The health and well-being of valuable livestock exercised the people of yesterday’s Brittany every bit as much as human health. Veterinary medicine, developed in order to preserve the health of domestic animals, was one of the specialist branches of medicine to emerge at the end of the 18th century even if medical treatment for animals was then largely limited to horses. Thankfully, some of the popular remedies and traditional treatments for animal diseases used in Brittany during the 18th and 19th centuries have survived to us to this day, even if their practice has long since died away.
As with the treatments for humans, the use of medicinal herbs was widespread in the remedies designed to treat the diseases in animals but minerals, ordure and magical practices also featured in veterinary folk medicine here for centuries. Indeed, many of the treatments and remedies contain as much unfathomable magic as they do science and vary from the bizarre to the benign. For instance, to treat problems with cows’ urination, particularly urine retention, half the brain of a freshly killed magpie was added to water and given as a drink. Mastitis, on the other hand, was treated with an ointment made from boiling chopped Carrots in some lard.
Bladder stones and problems with the urinary tract were treated with a compound of dried Pellitory which was finely ground and fried in butter; this was then applied as a hot plaster to the animal’s navel. Once cooled, it was wetted with water for two hours to prevent it drying out completely. This herb was also popularly used to treat urinary difficulties in humans.
Some remedies, such as those against rheumatism called for the invocation of God or particular saints, although the Virgin Mary was invoked in a charm to prevent thefts. Sometimes, the disease itself was addressed directly and commanded to leave, such as when treating cattle scab or mange, when it was necessary to pronounce, three times: “Scab, may you dry-up like the dew before the sun”, while making the sign of the cross and making three turns to the left. That done, one needed to recite five Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers. Some other skin diseases were treated with a little mercury oxide and dried Field Horsetail or Boxwood leaves mixed into lard applied directly to the disease.
To aid blood flow and treat abdominal gas, three measures of wine were mixed with vinegar and administered for three consecutive mornings. This drink was followed two hours later by another consisting of a pint of a healthy cow’s milk into which three egg yolks had been well beaten; a third of an hour later, a draft of red wine was also given. Food consumption was kept to a minimum during the three days of treatment. Six raw eggs were also given to cattle and sheep suspected of having eaten poisonous plants.
A most curious ritual was recommended in the fight against excessive flatulence where it was necessary to walk around the animal three times while holding a blessed candle with which one made the sign of the cross; reciting during each circuit the following charm: “Leave the head where you are tied and go to the land of Arabia where there is neither bread nor wine.” It was necessary to perform this ritual twice so as to have circled the beast six times. Another unusual remedy was the use of Stinging Nettles as an aid to lactation; sometimes as feed and others as an external stimulant.
Animals suffering from high body temperature were carefully monitored as rises in body temperature are usually indicative of an infection by a disease-causing organism. One remedy involved a few ounces of vegetable oil administered on an empty stomach. Against diarrhoea a large handful of wood ash from the oven was mixed with three smaller handfuls of ground Buckwheat flour. This powder was then whisked into a pint of milk from a healthy cow and given to the sick animal on an empty stomach.
Those animals afflicted with abdominal bloating were fed three small balls of white pitch in a bowl of Turnip Rape or Field Mustard oil. This plant was once very widely cultivated in Northern France but since the end of the Second World War has been totally usurped by Rapeseed. Cattle and goats that had become bloated by eating wet White Clover were treated with a feed consisting of Garlic that had been pounded together with soot taken from the chimney. Recurring digestive problems in cattle and horses were often tackled with an infusion of boiled Flax seeds.
Cattle usually lick themselves to ease the itching caused by skin diseases such as scabies. This excessive licking often leads to the formation of hairballs as found in cats but unlike cats, cows do not possess the ability to vomit and thus their hairballs eventually work their way down to one of their four stomachs where they remain forever. One recipe for breaking down hairballs in cattle called for half an ounce of powdered Tobacco to be macerated in lambig for 24 hours; which was then applied as a snuff through the animal’s nostrils. This treatment was augmented by a concoction of ground Peppercorn in urine; a pint of which was given as a drink for three consecutive mornings on an empty stomach.
