The Pilgrim Trails of Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Lost Christmas Traditions from Brittany

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

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

Dragging the Yule Log
The Yule Log

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father Christmas Brittany
Father Christmas in Brittany!

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

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

An Icon of Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Springs of Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merlin's Fountain of Barenton
Fountain of Barenton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing fountain in Brittany
Fountain of St Nicodème

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

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

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

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

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

The Phantom Washerwomen of the Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Folk of Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dry Bones of Brittany

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

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

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

Inside the ossuary

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

Modest ossuary near Rosporden
Attached ossuary at Gouarec

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

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

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

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

Monumental ossuary at Sizun
Monumental ossuary at La Roche Maurice

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

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

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

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

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

skull boxes
Skull Boxes in St Pol-de-Leon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

monumental ossuary in brittany
Monumental ossuary at Pleyben

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

Death Lore of Brittany

In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, All Saints’ Day is known as La Toussaint and is widely celebrated as both a religious holiday and a secular Public Holiday.  Although All Souls’ Day, more formally known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, falls on the following day, the majority of people here tend to honour their dead relatives on the day before. Thus, Toussaint is the day when families gather together and visit the cemeteries to tend graves, pray and lay flowers (usually chrysanthemums or heather) on the graves of their loved ones. Consequently, the distinction between All Saints’ Day, which is dedicated to those who are in Heaven, and All Souls’ Day when prayers are offered for the dead who have yet to reach Heaven, are blurred.

Having been observed on different days in various places, the precise origin of All Saints’ Day can not be agreed definitively. During the 7th century it was celebrated on 13 May which has caused some to suggest its origins are pagan and hark back to the Roman festival of Lemuria which was held to pacify the dead. In the 8th century, the date was fixed to 1 November and some see this as an attempt by the Church to co-opt the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which marked the shift from summer to winter and celebrated the harvest.

If it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of All Saints, establishing the roots of All Souls’ Day is doubly so. What is known is that around the turn of the 11th century, Odilo, the Benedictine Abbot of Cluny, established 2 November as an especial date for prayers of intercession on behalf of the faithful departed undergoing purification in purgatory; a convention that was steadily embraced and adopted throughout Europe.  In addition to putting the Church’s stamp on the importance of honouring the humble dead, this day was significant as it endorsed the link between the living and the dead, in the prayers of the former for the latter. 

a funeral in Brittany
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Of course, the broader practice of celebrating the dead stretches back thousands of years before Odilo and transcends geographic and cultural lines but this conflation of the celebration of All Saints and All Souls allowed plenty of scope for the ancient traditions associated with death and ancestor worship to survive in a Christian world-view as le Jour des Morts (Day of the Dead) or, in Breton, Gouel an Anaon (Festival of the Dead).

At the turn of the 20th century, ethnographers noted a number of traditional beliefs relating to death then prevalent in Brittany. They found that, to some, earthly life was only a passage between an earlier eternal life and a subsequent eternal life. There was a significant absence of separation between the living and the dead, both seen as existing or living in two discrete worlds. In the Breton tradition, the world after earthly death – the Otherworld – is called Anaon and is a word for both the dead and the place where they reside.

The community of the dead were always close. Those buried in the cemetery were thought to live there under the protection of Saint Yves, retaining their earthly personalities, sympathies and aversions for their fellow dead. Earthly feuds and disputes would continue beyond the grave, so, care was taken not to bury two quarrels side-by-side.  As for the living; they would help or harass them according to the love or disdain they brought.

Day of the Dead Brittany
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In his Book of Brittany written in 1901, the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould noted that: “The graveyard is as truly the centre of the commune as the dolmen was of the prehistoric tribe. The dead who lie there are by no means cut off from the world; the voices of the living reach them in muffled tones; they know that they are not forgotten; they are associated with every event of importance in the family. Nowhere else, and at no period, have people lived in such familiarity with death. The consciousness of the presence of the dead never leaves the people. The evening of a wedding is like a funeral wake. The betrothed meet at the graves of their dead ancestors to seal their vows over the tombs.”

The dead were thought to return to their villages after midnight to see their homes and watch their families but – importantly – not to plead with or to frighten them. Thus, it was customary to let a little fire burn under the ashes overnight, just in case the dead were to visit the hearth of their former home. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, the fire would be kept burning overnight by a large log known as the ‘log of the dead’. The dead were always considered to be cold; a notion that also applied to Hell.

