wildly but luckily Peronnik was able to avoid its throes and ran to the laughing flower. Having plucked this mysterious bloom and stored it in his sack, he set forth again with all speed.


He had not travelled for long when he encountered the lake of the dragons, which he could only traverse by swimming across its breadth. Peronnik had barely entered its murky black water before they came rushing at him from all sides to devour him. This time, he did not bother attempting appeasement but immediately began throwing the beads of his blessed rosary at the fast-approaching monsters, as he used to do when throwing grain to ducks. His aim was true; the curious dragons took the bait and with each bead swallowed, one of the dragons writhed furiously in the water before rolling over onto its back, dead; and so Peronnik eventually reached the other side of the lake unscathed.

If the words of the hermit of the Blavet were true, it now remained to cross the valley guarded by the black man and sure enough a sharply v-shaped valley soon loomed into view. As he neared the mouth of the valley, Peronnik espied its guardian at the entrance, holding in his hand an iron ball which, after having struck its goal, always magically returned.

However, what struck Peronnik most about the scene before him were the guard’s six eyes; set all around his head, constantly on the lookout. Realising that, if seen, he would likely be struck dead by the iron ball before he could speak, he decided to crawl along the thicket behind the sentry who had now sat down and closed two of his eyes in rest. Judging that he might be sleepy, Peronnik started to softly sing the beginning of high Mass in a low voice. Startled, the guardian raised his head in surprise but Peronnik’s dulcet tones quickly lulled him and a third eye closed. Thus encouraged, Peronnik went on to intone the Kyrie eleison and was rewarded with the closure of a fourth eye and half the fifth, so, he began Vespers but before he had reached the Magnificat, the guardian of the valley was sound asleep.

Having quickly gathered his horse, Peronnik led it quietly through the valley and onwards into the Vale of Delights; perhaps the most difficult proceeding of all because it was now not a question of avoiding danger but of evading temptation. Fearing his resolve, Peronnik called upon all the saints of Brittany to give him the strength to resist all lures.

Peronnik's quest

The valley he now crossed was like a garden richly stocked with exotic fruits, beautiful flowers and clear fountains. However, these fountains flowed with sweet wines and liquors, the pretty flowers sang with voices as sweet as the cherubs of Paradise and the luscious fruits willingly offered themselves to Peronnik’s touch. Each deviation in the pathway was marked with massive oak tables, groaning under the weight of sumptuous feasts fit for a king. His senses were assailed by the smells drifting from the stone ovens built aside the road: fresh balls of bread, big enough for two families, and salted meats; he could even detect the distinctive aroma of his favourite delicacy, chotten (roasted pig’s head). Rushing servants seemed everywhere, setting down large platters of food and motioning him to sit. While a little further off, beautiful ladies emerged from their bathing and danced on the grass; calling him by name, they invited him to join their frolics.

It was seemingly in vain that Peronnik furiously made the sign of the cross while uttering his prayers; unconsciously, he had slowed the colt’s pace and he had involuntarily raised his nose to the wind to better catch the delicious odours of the smoking meats. To gaze attentively upon the sensuous bathers, he might have succumbed and stopped altogether, had not the memory of the treasures he sought suddenly burst into his mind. He caught himself and immediately began to blow his whistle so as not to hear the sweet voices calling him, he chewed his bread rubbed with rancid bacon so as to take his mind away from the sweet smell of the food around him and fixed his stare firmly on his horse’s ears to avoid any sight of the dancers’ charms.

Vale of Delights

In this way, he reached the border of the garden without misfortune and after travelling across open country for a spell, he finally caught sight of the castle of Kerglas in the distance. Unfortunately, Peronnik was still separated from his goal by the raging river which could only be forded in one spot. Fortunately, the horse knew where to safely cross the river and cantered to the right place. Having established the exact location of the ford, Peronnik began searching for the lady who would be his guide. He found her sitting alone on a rock some distance from the river, she was clad from head to toe in black satin; a colour that accentuated the striking yellow hue of her face.

Once again, Peronnik pulled off his hat and after a brief bow, asked her if she did not want to cross the river. “I have been waiting here for you for that very purpose,” she replied, “come closer so that I might seat myself behind you.” Now bearing the weight of two riders, the young colt entered the water and was half-way across when the lady asked Peronnik whether he knew her. The question surprised him for he was certain that he had never seen this woman before in his life: “I beg your pardon milady,” replied Peronnik, “but from your dress I can see that you are a noble and powerful person.”

“Noble, I must be,” the mysterious lady responded, “because my origin dates from the first sin and as powerful am I, for all the nations of the world yield before me.”

“Then, if it please you milday, pray tell me your name,” asked Peronnik.

Plague Witch

“They call me the Plague,” replied the yellow woman, whereupon Peronnik sprang up as if to escape into the water but the lady touched his shoulder and said to him: “Be calm, poor innocent, you have nothing to fear from me; on the contrary, I can serve you.”

“Is it possible that you can show such kindness, Madame Plague?” said Peronnik, this time pulling his hat off for good, before quickly adding: “I believe that it is you who must teach me how I can get rid of the sorcerer Rogear.”

“The magician must die?” asked the Plague.

“I think I should like nothing better,” replied Peronnik, “but he is immortal.”

“Listen closely,” said the Plague. “The apple tree protected by the korrigan is a cutting from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, planted in Paradise by God Himself. Its fruit, like that eaten by Adam and Eve, renders immortals vulnerable to death. So, try to get the magician to taste the apple and from that moment I need only touch him to bring him to death.”

“I will try,” said Peronnik, “but if I succeed, how will I be able to gain the gold bowl and the diamond lance? They are locked in a deep cave that is well secured and that no forged key can open.”

“Fear not, the laughing flower will open all doors,” replied the Plague, “and lights up the darkest of nights.”

Castle of Kerglas

Having entered through the castle’s eastern gate, the colt headed to the left and stopped before a monumental arched entrance, above which hung a large canopy marked in stripes of black and white. Beneath this cloth and sheltered from the sun, sat the giant sorcerer, contentedly smoking his gold pipe. On seeing his colt, on which Peronnik and the lady in black sat, he cried out in a voice that resounded like thunder: “By my master, Beelzebub, this fool dares ride my colt!”

“I am he, the very same, Lord Rogear, greatest of all magicians,” replied Peronnik.

“Tell me, how did you manage to take him?” asked the sorcerer.

“I simply repeated what your brother Shamok taught me,” said Peronnik, “and the little horse came at once.”

“Then you know my brother?” asked the sorcerer. Peronnik’s response was deliberately vague but seemed to satisfy the sorcerer who asked on what errand his brother had sent him hither.

“To bring you a present of two curiosities that he has received from the land of the Moors: this apple of delight and the woman of submission that you see there. If you eat the first, your heart will always be as happy as the pauper who has found a purse containing a hundred crowns in his shoe; and if you take the second into your service, you will have nothing left to desire in the world.”

“Then give me the apple and bring me the woman,” replied the sorcerer. Peronnik obeyed but the instant the giant bit into the fruit, the lady in black laid her hand upon him and he immediately fell to the ground like a slaughtered ox.

Peronnik lost no time entering the castle and rushed through the vaulted entrance hall, clutching the laughing flower in his hand. He raced through some fifty chambers before finally arriving at the silver door which marked the entrance to the sorcerer’s underground chambers. This great door swung open before the power of the flower which then lit up and allowed Peronnik sufficient light to successfully locate the gold bowl and diamond lance.

Storm over Kerglas

No sooner had he regained the fresh air than the earth trembled terribly beneath his feet, quickly followed by a dreadful rolling thunder which was punctuated with sharp thunder claps and a cacophony of simultaneous sheet and forked lightning; one powerful burst of which was so brilliant that Peronnik momentarily lost his sight. Once recovered, he saw that the castle had disappeared entirely and that he now found himself alone in the middle of a forest.

Relieved to have found himself still in possession of the two magical talismans, Peronnik set forth to find the edge of the forest, with the ultimate intention of securing an audience with the King of Brittany. Travelling southwards, he reached the city of Gwened where he stopped to buy the best clothes he could find and the finest horse in the diocese.

Arriving finally in the king’s capital of Naoned, he found the city once again besieged by the Franks, who had so mercilessly ravaged the surrounding country that there were only trees left for a goat to graze upon. Moreover, the siege had created a famine within the city’s walls and those who did not die defending their land, died for want of bread. On the very day of Peronnik’s arrival, trumpeters proclaimed at every crossroads that the King of Brittany would adopt as his heir, anyone who could deliver the city and drive the French from the country. Hearing this, Peronnik said to one trumpeter: “Make no more announcements but lead me to the King, for I can do all that he asks.”

Siege of Nantes

“You?” said the herald incredulously, seeing him so young and small: “Go on your way, little bird! The King has no time to be wasted.” In response, Peronnik touched the man with his lance and caused him to instantly fall down dead, to the great terror of all the crowd who looked on and who would have fled had he not cried: “You have witnessed what I can do against my enemies, now see the power of my friendship.” So saying, he brought his golden bowl to the dead man’s lips who was immediately restored to life.

On being informed of this miracle, the King gave Peronnik command of the city’s garrison. Armed with his diamond lance he set about the besieging forces, slaying thousands of the invaders and with his golden bowl, he returned to life the many Bretons who had been slain. Thanks to Peronnik’s efforts, the invaders were totally routed in a matter of days and their camps razed.

In tribute to his King, he then proposed to conquer all the neighbouring countries such as Anjou, Poitou, and Normandy, which cost him but little trouble. When all these lands had submitted to the King of Brittany, Peronnik declared his intention of setting out to deliver the Holy Land and subsequently embarked from Naoned at the head of a magnificent fleet which boasted the first flowers of the nobility of the land.

On reaching the Holy Land, he performed many personal feats of valour and destroyed all the armies that were sent against him. Finally, an honourable and just peace was agreed across the land and to seal it, Peronnik married the daughter of the King of the Saracens by whom he had a hundred children, to each of whom he granted a fine kingdom. Some say that, thanks to the powers of the golden bowl, he and his sons still live but others assure that Rogear’s brother, the sorcerer Shamok, succeeded in regaining possession of the talismans and that those who wish for them have only to search for them. However, gaining them might be a more difficult undertaking!

Flying Bells and Red Eggs

As the oldest and most important Christian festival, it should come as no surprise to discover that several popular traditions and superstitions once surrounded Eastertide here in Brittany.

In many households here, people would not dare to slaughter any animal on Good Friday or to sow any kind of grain. Serious misfortune was said to follow for anyone who spun yarn on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Nor was the latter popularly regarded as an appropriate day to do the laundry, for it was believed that a person who slept in a bed whose sheets had been washed on that day would be in danger of dying there within the year. Easter was also thought an unlucky time to get engaged to be married but to be assured of marriage within the year, young women once climbed to the summit of the large boulder in the churchyard of Saint Eustache’s chapel in Saint-Étienne-en-Coglès on Good Friday.

However, certain practices were positively encouraged for Good Friday. For instance, it was considered a most auspicious day for sowing cabbages and onions; the latter were said to be protected from drought and insects if sown on that day. Similarly, grilling a sardine to hang from the ceiling beams of your house on Good Friday was said to ensure the year ahead would be free from bothersome flies. Likewise, sprinkling a little broth made of pork-fat into the ponds and streams near the house on Good Friday was recommended to guard against the annoying clamour of croaking frogs throughout the coming summer.

It was also a traditionally held belief here that children needed to be washed on Good Friday in order to protect them from scabies. While the bread baked on that day was believed to hold special properties; if placed in a pile of wheat, it protected it against mice and other rodents.  

Breton calvary

It was also customary here that, on Good Friday, those who lived within striking distance of the sea visited the coast to collect barnacles and whelks. People were not despondent if it rained on the day as it was said to forecast plentiful supplies of bread in August. This was also the day that those who kept bees, placed a small cross of wax, blessed by the local priest, on top of the hives in order to secure good fortune over the year ahead. However, in some parts of the region, it was a blessed branch of boxwood that was put on each hive. This latter practice carries some similarities to the ritual observed a few days earlier on Palm Sunday, when blessed sprigs of boxwood were typically placed on the graves of loved ones and also on the strips of a family’s uncultivated land for the same purpose.

The potential of the day was also manifested in the belief that only a healer born feet first on the afternoon of Good Friday was powerful enough to straighten the spines of those people suffering from rickets. Likewise, the seventh child of a family of seven boys was thought to possess the gift to cure intermittent fever and scrofula but only on a Good Friday. While a seaweed popularly known as marine mistletoe was said to cure epilepsy but only if harvested at three o’clock in the morning of Easter Sunday by a person with a perfectly clear conscience.

Belief in the transformative power of Easter can also be seen in its employment against the supernatural. For instance, in some parts of Brittany, it was believed that werewolves could only be killed by being struck three times by a dagger made of silver melted from a crucifix or shot by a ball moulded from the same source but only if the haft of the knife or the stock of the rifle had been rubbed with wax from the Paschal candle. It was also said that even that bird of ill omen, the magpie, crossed its nest on Good Friday. Roosters born on this day were believed to start crowing unusually early and to possess the ability to foretell death, which they did by altering their usual cry. Around Saint-Brieuc, mariners once believed that fish spoke in the language of men on Easter Day.