To treat joint pain and nerve problems, two treatments were once popularly espoused. One called for four large handfuls of Sage, well ground, to be placed in a pot with a pound of fresh butter and boiled together for a third of an hour. The mixture was then applied directly to the body as a plaster. Another treatment also recommended the use of sage; two handfuls of which were boiled with two cow’s trotters until totally de-fleshed. Once separated, the liquid was boiled with half a pound of fresh butter and having cooled, stored in an earthenware pot. This fat was then applied as an ointment when needed. An application of butter was also used to treat injured hooves but it was only thought effective if it had been made during the month of May.
To stop bleeding, one practice involved the recitation of five Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers while scratching a cross the same number of times onto the surface of a nearby tree or stone. Another remedy called for several handfuls of Field Horsetail to be added to the cow’s drinking trough. For cuts and wounds, Lily of the Valley and Fennel root were mashed to a pulp and applied directly as a plaster, as was Wild Chamomile. For shallow cuts, a Cabbage leaf alone was applied to the wound. To treat the wounds made by animal bites, heated pork dripping was applied directly to the injury.
While Saint Stephen’s Day was traditionally the day in which horses were bled, until the early 20th century, bloodletting was the first choice treatment for most horse ailments. Sickness was thought caused by an imbalance of the body’s fluids known as humours and the animals were bled to release corrupted humours, to relieve blood vessels supposedly carrying too much blood, to divert blood from an over-loaded organ and even to cool the blood.
To cure ringworm in horses and cattle, a large Apple was cut into two halves and the seeds replaced with sulphur. The two pieces were then tied together and baked in the oven, after which it was thoroughly mashed. Once cooled, this pulp was rubbed into the affected area; a treatment that continued for nine days. For horses and sheep lacking vitality, a transfer to a pasture rich in Dandelions and Burdock was once recommended.
To treat horses suffering from ulcers and tumours, a white cloth soaked in the water taken from a sacred spring was applied. If this treatment was unsuccessful, a mixture of saltpetre and water was smeared on as a lotion; very serious cases were doused with a tincture of ground Wolf’s-bane root which had been macerated in cow urine. A handful of salt dissolved in human urine was administered as a drink to treat a horse that had become overfed.
Although toxic to horses, an infusion made from the boiled bark of Boxwood was given to treat rheumatism. Another toxic plant was also used against eye diseases in horses; a powder ground from dried Wolf’s-bane, one of Europe’s most poisonous plants, was blown into the animal’s eyes. Interestingly, in eastern Brittany, people did not pull hair from their horses but cut them instead; if the hairs were pulled out, it was thought the animal would lose its sight.
Dog ailments appear to have been mainly treated with baths or drinks of water taken from sacred springs. The infection popularly known as cloudy eyes was treated by swabbing the eye with a piece of white linen that had been soaked in the water from a sacred spring. Other topical applications involved ointments made from boiled urine and butter. To improve blood circulation, an infusion made from Hawthorn was given as a drink. Dogs, like other animals, were also subjected to bloodletting in order to rebalance their humours. Fortunately, this procedure was applied less frequently to dogs than to other animals as a dog’s body was held to possess a remarkable ability to self-cleanse and would purge the problem naturally through frequent urination.
Maintaining the health of one’s herd and thus one’s livelihood was a constant concern. Confronted with mishaps and setbacks, suspicions too easily fell upon those who might wish to hinder one’s efforts or harm one’s livestock; jealous neighbours, witches and shepherds were all popularly accused of spreading epizootics at will, of making horses lame or of searing the pastures to starve the herds. Conversely, these same people possessed the expertise to cure sick animals with their tested treatments and charms.
The Infernal Dictionary published by the French occultist Collin de Plancy in 1818 noted several traditional charms for preserving the well-being of horses and sheep. One called for the spell caster to recite certain incantations while kneeling facing their animals and holding a plate of coarse salt grains with their back turned to the rising sun and a bare head. This ritual was then repeated, following the course of the sun, in all the corners of the field and again at the starting point. It was crucial during the ceremony to ensure that the animals always remained to the fore; any who crossed behind the spell caster were likely unsound. It was then necessary to make three full circuits around the animals while throwing salt on them and making further incantations.
Finally, the animals were bled a little, after which a small piece was cut from the hoof of the right front foot with a knife. This nail needed to be cut into two strips that were then formed into a cross and wrapped in a piece of canvas and covered with salt. Another cross was made from the animals’ wool or hair and placed atop the salt on the canvas before being covered with another layer of salt, upon which another cross was placed, made from a Paschal candle, and covered with the last of the salt. The canvas was then tied into a ball with string which was then used to rub the animals while pronouncing the same incantations used when having thrown the salt. Depending on the vitality of the animals, they were rubbed for three, seven or nine days in a row.