In some areas of Brittany, this veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those feast days when the dead of each parish congregated, namely; Christmas Eve, the eve of Saint John’s Day (Midsummer) and the eve of All Saints’ Day (Hallowe’en). At these times, the dead were thought to wander freely in the land of the living.

Similar notions were recorded by Walter Evans-Wentz in his influential study, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911): “On November Eve the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them (the dead) of milk, pancakes and cider, served on the table covered with a fresh white cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors.”

Ankou
Ankou, Ploudiry ossuary

Such beliefs survived the massive social upheavals of the First World War. Writing in 1919, Ruth Kelly, in her Book Of Hallowe’en noted that in Brittany, on Halloween: “… milk is poured on graves, feasts and candles set out on tables and fires lighted on the hearths to welcome the spirits of departed kinsfolk […] The poor who live on the mountains have only black corn, milk and smoked bacon to offer but it is given freely. Those who can afford it, spread on a white cloth, dishes of clotted milk, pancakes and cups of cider.”

Similarly, the Breton scholar Pierre-Jakez Hélias recounted that during his childhood, some twenty years after Kelley’s book, that: “On the evening of All Saints’ Day, we prepared food (cake, bread, milk, cider), to welcome the neighbours of the cemetery and we left for them in the hearth, a big log.” People would also leave food outside for the pitiful dead without a home to go to.

After Vespers on the eve of All Saints, people would visit the cemeteries to kneel, bare-headed, at the graves of their loved ones to pray and anoint the hollow of the gravestones with holy water or milk (small cup-like holes can be found in many old gravestones) before hurrying home. Interaction with the Anaon was to be avoided at all costs. Once at home, people would go to bed early so that they would not chance to see the dead feasting. However, those who went to bed too early might be awakened by neighbours urging them, in song, to pray for the souls of the dead. Others would fear to go outside at all during Allhallowtide.

Grave cups Brittany
Breton ‘grave cups’

Yesterday’s Bretons did not fear death, for it was seen as simply part of the natural order of things and the beginning of a new and better life but they did fear An Ankou – the Breton personification of death. Master of the afterlife, the Ankou is omnipotent. He is always portrayed as a skeletal figure, sometimes draped in a shroud, holding an arrow, spear or very occasionally a scythe whose blade faces outwards; this blade was said to be sharpened on a human thigh bone!

Standing on a cart whose axles creak, the Ankou roams at night, gathering souls to guide towards the Otherworld. He is often spoken of as being accompanied by a screeching owl and attended by one or more assistants. To hear the squeak of the Ankou’s chariot signified that someone close to you would soon die. In coastal areas, the Ankou was believed to steer a black boat. In The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evans-Wentz noted the belief that: “The Ankou, who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths over which they travel in great sacred processions; the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve.”

Ankou
Ankou, St Mark’s Chapel, Ile Grande

In some parts of Brittany, the Ankou’s persona was rather fluid – the first or last death of the year would become Ankou. Thus, he would be renewed each year and could be imbued with some of the characteristics of the soul once living – if he had been an evil character in life then, as Ankou, he would search relentlessly for fresh souls to gather. In these traditions, the Ankou is assisted by the second on the list of the deceased of a parish. It is he who guides the Ankou’s skinny black horse by the bridle, opens the gates and loads the dead souls onto the cart. Rather than draped in a shroud, the Ankou of the 19th century was often depicted as dressing contemporaneously while hiding his face under a black felt hat with a wide brim; a style then popularly worn in Brittany.

In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living. It was more than being at ease with the idea of death it was almost a comfortable familiarity with it; death and birth were commonplace, natural happenings.  However, by the mid-1980s, anthropologist Ellen Badone discovered that, due to the rapid social and cultural changes in Brittany since the Second World War, the customs and traditions associated with death highlighted just fifty years earlier had all but disappeared.  

In her book, The Appointed Hour (1989), Badone notes that she found that repression of the idea of death and marginalisation of the act of dying were increasingly evident here and postulated that this culture change was likely a result of a complex mix of factors. Particularly the shift from an agricultural economy based on shared labour to one of mechanisation and solitary working; the rise of retirement homes and the migration of young Bretons to work in the cities, creating a rarity of multi-generational families; and the growing prestige of science with its opposition to the supernatural.