Breton easter egg

In Brittany, the eggs laid by chickens on Good Friday were thought to bring good luck to the household and were carefully kept as talismans to protect the house against fire over the year ahead. Here, people traditionally refrained from eating eggs during Holy Week but then ate as many as a dozen on Easter Day. Care having been taken with storing the eggs laid on Good Friday as it was once believed that eating the first egg laid on that day would protect one from illness for the following seven months. As well as using-up whatever fresh eggs remained from the previous week of abstinence, eating eggs on Easter Sunday was also thought the best way to assure the fertility of the household’s domestic animals. While Easter Sunday was the day to break open the eggs, Quasimodo Sunday was traditionally the day to break apart the pots and plates that had been chipped and damaged over the previous year.

While the custom of exchanging gifts of eggs was not unique to Christian celebrations, at Easter, the egg symbolized both life and the sealed tomb which contained the body of Christ until it opened after His resurrection. Another widespread custom once associated with Easter here involved colouring, on Maundy Thursday, the eggs to be gifted on Easter Day; typically these were dyed red with boiled onion skins. We will now never know why red was most popularly used; some suggest that it was to symbolise Christ’s sacrifice, while Christian legends tells us that it was in remembrance of the miraculous tears shed by the Virgin Mary at Golgotha or in support of Mary Magdalene’s proclamation of the resurrection before the sceptical Roman Emperor.

The egg has long carried mystical connotations and was often a favourite tool of the humble healer as well as the more sinister sorcerer. Traditionally, fresh eggs were often mixed with various leaves and seeds to treat all manner of ailments but it was used on its own to treat eye diseases which were treated with the application of a very fresh, still warm, egg. An egg yolk mixed with lambig and red wine was even said to cure dysentery. In times past, the practice of transmitting a disease from the patient into an egg was not uncommon. In central Brittany, sick people would place a fresh chicken egg into the waters of the Notre-Dame-de-Lille fountain in Kergrist-Moëlou; as the egg rotted, so, the fever dissipated.

Easter bells

Sometimes, eggs served more rather diabolical purposes; sorcerers were believed to use them to cast malevolent spells that caused great harm. Thus the shells of eggs that had been eaten were customarily struck three times so as to deny one’s enemies the means of preparing an evil charm against you. Additionally, foretelling the future by inspecting the motion of egg whites in water was once popular with witches and alchemists alike; the eggs laid during the day by black hens were held to be the most effective for such oomancy, especially if consulted under the light of the midday sun.

In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, church bells were traditionally not rung between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday; a mark of mourning for the death of Christ before ringing again in celebration of the resurrection on Easter Day. According to legend, the bells did not sit idly in their towers; for, on Good Friday, they made a pilgrimage to Rome where they were blessed by the pope. They returned full of pious vigour on Easter Sunday, laden with eggs dressed as red as the pope’s cardinals, along with other treats for the children. Chocolate eggs did not really start to appear in Brittany until well into the 20th century.

Some old stories tell that the bells are accompanied on their homeward journey by hosts of angels carrying baskets filled with flowers and eggs which they disburse near the houses of the deserving. However, the spirit of darkness, ever vigilant in its quest for fresh prey, was sometimes nimble enough to slip its rancid egg amongst those gifted by God.

Easter bells fly to Rome

It is said that many years ago, in a small village located several leagues south of the market town of Guingamp, a widow and her beautiful daughter earned an honest living as seamstresses of note; such was their reputation for delivering fine results that they always found themselves busy with work. Nolwenn was now nineteen years of age and it was not just her mother who considered her as beautiful as the fairies and as virtuous as the angels; many proposals of marriage had been made to her since she had turned fifteen but her mother had always postponed the painful day that would separate her from her daughter. “You’re not ready. Wait just one more year”, her mother would say and Nolwenn was always happy to acquiesce and remain under her mother’s wing.

Returning home from mass one Easter Sunday, the two women discovered an old beggar seated at the doorway of their cottage. This beggar was unknown to the village and yet entreated Nolwenn’s charity as though he had known her for years. Nolwenn’s mother went to fetch water while, as was her way, Nolwenn donated what she could spare by way of coins and bread. On receiving her alms, the stranger, whose face remained hidden by a ragged hood, said to her in a quavering voice: “Beautiful lady, today is the greatest feast of the year, if you do not disdain the poor gift of an old beggar, take this egg, it will bring you good fortune. Before the next Easter arrives, a kindly lord will come and ask you for marriage, you will become a countess my beautiful child because it is written so. On the day of your union, break this egg and you will find within its frail shell, my wedding present to you.” As he said these words, he handed her an egg, unusually large and of a brilliant deep red hue.

Nolwenn de Kersaliou

Having thanked the beggar for his kind gift, Nolwenn watched him shuffle steadily away and took a moment to examine her egg, laughing at the old man’s prophesy as she did so. For some reason, she did not tell her mother of this most singular encounter, she merely wrapped the egg in a piece of torn cloth and placed it at the bottom of her clothes box. Her life continued as before but increasingly her mother would surprise her in some deep reverie. Unknown passions burned in her heart, enchanting dreams disturbed her sleep; several times, she even saw in her restless sleep the beggar’s egg glow a sinister red and radiate like a fiery coal in the darkness.

More than once, Nolwenn was tempted to break the egg in order to know the future but she pushed such curiosity to the bottom of her heart and instead surrendered herself to the destiny of God’s will. A short distance west of her village stood the old castle of Kraviou; dismembered during the Wars of Religion, the castle had been abandoned for centuries and its ruins long since consumed by ivy. It therefore caused much surprise in the locality when a gentleman arrived on Midsummer’s Day claiming to be the heir to the old lords and their estate. In short order, the castle was partly restored and the new lord, Rivallon de Kersaliou, established a comfortable home there, surrounding himself with friends from the city who spent their days hunting and feasting.

Kraviou castle

During one of the lord’s outings, providence conspired to set Nolwenn across his path; he espied her walking near the village fountain and was immediately stuck by her beauty and grace. Having inquired as to her name and whereabouts, it was not long before he stood upon the threshold of Nolwenn’s cottage. The haze of introductions were still floating about the air when, suddenly, the Lord of Kersaliou made a bold proposal of marriage. Nolwenn’s mother, stunned by this unexpected proposition, refused but the good lord would not be swayed and eventually, she yielded to him. Perhaps it was the improved prospects offered for her daughter’s future by a noble match that changed her mind. Whatever the reason, she gave her approval only on condition that Nolwenn herself agreed to the union.

This Nolwenn did with much eager happiness, assuring her mother that as the wife of a lord, they need never again fill every hour of daylight with labour and that her improved circumstances would allow her to donate more alms to the poor and needy. Finally, the necessary arrangements were made and five weeks later, the wedding of the noble Lord of Kersaliou and Nolwenn, the seamstress’ daughter, was celebrated on an auspicious Tuesday in the chapel of the castle in the presence of an unknown chaplain and de Kersaliou’s many high-born friends.

A Breton Bride
A Breton bride sketched in 1840

The day was filled with a wonderful banquet; a feast of such splendour as the parish had not seen before. All the inhabitants of the village were invited and there were also full tables of food set-up for the beggars and vagrants of the neighbourhood to enjoy the day’s festivities. Everyone remarked on how fine the musicians were; always sensing when to encourage another gavotte or to lead the guests into an energetic circular dance. Nolwenn’s mother, who had been to the city, said that she had never seen as many people as there were servants hurrying to and fro between the castle and the wedding feat with fresh pitchers of drink and full platters of food.

In the midst of the day’s head-spinning splendour, Nolwenn had not forgotten her Easter egg, nor the old beggar’s prediction that was now coming true. She was anxious to open her egg and had earlier arranged for her box to have been brought over to the castle and placed in the bridal chamber. With nightfall, the merrymaking and dancing slowly fell away and, little by little, the guests showered the couple with good wishes and withdrew. The newlyweds ascended the stairs together but her husband had taken just a few steps before he turned back to have words with his page while Nolwenn’s maid led her eagerly upstairs and into the most beautiful room she had ever seen.

Young Dreame

The midnight bell was striking and Nolwenn caught herself quivering with emotion when her husband, Rivallon, entered their chamber. He smiled as he walked towards her in hopes of his first husband’s embrace but Nolwenn stepped back from him, saying: “My dear lord and love, before I belong to you, as I swore before the chaplain, I want to know what is in my mysterious egg, which, almost a year ago, was given to me by a beggar who predicted the fate that favours me today. I promised to break it on the first night of my marriage because it must answer the enigma, which, for some time, has enveloped my existence and made me its mistress.”

“Why now, what is the point tonight? Today is for happiness! Would not tomorrow be soon enough? Surely, we can …,” her husband replied. However, Nolwenn could not wait to even listen to the end of her husband’s words and had already taken the egg between her fingers. Alas, the egg was so hot that, without thinking, she instantly threw it to the ground where it shattered. Immediately, an enormous toad emerged from the broken shell. The vile beast jumped on to the wedding bed, vomiting flames which set the curtains ablaze; then, with a tremendous leap, it passed through an archway and continued to spew its sulphurous fire on all sides. The fire’s surge was swift; its grip terrible. Flames consumed everything and soon a terrific crack shook the castle’s rafters which collapsed in a ghastly conflagration, returning the castle once again to ashes. Satan had gathered one more soul.

From that day to this, local people claim that during moonlit nights, the ghostly figure of the young bride can be glimpsed prowling around the castle’s ruins. Sometimes, the soft wind is said to carry the sound of her lamentable voice begging the poor of the village for their prayers, in memory of the many alms she had given them when she lived.

Fire by Wright of Derby

As you impatiently break open the delicate shells of your Easter eggs, spare a thought for the poor lady of Kersaliou and the steady path to perdition that began with a gift that was not what it was blindly hoped to be.  

Armchair Travelling – Cambodia

The onset of Spring here has brought us little respite from increased Covid infections and additional travel restrictions. This means that another virtual journey is in order and so, for Wordless Wednesday, I propose another holiday in Cambodia to revisit the fascinating Angkor Archaeological Park which contains the remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century.


It is humbling to imagine how much human history has passed by the way while these temples have stood resolute down the centuries!

Healing Herbs of Brittany

Herbs and plants once played a key role in the traditional medicine of Brittany, being employed in a wide variety of remedies to treat all manner of diseases in humans and animals. Most proprietary recipes were tightly guarded, being handed down within the family from generation to generation. However, knowledge captured from the popular memory in the early 20th century and uncovered in the old pages of witch’s spell books and folklore, allow us to construct a Breton herbal pharmacopoeia.

Traditional healers and herbalists long subscribed to the theory that the beneficial qualities of healing plants were revealed by their shape, colouring, texture and habitat; unique signatures that helped define the virtues of such plants. For instance, the yellow sap of Celandine was considered appropriate for treating jaundice; the blue of the Cornflower recalled the iris of the eye; the tubers of the Lesser Celandine were thought to resemble haemorrhoids.

In Brittany, the preparation of herbal remedies could differ from healer to healer and was also adapted to the ailment to be treated. Some plants needed to be gathered on certain auspicious days to be held effective, such as Corpus Christi for Elderberry, or collected in a certain way, such as when cutting Verbena or Broom. Most of the plants were dried for use, others were preserved by maceration in alcohol or oil, some being exposed to the sun for forty days.


Medication was typically administered 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. Sometimes, plants, such as garlic, were even worn about the person to cure or protect against illness.

Medicinal plants were typically gathered from the hedgerows, forests and meadows. However, the majority of these plants were typically found around the home, where the plants were readily to hand; rarer plants would have been grown and nurtured in the healer’s garden. The picking of medicinal plants was not surrounded with the high ritual employed when gathering magical plants or the seven sacred plants of St. John on Midsummer. However, some exceptions did exist, for instance, the curative panacea Verbena or Vervain was thought most effective if gathered during the rising of the dog-star (Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky) when neither sun nor moon shone; with the left hand only after having traced a circle around the plant.

In Brittany, verbena was once ascribed a multitude of healing properties, from conquering fevers to healing snake bites. The plant’s dry leaves, finely ground and mixed with a spoonful of rye flour and two egg whites, were applied as a plaster to treat external ulcers. A decoction of its leaves in vinegar produced a mixture that was used as a compress for treating rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica and even headaches. Boiled in red wine, it was even said to be effective in treating a prolapsed rectum. Verbena leaves crushed with salt were applied to wounds to stop bleeding. An omelette made with its dried chopped leaves was eaten in expectation that it helped to heal bruises. An infusion with water was used to treat eye ailments; the leaves of the Fir Clubmoss, similarly treated, were also thought an effective remedy against eye diseases.

Gathering Herbs

Now popularly worn as a mark of remembrance for the war dead, Cornflower was another multi-purpose plant and was traditionally used here to treat eye infections; an infusion of the flowers was used to bathe the eyes and applied as an overnight compress. It was used to treat rheumatism and those suffering from stones in the urinary tracts; dried flowers were macerated in beer for eight days and the resultant liquid ingested. Dried flowers were also ground into a powder which was beaten into an egg yolk and taken twice a day to manage jaundice.