As if this ritual was not convoluted enough, several other precautions were noted to ensure its efficacy: the ritual would only succeed if performed at dawn on the Friday of a crescent moon; the animals should only be rubbed during the last word of the charm; horses needed to be spoken to sharply but sheep addressed slowly; care needed to be taken to ensure the canvas ball did not get wet for fear the animals would ultimately perish.
The spell could be undone if someone managed to gain possession of the canvas ball and cut it into pieces, dispersing the fragments by means of a mole, weasel or toad and then buried in an anthill for nine days. Retrieved while reciting certain incantations, the fragments needed to be ground and thrown over the animals’ grazing pasture. Holding stones taken from three different graveyards, the spell caster was thus able to throw a disease over the animals, killing as many as he wished.
There was a time when people believed that sorcerers, acting out of malice or on behalf of a rival, not only stole sheep but destroyed one’s livelihood by destroying their flocks. It was said that one means used to bring about such devastation were poisonous pellets made-up from balls of tow that had been coated with pitch or honey and scattered about the meadow. Many sheep that died for no apparent reason were suspected of having fallen foul of these cursed balls and the stomachs of such sheep were often found to contain these fatal beads.
Sentenced to public branding and six years as a galley slave, a man in neighbouring Normandy was found guilty of having destroyed a flock in this manner in 1791. Fortunately, his demand for an appeal was granted and the Royal Agricultural Society in Paris was consulted. Their investigations concluded that these poisoned pellets were in fact concretions of wool that had developed a thick viscous coating following long exposure to stomach acids. Hairballs are not always fatal but can sometimes cause serious stomach problems which lead to death. Based on these findings, the defendant was acquitted but one cannot but wonder how many people, over the centuries, had been unfairly labelled a witch and punished accordingly.
Many Breton farmers also put their faith in the power of religion and regularly made offerings of cow’s tails and butter at one of the many churches dedicated to the protector of cows, Saint Herbot. Likewise, butter was offered to Saint Hervé to keep cattle safe from wolves; the saint, stricken with blindness, was once led about by a wolf. Candles were lit alongside offerings of horsehair and money at the many shrines devoted to Saint Eloi, the protector of horses and patron saint of farriers and ploughmen.
This saint was by far the most popularly invoked for the heath of horses and was represented in over a third of all churches in western Brittany alone. On 30 November, the eve of the saint’s feast day, celebratory bonfires were once lit in a large number of the region’s villages. On the following morning, the horses would be taken to the nearest chapel dedicated to the saint and made to circle it, or its associated fountain, three times against the sun. Water from the scared fountain was then applied to their heads, ears and rumps in hopes of protecting their health and ensuring their vigour. These rites were augmented with a lengthy prayer invoking the saint’s protection and were thought most effective if recited before the remains of the pyre erected in his honour.
We know that, into recent times, over two dozen saints’ Pardons were specifically devoted to animals; such pilgrimages were popular in the expectation that the blessings obtained protected the animals from illness or misfortune over the year ahead. The rituals involved varied from parish to parish; cattle were blessed at the church in Moncontour and horses at the church in Landerneau; in Montauban and Bignan, the horses were taken to drink the water from the saint’s fountain before being blessed by the priest. At Plouarzel, horses were made to leap over the channel of the holy fountain before being anointed on the head and rump with its waters. Near Pontrieux, the water of Saint Jorand’s fountain was collected on the day of the Pardon and taken home in containers; it was subsequently poured into the food of animals, as needed.
Many of Brittany’s sacred fountains were said to possess miraculous qualities that protected the health of animals. Water from Saint Jean’s fountain in Squiffiec was thought beneficial for pigs. The waters of Saint Eloi’s fountain in Nicolas-du-Pélem were said to ensure good health for horses and was splashed into their ears. Nearby, the Fountain of Saint Gildas in Laniscat preserved the health of dogs and cats. The fountain in Saint-Nicolas-des-Eaux featured a basin whose waters secured the health of horses while the waters from the nearby fountain of Saint Corneli were given to cows to keep them from illness. Stronger virtues were attributed to water from the Saint Eden fountain near Plouescat; it was said to cure all diseases in cattle.