Ankou
Ankou, St Noyale’s church, Noyal-Pontivy

As the passage of time dims the old traditions, the relentless Ankou warns us against forgetting him. His image, carved deep into timeless granite edifices, continues to adorn countless churches and ossuaries throughout Brittany. These are well worth visiting and, if you do, take time to contemplate his words at the church in La Roche-Maurice: “Remember You, Man, That You Are Dust!”

The Devil, the Miller and a Milestone

In yesterday’s Brittany, the miller enjoyed a rather ambivalent reputation in society. His trade brought him into regular contact with a wide range of people across the community; guaranteeing any visitor would leave the mill with all the latest news of any importance. Admired for his hard-work and often his skill at resetting broken or dislocated bones, the miller was also viewed with some suspicion and a once popular saying told that nothing was bolder than a miller’s shirt because every morning it caught a thief.

In the south of Brittany, on the road between the town of Guérande and La Roche-Bernard, lies the restored 15th century mill of Crémeur. Today, the mill no longer grinds but it still retains its long-standing popular nickname of the Devil’s Mill; the site of one the region’s most well-known legends of reputed interactions between the Devil and hard-working Breton peasants.

While the master miller of Crémeur could boast of owning the mill, he could make no claim to providing security for his family because his mill steadfastly refused to grind little more than a few ears of corn; the winds from the south coast blew strongly across his little plateau but the blades of his mill scarcely turned. It was therefore unsurprising that no customers came to grind their grain; forcing the miller and his family to rely on the most meagre of existences.

Moulin Cremeur Mill
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One autumn day, while the miller lamented his wretched situation to no one in particular, a richly dressed stranger passed along the nearby road and walked over to speak to him, asking the reason for his obvious distress. With a heavy sigh, the miller unburdened himself to the stranger; telling him that the mill was so poorly positioned that even the March winds were not enough to turn its wings. The mill should have been a source of wealth and pride but it contributed so little to the family table that he was now thinking of abandoning it and leave to beg elsewhere for some dirty work to feed his family.

“It is possible that I can help you,” said the traveller. Upon hearing these few words of hope, the miller wondered if it was not the winds of Providence which had sent this stranger to deliver him from his problems; perhaps this was a wealthy man who would, as an act of charity, buy his mill for a good price.

“I see that you have a hill on your land, to the west of your house. I can build a new mill there which will have all the wind it needs and will grind so well that all the people of the country hereabouts will bring you their custom and make you your fortune. All this I can do for you in one night.”

Miller and the Devil
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“In just one night but that is impossible,” exclaimed the miller; “only God or the Devil could do such a thing.” In this, the hapless miller was not mistaken because it was the Devil himself who had come to offer him a bargain.

“Of course,” said the Devil carefully, “such an undertaking cannot be done without due consideration. I will require possession of your soul when you die but fear not, for all the years that you have left to live will be free of worry for you and your family.” The miller, a pious man, immediately refused the deal for he could not to accept to condemn his soul to the torments of Hell.

However, a moment of reflection reminded him of his family’s misery and so, he accepted the bargain. “Then it is agreed,” said the Devil; “you grant me your soul in exchange for a mill built entirely on top of that hill and before the rooster crows tomorrow.”

devil and the miller
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The miller returned home but was so heavily weighted with shame for his diabolical pact that his wife, seeing her husband even more unhappy than usual, asked him what could have happened. Hesitantly, he confessed all that had passed between him and his infernal visitor.

Stunned by his tale, the miller’s wife was, in equal measure, aghast and angry at her husband’s weakness and his wanton betrayal of God and His saints. To safeguard her children from any of the Devil’s mischief, she left with them, in all haste, for the house of her mother, just one league distant. However, the good lady felt herself compelled to return to the mill for she could not willingly abandon her husband to the Devil.

Miller and the Devil
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The darkness had descended by the time she reached home but the noise of furious activity nearby confirmed her darkest fears that the Devil was at large; delivering his part of the bargain. Anxious with worry, the miller’s wife prayed throughout the night but stopped a little before dawn in order to prepare three lanterns. She moved quickly and noisily through the yard, waking-up the slumbering pigs as she did so, and set-up her lanterns around the hen-house. At the sight of all these lights, the deceived rooster began to crow with such fervour that the Devil, believing himself at dawn, swiftly deserted his site.