The plant known as Royal Fern was used to treat abdominal bloating in children and also hernias. A herbal tea made from Field Horsetail was thought effective in the treatment of hematemesis (vomiting blood), diarrhoea and even dysentery. Macerated in white wine for a fortnight, the plant was also said to be a potent diuretic, while a poultice placed against the lower abdomen treated incontinence. This herbal tea was also thought a good remedy for hematuria (bloody urine).

Those suffering from decreased urine output were advised to drink an infusion of Parietaria but for those suffering from urine retention, a very hot poultice of the plant was placed on the lower abdomen for as long as possible. A decoction of this plant in honey was drunk hot to treat asthma while a decoction in butter was applied directly as a hot poultice to ease neck pains. Difficulties with urine retention were also treated with Couch Grass, a noted host of the deadly scourge of the Middle Ages, the ergot fungus. The plant possessed diuretic properties, particularly when administered as a decoction with a handful of barley and a little liquorice root.  


Boxwood features heavily in folklore and in certain superstitious practices but it also had its role in traditional medicine The plant’s bark was used as a soporific and purgative while its leaves were used in several preparations. To aid digestion, a spoonful of white wine in which boxwood leaves had been macerated for eight days, was recommended before a meal. A decoction diluted with a little water was drunk before bedtime as a laxative. To sweat out a cold, the water in which leaves had been boiled was drunk every half hour for two hours. If taken every night, a daily draught of this herbal tea was also said to cure rheumatism after seven months. Rheumatism was also treated with Wood Anemone, whose leaves and flowers were ground with a little butter and massaged as a liniment into the patient’s skin.

Many of the medicinal plants of Brittany were held to possess multiple virtues, such as Elderberry; its flowers, soaked in vinegar for a fortnight, were ingested as a treatment against rheumatism; its leaves, ground with salt and vinegar, were applied as a plaster to treat minor wounds; the bark, macerated in white wine for two days, produced an infusion that was taken to treat edema (swollen limbs) and to eliminate the burning sensation while urinating with nephritis.

Preparations from Meadow Scorzonera, also known as Viper’s Grass, were used in the treatment of rheumatism and coughs. Additionally, the plant’s roots were boiled in water for half an hour and the resultant brew was drank, on an empty stomach, as a diuretic but it was also said to be effective at inducing sweating and detoxifying the blood. Water infused with Knapweed root was drank to cure kidney ailments but when macerated in white wine, its crushed seeds provided a powerful diuretic. An infusion of the plant’s flowers in water was also thought effective at treating all manner of fevers. 

Dog Rose
Dog Rose

Although a toxic plant, an infusion of Ragwort flowers in water was recommended as a treatment for coughs, asthma and even congestion. To treat a sore throat, a poultice of the plant’s leaves was placed on the patient’s throat and a decoction made of the same material used as a mouthwash. The leaves were also boiled in butter to create an ointment for treating all wounds. Stonecrop was another plant whose leaves were boiled in butter and applied as a plaster to heal ulcers and skin burns. Similarly, Wall Pennywort, also known as the Navel of Venus, was treated in the same way to cure the same problems.

Sore throats and gum disease were also treated with a mouthwash made from an infusion of the petals of the Dog Rose but it was the plant’s rosehip that was more popularly used; chewed raw to combat intestinal worms or made into a jam to aid digestion. Dried rosehips macerated in lambig for a fortnight produced a liquid in which a cloth was soaked and then applied directly to the wound to help it heal. Rosehip juice was brought to the boil with a little sugar to create a medicine for treating diarrhoea if taken nine times a day.

Common Barbary, known in Brittany as the Grass of Saint Barbara, the 4th century Christian martyr tortured by fire before being beheaded by her father who was immediately struck by lightning, produced an effective balm for soothing fire-related wounds. Macerated for a month in vegetable oil, this compound of the plant’s leaves was also used to heal cuts and abrasions. The plant’s seeds, having been soaked in wine for four days, were used as a poultice applied to the body to treat kidney stones and liver ailments.

Medieval Herbiary

Kidney stones were also popularly treated with Common Groundsel, a plant that was thought effective in improving blood circulation and considered a powerful diuretic, purgative and anti-parasitic. Two popular remedies were noted for the plant’s leaves; a handful of which were mixed with a handful of those of the Mallow and boiled in butter for half an hour to deliver a concoction that was applied to the stomach of expectant mothers approaching labour. Those suffering from urinary retention were treated with an abdominal plaster which contained a preparation made from Groundsel leaves, Pellitory and nine cloves of Garlic that had previously been boiled together in red wine for an hour.

The flowers of the Common Marigold were used to prepare infusions and tinctures which were believed to have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Poultices made with crushed dried leaves were said to help heal wounds, ulcers and burns. The tea made with this plant was also thought effective in aiding digestion. To induce sweating, an infusion of dried Marigold flowers and Borage leaves was drunk.

To treat amenorrhea, an equal amount of leaves were ground with those of Mugwort and macerated for eight days in white wine; the remedy worked best if drunk every morning on an empty stomach in the week before menstruation was due to start. Red-Veined Dock, also known as Bloodwort, was also used to encourage menstruation but to combat heavy menstrual flow, an infusion made with the leaves or seeds of Privet was drunk.


Common Tansy or Saint Mark’s Herb was said to be a highly effective remedy against intestinal worms; its flowers were boiled in wine and the potion drunk, on an empty stomach; or else the plant’s leaves were ground with a head of garlic and applied as a plaster to the abdomen. A handful of dried leaves, crushed and boiled in very salty water, was applied as a plaster directly onto wounds in the belief that they would heal quickly without leaving a scar. An infusion of Tansy leaves was also taken to reduce fevers and to treat digestive ailments and rheumatism. The medicinal value of this plant seems to have been very broad as it was also used as an abortifacient, an insect ​​repellent and as an aid to control flatulence.

The medicinal value of Bryony, also known as Devil’s Turnip or Climbing Mandrake, has been noted since ancient times when it was said to treat neuroses. Most of the plant is toxic to humans except for its seeds; contact with the skin can cause dermatitis while ingesting its berries can have serious consequences beginning with nausea, violent vomiting and diarrhoea. A potion made from the plant’s leaves macerated in white wine not only served as a powerful purgative but was also said to be effective against kidney stones, edema, rheumatism and epilepsy. To treat sebaceous cysts, the leaves were ground with salt and applied directly to the cyst as a hot poultice for a fortnight.

The seeds of another poisonous plant, the Garden Spurge, also known as Mole Grass, were typically used as a purgative after having been crushed and soaked in vegetable oil for eight days. The plant’s sap caused contact dermatitis but was applied, daily, as a treatment for warts and to relieve bee stings. The sap of Greater Celandine, also known as Wart Weed and Witch’s Milk, was also used against warts, corns and calluses. Preparations made from a decoction of the plant in white wine were believed effective against jaundice, rheumatism and scrofula; its dried root chewed to ease toothache. Lesser Celandine or Pilewort was also employed in the fight against warts, scrofula, eye diseases and haemorrhoids. Indeed, Brittany’s most famous cosmetics and herbal care company, Yves Rocher, has its origins in a haemostatic ointment made from this plant according to a recipe given to him by a local healer just after the Second World War.

Celandine in the garden

While the earliest references to the power of Betony or Bishop’s Wort attest to its effectiveness against witchcraft, it was used here to treat all manner of wounds. The plant’s leaves were macerated in white wine for a fortnight and the resultant liquid used to bathe the wound three times a day. To treat venous ulcers or open sores, it was necessary to boil the wine for fifteen minutes and apply the mixture as a hot compress. The plant’s dried leaves were also smoked to relieve headaches.

Drinking Mint tea was said to cure children of worms but a plaster could also be made with the leaves and applied warm to the stomach. This infusion was also thought to aid digestion, stimulate urination, relieve intestinal gas and, if taken with a little vinegar, cure hiccups. Mint leaves were also crushed and mixed with wheat flour to form a plaster applied to treat engorged breasts.

Another plant popular with the traditional healers of Brittany was the Common Broom. Its flowers were macerated in a mixture of honey and water, and several spoons of this liquid were taken to alleviate fever, rheumatism and kidney stones. To treat edema, the plant was burnt and the ashes macerated in white wine for four days and dosed at the rate of one spoonful every few hours. The plant’s bark, when cut at around half the total height of the plant, was crushed and applied as a plaster to stem minor bleeding.


Garlic, roasted in the Midsummer bonfire, was believed to be a powerful medicine against fevers. Ground with salt and introduced into the ear, it relieved toothache. It was also used against intestinal worms in the form of poultices applied to the stomach and worn as an amulet around the neck to treat croup. One remedy for dealing with intestinal worms here involved boiling fifteen cloves of Garlic in oil and taking a spoonful of this potion every morning before breakfast for three days. Wounds that were not healing quickly were washed with the water in which twenty-five cloves had been boiled but to cure a cough it was necessary to drink cow’s milk containing several cloves of crushed Garlic.

A large dose of raw Onion was recommended for those suffering from kidney complaints but another remedy called for several onion bulbs, finely chopped, to be macerated in white wine for four days before being taken daily. Cooked onions were also used as a poultice against whitlow, an infection of the finger and thumb caused by the herpes virus. Raw onion juice applied to the skin was said to increase blood circulation and to relieve muscular pains.

The medicinal value of Mallow was attested as long ago as the third century BC; a worthy reputation as the whole plant is edible and rich in mineral salts and vitamins. A concoction made from the plant’s flowers was used to treat cuts, ulcers and abscesses; a hot poultice of the plant was also applied to treat sebaceous cysts. An infusion of leaves and moss was employed in a plaster against breast abscesses, while the same mixture was used as a bath to relieve swelling and inflammations. As a powerful emollient, the plant not only soothed external irritations but when its seeds were taken in a decoction it also proved an effective demulcent, soothing coughs and sore throats.

Considered a universal remedy in antiquity, Celery was used here as a diuretic and as an antipyretic (fever reducer) but it also had more unusual applications. The plant’s roots were chopped and boiled in water to treat liver complaints; its leaves were boiled in milk and drunk hot to ease asthma. Dried leaves were ground and mixed into a lump of lard to create a plaster that was applied to treat a swollen stomach.


Carrot juice was drunk as a medicine to cure sore throats and manage asthma but eating raw carrots was recommended against intestinal worms and to relieve stomach aches. An infusion of carrot leaves was used to bathe wounds and it was also said to be particularly useful in treating scalds and for healing whitlow.

Parsley was another versatile plant that was thought to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion. Its leaves were rubbed on bee stings to relieve the pain and on bruises to prevent swelling. Additionally, the leaves were chopped and mixed with salt and vegetable oil to make a poultice that eased toothache and earache. Bizarrely, a poultice of parsley was applied to the throat of those suffering from angina and to the eyes to treat conjunctivitis. The vapours of parsley boiling in salted water were used to treat women suffering from a breast abscess or swollen lymph nodes. Its juice was recommended to asthmatics and those bothered by a persistent cough, while an infusion of the plant’s chopped root was drank against liver disease.

The healing powers of Common Purslane, also known as Duckweed, were thought so strong that Pliny advised wearing the plant as an amulet to expel all evil. In Brittany, the root was typically used to treat gum diseases and intestinal worms. The juice of the plant, boiled with honey and red rose petals, was directly applied to treat haemorrhoids. Similarly, the juice of Hogweed or Cow Parsnip was also used in the battle against haemorrhoids.

common centaury

Scarlet Pimpernel or Red Chickweed boiled in honey was said to be effective against eye problems if applied as a plaster on the eyes. Although the same decoction was drank in the treatment of epilepsy. Another plant that offered very different treatments from the same preparation was Common Centaury or Knapweed; its leaves, infused for a fortnight in red wine, was prescribed as a treatment for anaemia but a mere spoonful of this same medication was also taken against worms and diarrhoea.

The roots of the Primrose, boiled in red wine, were taken to treat stones in the urinary tracts and also to combat intestinal worms. A tea made with the plant’s dried petals was drunk as a remedy for severe diarrhoea. The leaves were used as part of a poultice applied to the wrist in order to treat gout; macerated in vinegar for a fortnight, a cloth soaked in this liquid was pressed against the forehead of those suffering from extreme headaches. The flowers seemed to possess a sedative quality and were ingested to treat diseases of the nervous system and heart palpitations. Those patients seeking a more powerful soporific drank an infusion of Hemp seeds in cider.

Once popularly strewn on floors to improve the smell of the farmhouse, the herb known as Meadowsweet or Meadow Queen was used to ease rheumatism and kidney ailments; its flowers were macerated in white wine which was then drunk daily on an empty stomach. It is worth noting that the plant contains salicin; one of the active ingredients in aspirin. Another natural pain reliever was said to be Yellow Bedstraw, which, as its French name, Caille-Lait Jaune, suggests, was traditionally used to curdle milk for the production of cheese. The flowers of this plant were boiled in water and applied as a compress which acted as an astringent and pain reliever. Infused in water and ingested, the plant’s leaves also acted as a diuretic.