Today, horses can still be seen being blessed during several Pardons across Brittany; the biggest spectacle is probably at Goudelin where the horses are blessed in the deep pond that lies near the chapel. However, even this display does not come close to reproducing the enthusiasm noted in earlier years when, at Plouye, horses would be mated after receiving holy water or when, at Plerin, people drew water from the fountain and threw it in the vagina of their mare and rubbed it over the testicles of their stallion in the belief that the water had prolific virtues.
Another popular horse ritual bath of long-standing was practiced around Audierne Bay on Brittany’s Atlantic coast on 8 September, Marymas; a feast first instituted just over the Breton border in Angers in the 5th century, following a revelation in which angels celebrated the Virgin’s birth. This was also the occasion of the great Pardon of Notre-Dame de Penhors in Pouldreuzic when thousands of people descended on the seaside chapel in celebration. After mass, horses from the surrounding parishes were ridden into the sea in a yearly ritual that provided not only an opportunity to wash their hides after the heavy labours of August but also a cleansing that was believed to bring them as much health as a priest’s blessing.
The practice was still extant before the Second World War but gradually waned thereafter. Although no longer attracting the numbers it once did, the Pardon is still celebrated and continues to attract over a thousand pilgrims each year. Several examples of the ritual sea-bathing of horses at harvest-time have been noted in other parts of the Celtic fringe; leading some to suggest that the practice was perhaps a survivor of those that once formed part of the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasa.
Possibly other echoes of ancient beliefs lay hidden somewhere amongst some of the old superstitions surrounding the health of domestic animals? For instance, it was once believed that when horses were afflicted with colic, the only remedy was to have them change parishes. An agitated bull was said to immediately relax once tied to a Fig tree. To rid sheep of worms, it was necessary to attach to their necks an amulet of three or nine different kinds of wood. One cure for the highly contagious disease known as sheep pox required the farmer to steal the ear of a plough and bury it under the threshold of the sheepfold before driving his sheep over it. It was also necessary for the animals that died there to be buried to prevent the others from suffering a similar fate.
Other practices were also once widely observed: on Palm Sunday, five leaves of blessed boxwood were placed in the cows’ water to purge them; Field Eryngo or Panicaut was gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Eve as sick animals were believed to be cured if pricked with this thistle. Likewise, three drops of wax from a Candlemas candle, dripped into their drinking water, was also said to cure sick animals.
To preserve their health, cows’ hooves were rubbed with a paste of ground herbs gathered before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day and in some places, cows’ udders were rubbed with the morning dew on May Day in hopes of the same result. To protect against witchcraft over the year ahead, it was necessary to assemble, at dawn, all one’s sheep at a crossroads on Midsummer’s Eve and smoke them with the Herbs of Saint John picked, before dawn, on the previous Midsummer. Similarly, farmers drove their cattle through the embers of the Midsummer bonfires in order to preserve them from sickness and the malice of the korrigans over the year ahead.
Many farmers here once hung strings of Garlic in their stables to fight-off transmissible skin diseases, while the presence of a goat in the stable was said to protect the other animals against disease, evil spells and misfortune. The toad was frequently associated with the evil spells cast to injure livestock and in Finistère, one was often nailed to the stable door to ward-off evil.
It was once believed that certain supernatural beings took pleasure in teasing farmers; witches and korrigans were said to raid the stables after dark and ride people’s horses furiously all night long. How else to explain why the horses were sometimes found hot and sweating in the stable in the morning? Inextricably entangling the manes of horses overnight was another crime usually levied against the korrigans and the Bugul Noz. To protect the animals from the latter, it was customary to place a cross made of Rosehip branches in the stable. To defend against the mischief of the korrigans, inflated pig bladders, holding nine grains of Wheat, were hung from a stable beam. To guard against witchcraft, Elderberry branches were hung from the walls and a double-rooted Bramble fastened above the stable door.
Certain prescriptions designed to preserve animals’ health were linked to the feast days of saints; sheep were not moved on 29 November, the feast day of the 3th century martyr Saint Saturnin who died while being dragged behind a bull, lest the sheep twist their neck. Similarly, it was thought to bring bad luck if horses were worked on 1 December, one of the feast days of Saint Eloi. Conversely, other auspicious days afforded enhanced opportunities to protect one’s animals, such as on Christmas Eve when a little blessed bread was fed to the cattle and horses in the stable to ensure their health over the year ahead.
The ailments suffered by animals and the ways in which they were perceived and treated by farmers and professional veterinarians were to change considerably over the course of the 20th century.