Roused from his torpor, the miller now prepared to face the day. He had walked but a few yards from home when he saw, upon the hill, a mill so beautiful and so large that he felt even more desperate; the Devil had kept his promise. His wife, taking pity on her husband’s despondency, quickly revealed her subterfuge to him and showed him a point, a little below the wings: a single stone was missing! The contract had not been properly fulfilled and so the miller kept his precious soul.

The Devil was so enraged at having been duped that he unleashed a violent storm throughout the peninsula but the miller was alert and placed a small statue of the Virgin in the empty space in the wall. This talisman defeated the demon and helped revive the prosperity of the miller; a man whom Providence had protected by choosing for him a bride of such keen intelligence and piety.

Devil and the Miller
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Across the peninsula, in the far west of Brittany, the Devil is also a character that features in several old local legends. Some of whom contain no moral messages to reflect upon but rather the kernels of a story one can easily imagine being told around the fireside at night. One such tale tells that, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, two men had travelled to the Kerharo mill near Cléden to play some hands of cards with the miller while the millstone was grinding their wheat.

As dusk turned to dark, a stranger entered the mill and offered to play a few games of chance with the trio. The offer of another hand was warmly accepted but the men’s good humour struggled a little in the face of the newcomer’s complete dominance; he won every hand convincingly. At one point in the evening, one of the players, having dropped a card, stooped to pick it up. It was then that he saw the stranger’s feet under the low table: they were the feet of a cow! He barely had time to cry out: the devil, for it was he, had already disappeared.

Once, small mills such as those at Crémeur and Kerharo were to be found in almost every Breton commune; these buildings were more than mere economic processing centres and once carried out an important role at the centre of community life. Villagers, most usually only the men, would gather at the local mill, even when they had no real business there, to share the latest news and gossip. Often, the miller’s wife operated a small cafe for their clients and other travellers, heightening its role as a hub of the community.

Devil and the Miller
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For centuries, life in rural Brittany remained little touched by the industrial and agricultural changes that swept across Europe and right up to the turn of the last century, most people still practiced a means of farming designed to satisfy just their own needs. People grew what they needed or were conditioned to need only what they could grow; they kept what they could store and bartered or sold what they could, as best they could. Poor communication networks meant that no market other than the local one really mattered.

As road and later rail communications improved towards the end of the 19th century, so, the lifestyle of the Breton country dweller changed, forever, beyond measure. The small-scale cottage industries, such as spinning, weaving and embroidery that had long supplemented the family income were the first to disappear; unable to compete with the industrially manufactured goods now becoming widely available. Domestic enterprises such as making clothes or processing food also began their relentless decline; a process exacerbated by the appearance of the humble sewing machine and industrial canning.

The demand for faster travel eventually brought about the demise of the wheelwrights, carters and the grooms, relay-stations and inns that supported them. Even coopers and blacksmiths soon found their hard-learned skills unable to contest the demands made by new, improved agricultural machinery and their intricate machine made components.

Devil and Miller
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At a time when the majority of rural transactions were conducted by barter, the removal of even one trade from the community pool risked the long-term survival of communities that, for centuries, had been almost completely self-sufficient. Few rural artisans could earn a living from the practice of a single trade and it was not uncommon for the local butcher to also keep a tavern or for the miller to do some bone-setting or barbering on the side. While this might portray a community living close to the bone, it also indicates one that was remarkably independent; a self-supporting society in which everyone could contribute, as only a few trades required specialist but learnable skills.

The inevitable march of progress seems to have cast its darkest shadow over Brittany’s smiths and millers in the years immediately prior to the First World War. These years witnessed the final dominance of industrial production; a state of affairs cemented during the war years and from which rural communities, bereft of suitable manpower, could never hope to recover.

At the end of the 19th century it was recorded that bread was the staple diet for the peasants of central Brittany. Bread soaked in salt water with a little butter in it, followed by a piece of dry bread, being the most common meal for breakfast and dinner. Lard was a treat reserved for Sundays and meat for only the most important festivals and celebrations. Otherwise, the typical diet consisted of a pottage of buckwheat, millet or corn, chestnuts, cabbage and turnips or potatoes with a little bread made of rye or barley.