An infusion of Redcurrant leaves in water, taken daily before breakfast, was used to treat those with anaemia; the same concoction was drunk three times a day against diarrhoea and dysentery. Urinary problems were medicated with an infusion made from the plant’s bark. An infusion made from the plant’s berries was drunk daily by those with a fever and also measles.

To detoxify the blood and reduce swollen glands, a poultice made with the leaves of the Figwort was applied to the body. Infused in water, the leaves of the plant were also used to combat malarial fevers; as was an infusion made with the bark of the Golden Willow. The active extract of the bark of the White Willow, like Meadowseet, contains salicin. To cure a fever, it was necessary to drink, each morning and night, the potion that had been produced after the bark had been macerated in white wine for four days. To treat dysentery, the leaves were boiled in milk. Eating a few bunches of Elderberry was also said to prevent dysentery.

The Small Nettle was employed against rheumatism, sciatica and lumbago but was also used to treat ailments identified by the coughing-up of blood, such as tuberculosis or bronchitis. Some healers here advocated a nettle leaf tea while others advocated that the nettle seeds be boiled in water for thirty minutes before being mixed into a fresh egg yolk. The same concoction was recommended for treating heavy colds but drank as hot as could be borne.

These natural remedies are not only testimony to the patient ingenuity of the healers of yesterday but also provide us with a fascinating insight into the most common ailments once faced by the people of Brittany.

Memoirs of a Breton Peasant

A fascinating insight into the popular mentalities of 19th century Brittany as seen through the critical eyes of a remarkable man; sometime beggar, soldier, farmer, bar keeper, tobacconist and paranoid vagrant. This autobiography is an absorbing account of a “long lifetime of poverty, slavery and persecution” and one that I would recommend.

The book constitutes the memoirs of a remarkable man: Jean-Marie Déguignet who was born into abject poverty in the small town of Guengat, a few miles west of the city of Quimper in July 1834. The Prefect of Finistère noted at the time that the town’s population “eats poorly, is puny and withered”. He was born just as his tenant farmer father, ruined by a series of failed harvests, was evicted from his farm. In lieu of back rent, the family of seven were forced to leave everything they owned behind and moved to a hovel in Quimper with “a bit of straw, an old cracked cauldron, eight bowls and wooden spoons”.

After two years, with the malnourished children suffering ill health, the family moved to a small cottage on the other side of Quimper where his father eked out an existence as a day labourer. Sadly, the privations of the previous two years proved fatal to two of his siblings; “two angels in Heaven to intercede with God” on behalf of the still growing family, his parents told him.

Breton family

When he was six or seven, he was kicked in the head by a horse that had been roused to anger by a bee sting. This gave him a wound that left a large scar on his temple and which suppurated for many years but he also believed the injury “contributed to the remarkable development of my mental capacities”. Begging for his meals at the farms of the locality, he would sometimes be given work as a cowherd. At nine years of age, he joined other children in learning their prayers and catechism at the home of a local seamstress. It was here that he also learned to read; there being no school in the village until 1854.

Here too, he learned some rather less edifying lessons, recounting how once the prayers and catechism were completed, the teacher and her woman friends would take turns masturbating the village idiot. If it was a day when he had not followed the children to the cottage, “the women would amuse themselves with the children, some of whom were already quite grown-up. All this with no shame or discomfort … the spinster herself, our teacher, was considered a saintly woman. […] Our Breton priests do not see much harm in these little natural things, any more than they see in drunkenness; they see much more in the moral and scientific instruction given by laymen”.

Other peculiar but popular activities, undertaken between adults, were noted by Déguignet: “The women’s favourite game was […] usually done in the big days of work, when the best men were involved in laborious tasks such as clearing the land for burning. After the noon meal, the men would take a nap around the farmyard; when the women found one isolated and sleeping soundly on his back, they tackled him four or five at a time, each jumped on an arm or a leg so that the man could not move. The fifth woman would then unbutton the breeches and fill them with mud or cow dung; it was called laka ar c’hoz and did no harm to the victim, but the other game was worse; here the woman who remained free prepared a large split stick which she opened with her two hands as one opens a trap and sprung it onto the poor victim’s penis. It was called lakad ar woaskeres and it was done openly in front of everyone, in front of groups of children who applauded and laughed aloud. […] I saw these games everywhere in various parts of Lower Brittany”.

Breton farmers

In 1844, his mother agreed that he would be able to contribute more to the family’s upkeep by devoting his attentions to begging full-time. After a six week apprenticeship with an old female beggar, he felt able to go solo but often returned home empty handed, having been robbed by other, more indolent, beggars. The potato blight of 1845 reduced the family’s circumstances still further; most poor people relied heavily on the humble potato for their meal, sometimes it constituted the only meals of the day. With the crop rotten, many went hungry; in 1846 over four per cent of the town’s population died, effectively of starvation. Thankfully, such deprivations were mitigated by a bumper buckwheat harvest that year.

In early 1851, he was able to reduce his reliance on begging for his sustenance when he became a cowherd on a model farm at Kerfeunteun near Quimper and it was here he practised writing and learned to speak French. “As soon as I was in the fields with cows, I took my pencil, a white sheet of paper and I tried to form letters. I quickly discovered that it would be more difficult to learn writing that it was to learn reading. My head learned what it heard and saw but my hand was not as skilled as my head. Used to handling heavy tools, it was not used to handling a pencil”.

A few years later, in 1854, after a brief spell as a domestic servant on the mayor’s farm in the same commune, he enlisted into the army, seeing service with the 26th Regiment in the latter stages of the Crimean campaign. With the cessation of hostilities and awaiting repatriation to France, he took the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and was very disillusioned by what he found, particularly in relation to the division and animosity evident between the various Christian Churches present there and the “shameful commerce, profanation of nature, common sense and of reason” that he witnessed.

French Infantry uniform 19th Century

Déguignet’s fourteen years of military service included several spells of active duty; times that he also used to acquaint himself with a knowledge of Italian and Spanish. In 1859-60, he served in the 26th Regiment as part of the Franco-Piedmontese force fighting against the troops of the Austrian Empire in Lombardy. Having re-enlisted into the 63rd regiment, he served in pacification operations in Algeria in 1862-65 and subsequently volunteered to join the French military expedition to Mexico in defence of Emperor Maximilian in 1865-67. Demobilised the following year, he returned to Ergué-Gabéric with hopes of farming a smallholding and keeping bees in the Odet Valley.

“When I described (in 1868) my plan to live in the Odet Valley, my uncle told me the valley was still haunted by ghosts and korrigans and that the old groac’h (witch) still ruled there. He said he had seen her many times. In those times, everyone had seen ghosts, miserable souls caught in some swamp, in a nook of an old house or in the hollow of a tree trunk”.

Unfortunately, he was unable to show his contempt for such superstitions by realising his dreams of a move to the Odet Valley. His homecoming as an eligible bachelor made him prey to his needy friends and relatives and he very quickly found himself pressured into a marriage with a widowed farmer’s daughter from nearby Toulven in October 1868. She was nineteen, “strong and beautiful” and, now married, responsible for her mother and younger siblings. Their family farm had been badly neglected but, in time, Déguignet seems to have successfully turned it into an efficient and profitable enterprise.

Breton family

In 1879, a beggar burnt down the farm in an attempt to conceal a theft, his drunken wife and the local priest loudly proclaimed that the fire was Heaven sent; punishment for his blasphemies and lack of faith. The arsonist, apparently a friend of the local priest, was not charged; an inaction that affirmed Déguignet’s belief in the corrupt power of the clergy. However, he was taken aback by the kindness of his neighbours who donated linen and kitchen goods to replace those lost to the flames: “Even the seigneurs at the chateau, my mortal enemies, gave us many things; most importantly, they gave us the essentials of shelter and beds”. Having lost none of his herd or any farm equipment, Déguignet resolved to continue farming.

Unfortunately, his reputation locally as an anti-clerical, republican agitator proved his undoing when it came time to renew the lease on his farm and his truculent opinions and quarrelsome nature made it impossible to secure a tenancy elsewhere in the parish. Unfortunately, just as he faced eviction, he was run over by his own cart and subsequently bedridden for over two months.

During his incapacity, his wife leased a bar in Quimper at twice its value, Déguignet was certain that it “would not last six months, even if her alcoholic insanity let her live that long”. With his wife drinking away the bar’s meagre income, he took a position selling insurance to farmers around Quimper; he no longer being healthy enough for farm work. His wife lived longer than he forecast but it was not too long before he noted: “I saw that it was all over. My wife had fallen from moderate madness into furious madness, we had to tie her up and two days later the doctor told me that she had to be taken to the asylum else she would certainly commit some misfortune”. With his wife’s early death in 1883, Déguignet was left to bring up their four surviving children alone.

Chateau de Toulven

Later that year, he was able, as an ex-serviceman, to secure a licence to sell tobacco in Pluguffan but, echoing his knack of alienating people in Toulven, after three years, his tenancy agreement was cancelled and other possibilities for renting a shop were thwarted by the pressure applied by the local priest. He left Pluguffan in 1892 and spent the rest of his life lodging in attics in and around Quimper; sleeping on a bed of straw, surviving on a diet of black bread and potatoes. A failed suicide attempt in April 1902 saw Déguignet compulsory placed into the care of the lunatic asylum in Quimper where he was diagnosed with persecution mania. Discharged after a few months, he would undergo repeated stays until his death there in August 1905.

Although reared amidst what he called the ignorance and superstition of a deeply religious rural Brittany, the demobbed sergeant who returned to Brittany was not the young cowherd who had left; years of travel, interactions with diverse groups of people and a voracious appetite for knowledge had changed him forever. He was now a confirmed atheist and free-thinker, who rejected the religious and superstitious world in which he had been brought up. A rationalist, he described himself as “a republican of the most advanced sort and in religion a freethinker, a philosophic friend of all humanity … the declared enemy of all gods, who are only imaginary creatures and priests who are only charlatans and knaves”. He felt that he was separated from his countrymen by two crucial factors: his exposure to the wider-world and having been kicked in the head by a horse as a child. 

Déguignet’s intimate understanding of his countrymen meant that he was well aware of the challenges and limitations of rural Breton society, of which he was a keen observer. He was critical of those who had children without the means to support them and was honest enough to acknowledge this was a failing that he himself shared: “There was one wrong I blame myself for, a wrong that many commit unthinkingly. I knew I had committed a grave fault in bringing creatures into this world before I was sure there was a place for them and that I could give them the means to survive here”.


Alienated from his children, whom he believed had turned against him under the influence of his former in-laws, he was hurt that his eldest son did not invite him to his wedding in 1900 but barely mentions the deaths of the five children that predeceased him.

Although he considered his stoicism a virtue, he deplored the fatalism of his fellows and their seeming acceptance that little could be done by the common people, who he described as ignorant, dull witted and cowardly, to help themselves. Sometimes, his observations are more balanced, even prescient when he highlights the social changes likely to arise from the increased canning of food and the unemployment sure to follow the march of mechanisation. He also denounced the excessive felling of ancient woodland.

Déguignet held strident anti-establishment views which he attributed to his superior cognitive capabilities and seems to have never knowingly missed an opportunity to denigrate the clergy and officialdom. His anti-clerical views are particularly trenchant and his memoirs are littered with invective bemoaning the superstitious grip they held over the people. For Déguignet, tolerating the opinions of others was not a consideration: “Let us rid humankind of all these scoundrels, swindlers, liars, idlers, infectious parasites, vampires, bloodsuckers, deceivers and thieves” being typical of his views.

Peasant costume of Quimper 1900

In his writing, Déguignet’s anguish is plain and he appears to revel in his misery, seeing it as the inevitable price to be paid for his non-conformity and independent thought. He often seems to blame the misfortunes of his life on others and this is particularly noticeable in the latter half of his memoirs. He sees conspiracies against him everywhere; orchestrated by the priests, the town hall, landowners, business rivals, his in-laws and even his own children. He does not seem to consider that his vociferous antagonising of people who held contrary views to his own might not always serve his best interests in managing relationships with others. Déguignet described himself as a man “always quicker to forgive than condemn” but there is precious little evidence in his memoirs to support this.

Déguignet criticised those lately interested in Breton culture and folklore as “monarchisto-Jesuitico-clericoco-Breton regionalists” and claimed that: “Your goal would be to lock the poor people of Brittany into their primitive old traditions, their barbaric language, their foolish beliefs, so that … you can go on forever exploiting them, sucking from them as much juice as possible”. He was amused by what he regarded as the naivety of the nation’s folklorists, reserving particular scorn for the Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, whom he believed had reneged on a promise to publish his memoirs. He claimed that the collectors of local folklore had been duped by imaginative locals eager to exchange stories for a few drinks.

One particular target was the old tales, collected by Le Braz, featuring the Ankou, the Breton personification of death. To Déguignet, the only explanation for the Ankou “comes from the same source as all Breton legends; Christian missionaries and their successors, Catholic priests. Ankou comes from the word anken, ankrez, which means anxiety, fear; a word which very well characterises the executor of high divine works”. While this theory of a post-Christian origin for the Ankou has been proposed by others, his comments on the festivals of Saint-John (24 June) and Saint-Peter (29 June) celebrated in 19th century rural Brittany are more intriguingly unique.

Saint John's fire

“When I read the stories of these researchers of Breton legends, I am more and more certain that they have seen nothing of what they report and that they have been mystified and misled in everything by clever drunkards. I do not see anything in their accounts which conforms to reality. Thus one of them, speaking of the feast of Saint John, says that the peasants gather around a fire in the evening to say graces and that it is called tantad. No, that is not how it was. […] There were two fires and thus two nocturnal feasts not one; the first is, Tan San Yan in whose honour it was lit and the other, five days later, was called Tan San Per. These nocturnal feasts often lasted from sunset until midnight.

We announced the feast by gunshots, then loud blows on large copper basins and we played music there that I never saw played anywhere else. We put a basin on a tripod then took two very long meadow rushes and placed them across the basin at the bottom of which we put water. Then, a milkmaid would take these rushes that another held on the edge of the basin and pull on them by sliding her fingers all the way, as she would have pulled on the teats of a cow. The basin would start to tremble on the tripod, then two or three other women holding keys suspended from threads put them in contact with the interior of the basin. These keys of different sizes made different notes by their vibration on the edge of the bowl. All this made extraordinary music which could be heard from one end of town to the other, especially when, in the large villages, several basins of different size and thickness were used”.

Déguignet 1870
Déguignet, aged 36, in 1870

The only contemporary description of Déguignet we have comes from Anatole Le Braz, who met him in December 1897: “A man of about sixty years, still very lively in appearance and manner, fairly small, short legged with hulking shoulders, the classic type of Quimperois peasant, dressed in the local style and bearing all the external markers of such a man, except for one detail instead of the shaven face of his fellows, he let his tow-coloured beard grow freely and it bristled his face with its untended brush. He wore wooden clogs and his clothes were worn but clean.

There was a certain bitter harshness to his voice. Great was my surprise to hear a peasant from Lower Brittany speak with such casual disrespect about beliefs that may be the most profoundly rooted in the heart of the race. He saw my amazement and, levelling upon me the clear gaze of his grey eyes hooded by a canopy of thick brows, said: Ah, well, you see I am a peasant who has moved about a good deal, whereas the others have stayed put”.

It was towards the end of his life, between 1898 and 1905, that Déguignet, out of boredom and frustration, re-wrote and expanded his memoirs which he introduced thus:  “I know that at my death there will be no one, neither kin nor friend, to come shed a few tears over my grave or to say a few words of farewell to my poor corpse. I imagined that, if my writings should fall into the hands of strangers, they might win for me a little of that kindly feeling I have sought in vain throughout my lifetime”.

A Breton peasant

The publication of Déguignet’s autobiography has a long history behind it. In 1897, Anatole Le Braz secured from the author, the rights to publish his memoirs which were eventually serialised in the weekly literary magazine Revue de Paris in 1904-5. However, these edited extracts only took Déguignet’s story up to 1861 and it was not until 1962 that a local historian managed to trace Déguignet’s grand-daughter and, to his delight, discovered a second manuscript of the memoirs along with a collection of poems and writings on philosophy and mythology. In the following year, extracts from these works were published by the historian Louis Ogès in the Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Finistère. An appeal for more information in 1984 was answered by Déguignet’s great-grandson whose family had retained the notebooks and their 4,000 pages of closely written text.

Deciphering and editing these works proved a challenge; written mainly in French, the text is littered with writing in Breton, Italian, Spanish and Latin. In 1998, a heavily edited account of Déguignet’s life story was published as Memoires d’un Paysan Bas-Breton; a complete edition, Histoire de Ma Vie: L’Intégrale des Mémoires d’un Paysan Bas-Breton, over twice the length of the initial book, appeared in 2001. The 1998 French edition was translated into English by Linda Asher and published as The Memoirs of a Breton Peasant in 2004.

There is no more fitting way to end this post than to leave the last words to Déguignet and his final journal entry, dated 6 January 1905: “I end by wishing mankind the power, or rather the will, to become true and good human beings capable of understanding one another and getting on together in a society that is noble and happy”.

Lost Cities of Brittany

The history and folklore of Brittany contain many intriguing references to once flourishing cities that disappeared from the face of the earth, having left little or no trace of their ruins upon the land. Information on these lost cities is scarce and fragmentary; some seem to have been abandoned under strange circumstances while others simply have simply vanished into myth.

The most famous of the world’s lost cities is surely Atlantis, which is said to have been consumed by the sea in a single day and night. In 1934, the French author François Gidon proposed that the Atlantis legend was born from the flooding of the coastal plains off north-west Brittany. More recently, several researchers have suggested that the megalithic monuments of Brittany are somehow connected with Atlantis. In his book The Glass Towers of Atlantis (1986), Italian scientist Helmut Tributsch expounds a theory that Neolithic Europe was Atlantis and that its capital was around Carnac in southern Brittany.

Perhaps the most well known of Brittany’s lost cities is that of Ker-Is, submerged by the waters of the Bay of Douarnenez in the 5th century. The legend in its most common form tells that the city was damned and taken by the sea due to the sinful passion of Dahud, the resolutely pagan daughter of the Christian king Gradlon. I set out the legends surrounding the city’s destruction in a previous post, so will not repeat them here.

Ker-Ys or Ker-Is

However, it is worth noting that there are as many legends regarding the salvation of Ker-Is as there are of its devastation. Some legends say that the city was not destroyed but rather simply covered by the sea, becoming a sort of enchanted realm under the waves. When the city was engulfed, everyone kept the attitude they had and continued to do what they were doing at the time of the disaster. The women who were spinning continue to spin, the cloth merchants continue to sell the same piece of cloth to the same buyers and the congregation remain seated in church celebrating mass; they are condemned to remain in this state until the city and its inhabitants are delivered.

Some old tales talk of ways of resurrecting the city; spending just one penny with the town’s merchants, donating a coin to the church collection, responding to the priest during mass or even agreeing to a plea for aid. Any of these missed actions by a living person would have redeemed the city, allowing it to return from the depths with all its former splendour.

According to tradition, the ancient city of Lexobia was sited between the north coast town of Lannion and the mouth of the Léguer River, somewhere near the present-day hamlet of Le Yaudet. This site seems to have been continuously occupied since the early Neolithic period and archaeological investigations have uncovered evidence of a fortified Iron Age settlement and a thriving port here during the Roman era. Archaeologists have also discovered evidence of a massive tidal mill constructed here in the 7th century. Albert Le Grand in his Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany (1637) noted that one of the seven founding saints of Brittany, Saint Tudwal, and his pupil Saint Pergat settled here in the mid-6th century and that Pergat later became Archdeacon of Lexobia.

Viking raiders in Brittany

Although written around 1480, Pierre Le Baud’s History of Brittany was not published until 1638, in it, he says that Lexobia was destroyed by Danish raiders in 836. It seems that the devastation was total, as the see transferred to Tréguier in 859 and Lannion, a few miles inland, expanded to become the chief port of the Léguer. However, Jean-Baptiste Ogée in his Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Brittany (1780) believes that the real destruction of the site dates to 786 when the town was taken by Charlemagne’s forces; its weakened defences helped explain how the Danes were able to capture the town just fifty years later. The folk memory of a once significant settlement on this site can feasibly be glimpsed in a ducal charter of 1267 which refers to La Yaudet by the name Vetus Civitatis (land of the old city).

Some authors have dismissed the claims that Lexobia was in Brittany and insist it is instead the Norman town of Lisieux. Perhaps there were once two towns with similar names or the settlement on the Léguer was named after a tribe of Lexobi, different but possibly related to those noted around Lisieux during the Roman era? We will probably never know for sure; perhaps we should call upon Lexobia’s Saint Pergat who was commonly invoked for lost items.

Local tradition attests that near Lanmeur, a flourishing town called Kerfeunteun (town of the fountains) once stood. The noted French author Charles Nodier, writing in Picturesque and Romantic Voyages in Ancient France (1846), reported that Lanmeur emerged from the literal ashes of Kerfeunteun. It seems that the town’s origins date back to Saint Samson, another of the seven founding saints of Brittany, who established a monastery here in the 6th century, around which a thriving settlement subsequently grew up.

Saint Samson

The town is home to a church dedicated to Saint Melar who, according to legend, was the legitimate heir to the throne of Kernev, usurped by his uncle Rivod who also had the boy’s right hand and left foot cut off thus making him unfit to hold a sword and ride a horse. These handicaps were only temporary as a miracle gave him a silver hand and a foot of brass which functioned as well as his own limbs. Seven years later, the young man was murdered, beheaded near Lanmeur and another miracle occurred; his head reattached itself to his lifeless body. While his body was being taken to join those of his ancestors in Lexobia, the horses pulling the funeral chariot refused to be led and headed, resolutely, for Lanmeur. On reaching the town square, the cart’s axle broke; a sure sign from God that the saint would be buried here by Saint Samson.

The church is built over a stunning Romanesque crypt dating to the 7th century, said to have been especially built to house the saint’s remains, although some have suggested the stones used were repurposed from an old Roman temple. Others believe that the crypt itself was once a pagan temple; two of its monumental columns are decorated with high relief carvings of entwined snakes or, depending on your view, vines and a natural spring is captured in a small basin set into the foot of the crypt’s west wall.

It is believed that this was the fountain from which the town took its name. Unfortunately, Kerfeunteun seems to have been destroyed by the Normans in 878 and again in 882, and it was not until their final defeat in 939 that the monastery and town were restored. Having reinstated themselves, the monks subsequently established a hospital and, later, a leper colony. The name Lanmeur, which means great hermitage, was first noted in the 12th century; Kerfeunteun being consigned to legend.

Lanmeur Crypt of Saint-Mélar

According to legend, the fountain in the crypt of the church of Saint-Melar will one Trinity Sunday flow so hard that the church, then the whole country will be flooded entirely. The fountain was also the scene of two popular superstitious practices. Young girls once placed a hairpin on the water; if the pin floated, it was taken as an omen that they would marry within the year. In another rite, pilgrims would dip both hands in the basin of the fountain and then wave them above their heads in order to protect themselves against rheumatism and other diseases.

At the time of the Roman invasion in 56BC, Occismor (which means west sea) was said to be the principal city of the Osismii, the native Celtic tribe whose domain roughly encompassed the land west of the Blavet River. During the centuries of Roman occupation, Vorgium (present-day Carhaix) became the chief town of this part of Brittany. Unfortunately, the location of Occismor eludes us today although the historian Daniel Louis Olivier Miorcec, writing in 1829, proposed the area around Plouneventer in north west Brittany as the most likely site.

This town is named after the obscure 6th century Saint Neventer who is said to have been one of two British knights who, returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, promised the local ruler, Count Elorn, to deliver his lands from the dragon that had taken his son, Riok, on condition that he agreed to convert to Christianity and raise his son in the new faith. The two saints tracked the dragon to its lair and having rescued Riok, they took the dragon to Tolente where they commanded it to throw itself into the sea.

Capturing the Dragon

Archaeological discoveries attest that an Iron Age village grew into a sizeable settlement here during the Roman period and while some authors have speculated that this was the fabled Occismor, it is probably more likely that it is the lost Roman town of Vorganium. It is worth noting that Jacques Cambry in his Travels in Finistère (1799) was of the opinion that the north coast town of Saint-Pol-de-Léon was more likely the site of Occismor.

To identify another lost city of yore, we once again turn to the pages of Albert Le Grand’s monumental work for our information: “The country of Ac’h or Aginense had as its capital the ancient city of Tolente, famous for the size of its enclosure, the strength of its ramparts and the beauty of its port. It was located at the entrance to the Bay of Angels, not far from Île Cézon and it was beyond that it sent its vessels to all parts of the earth”.

The most popular location proposed for the city of Tolente is near the mouth of the Aber Vrac’h River on the far west of Brittany’s northern coast, somewhere in the neighbourhood of the present-day town of Plouguerneau. The area is a mass of promontories, fingers of land stabbing out towards the waters of the Channel, that abound with Neolithic cairns and dolmens, some as old as 6,600 years and amongst the oldest monuments in Europe. Archaeological discoveries hereabouts show evidence of stone enclosures and defensive embankments built during the Iron Age. During the Roman occupation, the area covered by the present-day village of Landeda was the terminus of a road connecting it with the region’s capital, Vorgium; indicating here was a port of some significance.

Brittany as shown in the 13th century Tabula Peutingeriana: a planisphere of the world as known in antiquity
Brittany as shown in the 13th century Tabula Peutingeriana: a planisphere of the world as known in antiquity

The Breton historian Rene Kerviler, in his consolidated edition of Armorica and Brittany (1893), tells that: “The Romans, undeniably, made Carhaix an important city but this shows us that, if the sea returned all that it had taken, would there not be more important Roman ruins in the bay of Aber Vrac’h, where a majestic road led to the direct embarkation port for Great Britain? This is where an ancient tradition placed, on the right bank, the flourishing city of Tolente (Toul-hent, that is to say the hole or the bay of the path), destroyed by a cataclysm”.