Mill Brittany Gauguin
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So, demand for the miller’s services remained strong but the economies of scale offered by the new, industrial mills posed an overwhelming threat to their survival. Improvements in transportation meant that many large farms increasingly took advantage of the rates offered by the new mills for their grain or its resultant flour. It was at about this time that white bread became increasingly fashionable here, relegating rye bread to the status of mere peasant food. Improvements to agricultural practices, such as the adoption of scythes over billhooks and the introduction of mechanisation into the harvest routine also took their toll. With gleaning steadily becoming uneconomic, the local mills saw another once vibrant part of their customer base disappear forever.

The windmills were the first to fade away here, gradually but inexorably followed by the more populous water mills. Their disappearance has left the Breton countryside peppered with picturesque ruins and restored homes for families now used to supermarket shopping. Sadly, the old mill stones no longer grind corn or wheat but still excite conversations, as quaint rustic features in the gardens of suburban Paris.

From millstones to milestones; this is my two year anniversary with WordPress and also my one hundredth post! I would therefore like to thank all who have taken the time to read any of my ramblings about this little corner of the world over the last two years – your kindness and generous support has been much appreciated by me! Thank you so very much. I wish you all the very best of health and sincere happiness for the future!

Bonjour from Brittany

More Magical Plants of Brittany

Mysterious magical plants can be found scattered throughout the folklore and popular superstitions of Brittany. Noted for their extreme rarity; long and patient efforts were required to locate these mystical growths. A quest that would only have hopes of success if performed by certain select people or on the most propitious days of the year. The diligent seeker could hope to be rewarded with such elusive wonders as good fortune, vigorous health or true love.

Brittany’s magical plants did not boast magnificent colours with pretty blooms and majestic stems. They were mostly anonymous, flowerless grasses and herbs that confused the searcher by their rarity and their changing habits. They were said to be found everywhere and yet nowhere; chimeral spirits that only revealed themselves according to their whims at certain hours of the night. However, some nights were believed more favourable than others and the most auspicious times often varied from region to region. Sometimes, local legends tell that only the enchantments of the sorcerer could discover such special growths.

Magical Plants Sylvie
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Along the shorelines of north-eastern Brittany were said to be found bewitched herbs that enjoyed the virtue of curing all diseases. They were once cultivated there secretly by the fairies who employed them to make the ointment which was used in many of their enchantments, although some tales tell that the fairies also ate these herbs. More commonly, fairies were said to feed on Sylvies; a delicate plant whose downy seeds were sensitive enough to disperse at a fairy’s breath but highly toxic to humans and animals. In this region, fairies were renowned as skilled healers whose remedies were believed to contain many compounds from plants that possessed yellow and blue flowers, such as Flax, Garlic, Pimpernel and Witches’ Grass.

The plants of the fairies were reputed to thwart the devious designs of men and to sharpen the keenest blade but those who did not enjoy their benevolence were said to be seized with madness and condemned to wander if they came into contact with such plants. However, the forests had other marvels to discover; in the woods near Lamballe, those who ate a plant which grew only in hollow oaks would gain the ability to become invisible at will and of being instantly transported from one place to another. Such gifts were only granted to those who also held in their hand, sprigs of Mistletoe and Verbena.

Magical Plants Sundew
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One of the most benign of Brittany’s plants was the Sundew; a rare carnivorous plant often known as Morning Dew whose leaves always appear graced with water droplets which, unlike dew, do not dry in the sun. The principle virtues of this plant were said to have been its ability to cure almost all the diseases of animals and humans, while the person who possessed it was believed to exercise an irresistible attraction to the opposite sex. Rubbing one’s body with a Sundew, while walking backwards on Midsummer’s Day, was held to provide one with exceptional strength and made walking tireless. Placed in the stables, the plant protected the animals from fevers and even into the latter half of the 19th century, some here granted to the Sundew, magical and supernatural properties such as that of cutting iron.

The woodpecker has always been very common here in Brittany. Feeding on insects that live in the bark of trees, it is armed for this particular task with a beak suitable for attacking the bark. The habits of this bird seem to have preoccupied the minds of the Bretons of yesterday: how could such a modest creature make such perfect cavities in very hard trees? Clearly, it required recourse to the marvellous and observation of the bird’s habits showed that, in the course of its labours, it often flew down into the meadows. Eager to formulate a conclusion, the Breton peasants thought that the woodpecker would thus sharpen its beak on a special plant; the legend of Woodpecker Grass offered a reasonable explanation.

Magical Plants Woodpecker Grass
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This plant was said to be extremely small and rare and found in damp meadows and in the trunks of ancient trees. Whoever finds it can use it to sharpen any metal for it defies the best grindstone; a sickle sharpened by it, cuts like a razor. Some local traditions conflated Woodpecker Grass with the rarest and most wonderful of all Brittany’s magical plants, Golden Grass but they are usually portrayed in the region’s folklore as two quite distinct plants.

Sometimes found noted amongst the magical plants of Brittany is the Hazel which does not necessarily present, by itself, anything particular. However, the plant was widely associated with magic and was said to produce the very best wands, especially for those seeking underground springs and seams of silver. Handled properly, hazel wands could also confirm whether one was truly loved by their partner. Additionally, hazel was the only wood said able to handle new honey which was never stirred other than with a stick of this wood.

It was once believed that each hazel bush possessed, within its folds, a branch that turned into pure gold. This branch made a wand that was reputed to equal in power those of the great fairies of old. However, this prize could only be gained if cut between the first and last chimes of the bell announcing the Christmas mass but, lest you be tempted, be aware that whoever tries and fails, was thought lost from this world forever.

Magical Plants Hazel
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The supernatural virtues attributed to certain plants were sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent. Plants that cast a malign shadow were numerous, if one is to believe a once popular saying from the region south of Nantes that claimed “for 700 plants friendly to man, 800 are conjured against him.”

Perhaps the most renowned sinister plant here was that known as Sorcerer’s Herb but details of how the plant was used in witches’ brews or applied as part of a bewitching spell are, unfortunately, obscured to us today. In the far east of the region, two plants seem to have borne the label of Sorcerer’s Herb; these were Ground-ivy and Mugwort and in localities where one was deemed to be Sorcerer’s Grass, the other was not and vice versa. In order to be most effective, the plant needed to be gathered during the night of Midsummer.

When used to dry-up the milk of a rival’s cows, it was thrown over the grazing pastures before sunrise but small packets of these wicked herbs were also placed under the roofs of houses and stables in order to attract misfortune to people and their animals. Similarly, clusters of five or seven hazelnuts, passed under the door of a barn and dragged to the spell caster’s home, were also believed to dry the cows in this barn. The same result could also be assured with an armful of hay instead of hazel clusters or by washing the cows’ udders with an infusion of green peas. To combat such malicious behaviour, small bunches of Tansy were hung from the beams in order to dispel evil spells and to ensure plentiful milk that produced the finest butter. White Wormwood and Houseleek were also said to have been similarly efficacious.

Magical Plants Spellcaster
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Maintaining the health of one’s herd and livelihood was a constant concern to the Breton farmer. Confronted with setbacks, suspicion quickly fell upon those who might wish to hinder one’s efforts or harm one’s livestock; jealous neighbours, witches and shepherds were all accused of spreading deadly epizootics at will. The magical power of certain plants was called upon in the struggle to neutralise such evil spells; small packets containing the root of Water-hemlock were hung in the stable to protect cattle from foot-and-mouth disease. For the farmer, a branch of Medlar, cut before dawn on the morning of Midsummer, was thought to provide excellent protection against witchcraft.

It was said that some witches and sorcerers, out of boredom or simply sheer malice, sometimes threw a spell upon the cattle at market by mixing the powdered liver of a wolf with their tobacco. In smelling this smoke, the animals recognised their enemy and suddenly went beserk, breaking their ropes in their efforts to flee. To combat the influence of such a spell, an amulet of Greater Periwinkle was slipped around the left horn of the beasts. Bewitched animals were also more widely treated by being adorned with an amulet containing nine cloves of Garlic mixed with a handful of salt.