According to Albert Le Grand, boats from the port of Tolente traded regularly with Great Britain and the town was, for a time, the capital of Domnonia, the early kingdom carved out in Armorica in the 5th century by the first British migrants fleeing the Saxon invaders. The first book published in French on the history of Brittany, Alain Bouchard’s The Great Chronicles (1514) notes that: “The king Judicael lived in a beautiful city in Brittany called Talenche or Tolente, which has since been destroyed by wars”. Judicael was a 7th century saint, king of Domnonia and High King of the Bretons.

Jean-Baptiste Ogée, writing in 1780, provides a date for the city’s destruction by Norman raiders: “It is claimed that it was in this place (Plouguerneau) that the opulent city of Tolente was located, on the river Vrach; a city which was completely destroyed and reduced to ashes around the year 875″.

Bretons battle the Franks

The 12th century epic known as The Conquest of Brittany by King Charlemagne, deals with the history of 10th century Brittany and the invasions of Charlemagne and the Norman Vikings. The poem contains several references to Gardayne; a “wonderful city” near Saint-Malo ruled by a pagan noble, Doret. Said to have been surrounded by a canal 20 feet wide and 60 feet deep that extended to the sea, the town was flanked by a castle, whose doors were gilded with silver and gold; its brilliance seen from a league away.  In placing the town under siege: “the aspect is terrible. The ditches are full of long spikes on which are planted more than a thousand heads of Christians. The city is still defended by a crowd of ferocious beasts, lions, leopards; there is even a giant”.

Injured before the walls of Gardayne, Charlemagne beseeched God “to confuse this city; let none of these unbelievers escape and let no man live”. Soon, a terrible storm was aroused and “at midnight, the city crumbles with its walls and fortresses. The sea goes beyond its limits and invades the land, swallowing six leagues wide by two long. The French tremble with fear when they see this miracle. More than ten thousand of them drowned there. The tempest and darkness last four days and even the emperor himself is seized with fear. The flood reaches up to him. “You have prayed too well,” said Duke Naimes to him”. However, Charlemagne prayed for deliverance and his pleas were answered; the storm quickly abated, the sea returned to its domain.

Some historians have suggested that the Rance estuary was the site of this battle and that Gardayne might reasonably be located around the present-day town of Saint-Suliac. If we allow for the imaginative exaggeration of our medieval scribe, we might see in the substantial stone foundations revealed at each low tide, a stoutly-built defensive fortification; all that now remains of a important strategic site abandoned by the routed Vikings in 939.

Mapping the Lost Cities of Brittany
The Lost Cities of Brittany : Anti-clockwise from top right: Gardayne, Nasado, Lexobia, Kerfeunteun, Tolente, Occismor, Ker-Is, Escoublac, Herbauges

Further west along the north coast, around the town of Erquy, François Habasque noted, in his Historical and Geographical Notions of the Côtes du Nord (1836), several legends about the lost city of Nasado which was taken by the sea because of the debauchery of its inhabitants. Apparently, the women of this city were famous for their beauty and the delicacy of their skin; it was said that when they drank wine it could be seen travelling through their bodies. Ironically, Erquy once housed a large leper colony for diseased soldiers returning from the Crusades.

According to legend, the soldiers of the town’s garrison, too eager for the attention of these women, no longer obeyed their leader, who, in his frustration at such indiscipline, cursed the city, which was soon consumed by the waves. Another legend tells that Gargantua and his troops rested overnight in the city but none of his men mustered for departure the following morning. Receiving no response to his calls, the angry giant cursed Nasado and its inhabitants: the sea rushed inland, consuming the city and even covering the giant’s heels.

The 1843 revised edition of Ogée’s Historical and Geographical Dictionary identified the hamlet of Pussoir a little north of Erquy as the site of Nasado. The area is rich in Iron Age and Roman remains; unsurprising given that it provided the inspiration for a certain infamous “small village of indomitable Gauls”.

Sometimes, less exotic characters were said to have invoked curses that brought destruction upon the land. In the area around the coastal town of Saint-Briac, an impatient priest, disturbed during mass, was said to have pronounced a curse strong enough to cause a cataclysm. Legend tells that, one morning, the birds made such a clamour that the local curate, frustrated by the distraction to his prayers, cursed the birds and the forest where they sheltered. Immediately, a furious tempest arose and waves rushed through the land. When the sea receded, there remained only the bay that we see today.

Submerged city woodcut

A variant of this legend, located on the other side the Rance estuary, tells of a town whose inhabitants were living in peace until the Devil obtained permission from God to test them. He sent them thousands of crows, which took possession of the trees surrounding the town’s chapel, deafening the people with their croaking which was redoubled on feast days, so that the word of God was no longer heard. The priest charged the townsfolk to keep the birds at bay but one day they fell asleep and the crows came to perch on the chapel roof. The priest, annoyed by their uproar, cursed the crows in his frustration and a great storm soon raged which engulfed the entire town.

Some local traditions tell of cities that have been engulfed not by the sea but by its sands, some of which reveal themselves on certain privileged nights. The Breton writer Emile Souvestre, in his book The Breton Hearth (1844), collected a tale from northern Brittany that tells that in the area now covered by the dunes of Saint-Efflam, a powerful city once stood; ruled by a king whose sceptre was a hazel wand with which he changed everything according to his whim. However, the debauched living of the king and his subjects caused their damnation, so that one day, God sent thunderous waves so powerful that the sands of the shore rose to engulf the city.

Each year, during the night of Pentecost, on the first stroke of midnight, a passage opens under the mountain of sand that allows one to reach the king’s palace. In the last room of which is suspended the hazel wand which gives all power but if this is not gained before the last sound of the midnight bell, the passage closes and does not reopen for another year.

Grand Rocher Brittany

It is probably to this same city that the legend relating to the city concealed within the nearby Grand Rocher massif refers. This rocky spur was said to entomb a magnificent city that could be seen in its illuminated brilliance through a narrow fissure that only opened-up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. The city would be reborn, if someone was brave enough to venture inside and managed to penetrate to the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and nimble enough to re-emerge before the sound of the twelfth bell had died.

About halfway between the city of Nantes and the Bay of Biscay lies the Grand-Lieu lake; France’s largest natural lake and one of the country’s most significant bird sanctuaries. The region’s folklore has long attested that this lake conceals the once prosperous city of Herbauges; a place renowned as a den of iniquity and vice.

In the late 6th century, Saint Martin of Vertou was charged by the Bishop of Nantes with evangelising the pagan population of the region. The saint’s preaching was not well received in Herbauges whose inhabitants insulted the Gospel and beat its messenger. After one savage beating, he was taken-in and cared for by Romain and his wife, a couple who had recently accepted the new faith. The strength of the city’s attachment to its sinful resistance so offended God that He elected to remove the city from the face of the earth. One night, an angel appeared to Saint Martin commanding him and his righteous hosts to leave the city with all haste, warning that he should not look back, no matter what he heard. Unfortunately, upon hearing the roar of the rising waters, Romain and his wife could not contain their curiosity; turning to witness the terrible spectacle, they were immediately petrified. Two menhirs in the neighbourhood were popularly said to be the only witnesses to the catastrophe.

Ruins of Escoublac

The disappearances of some Breton towns feature a more prosaic explanation. On Brittany’s southern coast, between Guérande and Saint-Nazaire, lies the resort town of La Baule-Escoublac; home to the biggest free Easter egg hunt in France. The village of Escoublac has been noted since the 11th century but its situation on the northern shore of the Loire estuary has created many challenges for its inhabitants over the years. It seems that the original village grew-up by the seashore but was consumed by a tidal wave which covered the settlement under sand in 1450. Despite the danger posed by drifting dunes, the village was rebuilt a little further inland but in 1751 was again consumed by the shifting sand following a violent storm.

Once again, the village was rebuilt but encroaching sands required it to again relocate further inland; the old church was abandoned to the sand and a new one constructed in 1785-86. It was said in the mid-19th century that the people of this flourishing town had gotten rich from the salt trade but had become corrupted by their wealth. One night, a voice was heard warning them, with all haste, to change their wicked ways. Alas, the people did not listen; the sea rushed in to consume the town and in retiring, left it buried under a mountain of sand.

Many Breton towns were once believed threatened with a catastrophe similar to that which befell Ker-Is. It was to avert such an event that a candle lit to celebrate the city’s deliverance from the plague in the 15th century burned day and night at the Notre-Dame-de-Guéodet chapel in Quimper. It was said that if the candle were to ever go out, the city would disappear under the water; the sea inundating the waters of the well sited outside the chapel. The flames of the Revolution extinguished the candle in 1793 and while the chapel has long since disappeared, the city remains as vibrant as ever. However, Quimper and other Breton towns are still in danger because this land was believed to sit atop an underground ocean and might collapse into it at any moment.

Armchair Travelling – Myanmar

Unfortunately, the sunny skies and warm weather heralding the appearance of Spring that we enjoyed last week here in Brittany has been beaten back by frosts and fog this week. This means that another virtual journey is in order and so, for Wordless Wednesday, I will take the road to Mandalay and revisit beautiful Myanmar.

Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma

Hopefully, the warm weather will return soon and covid-19 will be banished, allowing us all to travel safely again.

Dirty Water for Clean Health

Many people are now increasingly turning to natural remedies for their therapeutic or preventative virtues. In lots of cases, we are merely rediscovering or refining what our ancestors had long known and sworn by as effective and curative. Herb and plant extracts have long been traditionally used for medicinal purposes but, in times gone by, other natural products were routinely used.

The medical use of natural derivatives is well attested from ancient times and was once commonly found in therapeutic practices across the world. Indeed, almost everything that could be taken from the bodies of men and animals, living or dead, was enlisted to prevent and cure all ailments. It may seem strange to us now but the use of ordure in medicinal preparations remained commonplace in France and western Europe long into the modern era.

Many of the popular medical and pharmacological treaties of the 17th and 18th centuries contain copious amounts of recipes and preparations extolling the value of urine and excrement in treating all manner of diseases. These texts were not written by weird charlatans for some rural witch practicing traditional folk remedies but by preeminent scientists for the leading physicians of the day.

Medieval medicine

While our opinions of the medical establishment of 17th century France may be clouded by the contempt in which it was held by Moliere whose scornful attacks on physicians portrayed them as blustering, often dangerous, bunglers. A more entertaining view can be found in the letters of his contemporary, the Marquise de Sévigné, whose works are peppered with references to the medicine of her century, which she did not disdain; on the contrary, she took human urine to rid herself of jaundice. On other occasions, she consumed vipers confident in the belief that they were an unequalled tonic for restoring vigour. She also claimed that, on certain days, eating two shredded vipers at breakfast had a marked influence on her writing.

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné (1626-96) was born into an illustrious French family whose menfolk were noted for dying in some of the nation’s most important battles and whose women were renowned for their virtue. At 18, she married a Breton noble, the Marquis de Sévigné, and honeymooned at his family seat, the Château des Rochers, near Vitré in eastern Brittany; a place that she would routinely stay over the next fifty years. Marie’s husband did not enjoy the luck of her grandfather, who survived eighteen duels, being killed in a duel over his mistress, leaving her a widow the day after her twenty-fifth birthday.

Château des Rochers
Château des Rochers

She is remembered today for her prodigious letter writing, particularly those exchanged for over two decades with her daughter. First published in 1725, the letters provide an interesting insight into aristocratic life in the 17th century and touch on all manner of subjects, from court scandal to family gossip. One of the marquise’s constant concerns throughout her correspondence is the health and well-being of her daughter; it is a subject that casts a fascinating light on the popular remedies and miracle cures of the time; Emerald Water, Tranquil Balm, Catholicon and the Water of a Thousand Flowers.

Many assume that the mysterious Emerald Water mentioned by de Sévigné was a product derived from urine but this is probably unlikely. In her letter of 20 June 1685, addressed to her daughter, she writes: “I told them that my leg perspired greatly and they replied that they knew it, that it was the point they had aimed at in their remedies and that I was cured; they sent me a liquid they called essence of emerald, which strengthened the part, and has a most delightful perfume.”

Believing this Emerald Water able to “heal and cure everything”, it was to this essence that she attributed her recovery and after some “six weeks without the least appearance of a sore”, she wrote: “It is now over and I apply nothing to my leg but a piece of lint steeped in the blood of a hunted hare, to strengthen it and perfect the cure.” The marquise went on to write: “I walk as much as I please; I use the emerald water, so pleasant that if I did not apply it to my leg, I would put it on my handkerchief.”

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal Marquise de Sévigné
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné

There is nothing in de Sévigné’s letters to suggest that urine was a key ingredient of this fragrant smelling liquid medicine and we will now simply never know its components. However, a formula for a potion called Emerald Water is found in Elements of Pharmacy (1762) by the French chemist Antoine Baumé: an alcohol infused with a macerated blend of herbs and aromatic plants thus explaining the liquid’s colour and smell.