Other plants seem to have possessed some kind of innate power. The most infamous was the Grass of Oblivion that caused all those who stepped upon it to immediately lose their sense of direction. Another was the Chestnut tree whose harmful shade was said to causes diseases of languor to those who fell asleep under its shade; the Ash also once carried the same reputation. However, the wood of the Beech was hung or laid in front of the house and stable in order to, by its presence, bring-on good fortune and protect against evil over the year ahead.

Magical Plants Brome
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Field Brome was once the scourge of cereal crops such as Rye and it was thought that only some malign influence could have caused it to seemingly multiply in the field overnight. Likewise, it was believed that the crops had been bewitched when Wild Oats tended to dominate over cultivated oats in the field.

Misfortune was assured if certain plants were not treated appropriately. For instance, it was important that Parsley was sown and not planted at the risk of bringing bad luck and unhappiness upon the household. The planting of the Bay Laurel was also surrounded with danger as it was claimed that whenever it was planted, someone in the house would die before the end of the year. Bay Laurel was therefore commonly planted on the last day of the year and by someone who was not part of the household. In certain parts of the region, people refrained from making any tool handles or pegs from Broom in the belief that only accidents would befall those who used this plant for any utilitarian purpose.

Sometimes, a plant’s danger was only manifest when eaten. For instance, it was recommended to only eat Scallions in the morning because the same plant consumed in the evening, would cause an incurable migraine. Consecutively consuming seven green corms was said to cause one to change sex and it was even claimed that green corms had the power to reconstitute a lost virginity. In the early 20th century, a bizarre variant to this was noted that claimed it would be more certain if one swallowed a mixture of seven crushed corms with seven resin candles.

Magical Plants Medlar
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Of the plants that were believed benevolent to humanity, none enjoyed a greater reputation here than Mistletoe; a growth that seems to have retained strong traces of its ancient reputation as a sacred plant. Picked on the first day of the year, it was said to exert a favourable influence throughout the year, while that gathered on Midsummer was also considered to possess almost the same virtues. This plant was never so beneficial as when it was found growing on an oak tree and was used in a wide variety of folk remedies to treat all manner of ailments but especially epilepsy. Given the scarcity of oak mistletoe, it offered hope that the mistletoe found on Hawthorn also had properties similar to those of oak mistletoe.

The Privet was also once endowed with the power to cure many ailments here. Three branches placed in the fireplace were thought to cure children of thrush. To treat toothache and all complaints of the mouth, a branch, cut before sunrise, placed in the fireplace without the knowledge of the patient, was believed to bring about an effective cure. Stag horn plantain was also said to cure certain diseases by its mere presence.

While Broom was often associated with bad luck, the plant’s dual nature was such that it was also viewed as a precious aid to the harvest; beans and cabbages were seldom sowed without their seedlings being brushed with a branch of broom in the belief that its touch killed all pests such as caterpillars and aphids.

Magical Plants Broom
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Not all of Brittany’s magical plants owed their position to superstitions long since lost to us, several seem to have accrued their marvellous properties as a result of religious beliefs. Planting a branch of Boxwood in a field on Palm Sunday was said to prevent sorcerers from casting a spell on the future harvest but it was also a symbolic way of asking for God’s blessing on the crops sown there; it was believed granted if the boxwood took root.  A branch of boxwood was also placed upon each bee hive on Good Friday in order to ensure a fruitful year ahead.

However, evergreen shrubs, such as Boxwood, were believed to be one of the preferred locations for the souls of the dead here. To plant a branch of it in a field was therefore to involve the spirits of one’s ancestors in the fertility of the land and one’s future well-being. It is therefore likely that these practices were echoes of ancient traditions likely transposed to the Christian festival of Palm Sunday from the pagan celebrations surrounding May Day.

Many people once collected the flowers thrown during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament on the Feast of Corpus Christi in the belief that they would bring protection against storms. Similarly, charcoal from the Midsummer bonfire and the Yule Log were also believed to possess the ability to protect crops or houses against lightning strikes. Preservation against the latter danger was also assured by the presence of a Houseleek plant grown near the roofs of buildings.

Magical Plants Boxwood
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These last examples might be vestiges of ancient beliefs now lost to us or could simply be poorly understood religious practices that transformed into popular superstition; the plants being attributed with virtues that they only possessed through their religious association. We will likely never know for sure.

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