Many physicians of the time claimed to be able to diagnose disease from urine but the fluid itself was more commonly used in the treatment of disease. It was typically employed in two ways: either in its raw state or in the chemical preparations extracted from it. De Sévigné’s letters show that she herself used to dose pure drops, drops diluted with a balm and also took its vapours.

On 15 December 1684, the marquise wrote to her daughter in the following terms: “I send you, my child, the most precious thing in my possession, which is half a bottle of Tranquil Balm. I can never have it filled again as the Capuchins have no more. It is by the help of this balm that they cured the little woman of her nephritic complaints. They desire you to put ten to twelve drops of it into the same quantity of spirits of urine, made warm, and rub it well into your side by which means it will penetrate to the seat of the disorder. [It is] also a remedy for complaints of the chest.”

Louvre Capuchins

The Louvre Capuchins were two monks who operated a crown sponsored laboratory at the Louvre Palace in Paris between 1678 and 1680. Practicing a mixture of alchemy, medicine and pharmacy, their propriety concoctions proved so popular that, on more than one occasion, they ran out of medicine and had to ask their patients to return unused remedies on the promise of receiving a double dose at the next visit. Their success attracted the jealousy of their lay colleagues and the friars retired to Brittany where they were so overwhelmed by the high number of patients seeking their assistance that their presence became a major distraction to their brother friars.

Tranquil Balm was named after one of the friars who invented it, Tranquille d’Orléans, his partner, Henri de Montbazon, noted its components in his work Secrets and Remedies (1697): “We took all we could find of harmless and fragrant herbs, namely; nightshade, henbane, poppy heads, elderflower, St. John’s wort … all finely chopped, pounded and well mixed. After which we boiled some olive oil and added the herbs which we boiled until they were browned and dry. If we want to make it even better, we add as many large live toads as there are pounds of oil.”

In another letter to her daughter, dated 13 June 1685, de Sévigné wrote: “I took eight drops of essence of urine but contrary to custom, it prevented me from sleeping the whole night. However, it produced the intended effect and my esteem is greater than ever.” The medicinal powers of urine have been noted since the time of Pliny and fifteen hundred years later the influential 16th century Swiss physician Paracelsus wrote that: “The salt of man’s urine has an excellent quality to cleanse, it is made this way.”

Medieval pharmacy

According to some sources, this essence of urine was also called Catholicon because of its wonderful properties. Curiously, this was also the name of the first Breton-French-Latin dictionary, published in 1499. Camille Vieillard in his Urology and Urologists in Ancient Medicine (1903) tells that the essence was made from the urine of a healthy boy of twelve years of age, ideally, one who had been drinking wine for several months beforehand. The urine was then poured upon dung for a philosophical year (one month) and distilled over a low heat in a retort attached to an airtight container. The distillate was then distilled again a further four times. At which stage, the liquid was almost colourless and the pungent odour disguised by the addition of a little cassia and sugar.

Other authors said that urine oil was best distilled from the urine of a healthy, chaste man of thirty years, who had drunk heavily of wine for the occasion and it was believed especially effective if collected while the Sun and Jupiter were in Pisces. Another variant called for the urine of a twelve year old boy, who had been drinking wine, to be placed in a receptacle surrounded by horse dung for forty days. Left to putrefy, the fluid was then decanted upon human ordure and distilled in an alembic. The resulting liquid was said to be effective for treating all sorts of pains and given both internally and externally, successful in treating jaundice, urinary diseases, epilepsy and even mania.

Vieillard noted that urine oil was once thought to possess many virtues: “The essence of urine can be a universal remedy. It has, in fact, admirable properties for all kinds of diseases and wonderfully helps nature. It cures dropsy, suppresses urine and menstruation, prevents corruption, and cures plague and fevers of all kinds. Taken daily, it stops vomiting and nausea, although it sometimes causes vomiting.”

Apothecary shop 16th century

Another popular medicine, whose use is even attested to at the French court, with a deliberately confounding name was the Eau de Millefleurs or Water of a Thousand Flowers. Readers will not be surprised to learn that this was not quite the quintessence of a fragrant floral meadow. It seems that there were commonly two types of Millefleurs Water; one made from plain cow’s urine and the other produced by the distillation of cow’s dung.

The French chemist Nicolas Lémery’s Universal Pharmacopoeia (1697) specifies that it was produced by distilling fresh cow dung collected: “In May, when the grass starts to gain strength, fresh cow dung will be collected and having half-filled a stoneware pot, we will place it in a bain-marie and by a strong enough fire we will distil a clear water called Eau de Millefleurs.”

The physician François Malouin, in his Medicinal Chemistry (1750), offers a quite detailed description of the other type of Millefleurs Water: “… cow urine; one chooses that of a heifer or of a young healthy brown cow fed in a good pasture. In the month of May or in September, in the morning, we receive in a vessel this urine of the cow which is carried, hot, to the patient, who must be on an empty stomach.” Lémery believed this tonic was a purgative most suitable for treating asthma, dropsy, rheumatism, sciatica and gout if the patient drank two or three glasses of it every morning for nine days.

Apothecary shop 18th century

Bastier de La Mirande in his Notebook on Internal and External Medical Matters (1759) noted that the two types of Millefleurs Water possessed distinct attributes: “the first distilled from cow dung is resolutive, softening and cosmetic, it cleans, gives colour and removes facial stains; the second is the urine of a young black cow, if possible, of three years, which is neither full nor nursing, nor mad.” The Dutch-born doctor Jean-Adrien Helvétius in his Treatise on Frequent Diseases and Remedies Specific to Curing Them (1703) also wrote that the cow used needed to be black but furthermore that it must have previously borne a calf.

There was also a Millefleurs variant called the Water of All Flowers which took a mixture of cow dung and snails in their shells; the whole was crushed, diluted in white wine and distilled. This concoction was not for oral ingestion but was applied as a lotion to refresh the hands and face.

The apothecaries of the time drew many fantastic preparations from urine. An anti-epileptic known as Extract of the Moon featured the urine of boys as its main component, as did a potion called Oil of Sulphur. Salt of Urine was produced by distilling the urine of a boy and collecting the saline residue; it was administered for heart troubles and to aid in the expulsion of a dead foetus; from it were also made various remedies with exotic names such as Moon Salt, the Salt of Mercury and the Spirit of Orion.

17th century apothecary

A draught of one’s own urine, taken every morning whilst fasting, was commended for liver complaints and for dropsy and yellow jaundice but some preferred the urine of a young boy. A lotion of one’s own urine was good for the palsy but where this had been occasioned by excessive drinking, the urine of a boy was preferable. A drink of the patient’s own urine was highly commended for combating hysteria although some doctors recommended that the patient’s excrement and stale urine be applied to the nostrils. The patient’s urine or that of a boy was also used to treat consumption and one remedy called for the patient to drink a mixture of his own urine into which a fresh egg had been beaten.

The therapeutic value of urine seems to have known no bounds: it was drunk as a cure for worms, as a remedy for constipation and to treat a prolapsed uterus. If taken twice a day, some physicians even considered it an excellent preservative against the plague.

Urine oil was applied as a lotion for the elimination of head lice as well as dandruff. An external application was also used to treat venereal diseases although some authorities’ recommended drinking urine and the external application of horse dung. It was used as a wash to improve chapped hands and as an aid against all skin disorders. Likewise, ulcers were bathed with the patient’s own urine and it was often applied as a lotion to wounds, lesions and contusions.

Georgian Apothecary shop

For eye ailments, an eye-bath composed of the warm urine of young boys was recommended. Although water distilled from the ordure of a man who had only fed on bread and wine was also considered effective. Similarly, cataracts were thought best treated by the application of boy’s urine, human excrement or of the dung of wolves and green lizards. All manner of ear conditions were managed by the application of fresh human urine particularly that of a young boy mixed with honey.

In their quest for effective panaceas, the ingenuity of yesterday’s healers seems to have been unlimited. However, they were often as stubborn as they were imaginative and habitually clung to repeating treatments that were clearly ineffective, even harmful. Guy Patin, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in the mid-17th century, is noted to have bled one patient sixty four times in an attempt to cure his rheumatism. Similarly, in one year alone, King Louis XIII was bled forty seven times and received almost 260 purges. The king’s Chief Minister and former Governor of Brittany, Cardinal Richelieu, was prescribed horse droppings infused in white wine to treat his rectal abscess, while his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, was given the same medication but applied as a poultice to treat his gout.

If these remedies seem bizarre to us today, we can at least glimpse an appreciation of the value of ammonia in medicine but it is perhaps more difficult to fathom the reasoning underpinning other common cures. Finger nail cuttings absorbed in water were believed to cure fever, earthworms soaked in white wine were recommended for jaundice while dropsy was thought cured if the patient wore a belt full of live toads, which scratched the stomach and kidneys. Alopecia was treated by the application of three hundred slugs, boiled in a decoction of honey, bay leaves and olive oil.

Medicine Middle Ages

In the past, the boundaries between scientific medicine and folk remedies were often blurred and while there are many folk remedies that call for the use of urine, from both humans and animals, it is more commonly found in superstitions surrounding the supernatural. Witches were said to have been able to shape-shift by washing their hands in “a certain water” which they kept in a pot; many believe that this water was actually urine. Other tales tell that witches could be exorcised if sprinkled with urine.

Human urine was also believed to be a powerful ingredient in bewitching spells, love potions and dagydes but it was also a potent means of frustrating the maleficence of witches. In Brittany, peasants once washed their hands in their urine or in that of their husbands in order to divert evil or avert its effect. Even into the middle of the 19th century, some people here washed their face with cow’s urine, or their own if no cow was available, in order to protect themselves from the Devil’s wickedness.

Witch's Brew

While we may find some of these old beliefs and practices involving ‘dirty water’ repugnant today, it is perhaps worth considering the notion that there is nothing dirty in nature; only a mass of chemical compounds slowly undergoing metamorphosis.

Brittany’s Beautiful Brigand

For those without means, life in 18th century Brittany was challenging. It was a time when only the strongest survived the daily struggle to eke out a living against a backdrop of poor harvests, famine and disease. The third of five children born to day-labourers, Marie-Louise Tromel was born on 6 May 1717 near the town of Le Faouët in central Brittany. Little is known about her early years but the young girl was reported to have accompanied her mother to the local fairs and church pardons to peddle small items of haberdashery.

By the time she was 18, she had garnered a reputation as a thief and it was said that it was not unknown for her to ransom children of her own age. She formed a close attachment with Henri Pezron, a servant from the nearby town of Guémené-sur-Scorff, and became a mother late in 1735. A small band of beggars and gamblers gravitated around the couple and complaints about the behaviour of this group soon became a regular feature of life in this remote part of Brittany.

Marie Tromel

Two other children followed before 1743 when the couple and some of their associates were arrested in Glomel and taken to the cells in nearby Carhaix where the authorities opened a formal investigation against them. A tailor had been attacked on the road to Priziac by a gang armed with pistols and clubs; the victim had recognized Henri Pezron and Corentin Tromel, Marie’s elder brother, as being part of the gang. Marie, then described by the Seneschal of Guéméné as “a red-haired harlot”, was separately accused of swindling a man with counterfeit money at the Croisty market and although the case against her was not pursued, the men were convicted and jailed.  

By this time, Marie seems to have acquired the nicknames Marion du Faouët or Marie Finefont (most cunning in Breton). Her group of brigands, which included her two elder brothers, was then thought to number several dozen men and women, many of whom carried nicknames such as the Fox, the Raven and the Gargoyle. Shrewd and careful, Marie’s group primarily targeted travellers passing along the local roads and farmers and merchants returning from local markets or pilgrims returning home from Pardons. Her company did not attack the mail coaches nor those carrying the local gentry or bourgeois; it is thought this was a victim profile born of pragmatism; she feared to attack those targets important enough to ensure a strong reaction against her.

Bandits of Brittany

In 1745, Henri Pezron escaped from prison and re-joined Marie at Le Faouët. The band resumed its activities around Quimper, Ploemeur and Carhaix, and numbers were said to have grown to as many as fifty members. Following a robbery near Ploërdut, Marie and Henri were arrested in the summer of 1746, along with two other gang members. She appeared before the judges of Hennebont who sentenced her to be flogged and branded; her companions to be hanged. However, they successfully petitioned for an appeal and were transferred to Rennes where a second trial began.

Assuming responsibility for the activities of the company, Henri’s testimony exonerated Marie but condemned him; the death sentence was confirmed and he was hanged in the Place des Lices on 28 March 1747. Marie and her two companions escaped the noose but she soon met her justice in the public square in Rennes; stripped naked to the waist and whipped, the letter V (for thief) branded on her shoulder with a hot iron. Despite being officially banished from Brittany, she immediately returned west to Le Faouët and reformed her troop to resume her criminal activities.

Henri_Barnoin Le Faouët market
Le Faouet Marketplace

In September 1747, a man from Le Faouët was killed by one of the gang and this seems to have fundamentally altered the semblance of tolerance that had existed between the local populace and Marie’s bandits. Denounced in the pulpit, one day in May 1748, a member of the gang entered the chapel of the Ursulines in Le Faouët and insulted the priests and nuns. This sacrilege further provoked the wrath of the authorities who redoubled their efforts to chase-down the gang.

Their efforts were eventually rewarded in the south coast town of Auray where, in June 1748, Marie was arrested just a week after giving birth to her son by Maurice Penhouet, another member of her gang. The records of this arrest give us our only contemporary description of Marie, described as having: “a height of almost five feet, grey eyes, chestnut hair, a scar on the top of the forehead, face marked with freckles, wearing a headdress of white canvas in the fashion of the city”.

The judges of Vannes seem to have been rather lenient or else did not have enough firm evidence for a conviction; Marie was condemned a second time by the court and, once again, banished in perpetuity. However, once again, she returned to Faouët and reorganized her group. Her tactics remained the same as before; attacking merchants and visitors returning from the markets and stealing from churches.

Returning from market by Deyrolle

Marie also appears to have implemented a structured racketeering system. She raised levies on the farms of the locality but seemingly not on those immediately surrounding her base of operations. The threat of arson was an effective form of blackmail employed by her group and people paid to avoid trouble and gain her protection. Marie even provided passes of safe-conduct that allowed victims to travel for a year without fear of being robbed again by members of her gang. The testimonies provided at her trial present her as a prudent woman who knew how to use terror and intimidation as well as kindness to obtain what she wanted; moderating the violence of her gang when needed and sometimes even showing leniency.

Some people have suggested that Marie’s uncanny ability to avoid the forces of law and order was due to the influence of a powerful protector, a wealthy lord from an illustrious Breton family; René de Robien who owned an estate in Melionnec, about half way between Gouarec and Le Faouët and a man known to have interacted with Marie and members of her gang. However, his arrest at the end of November 1751, removed any protection that he might once have afforded.

The arrest of de Robien encouraged Marie to maintain a low personal profile but her gang remained as vigorous as ever; her brother, Corentin, being notably active, attacking and robbing those travelling on the roads around Guiscriff, even killing one of his victims in January 1752. Local legends tell that a cave in Huelgoat forest was one of Marie’s many hideaways, while the cave in the wood of Kerbeskont near Rostrenen is said to have served the same purpose for Corentin.

Marie du Faouet's house

Marie was captured, along with her latest companion, Olivier Guilherm, in Poullaouen on 2 July 1752 and once more she found herself confined to the cells in Carhaix. Olivier escaped from jail just five days later and, fearing a rescue attempt, Marie was quickly transferred to Quimper. Held in the town’s jail while the authorities gathered evidence against her, she received many visitors from Le Faouët, including Olivier, and gave instructions as to the treatment to be meted out to potential witnesses against her.

At the end of August 1752, the parish priests of central Brittany read monitoires at high mass on three consecutive Sundays; these were edicts demanding the faithful come forward and reveal all that they knew of the fugitives, on penalty of eternal damnation. With state and church now railed against her, Marie escaped from jail on 9 September 1752. Legend attests that she made good her escape by sawing through the bars of a window but it is more likely that she bribed the gaoler.

Despite her flight, the court in Quimper continued their investigations and the réaggraves issued in February and March 1753 encouraged over a dozen new witness statements implicating Marie in criminal acts. Réaggraves were the ultimate church sanction and those members of the congregation who now refused to come forward with information could expect excommunication and the economic and social handicaps that came with it. New witnesses were called before the court; almost fifty were heard in the months of August and September alone.

Marion du Faouet

At the time, before being able to pronounce a suspect guilty, the investigating judge had to assemble strictly defined formal proofs. Without these, they could only abandon the trial; even a confession was not enough for a conviction unless it was freely made and supported by evidence. Alternatively, it was necessary to have the corroborated testimony of at least two adult, first-hand witnesses of good standing. With such high burdens of proof, a significant proportion of cases were necessarily dropped and torture justified in order to obtain a confession. However, torture was used only because the judges did not have sufficient proof and thus freedom was the only possible outcome for the suspect who did not confess.

In Brittany, torture was officially used only eleven times between 1750 and 1780 and, as elsewhere in France, was used in support of the procedures known as the preparatory question, to have the crime confessed, and the preliminary question, to have the accomplices denounced immediately prior to execution. Trial by fire was the most popular judicial torture used in Brittany; the suspect was typically strapped onto an iron trolley or sometimes an iron chair and carted, feet first, to a fire over which their feet were repeatedly roasted.

Ordeal by Fire

Finally, on 6 October 1753, the judges delivered their verdict, condemning Olivier, Marie, her brother and nephew Corentin and Joseph Tromel, as well as Vincent Mahé to be hanged until dead. Corentin Tromel had been captured on 29 May 1753 but escaped from Quimper jail on 17 June 1753 and so, with no physical bodies to hang, the four were instead publicly executed in effigy later that day.

Once again, Marie found herself on the run and she returned, for a time, to her old haunts near Le Faouët but the execution of two members of her gang at the end of October 1752 encouraged her to go into hiding. Unfortunately, her absence did not restore peace to the countryside and members of her gang continued to harass and rob travellers on the roads around the villages of Saint-Caradec and Kernascléden. The gang were even said to have been responsible for robbing a church near Lesneven, netting a significant haul of money and silver plate.

Marie successfully evaded attention for two long years but finally, on 21 September 1754, in Nantes, she was arrested for vagrancy and, by chance, recognised by a former victim from Gourin. The following May, she was transferred to the court at Quimper to face the twenty charges brought against her, including the sole act of violence directly levied against her; beating a man with a club in 1751. The formalities of the trial confirmed the death sentence but she first faced torture in order to extract information about her accomplices. Despite her feet being roasted, Marie revealed little information that was not already known to the investigators and on 2 August 1755 she was taken to the Place Saint-Corentin, where she was hanged in front of the assembled crowd of spectators.

Place St Corentin in Quimper
Place Saint-Corentin, Quimper

However, the execution of Marie did not put an end to the activities of her gang; many of whom avoided arrest and continued their abuses in the Breton countryside. Records show that one of her gang, Guillaume Hémery, was arrested and subsequently tried in Châteauneuf-du-Faou, being condemned on 24 July 1763 to “reveal his accomplices and to make amends in front of the church; a burning candle in his hand and a sign on his chest, to then be broken alive, finally to expire on the cross of Saint Andrew, the face turned towards the sky”.

Hémery’s last day was recorded for posterity and makes for grim reading: “Six times, his feet, his legs are exposed to the torturing fire, six times he cries under the stinging bite of the flames as part of the preparatory question and three more times as part of the preliminary question”.  The ordeal of fire over, he was led “barefoot, in a shirt, to the Place-aux-Bestiaux and tied to a cross of Saint Andrew with his arms, legs apart, chest against the cross … the executioner raising his iron bar, begins to strike the arms, the thighs, the kidneys …”. His face turned towards the sky, he lay upon the wheel, dying in agony early the following morning.

Thanks to his revelations, several confederates were eventually tracked-down and arrested during the following year, including Pierre and Corentin Bellec, Corentin Tromel and two of his sons, Joseph and Guillaume Tromel. Imprisoned in the dilapidated cells at Châteauneuf-du-Faou, several men escaped in November 1765 but Joseph Tromel was recaptured and returned to jail. Eventually tried in Rennes, Pierre Bellec, Corentin and Joseph Tromel were condemned to be broken on the wheel and executed in the city’s Place des Lices on 31 October 1766. Being only 14 years old, Guillaume Tromel was sentenced to watch the torture of his father and brother and to be flogged on market day.

Breaking on the wheel

The character of Marie has undergone a remarkable transformation in the two and a half centuries since her death. Her memory clearly lingered in the public consciousness, as evidenced by her appearances in the oral traditions of central Brittany noted in the middle of the 19th century. Writing of his travels in Brittany in 1839, the French novelist Fortuné du Boisgobey noted that locals in Finistère spoke of: “a band of extremely formidable brigands active about 50 years ago in the central part of Finistère; led by a woman, a sort of Bohemian queen called Marion du Faouët, named after the small town where she was born”. He added: “a thousand probably exaggerated stories have been embroidered on the horrors committed by this gang, on the kind of absolute and supernatural power exercised by Marion”.

In the popular tradition, Marie was endowed with great intelligence and great beauty; two characteristics which explained her power to manipulate men to do her bidding. One old tale tells that Marie terrorised Brittany at the head of an army of four thousand men, made up of vagrants, vagabonds, malcontents and military deserters, all armed and ready to shed blood. However, other stories said that Marie’s gang also included young men of honest families who aspired to the favours of a debauched Marie: vagrants or youths from good families, her seductions crossed all social barriers.

In old traditions, Marie is painted as a powerful figure who knew, equally, how to deal with lawless vagabonds and the officers of the law, exerting an almost supernatural fascination over all. How else to explain her ability to terrorise the countryside with impunity for so long but through witchcraft? One legend tells that Marie possessed an enchanted auger with which she pierced a tree that poured out a marvellous potion that put the constabulary’s archers to sleep. Similarly, her escape from Quimper jail was attributed to her wonderful hair which sawed through the thickest iron bars. 


The legends also attributed great riches to Marie, her ghost was said to haunt a field outside Le Faouët where she rolled a barrel that clanged with the tune of thousands of gold coins striking against each other in sad testimony to her innumerable victims. Another tale, recorded by the Breton author Anatole le Braz towards the end of the 19th century, noted a popular tradition around the Black Mountains that spoke of: “The famous female bandit, Marion du Faouët, who wreaked havoc there in the 18th century; her name is still only spoken with terror. In the cry of the silversmiths, the mountain dwellers believe they recognise her whistle, so sharp that it pierced the soul of the traveller, so violent that it made the leaves fall from the trees. Her shadow continues to prowl in these areas, on stormy nights; the silent gallop of a dark horse whose hooves, striking the ground, leave a trace of blood.”

The passage from bandit to witch to phantom saw the memory of Marie invoked as a bogeyman with which parents would threaten their children. The author of the first study of Marie, Julien Trévédy, recounted a scene he witnessed around 1850 in Corlay: “A grandmother was dragging her grandson to school: the boy resisted and the old woman, as a last argument, threatened to go and fetch Marion. This word was magic and the child obeyed. I asked who was this Marion and the grandmother replied: “It is Marion du Faouët. I would be very sorry if she came. She was a highway robber who killed a lot of people and took the children away. They say she was hanged in Quimper and she deserved it. It was at least a hundred years ago”. Even as late as the 1930s, the Breton author Paul-Yves Sébillot noted that the children of the Black Mountains were frightened into behaving with threats that Finefont would take them if they did not.

Marion du Faouet

Over half a dozen old ballads, some rather fragmentary, featuring Marie have survived to this day. The oldest of which, collected in the middle of the 19th century, evokes the ravages of her bandits and even attributes to her the looting of a castle near Guingamp. Despite, or perhaps because of, the once widespread prejudice against red-haired people in Brittany, much is made of Marie’s hair; a magnificent fleece of fiery, proud red. Some of the songs also mention quite specific details that are not recorded elsewhere: Marie controlled her troop by means of a whistle; she gave a knife to each of her associates as a symbol of allegiance to her; and she was always accompanied by two dogs, one black and the other white.

In 1884, Julien Trévédy, a former president of the court of Quimper, published the first historical study of Marie, claiming to recover the historical Marie from the legends still then circulating around Le Faouët, Guéméné-sur-Scorff and Gourin. However, when he republished his account five years later, small edits had been made that significantly altered the tale. The violence and debauchery noted in the trial records and in popular tradition were downplayed. Marie was now said to have robbed the rich not to enrich herself but to aid the poor; she had effectively become a Breton Robin Hood. Thus, a new character was formed; a heroine quite distant from that which tradition had long preserved.

Highway robbery

The sympathetic portrayal of Marie was cemented by a song written by the Breton author and poet Pierre-Jakez Hélias in 1954. Here, Marie is poetically portrayed as the most beautiful girl ever seen and one who made more than one man lose his honour. Her robberies are diminished as only a means for her to enjoy life’s simple pleasures such as changing her headdress every day. A misunderstood country girl, she climbs the scaffold to meet her end, full of repentance. In this romanticised vision, the figure of Marie has become completely separated from historical reality and the ground is set for the numerous works of historical romantic fiction that followed in the latter part of the 20th century.

These more recent works developed the popular myth of Marie that we have today and unsurprisingly reflect modern attitudes: she loves deeply; fights for equality and social justice; champions the marginalised; she is a strong, independent woman and feminist icon. It is worth noting that this was also a time when the image of Brittany and notions of Breton identity were being rethought and renewed. Marie, now cast as a Breton free-spirit, fighting the oppression of the French crown, was given a political dimension; a new heroine to embody a new image of Brittany.

Thus, the ambiguous relationship between historical reality and legend continues to evolve. It may adjust itself again and future generations might well question why public roads and civic buildings were once named in honour of a career criminal who menaced those innocents too weak to fight back.

Create your website with
Get started
<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: