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Brittany’s Women Pirates

With its extensive coastline and key position alongside major trade routes, Brittany has long enjoyed a close relationship with the sea. However, it was not just the region’s fishermen and traders that commanded the waves; generations of Bretons long constituted the backbone of the French Royal Navy, playing a leading role in the colonisation of New France and the West Indies. Some of these Breton mariners have left an indelible mark on history while others are perhaps more famous for their misdeeds.

Breton pirates or privateers – there are legal differences between the two terms but the paths from one state to the other were well sailed in the murky waters of diplomatic niceties – such as Jean de Coatanlem, Duguay-Trouin and Robert Surcouf amassed great prestige and wealth from their buccaneering exploits on the high seas. Other Breton pirates are perhaps not as well known today as they once were and the adventures of two particularly remarkable women are well worth retelling here; stretching as they do from one of the bloodiest conflicts of Medieval Europe to the golden age of the pirates of the Caribbean.

women pirates - de Belleville - Dieuleveult

An element of the Hundred Years’ War, the Breton War of Succession (1341–1364) saw the House of Montfort, supported by the King of England, battle against the House of Blois, supported by the King of France, for the right to rule Brittany. The chief claimants were Jean de Montfort, half-brother of the last Duke of Brittany, and his niece, Joanna de Penthièvre, who was married to Charles de Blois, the French king’s nephew. After a protracted conflict, de Montfort emerged victorious after winning the decisive battle of Auray in 1364.

However, one of the war’s early battles took place under 14km (10 miles) away in the city of Vannes. Having declared for de Montfort within weeks of his brother’s death, control of the city changed hands through four devastating sieges in 1342. During the final siege, the Breton commander of the de Blois garrison, Olivier de Clisson, was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for the English Earl of Stafford and a relatively modest ransom which was seized upon by the de Blois camp as indicative of de Clisson having intrigued with the besiegers.

Execution of Olivier de Clisson - Jeanne de Belleville - women pirates

Towards the middle of the following year, de Clisson and a dozen other Breton nobles were invited to attend a grand tournament in Paris; here they were promptly seized and imprisoned. De Clisson was accused of ‘several treasons and other crimes perpetrated against the king and the crown of France’ and summarily executed. To add insult to injury, his body was publicly humiliated; his corpse hung from a gibbet in Paris and his head displayed on a pike in the city of Nantes – outrages usually reserved for low-born criminals.

The treachery of the King of France, Philippe VI, consumed de Clisson’s widow, Jeanne de Belleville, who swore revenge. Selling her estates before they could be confiscated by the French king, she raised a small army and began attacking French forces in the Breton Marches; her wrath first falling on Château Thébaud whose occupants, including women and children, she slaughtered, leaving just two men alive to tell of the stronghold’s fate. The forces of France pursued her vigorously, forcing her to flee into Brittany and after a brief sojourn in the north-west of the region, to eventually re-group with Bretons in England.

Jeanne de Belleville - de Clisson - pirate lady

Finding land attacks impractical, she acquired and outfitted three ships; painted deathly black, flying blood red sails, and would personally lead her ‘Black Fleet’ from her flagship, My Revenge. Her fleet scoured the waters of the Channel and the north coast of France in search of targets; all French vessels whether warships or traders, were fair game but de Belleville did not play fair. She became renowned for her ruthlessness; killing entire crews and beheading nobles and anyone linked to the exercise of French authority, sometimes she was even said to have wielded the axe herself.

It seems she always left at least one survivor who was charged to tell the French king of her revenge. Her exploits clearly affected French maritime trade along its northern coast and it is said that, at times, she even sacked coastal settlements although there is no real evidence to support the latter charge. At the request of King Philippe VI, Pope Clement VI unsuccessfully petitioned England’s King Edward III to put an end to the actions of this “Breton Tigress”. 

de Belleville - woman pirate - Breton

Some authors claim that de Belleville’s violent vengeance spanned some 13 years and that she continued to attack French shipping after the death of King Philippe IV in August 1350. However, this is unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, in late 1344, her flagship was wrecked after a battle with a French warship and in 1348 she married one of King Edward III’s military commanders, Sir Walter Bentley. Bentley had served in Brittany since 1342 and famously staged a night-time raid on the French forces besieging Vannes that year.

In September 1350, Bentley was appointed Governor or King’s Lieutenant in Brittany. During his tenure he forbade pillage and to help prevent the potential attraction to it, he secured increases to his soldiers’ pay – both unusual actions for a Medieval leader. An active commander, he lifted the sieges of Ploërmel and Fougeres in 1351 and took the war into France, raiding along the Loire valley and later led an outnumbered Anglo-Breton force to a bloody victory in the battle of Mauron where he was severely injured in August 1352.

Battle of Auray - Jeanne de Belleville - women pirates

It was not just the forces of the French king that Bentley battled against; he and his wife had to deal with the machinations of Ralph of Cahors, the King’s Lieutenant in the adjoining province of Poitou, who had wrested control of de Belleville’s estates from France and now considered them his own. In 1349, the King of England ordered that the estates be returned to Bentley but after he was replaced as Governor in April 1353 he was instructed to transfer his wife’s estates as part of a treaty with the new Duke of Brittany. This Bentley refused to do and he was consequently imprisoned in the Tower of London while the King considered his case; eventually finding in his favour.

The Bentleys enjoyed great estates in Brittany and settled in the castle at Hennebont, west of Vannes. The Duke of Brittany seems to have borne no grudges against this medieval power couple because in January 1357, he granted them the Barony of La Roche-Moisan. Sir Walter died in December 1359, followed just weeks later by his wife; a rather comfortable end for a pirate whose actions had once earned her the sobriquet: ‘Lioness of the Sea’.

Women pirates

Born into a minor noble family in central Brittany in August 1661, Anne Dieuleveult is another of the very few reputed female pirates. It is not known how she came to end up in the Caribbean; some have suggested that she was taken there from the north coast town of Morlaix by the man she subsequently married, while others believe that she was one of the contingent of Filles de Roi or ‘Daughters of the King’ – mainly impoverished young women who were provided with paid passage to New France in order to marry settlers and increase the population of the colonies. 

Dieuleveult is thought to have arrived on the island of Tortuga, off the northwest coast of Hispaniola, sometime before 1680. This was a settlement that owed its very existence to pirates and privateers who had, time and again, wrested it from Spanish over-lordship over the previous fifty years. From being a hideaway to careen ships, replenish fresh water supplies and hunt for game, the island was now home to a motley assortment of multilingual and multinational pirates, privateers, hunters, planters, traders, indentured servants and African slaves.

Anne Dieuleveult - woman pirate

The island gave birth to the word buccaneer as we now understand it and was an important base for pirates and privateers, being the home of the notorious confederation of buccaneers knows as the ‘Brethren of the Coast’. The majority of the island’s buccaneers were men from France, England and the Netherlands but there were also sizeable numbers of escaped slaves in their ranks. Life in 17th century Tortuga was not for the fainthearted; deaths from disease and violence were commonplace and women, particularly those of European descent, were very scarce.

We do not know how Dieuleveult fared in her early years in the colony but she married another Breton, the former buccaneer Pierre Lelong in 1684. Lelong seems to have given up his career in piracy when he and a dozen adventurers settled Cap François (now Cap-Haitien), on the north coast of Hispaniola, in 1670, subsequently establishing successful plantations. (His settlement flourished and later became the capital of the colony of Saint Domingue which in the 18th century was the world’s leading producer of sugar cane and an important hub in the slave trade.) In July 1690, just six years into the marriage, Lelong was killed in a brawl and Dieuleveult soon married another buccaneer, Joseph Chérel. The couple survived the capture and plunder of Cap Francois by Spanish forces in January 1691 but Chérel died during a brawl a few years later, leaving Dieuleveult a wealthy widow with two children to raise.

Laurens de Graff - Dieuleveult - woman pirate

Legend tells that she made quite an impression on the man who would become her next husband; notorious former Dutch pirate, Laurens de Graff. It was said that de Graff insulted Dieuleveult who promptly challenged him to a duel of honour; de Graff unsheathed his sword only to find himself facing a cocked pistol whereupon he remembered his chivalry and declared that he could not fight a woman. He was apparently so impressed that he made an immediate proposal of marriage. We will never know what truth lies in this tale but we do know that the couple married in July 1693.

De Graff was described by no less a judge than Henry Morgan as “a great and mischievous pirate” and seems to have enjoyed a long and lucrative career on the Spanish Main, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. References to his exploits span over two decades: in March 1672 he was one of the leading figures in a pirate raid on Campeche in Mexico, taking the town and a merchant ship loaded with over 120,000 silver pesos. De Graff was known to often change his flag ship by upgrading to a stronger captured vessel and by 1679 commanded 200 men aboard his 28-gun frigate, Tigre. This he surpassed in 1682 with the bloody capture of the 240-ton Spanish Armada de Barlovento frigate, Princesa, along with the payroll for the Spanish garrisons on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico; over 120,000 silver pesos.

de Graaf - Dieuleveult - woman pirate

The following year, de Graaf, now in possession of a privateering licence from the Governor of Saint Domingue, joined forces with two other privateers for an attack on the Mexican port of Veracruz; the combined party amounted to five large ships and eight smaller vessels with over 1,300 men. The town fell to the pirates after just thirty minutes and was plundered over the following days. Many of the townsfolk were tortured to reveal their treasures and a sizeable ransom was demanded for the freedom of the town’s 6,000 inhabitants.

A few months later, de Graaf led another joint enterprise preying on coastal traffic around the busy Colombian port of Cartagena. The Spanish Governor sent out three heavily armed ships to see off the pirate flotilla but the pirates chose to fight rather than flee and their audacity and superior seamanship saw them prevail in a bloody four hour long battle. De Graff now transferred his flag to the newly captured, 40-gun vessel, San Francisco.

Laurens de Graff - Dieuleveult - woman pirate

In July 1685, de Graaf joined his forces with another veteran pirate to create a flotilla of ten ships, six sloops and over a dozen smaller craft for a raid on the Mexican port of Campeche. After a protracted battle, including seeing off two Spanish relief columns that arrived five days after the initial assault, the town was taken but the spoils were disappointing. Over the next two months, troops of pirates ravaged the surrounding countryside in search of plunder while a hefty ransom was demanded for the town and its inhabitants but this time the Spanish Governor refused to pay. In their frustration, the pirates set the town ablaze and threatened their hostages. Met with another refusal to accede their demands, the pirates began their executions but de Graaf halted the slaughter before the death toll reached double figures. A strong Spanish squadron was despatched to bring de Graff to justice and after hunting for over six weeks finally tracked him down in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, de Graff managed to outmanoeuvre and outshoot his pursuers in a battle that lasted all day.

Having become a French subject in 1685, de Graaf seems to have moved away from outright piracy to mixing privateering with an official position on the Governor of Saint Domingue’s staff and the outbreak of the Nine Years War in May 1689 found him serving at Cap François. This is likely the time that he first met Dieuleveult. In December 1689, de Graff began a five month blockade of the northern cost of Jamaica, capturing many English ships and plundering plantations along that coast. 

de Graff - Dieuleveult - woman pirates

At the end of June 1694, de Graff, with the dual role of buccaneer chief and King’s Lieutenant, was appointed Second in Command of a fleet of 22 ships, including naval warships and 3,200 men assigned for the invasion of Jamaica. At the end of the following month, he commanded the landing party of 1,500 men who overran the 250 men defending Carlisle Bay and plundered the area.

In retaliation, a joint Anglo-Spanish force crossed into French Saint Domingue towards the end of May 1695 and quickly brushed aside de Groff’s defenders, capturing Cap Francois and plundering the town and its surrounding plantations. In June, Port-de-Paix was blockaded and the town fell the following month; amongst the captives taken were Dieuleveult and her children. The invaders did not press their advantage and take the colony; international cooperation disintegrated over petty quarrels about the division of the spoils.

Laurens de Graff - Dieuleveult - woman pirates

De Graff now seems to disappear from the records and is not noted in the musters of the massive French invasion force that captured Cartagena in April 1697. Perhaps there were questions about his role in the defence of Cap Francois or the terms of ransom for his wife forbade action against her Spanish captors? Dieuleveult and her children were released in 1698 and returned to Saint Domingue. Upon the death of de Graaf in May 1704, his wife inherited a sizeable estate and successful sugar plantation and died at home in January 1710.

There are stories that claim Dieuleveult accompanied de Graaf on his buccaneering raids, fighting by his side and sharing command of his ship. Some elaborations even go so far as to say that she took part in the invasion of Jamaica in 1694 and that she took command of de Graaf’s flagship after he was killed during an attack on a Spanish ship, fiercely leading the crew in an ultimately unsuccessful fight. Alas, these stories are likely fictional; by the time of their marriage, de Graaf was no longer a buccaneer but an officer of the Crown and an independently wealthy one at that.

It is unclear when or where Dieuleveult died and perhaps that is just as it should be. Sometimes, remarkable lives lead to forgotten ends and what better way to end a pirate story than with the mist of a little mystery?

Medicinal Plants and Healing Herbs

Plants once played an important role in the traditional medicine of rural Brittany, being employed in a wide variety of remedies to treat all manner of ailments. Most of the tried and tested herbal recipes were tightly guarded secrets only handed down within the family unit. Fortunately, many of the old remedies were captured for posterity by forward thinking people keen to ensure the knowledge that had sustained generations of Bretons was not lost forever in the march to the modern world.

The folk remedies recorded below were noted in use in the eastern part of the region at the very end of the 19th century and do not, as far as I have been able, repeat any of the treatments and cures detailed in previous posts which predominantly focused on the healers of western Brittany.

medical plants - herbal remedies

Popular treatments for childhood maladies contained many of the same ingredients brought to bear against sickness in adults. A cure for colic was said to lie in the film of fat that sometimes adhered to the lids of cooking pots in which pork had been boiled; the greasy lid was pressed against the stomach of the patient to affect a cure.  When colic was complicated with diarrhoea, an infusion of Knotweed in hot water was drunk as a curative. Soot from the patient’s own hearth was mixed with sweetened fresh cow’s milk and drunk every night, for a week, to treat intestinal worms in children or else the patient was made to sleep on a mattress made of Male Fern plants.

One remedy recommended against croup called for the child’s neck to be surrounded by a poultice made from a mixture of goose dung, Celery, white Peppercorns and white wine vinegar. Sadly, there is no record of how long this peculiar necklace needed to be worn in order to be effective. A three or six day treatment was advised for those battling whooping cough; the patient needed to drink a cup of freshly drawn mare’s milk in the morning before breakfast. Another wholesome remedy to treat the same ailment recommended drinking hot milk in which pulverised Hazelnuts had been boiled.

medical plants - herbal remedies

The treatment of epilepsy in children ranged from some kind of fumigation where the patient inhaled the smoke blown up their nose by someone smoking a pipe of Tobacco, to drinking a herbal tea made from water macerated with Peony roots and Pyrethrum flowers.

Tobacco also featured in a remarkable treatment for ringworm in children; a treatment that began with shaving all the hair from the patient’s head. It was then necessary to crush Houseleek and Elderberry root in a bowl of curdled milk, to which was added a piece of Tobacco leaf; the concoction was then allowed to marinate overnight. The child’s head was thoroughly washed each morning and night before being completely coated with the prepared ointment; healing was thought complete after a month of such treatment.

medical plants - herbal remedies

To cure a headache, it was recommended for the patient to cover their head with a heavy cloth and to hold their head, for as long as possible, over a cauldron in which Hayseeds were boiled in water. If Hayseeds were unavailable, Ground-Ivy was believed just as effective. A similar head covering was used to treat toothache but it was necessary for the patient to open their mouth to the steam that rose from the pot in which quartz stones were boiled in vinegar. Toothache was also said to have been relieved by rubbing the back of the ear nearest the troublesome tooth with the sap of Petty Spurge or Milk Weed. If a tooth required extracting, the application of Asparagus root to the diseased tooth was thought to prevent the patient suffering any pain during the procedure.

For earaches, the oily sap of the inflorescences found on Field Elm was applied directly into the ear but relief was also said to be granted to those who used the sap of Ash branches in the same manner. Ear ailments in infants were usually treated with a few drops of milk, expressed directly into the affected ear by a nursing mother.

Inflamed and sore throats were cured by drinking very hot cider in which butter had been melted, or else a draught of cow’s milk in which Laurel leaves had been boiled. Others recommended applying to the throat a poultice made from mashed Potatoes that had been cooked in the ashes of the hearth. One of the old cures for tonsillitis recommended that the sufferer slept with the sock removed from their left foot wrapped around their neck; the sock needed to be filled with ash warm from the grate to be effective. However, this treatment was said to have been dangerous for girls who had reached puberty.

medical plants - herbal remedies

Two leaves of Greater Periwinkle, chewed until only the fibres remained, were said to immediately stop a nosebleed. Other remedies were slightly more invasive as one called for the tender leaves taken from the top of the Nettle to be rolled into balls and pushed into the patient’s nostrils; another cure recommended that the nostrils be stuffed with Puffball spores instead. Forcefully squeezing the little finger of the patient’s left hand was also claimed to be an effective way of stopping nosebleeds, as was immersing their hand into very cold water.

Eye ailments were popularly cured by eye washes with water that had been macerated with Elder flowers but only on condition that these flowers had been collected between the two Sundays of Corpus Christi. Ophthalmia and other eye inflammations in adults were also treated with an eye wash of hot water in which Greater Plantain leaves had been boiled. Styes were said removed by the application of raw veal or else passing a gold ring over them.

medical plants - herbal remedies

Clear vision was assured to those that passed over their eyelids a freshly laid and still warm chicken egg or those that washed their eyes with the milk in which the Scarlet Pimpernel had been boiled. Meanwhile, patients suffering with bloodshot eyes were recommended to pound the stem of Robert’s Grass together with some coarse salt and apply the compound as a poultice on the wrist of the arm opposite the affected eye; a procedure that needed to be repeated each night for three consecutive days in order to be effective.

To refresh and purify one’s blood, it was recommended that Chervil, Cress, Fumitory, Sorrel and Ryegrass be pounded together. The juice of this herbal concoction was added to a little water and drunk every morning, before breakfast, for nine consecutive days. Another remedy, called for the roots of Catchweed, Curly Dock and Dandelion to be macerated in water before being boiled until half the water had evaporated. A cup of the remaining broth was drunk every morning before breakfast; a process repeated daily until the volume of blood that one wanted refreshed had been drunk.

medical plants - herbal remedies

Those suffering from oedema were advised to split a living rooster in half, with a single axe blow, and to wrap the bleeding carcass around the swollen ankles. For those afflicted with sore feet, more pleasant remedies were suggested; a foot bath of hot water mixed with either crushed Mustard seeds or those of the Greater Celandine. Corns and calluses on the feet were cured by the direct application of a cut Leek, although a foot bath consisting of crushed Garlic and Houseleek leaves macerated in vinegar was claimed an equally effective remedy.

Severe bruising was mostly treated with the direct application of a poultice made from a compound of coarse salt and Vervain or Verbena that had been pounded together into a thick paste.  Alternatively, an equally efficacious poultice was said to be made from pounding a lichen known as Tree Lungwort or Pulmonary Moss with the white of a chicken’s egg.

medical plants - herbal remedies

As the name would suggest, Pilewort or Lesser Celandine was used in a number of treatments for haemorrhoids. In one, the roots of the plant were placed in a small cloth bag that was attached to the bottom of the patient’s shirt; the plant’s proximity to the seat of the discomfort was believed enough to begin the healing process. Another treatment called for the plant’s sap to be mixed with a little lard and applied to the affected area as an ointment.

Two other plants were also popularly used to treat this same affliction; the sap of Houseleek leaves, mixed with boiled lard, was applied directly as an ointment but a treatment involving Water Hemlock also called for a certain degree of ritual. In this instance, the highly toxic plant was thoroughly washed in running water before its tubers were pounded and mixed with some lard. The resulting compound was then slowly boiled over the embers in a new earthenware pot thus creating an ointment that was described as most effective.

medical plants - herbal remedies

Menstrual complications were often treated with poultices made from Tree Moss that were applied to the body near to the kidneys, or else a poultice made of boiled Parsley was applied to the patient’s stomach. The stomach was also the preferred location for a poultice of boiled Pellitory, also known as Bottle Grass, which was applied there to ease those suffering from urine retention; the water in which the plant had been boiled also needed to be drunk by the patient in order for the cure to be effective. Drinking herbal teas made from an infusion of Chicory and Peony roots was said to bring relief from constipation.

The remedies recommended for treating burn victims seem to have varied from healer to healer but the most popular called for the burn to be covered with a grated Potato or for the afflicted part of the body to be immersed in cow’s milk that had been churned; care being taken to ensure the milk was renewed as soon as it seemed hot. Another by-product of the cow was also acclaimed effective in treating burns but only if it was very fresh. To that end, it was said necessary to be ready to receive, in a sack, a delivery of freshly expelled dung which was then quickly applied to the burn or, if a hand or a foot had been burned, the affected limb was plunged directly into the sack.

medical plants - herbal remedies

One practice used by some local healers to treat burns involved ritual magic rather than practical medicine and was noted in eastern Brittany as late as 1938. Here, the healer took a cup of water and, having wet their fingers in it, drew the sign of the cross above the burn, while reciting a charm invoking Saint Lawrence, the third century Christian martyr who died upon a gridiron and whose feast day is observed on 10 August. The ritual was not complete until the healer then blew on the burn. In the west of the region, it was Saint Barbara, another late third century martyr tortured by fire, who was invoked.

Numerous remedies were noted for dealing with minor cuts and wounds here. For instance, a pinch of snuff tobacco was sprinkled liberally on the cut, or else cobwebs taken from working millstones were used. When applied as a poultice, the leaves of the Ribwort Plantain, also known as Saint Joseph’s Herb or Five-Seam Grass, were also believed to quickly heal cuts; an attribute shared with a poultice made from the pounded leaves and stems of the Nettle.

medical plants - herbal remedies

Deep cuts were treated with an application of Lily leaves that had been soaked in brandy, or else Geranium leaves, wrapped in cobwebs, were placed on the cuts as a sort of bandage. Another remedy for healing wounds called for the leaves of the Greater Mullein and Mallow plants to be boiled with a handful of bran. The wound was then washed with this water before being covered with a poultice made from the boiled compound. It was said necessary to renew this procedure every morning until healing was visibly complete.

Uncomfortably painful leg ulcers were managed by the direct application of a plaster made-up of a compound created by boiling together a mixture of wax, Olive oil and resin. This plaster needed to be changed twice a day for the first week but only daily thereafter and was regarded a certain cure for even the most stubborn ulcer.

medical plants - herbal remedies

Disorders affecting the skin must once have been quite commonplace if the number and varieties of cures provide any indication upon which to form a judgement. Eczema and skin lesions were treated with the direct application of Goundsel leaves or else a plaster made from Greater Celandine, known as the Grass of Saint-Clair or Witches’ Milk, which had been pounded with coarse salt to form a thick paste. Similarly, soot taken from a hearth where only wood had been burned was mixed with andouille (a sausage made on the farms from pig intestines) fat and applied to the affected skin. An alternative remedy advised boiling the soot in the milk that had escaped from the churn when butter was beaten and applying this compound as a poultice.

To treat the skin infection known as erysipelas or Saint Anthony’s Fire it was necessary to fumigate the affected skin with Elderberry bark before applying a poultice made from the crushed flowers of the same tree used for the fumigation. However, a poultice made from Common Duckweed was also believed to cure the same complaint. The skin/nail infection whose clinical name is paronychia was treated by placing the infected finger or toe into a fresh chicken egg that was sat in boiled water or else by putting the digit into very hot fatty broth. Marseille soap, resin and cow’s milk were then boiled together to create an ointment that was applied to the infected part before bed. Alternatively, the leaves of Wall Pennywort, also known as the Navel of Venus, boiled with pork fat and breadcrumbs were also pounded together to make a suitable ointment.

medical plants - herbal remedies

Chestnuts boiled in water and pounded into a paste were applied as a hot poultice to treat chilblains, whereas dry, cracked skin was treated with a very basic ointment made-up only of barely formed butter. The old healers also even carried recipes for removing freckles. One such remedy called for a freshly made Buckwheat pancake to be placed on a plate; it was then necessary to rub the face with the condensated water droplets, known as pancake sweat, that had formed under the hot pancake. Another, simpler, treatment required the face to be rubbed with a paste made from the pounded leaves and the flowers of the Cowslip.

In this region, two quite different beverages were once recommended in the fight against a fever. One called for the patient to drink a cup of white wine that had been infused with Privet leaves or the bark of the Willow. However, another remedy called for a chicken’s gizzard to be thoroughly washed and left to dry-out by the fireside. Once fully dried, the gizzard was ground into something resembling a powder which was then added to a cup of white wine and drunk twice a day.

medical plants - herbal remedies

Drinking an infusion made from Mallow flowers or Quackgrass boiled in spring water was believed a most effective treatment against the common cold. Similarly, drinking cow’s milk in which the leaves of the small fern known as Wall Capillary or Maidenhair Spleenwort had been boiled was also recommended. The water that had been used to boil Ground-Ivy, also known as Saint-John’s Belt, was another efficacious treatment but only if some Oats had first been boiled in the same cooking pot.

We know from the sheer volume of extant folk medicine cures for rheumatism and joint pain that such ailments must have once greatly troubled the people of Brittany. In some areas, sufferers were advised to beat the afflicted limbs with Nettles but other remedies required the patient to induce sweating by covering themselves with a blanket and branches of Birch that had been heated in a bread oven that had just baked bread. Sleeping on a mattress made of Ferns was also believed to relieve sufferers of their pain, especially if, during the day, their skin also remained in contact with the leaves of the Broadleaf Plantain; sewn inside their shirt for such a purpose.  

medical plants - herbal remedies

To treat the pain caused by a blow or a fall, Burdock leaves were heated on a skillet before being mixed with lard which was then rubbed into the affected part of the patient’s body. Although another remedy claimed that the most effective cure was for the patient to drink a bottle of white wine which had been infused with six small branches of Myrtle. The annoying pain caused by a side-stitch was believed cured by the direct application of hot Oatmeal that contained the white of a chicken’s egg.

Those believed to have suffered a stroke could be assured a cure if they caught and killed a mole; the little creature was bled and the resultant blood then applied to the affected parts of the patient’s body. Other unusual treatments included drinking an infusion of Knotgrass in water in expectation of being cured of dysentery. Or a treatment for rabies that advised making a compound of Dog Roses, powdered Walnuts and chicken eggs; applying half this raw omelette directly to the bite, the patient ate the other half in hope of a cure. The treatment for those suffering from night sweats called for the patient to wear a bag or stocking around their neck when going to bed; the stocking was filled with Meadow Saffron, also known as Naked Lady or Dog Killer, bulbs; the one part of the plant that is not highly toxic.

medical plants - herbal remedies

Many treatments for warts were noted here; from the simple to the dangerous. One remedy called for the patient to bite their own warts before breakfast each morning for a week. Another called for the offending warts to be rubbed by the patient in the morning, on an empty stomach, with Buckwheat leaves or with the juice from the stem of the Greater Celandine. Similarly, the milky sap of the Fig tree, the mucus of a de-shelled snail, the halves of an Apple picked from a tree ordinarily used for making cider or the toxic sap of the Spurge were all also claimed to provide effective cures for warts. However, the most infallible remedy was said to have been provided by the application of the rag that had been used to clean the bread oven.

To prove the old adage of yesterday’s healers that we carry about us the remedies that can cure our ills, one treatment for insect bites here recommended that the patient should cover the bite mark with their own ear wax. However, the juices exuded from the leaves of the Ribwort Plantain were also regarded as an effective treatment against all manner of bites and stings. The aggravating wounds caused by skin punctures from thorns were treated with an ointment made from a handful of Ground-Ivy, pounded with a small spoonful of butter, lard and resin into a paste that was heated over a fire before being directly applied to the skin.

medical plants - herbal remedies

The most effective cure against the bite of the viper, the region’s only poisonous snake, was believed to be to be offered by the head of the culprit itself. If one could capture the snake that had bitten you and crushed its head against the bite, one was thought cured immediately. However, it was said that although cured, you would always feel unwell and even experience a swelling of the skin, each year on the anniversary of the attack.

While we may have abandoned the old natural remedies that long served our ancestors so well, the use of plants for their medicinal qualities is being revisited today by homeopathic practitioners and multi-billion dollar corporations alike; fresh eyes re-discovering old knowledge for new generations.

The Devil’s Bridges

The legends of Brittany attribute marvellous origins to many of the structures that litter the local landscape. Some Neolithic megaliths were said to have been created by the enchanter Merlin while others were assigned to the magical korrigans and fairies or to the giant Gargantua. Many Medieval buildings were, sometimes rightly, attributed to those great builders, the Romans or else to the Knights Templar. Similarly, local lore often attests that various notable landmarks, predominantly bridges, churches and mills were built by the power of the Devil; some were even said to have demanded a human sacrifice.

A little south of the old Breton city of Nantes, a rocky formation is revealed during the hours of low tide seemingly stretching out from the village of Notre-Dame-de-Monts towards the Île d’Yeu lying some 16km (10 miles) offshore. This natural feature is known as Pont-Saint-Martin because local legend tells that this saint, frustrated at his inability to cross to the island to the west, accepted the Devil’s offer to build him a suitable bridge in just one night.

Devil Bridge Building Sacrifice

Unfortunately, the bridge was not quite completed when the rooster crowed to nullify the Devil’s bargain. At that instant, the building blocks carried in the air by the Devil’s demons escaped their grasp and crashed down to earth; falling into the positions which they still occupy to this day. On the island, a different legend was one told, for here it was said that the bridge was built by the Devil at the request of the islanders who had agreed, in exchange for the bridge, to surrender to him the body and soul of the first to cross. As soon as the bridge was complete, the wily islanders threw a big cat upon it; the Devil’s bargain was thus fully honoured. Angry at being outwitted by simple fishermen, the Devil returned during the following night and destroyed the bridge whose debris can still be seen at low tide today.

A similar legend is found further west along the coast in the Etel estuary between the towns of Auray and Locmiquélic, the upper reaches of which contains the small picturesque island of Saint-Cado. Tradition asserts that the island was once a sanctuary for the 6th century saint who sometimes had need of peace from the bustling monastery he had established nearby. To ease his passage to the island, a small bridge was built but this structure did not survive its first tempest and so another construction was started under the supervision of the Devil himself. In exchange for his labours, the Devil demanded of Cado the soul of the first creature to cross it. The instant the bridge was completed, the saint is said to have thrown a cat on it, much to the Devil’s disgust.

Sacrifice - Devil - Bridge - Builder

Another of the early evangelists, Saint Gwenole, is also associated with the Devil and a bargain for a bridge. It is said that Gwenole had grown weary of making the difficult journey between the Île de Sein, lying off Brittany’s Atlantic coast, and his abbey at Landévennec. He therefore resolved to build a bridge that would connect the island to the mainland and it was while considering this project that he was approached by a handsome young man whose sweet tongue and cloven hoofs betrayed the presence of the Devil himself.

“I want to go to that island I see in the distance. I know you are planning a bridge and I shall use it when it is built,” said the Devil. Saint Gwenole was adamant that he would never allow the Devil to reach the innocent souls on the island and declared that he would not now build the bridge if there was a chance the Devil might use it. “Then you will be denounced as a liar, for you gave the people your word. You will lose your holiness and will be doomed to become my disciple because the lie will stain you forever,” sneered the Prince of Liars.

Devil's Bridge - medieval demons - builders - sacrifice

Seeing Gwenole’s dilemma, God offered him the opportunity to perform a marvellous miracle and so the saint quickly threw a bridge of ice across to the distant island. Gloating in triumph and enticed by all the pure souls that he would now be able to corrupt, the Devil rushed onto the bridge but with his first few steps, his burning hooves melted the ice and he was cast down into the swirling waters below. His violent reaction at being tricked accounts for the fierce currents that still separate the island from the mainland today.

Although no longer the seat of a bishop, the 14th century cathedral in the northern town of Tréguier is the site of another curious deal with the Devil. Legend tells that the priests responsible for supervising the building’s construction had exhausted all their funds of money when it came time to build the steeple and so reluctantly accepted the aid of the Devil. In exchange for building the steeple, he was granted the souls of all who died within sound of the cathedral bells between Sunday Mass and Vespers. The priests soon relented their sacrifice of so many souls and adopted a cunning solution; no sooner had Mass concluded than the cantor intoned the first psalm of Vespers.

Treguier cathedral and the Devil builder - sacrifice

The notion that the Devil demands a heavy price in exchange for his assistance is a key feature of the tales highlighted above but all may not be as it might seem. For instance, if we strip away the Christian overtones of these tales, what remains is an impression that the first to cross a bridge and perhaps by extension, enter any new building is expected to surrender their life as some form of sacrifice.

The Scottish anthropologist Sir James Fraser, in his marvellous book The Golden Bough (1890) noted: “In modern Greece, when the foundation of a new building is being laid, it is the custom to kill a cock, a ram or a lamb and to let its blood flow on the foundation-stone, under which the animal is afterwards buried. The object of the sacrifice is to give strength and stability to the building.” The prevalence of similar practices throughout the history of the Germanic people was also highlighted by the German author Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology (1835). Grimm also notes how human sacrifices were formerly made at river crossings to bring good luck and to act as protective spirits; some unfortunates were even walled-up alive in basements and ramparts for the same end.

Devil Bridge Building Sacrifice

The strength and longevity of important constructions was believed only assured if certain rites had been performed at the intended site beforehand. Such rituals were designed to appease the ancient deities on whose domains humanity was encroaching and also to implore the favour of those who might have an influence on the solidity of a structure or on the happiness of its occupants. The vestiges of likely ancient rituals can be seen in some of the superstitious practices noted just a few hundred years ago, such as burying a calf under the entrance to a barn, a horse in newly opened graveyards or a cat under the corner stone of a house.

The Breton artist and author Paul Sébillot noted, at the end of the 19th century, a belief around the town of Dinan that when the ancient Romans had completed a road, they sacrificed a man and offered his blood to the spirits of the earth in order to ensure the strength of their work. Little evidence exists to suggest that human immolation has been practiced in Brittany since the earliest times but there are some intriguing references in the region’s folklore.

Devil Bridge Building Sacrifice

In 1888, a journal published in Paris brought to the attention of its readers an account of the popular tradition surrounding the failure to maintain a bridge at Rosporden in western Brittany. It was claimed that each new bridge was swept away by floodwater almost as soon as it had been completed. Confounded by the fact that their best efforts were meeting with no success, the people of the town suspected witchcraft and consulted a witch who told them that if they wanted to have a strong bridge, they would need to bury a four year old boy alive in the foundations. It was also necessary for the child to carry with him a blessed candle in one hand and a piece of bread in the other.

Sadly, a desperate mother, willing to submit her child for sacrifice, was found and the little boy was walled-up alive as directed. The bridge was duly completed and, for centuries, has withstood all the ravages of the elements. It is said that the boy’s mother went insane shortly after the sacrifice of her son and that the little boy’s cries are still to be heard in the wailing of the winds and the sobs of the rains that fall upon Rosporden today.

Devil Bridge Building Sacrifice

A similar legend is associated with the Pont Callec bridge near Caudan in southern Brittany; to save the bridge from constantly collapsing, a young boy, bought for a high price in Scotland, was locked inside a barrel buried under one of the bridge supports. The child’s sacrifice was said to have ensured the longevity of the bridge and the health of those who crossed it. The same solution was said to have been resorted to at another bridge in Morbihan; having collapsed several times, the sacrifice of a living man immediately reversed the fortunes of the builders.

The notion of the necessity for a sacrifice to ensure the success of a bridge was also noted further north in the central town of Pontivy. Here, local legend tells that when a bridge was built around the town, a sacrifice was once offered to the deities of the river; an offering that included as many men as the bridge had piers. It was said that prisoners were mostly chosen for this dubious honour and that it was customary for the victims to be buried under the first stone of each pier.

Devil Bridge Building sacrifices

Offering sacrifices to the waters, or to the gods who could control them, was once fairly widespread, with many examples cited by the writers of antiquity through to the anthropologists of the modern era. While we may have no reports of human sacrifices along the Breton coast, traditions of offerings made to freshwater divinities were noted in the south of Brittany. Indeed, even Christian ceremonies to bless the sea were seen here regularly into the 20th century.

It was once believed here that the Breton peninsula sat atop an underground ocean and that vast subterranean passages connected this underground sea with the waters surrounding the coast. The fear that the earth might collapse into this inland sea, at any moment, was particularly noted in Morbihan; specifically a swathe of country that stretched from Vannes on the south coast to Pontivy some 50km (31 miles) to the north. Interestingly, people also thought the reason that their homes had not disappeared under the waves was thanks to certain sacrifices that had been made.

Devil Bridge Building sacrifice

In this part of the region, it was said that every seven years, an unknown lady, richly dressed, travelled the land in search of a poor and large family whose father and mother would agree, for a consideration, to sell her one of their children. Once this child had been obtained, the mysterious woman contained it in a barrel with a three-pound loaf of bread and a large lit candle; the sealed barrel was then delivered to the waves.

The ocean seized its proffered gift and tossed the barrel around for seven years before allowing it to be seen again by the eyes of man. The recovered barrel was opened and if the child has only lost its arms, it was once again cast to the waves for another seven years. If the barrel was empty, the sacrifice was thought consumed but the divinity of the sea required fresh prey and so the unknown lady set out again on her ghoulish mission. It was said at the end of the 19th century that one of the sea’s last victims was bought from Guern; a village very close to Pontivy.

Devil - Bridge - Building - Sacrifice

According to another version of the tale, the sacrifice was offered, not to the sea itself, but to the ‘Eye of the Sea’ which was located in the countryside but which communicated directly with the ocean. Each year, a new-born child, recently baptized, was sealed inside a barrel with a blessed candle and a pound of bread and delivered as an offering to the guardian of the waters on the eve of the New Year. The ‘Eye of the Sea’ was thought to be connected to the Blavet River to whose waters the barrel was consigned. Unfortunately, the power of such a sacrifice was thought only to appease the water deities for a year. With life, light and sustenance consumed, another offering was required and the sacrifice repeated again until God took pity on the bereaved mothers and transformed the ‘Eye of the Sea’ into a clear fountain.

Sometimes, the rituals and offerings made to ensure the longevity of a building or the health of its inhabitants was far more pedestrian, even if their origins were likely equally as ancient. In Brittany, builders often buried prehistoric stone tools, popularly known as Thunder Stones, under the foundations or near the threshold of buildings. Such talismans have also been discovered hidden in the walls of medieval churches, above stable doors and even inside old hearths.

Devil's Bridge - Building Sacrifices

The remains of animals, predominantly toads and cats, have also been discovered in the walls and under the foundations of many old buildings here. Perhaps these were substitutes for the human sacrifices of old or perhaps it was the sacrifice of a life that was important; the life force, whatever it was, giving vitality and protection to the builder’s edifice? A similar tradition was once noted around Pontivy where it was customary, in the 18th century, to sprinkle the foundations of houses and churches with animal blood, mainly that of an ox. Some 45km (28 miles) away, in the southern town of Quimperlé, the foundations of new houses were regularly sprinkled with the blood of a rooster as late as the early years of the 19th century.

Formerly, belief in the importance of paying due homage to the ancient guardians, of waters and other places, was profoundly inscribed into the Breton psyche and it is interesting to consider whether such deeply ingrained traditions were not at the root of the once popular belief that death must pass through a house for it to be safely inhabited. In western Brittany, it was thought that death personified, the Ankou, demanded this tribute and that as soon as the stones of the threshold had been set, the Ankou waited to claim the soul of the first person to cross it.

Devil Bridge sacrifice - Building superstitions

According to local tradition, there was only one way to keep death away and that was to give him some other life and so people would ensure that a hen or a cat were the first to cross a completed threshold although, in some parts of the region, an egg was deemed sufficient for this purpose. Once safely into a new home, it was important for the new occupants to assuage the spirits of the place by leaving, in each corner, an offering of a piece of bread and a little salt. Over time, such concerns were forgotten, leaving just a quaint superstitious ritual to attract good luck upon the household.

Some Sports from Past Times

With working hours that traditionally aligned to the hours of daylight, the time available for pastimes and sports was, at best, limited to the Breton peasants of days gone by. This narrow opportunity was further limited by the often isolated nature of rural dwellings and the poor transport infrastructure that connected communities. It is therefore unsurprising that people took full advantage of the chances offered by major communal events and celebrations, such as weddings, saint’s pardons and quarterly markets, to amuse themselves in competitive field sports and games of strength and skill.

I do not propose to detail all the outdoor sports that were once so popular across the breadth of rural Brittany; many of the old favourites, such as horse racing and hunting, remain prevalent and little changed to this day. Others, such as the regional versions of shuffleboard, boules, bowls and skittles or tug-o-war were similar enough to games well known in other parts of Europe to not bear detailing here. Instead, I intend to take a quick look at some of the distinctly Breton games once noted here.

Breton Dance Gavotte

As with other parts of the world, the games played by children here can sometimes be seen as the first steps towards the games subsequently enjoyed by adults. Many games with evocative names such as The Wolf and the Sheep or The White Dove involved some form of attack, usually with a knotted rag, a vigorous pursuit and the prize of capture. Likewise, the game of Ar Baloten involved a hunter trying to strike the other players with a ball made of rags. The hunter could be dethroned and quickly become the hunted if another player managed to hit them with a quickly gathered ball. Variations of this game are found in accounts from a number of regions across Brittany; most voicing the same concerns that the ball was often filled with harder substances than rags.

In his memoir of life in a Breton village between the two world wars, the Breton author Pierre-Jakez Hélias tells of pitched battles between the children that lived on the high end of town against those that lived in the lower end. Such tribal rivalry was a key component of soule, a very loosely structured full-contact game similar to a hybrid of handball and rugby football that often pitted the men of one village against another, the congregation of one church against another or even simply married men against the unwed.

Soule Breton Games Mellat

The soule was a large leather ball filled with bran but sometimes made of solid wood that the opposing players fought over; the ball being thrown with the hand or kicked by the foot until it was carried into the opponents’ territory or to a designated landmark, such as a ruin or pond. The game was played out over a very large area of land, often covering several leagues, and teams of a hundred men or so played all day long. While the ball and game was known as soule in the Gallo speaking east of the region, in western Brittany it was known as mellat after the Breton word for ball, mell.

The game has been attested to in Brittany since the Middle Ages but some early 18th century lexicographers claimed that the game dated as far back as antiquity with the game having been invented by the ancient Celts to honour the Sun, towards which one throws the soule. There seems no real basis for this suggestion other than the superficial resemblance between soule and the Latin word for sun, sul. Others have since argued that the word derives from the Latin word solea, meaning sandal. We are unlikely to now ever know for sure but we do know that similar games were also noted in neighbouring Normandy.

Soule Breton Games Mellat

According to a number of 17th and 18th century references, it seems that in Brittany, the role of starting the game was reserved for the lord of the manor. In some instances, the ball was ceremoniously presented to the local lord by one of his vassals at either the beginning or end of the year or some other date fixed by local custom. Although some games were hastily organised affairs to coincide with a wedding celebration, most were scheduled competitions aligned to the merrymaking that followed religious saint’s pardons or auspicious Church festivals such as Mardi-Gras; much to the dismay of the local priests.

The violence that imbued the game sat uneasily with some and in 1440 the Bishop of Tréguier issued a statute declaring that: “dangerous and pernicious games must be prohibited because of hatred, grudges and enmities which, under the veil of a recreational pleasure, accumulate in many hearts and of which a disastrous occasion discovers the venom. We have learned from reports of worthy men of faith that in some parishes and other places subject to our jurisdiction, that on feast days and holidays, going back many years, a certain game has been played; a very pernicious and dangerous game called mellat in the vulgar language. There have already been many outrages and it is clear that even more serious scandals would occur in the future, if the right remedy is not resorted to. This is why we prohibit this dangerous and scandalous game and declare liable to the penalty of excommunication and a fine of one hundred sous those of our diocesans, whatever their rank or condition, who have the audacity to play this game.”

Soule Breton Games Mellat

Needless to say, games continued as did the resultant deaths and permanent disabilities. One noted competition in Pont-l’Abbé at the end of the 18th century was reported to have resulted in the deaths of more than fifty men. Such massive displays of public disorder incited the authorities to clamp-down on these games; first by inducements, such as in 1773 when the Duke of Rohan, whose seneschal traditionally launched the popular games in the central town of Pontivy, stopped awarding cash prizes to the winning team. Later, by official decree when, in 1819, the local administration prohibited all games of soule throughout the district of Pontivy.

Old habits clearly died hard and games continued to be played in the Morbihan region despite the official ban. Writing in his book The Last Bretons (1836), the Breton author Émile Souvestre described: “Soule, in Morbihan, is not an ordinary amusement; it is a hot and dramatic game, where we fight and choke; a game that allows you to kill an enemy, without giving up your Easter, provided that you take care to hit him as if by accident and with a stroke of misfortune. It is a day of plenary indulgence granted to assassination and who does not have someone to kill, as one of the most renowned soulers once told me.”

Gouren Breton Games Wrestling

“When the day and the place of a soule have been designated, you see old men, women and children running from all sides, eager for such a spectacle.” A sight Souvestre recounted most vividly: “Soon the blood is flowing and at this sight a frenzied intoxication seizes the souls; a bestial instinct seems to awaken in the hearts of these men; the thirst for murder seizes them by the throat, pushes them and blinds them. They merge, crowd together, twist one over the other; in an instant, the combatants form a single animated block, above which we see arms rising and falling incessantly, like the hammers of a paper mill. From time to time, pale or tanned faces appear, disappear, then rise bloody and mottled with blows. As this strange mass stirs, we see it melting and diminishing because the weakest fall and the struggle continues over their bodies. Finally, the last combatants on both sides remain face to face, half-dead from fatigue and suffering. It is then up to the one who has retained some vigour to escape with the soule.”

A new banning order was promulgated in 1848 but it seems that the games stubbornly continued as another decree prohibiting the game as a menace to public order was issued in 1857. This latter edict seems to have put a popular end to the game but, in all likelihood, simply drove it underground. In June 1888, a newspaper carried a report of some five hundred men belonging to the parishes surrounding the village of Saint-Caradec in central Brittany fighting bitterly for a soule. Even as late as February 1912, games were still reported being played on Easter Monday on a moor outside Locmalo; a village within 22km (14 miles) of both Pontivy and Saint-Caradec.

Sérusier Breton Wrestling Gouren

Breton wrestling, known as gouren is another sport attested since the Middle Ages that some people have tried to attach far older origins to; even suggesting that the wrestling is symbolic of the struggle between Celt and Saxon that led to the founding of Brittany. In gouren, competitors could only battle while standing and hand-holds were only allowed above the opponent’s belt. Like the sport of pole-raising, it was as much a trial of balance and agility as of strength.

Other sports, often traditionally tied to the days between Shrove Sunday and Mardi-Gras, were once popularly noted across Brittany. Some were fairly benign, such as trying to eat sausages suspended from a line; others were less so, such as attempting to remove the head of a live goose suspended from a line with a single blow whilst riding past on horseback or balancing on the back of a cart. A game known as the Russian Bucket was also quite popular. In this, a tub of water or more noxious substances was suspended from a line over the street. The base of the tub was pierced with a hole and it was necessary for players to pass a wooden lance through this hole while balancing on a hand-pulled cart. If the aim failed, the tub would tip; spilling its contents all over the competitor.

Breton Pardon Festival Brittany

In the northern town of Guerlesquin, on Mardi-Gras, the men of the town still play a game known as Bouloù Pok. Here, the men are divided into two teams depending on whether they live north or south of the town square. The game, which lasts all day, is unique to the town and is best described as a cross between bowls and shuffleboard; the participants must throw the bouloù – a carved half-cylinder of hardwood with a lead core – as close as possible to the mestr, a wooden ball sited on the field of play. A bay leaf is presented to each player on the winning team along with the prestigious title of ‘World Champion’. The origins of this game are now lost but local tradition claims that the contest was invented by the parish priest in the 17th century in order to curb the more aggressive sports hitherto engaged in by his male parishioners.

A once popular game noted around the eastern town of Bécherel took place on Sunday afternoons. Here, a duck or rabbit was buried so that only its head could be seen above ground while the competitors were blindfolded and required to stand some twenty to thirty metres away. Armed with a scythe, the competitor tried to cut off the beast’s head. If he did not succeed in delivering a fatal blow, his position was taken by another competitor and the sorry spectacle repeated until the certain death of the beast whose body the victor claimed as his prize.

The Hunter Hunted - Rabbits hunt men

Many towns across Brittany once carried the right to stage tournaments of marksmanship; a tradition that dated back to a series of edicts issued by the Duke of Brittany in the early-1480s in an effort to enact some of the lessons learned from the Hundred Years’ War, namely the importance of ensuring that his subjects were practiced enough in shooting so as to be able to defend their towns until reinforced by the army.

Generally, these shooting competitions were organised on a yearly basis although the exact date varied from place to place; in Bain in eastern Brittany the event was held on the Feast of the Assumption (15 August) but in Guingamp, in western Brittany, the moveable feast of Pentecost was favoured. These events became popularly known as Papegai tournaments; the name derives from the French word for a parrot and was given to the wooden target, fashioned in the form of a pigeon or other bird, which was affixed to the top of a very high pole. Contestants were initially required to destroy the target from a range of up to fifty metres with arrows fired from a bow although crossbows and arquebuses were later used.

Breton Games Papegault Papegai

Such tournaments seem to have been popular with contestants and spectators alike with several accounts talking of a carnival like atmosphere prevailing with rowdy crowds, entertainers and tents selling food and cider. Sometimes, the pole was erected just outside town but some towns staged the event within the town walls and in Montfort-sur-Meu the pole was even attached to the keep of the castle.

The victor of such tournaments was publicly fêted and granted such titles as ‘King of the Papegai’ or ‘Lord of the Bow’ before being led to a feast in his honour in a grand, if tumultuous procession, of past winners, lords, priests, men-at-arms, tradesmen and beggars.  Some competitions offered generous tangible rewards too; the winner of the Guingamp event was granted 25 barrels of wine that he could sell free of restrictions or tax, the privilege of leading the companies of archers and arquebusiers at the Corpus Christi processions and of presiding over the following year’s Papegai tournament.

Papegai Breton Games Papegault

With the abolition of such tournaments in all the provinces of France in 1770, some towns sought to fill the calendar with other public spectacles of skill. Sadly, the one noted in the town of Bain-de-Bretagne was a poorly considered affair. Here, a goose was suspended by its legs from the branches of an apple tree and blindfolded contestants, armed with a sabre, were spun around several times before having to advance and cut off the bird’s head. As can be imagined, the unfortunate goose usually underwent great torment before its head was completely severed. The contestant that managed to strike the final decapitating blow was adjudged the winner. Thankfully, this barbaric ‘sport’ did not last long into the 19th century.

It seems from the few examples cited above that custom and fashion, as opposed to official or ecclesiastical sanction, dictated the longevity of the popular recreations enjoyed by the people of rural Brittany. Over time, changes in societal attitudes, particularly in regards to animal cruelty, and increased interchanges with neighbouring communes and beyond, thanks to infrastructure improvements that made travel easier, had a marked effect on the traditional sports and pastimes of the province.

Bird Watching in Brittany

Birds once enjoyed a rather colourful position in the folklore of Brittany. They were often attributed with many marvellous qualities, from guarding the gates of Heaven to doing the bidding of witches. However, it was their capacity for predicting the future that bestowed these creatures with such noted significance in the mind of the Breton peasant who looked upon the flight and calls of birds as augurs from the natural world much as the ancient Druids might have done in antiquity.

In yesterday’s Brittany, certain birds were traditionally ascribed to the Devil but they were always inferior imitations of God’s creations. God was credited with the pigeon and the hen while the Devil countered with the magpie and the crow. It is clear from the old saying and proverbs that the Bretons once attributed birds with quite particular characteristics. The wren was said to think highly of itself, believing itself to be a much bigger bird than its diminutive size suggested. The chaffinch was viewed as a great singer that celebrated the joy of having escaped the ravages of winter but was also said to mock drunkards and be a little too proud of itself. The lark, in some areas known as “the key of the day,” was thought to soar so high that it often became dizzy and it was said the bird envied the riches it saw covering the land at harvest time. The nightjar was viewed with suspicion and it was even claimed to suckle goats.

thrush - bird - brittany

The thrush was held to be friendly but rather timid, while the pigeon was the epitome of tenderness but, as with man, it was a trait subject to many lapses. The farmyard rooster was regarded as a cynical philosopher that laughed at everything, including itself, whereas the humble blackbird was said to have no other concern than thinking about its next meal. Migratory birds such as the cuckoo and woodcock were thought to exchange gossip and news of events that the other might have missed during their sojourn in warmer climes.

Birds of ill omen once soared across the skies of Brittany; the sparrowhawk was considered the bird of death and was said to fly around a house and knock on the window to announce an impending demise. To hear the call of an owl near one’s house also signalled the approach of death, while the croaking of a crow flying about you heralded the death of a family member. Likewise, a magpie landing on the roof announced that someone would die in the house, while two magpies flying away to your left heralded misfortune but three magpies jumping together on a road presaged the passing of a funeral in the near future. The magpie was once also viewed as a thief and a rogue; washerwomen claimed that the bird stole their soap, while some farmers accused it of stealing chicks and ducklings.

Sparrowhawk - Bird of Death - Brittany

To hear a rooster crowing in the afternoon was thought to herald great joy or great sadness but crowing at night was a sign of impending misfortune or death. Similarly, a rooster crowing all around you was taken as a warning that your last hour was near. Hens too were once seen as augurs; if the hen sang before the rooster, bad luck would soon fall upon the household but if, after being entangled in straw, the hen had a strand remaining attached to its tail, it was taken as a sign that the household would soon be plunged into mourning.

In undertaking any important business or journey, it was essential to take account of any signs encountered along the way, as these would indicate whether your enterprise was likely to be successful or not. Misfortune was sure to strike if you chanced upon a magpie or crow but you could draw great encouragement if you happened across a pigeon or a goose in flight.

Birds of Bad Omen - Owl and Magpie

Not all birds were harbingers of doom; several were welcomed near the home and regarded as good omens by the household. The most important of which was probably the little wren; an auspicious bird who featured in two old Breton legends. It was told that the wren gave the gift of fire to the world; carrying fire from Heaven to earth, it realised that its wings were starting to burn and so entrusted the flame to the robin, whose breast feathers also caught alight. The lark flew to their aid and eventually succeeding in bringing the precious gift of fire to the earth. Another legend tells that the robin followed Christ on the Road to Calvary and that having seen a thorn sink into his forehead, the bird gently removed it; the robin’s red breast forever marked by Christ’s blood. It was also said that the colour of the bird’s eggs changed from that day onwards on account of its compassion for Christ.

In spring, hearing the first cuckoo call of the year was a propitious occasion and taken as an omen of impending good fortune. However, hearing the bird sing near one’s house was taken as a very bad sign. A number of superstitions once surrounded the power inherent in hearing the first cuckoo song of the year. It was said that if you carried any coins in your pocket at that moment then you would be free of any financial worries for the year ahead. Those suffering with rheumatism were advised to roll over on the floor upon hearing the first cuckoo in order to be free of pain over the coming year. In eastern Brittany, folk claimed that those who relieved themselves while the cuckoo sang would also suffer a physical disturbance immediately thereafter. It was also believed in the same region that those who heard the cuckoo sing on an empty stomach were destined to not satisfy their appetite for the rest of the year.

cuckoo - bird - brittany

Young couples would listen attentively to the cuckoo’s call as the number of songs sung by the bird indicated the number of years separating them from marriage. Older people would also listen keenly as the number of songs heard was also said to foretell how many years separated them from death.

In summer, the swallows that built their nests against the house were considered good luck charms as the birds were thought to only settle against a happy home and their presence was taken as a sign of protection against potential disaster, such as fire or a storm. However, swallow droppings that fell onto the eyes of the members of the household were said to cause permanent blindness.

Bocklin - Ruin by sea - Brittany birds

With the coming of winter, the black-headed gull was regarded as a bird of good omen to the people who lived along the coast of the Bay of Morlaix as its appearance was said to herald a spell of fine weather. Around the north coast town of Paimpol, it was said that when a fisherman died at sea, gulls and curlews visited his former home to announce his death by crying and flapping their wings at the windows. However, around the west coast port of Brest, the gulls that flew around the rocks offshore were believed to be the souls of those who had drowned nearby.

The crowing of the rooster, especially a white feathered one, was a very good omen in Brittany, signalling as it did the dawn and the end of the witches’ power. However, misfortune was sure to follow if white, red and black roosters were kept together in the same henhouse. It was said that if you put a chicken feather together with feathers from red and black roosters into a bowl of milk, a little eight-legged white lizard would be formed but nobody dared to do it anymore because this lizard is insatiable and quickly grows into an uncontrollable dragon.

Eight legged dragon - basilisk - Brittany

Some birds were feared here for the direct danger they reportedly posed to the living. In northern Brittany, an indistinct bird known as Ar Vaou was said to kidnap small children, while in central parts of the region, a bird known as Ar Liketaer enjoyed a similarly sinister reputation but was also said to push children, particularly girls, into rivers. In some districts, this bird was confused with the kestrel whose name in Breton sounds quite similar.

The origins of many of the curious beliefs once connected with birds here are now lost to us. For instance, it was believed that a patient would not die if they were lying on a bed in which there were partridge feathers but if a person was dying it was important to empty their mattress and pillow, lest they contain pigeon feathers, whose presence would make the death a long and agonising affair. Until the Revolution, keeping pigeons was a right reserved for the feudal lord; its meat was the preserve of the nobility and any peasants found with these birds faced heavy sanctions. Unfortunately, the hasty liberalisation of these restrictions led to an unexpected loss of expertise in the breeding of pigeons. Many fanciful explanations were put forward by those unable to understand why birds would not roost; one solution offered to bring about a change in luck was to place a dead man’s skull in the pigeon loft or dovecote.

Skull - pigeon loft - dovecote - brittany

Birds, along with their eggs and ordure, were also a key ingredient in several popular folk treatments for restoring health and vitality to the sick. For instance, around the central town of Rostrenen, a chicken egg was thrown into a sacred spring in hope of being cured of a fever. Another traditional treatment for the same ailment from the same region called for a freshly killed and quartered magpie; two hot pieces of the bird were applied to the kidneys, the other two to the soles of the feet. In the west of the region, the fat of a gull killed on a Friday was rubbed onto the chest of the patient in expectation of curing a fever. For a stubborn fever, a pigeon was cut in half; the pieces being applied to the soles of the patient’s feet with the bird’s head being turned towards the heel.

The application of a freshly killed and halved pigeon was also noted in the treatment of meningitis here. In eastern Brittany, the body of a rooster, killed by having been split in half with an iron axe, was wrapped around the affected area in a cure for oedema. A cure for warts noted in the west of the region called for the sufferer to cut a pigeon’s heart in half and rub the warts with both bloody pieces before tying them together in a fig leaf; as they rotted away, so, the warts were expected to disappear. Eaten on an empty stomach, a roasted woodpecker seasoned with blessed salt was said to restore a man’s vitality .

Death - crow - Brittany

Some healers recommended transferring a fever as an effective, if mean-spirited, treatment. Typically, this involved de-shelling a hard-boiled egg and pricking it in several places. After having soaked it for three hours in the patient’s urine, it was then given to a person of the same gender in the belief that the recipient of the egg would acquire the fever from the patient. In some areas, the film of an egg, placed around the little finger of a feverish patient, was also thought to absorb the fever.

One cure for jaundice called for goose droppings; dried and ground, stirred into a bowl of white wine and drank before breakfast for nine consecutive days. Chicken droppings were used as a poultice against toothache and to prevent the formation of abscesses. This remedy was also believed to combat inflammation but to treat such an affliction, an ointment made of honey and an equal amount of dirt from a swallow’s nest was applied. A poultice made of goose droppings mixed with celery, pepper and vinegar, applied to a child’s neck was regarded as a certain cure for croup.

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

Vereshchagin - Apotheosis of war - bird spells - brittany

A legend tells that King Arthur and his queen were staying at one of their estates in Brittany when he was kidnapped by Morgan le Fey Arthur and taken to Île Aval (Avalon) where she offered him her love and eternal life. A powerful enchanter, Morgan’s magic kept the king imprisoned on the isle until he asked her for the favour of being able to review his kingdom; a request she granted on condition that Arthur was transformed into a crow.

There are many other Breton stories in which the human soul escapes from the body to take on the form of a bird, such as an owl or a petrel. Most popularly it was in the form of a lark that the soul was said to ascend to Heaven to receive its judgement; the soul of the just entered without difficulty, while that of the outcast fell down into Hell. Around the northern town of Tréguier, it was once believed that the lark was responsible for opening the door of Heaven to the souls of the dead; the bird was said to have made two trips each day, in the morning for those who died at night and in the evening, for those who died during the day.

Crows - Brittany - Harasimowicz

According to one Breton legend, after the end of the Great Flood, the earth was found bereft of any water. God ordered all the birds to go to Paradise to take a drop of dew from the trees that grew there and to return and deposit it in a place shown to them. The birds obeyed and in a few moments the rivers began to flow again and the sea was filled. The woodpecker, which alone had refused to disturb itself, was condemned never to quench its thirst in the waters of the land and that is why it strikes its beak against the trees; hoping to find the dew drop that it once refused to seek in Paradise.

Feeding on insects that live in the bark of trees, the woodpecker is armed 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 timber? 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 went to sharpen its beak on a special plant; Woodpecker Grass. This legendary plant was said to be extremely small and rare; found growing only in certain damp meadows and in the trunks of ancient trees. Legends tell that whoever finds it can use it to sharpen any metal for it defies the best grindstone; a sickle sharpened by it, cuts like a steel razor.

Green Woodpecker - legends - Brittany

Other fantastic stories once attempted to explain the behaviours of certain birds. For instance, it was said that the reason why the nest of the curlew was so hard to find was because Christ had rewarded the bird for having warned the Holy Family of an approaching storm that would have wrecked the vessel they had chartered for their escape to Egypt.

Some legends tell that many familiar birds were once coloured pure white. For example, the crow was said to have once presented itself before God holding in its beak a piece of human flesh; angered, God condemned it to be the blackest of birds. Likewise, the blackbird’s beak was changed due to its greed; it having dipped its beak in a mound of gold that it had been forbidden to touch.

Who killed cock robin - birds in witchcraft - brittany

Having enjoyed such privileged positions in the local legends and folk medicine of Brittany, it is not surprising to note that birds also once featured in the witchcraft of the region. In eastern Brittany, the magpie was believed to obey witches and to serve as their messenger when they wanted to cast spells without being seen. The eye of a swallow, if placed under someone’s bed, was noted as an effective means of denying that person the ability to sleep but other spell books claimed that the same result was also assured if only the nest of the bird was used. A more sinister spell required that the blood of a hoopoe be sprinkled over a wig newly made from the hair of a hanged man; after the recitation of certain charms, the wearer of this headpiece was said to be granted with the power of invisibility.

The importance of certain birds to the popular imagination was attested here right up to the end of the 19th century. This was over eleven hundred years after the Council of Leptinnes, called by Charlemagne in 743, denounced those that drew omens from birds, those that paid attention to the song of certain birds and cautioned people against belief in the superstitions relating to small birds.

White Ladies and Phantom Monks

The sunken pathways and ruined castles of Brittany are rich in legends of ghosts and supernatural spirits. Many of these fall into the category popularly known as White Ladies; spectral women wearing white gowns that appear at night to haunt the localities of their tragic death. Sometimes, the circumstances of their deaths are still remembered while others are barely known but a common theme appears to be betrayal, deceit or lost love and the ghosts are either lamenting their circumstances or warning, those that would listen, of the cruel hand of fate.

Ghostly white ladies are said to haunt the Place du Parlement de Bretagne in the city of Rennes but I have not been able to find records of any reported sightings to suggest that this is not a relatively new phenomena. Who knows, perhaps this urban legend will be established folklore in a century or two? A little south of the city’s airport lies Bruz where, near the marshy ground on the village outskirts, the plaintive cries made by a white lady who was said to dwell in a cave nearby were sometimes heard although none have been reported since the village exploded into a decent sized town at the end of the 20th century.

White Lady ghost - phantom monk - Brittany

The woods that surround the medieval Château de Trécesson near Campénéac are haunted by the ghost of a white lady wearing a mud-splattered wedding dress. Legend tells that this is the ghost of a noble woman who was buried alive on her wedding day; murdered in the autumn of 1750 by her brothers for having agreed to a marriage they felt dishonoured the family. The lady’s death was witnessed by an old poacher who reported what he had seen to the lord of the castle; the lady was found alive but never regained consciousness and died shortly thereafter.

All that now remains of the Château de Saint-Cast are the ruins of an 18th century manor house at Val Saint-Rieul that were built over the site of the castle. It is reported that on certain moonless nights, four black phantoms, restrained by a large iron chain, can be seen being led through the brambles and thorns by a young girl who seemingly has no arms. Local legend tells that these are the ghosts of four local lords who were condemned for having, in life, cruelly mistreated young girls and women. They beg the young girl, whose arms were cut off by one of their party, to forgive them but she does not seem to hear their pleading and continues to lead them through the thickest barbs. She will continue to do so until the Day of Judgement is called.

White Lady Ghost - Phantom monks

Another legend or perhaps a variant of the above tale is attached to these ruins. It tells that the lord of the Château de Saint-Cast often invited the prettiest girls of the region to attend his feasts. Those that accepted the invitation ultimately found themselves forced to dance naked for the amusement of the lord and his drunken friends; those poor girls that refused were never seen by their friends or family again. That is to say, not seen alive; many tales tell of spectral white ladies seen walking slowly along the road that leads from the ruins of Val Saint-Rieul.

Legend tells that a powerful lord once lived in the Château de Carnoët; a man renowned for removing his wives as soon as he saw them pregnant with child. He is reputed to have married the sister of a saint, a young woman who fell pregnant after a year of marriage. However, knowing of the rumours surrounding the fate of her predecessors, she tried to avoid suffering the same and fled the castle.

White lady ghost - brittany

Unfortunately, she was seen by the lord’s valet who immediately revealed her escape to his master, an experienced horseman who quickly caught his wife whom he fell upon with his sword. Having cut his wife to pieces, he left her body on the road, forbidding it to be buried and it is along these narrow lanes that the former lady of the castle is said to walk on moonless nights. The details of this tale so clearly agree with those relating to the misdeeds of the 6th century Breton warlord Conomor, the Breton Bluebeard, that this legend must have been inspired by the other.

Near Corseul, the ruined Château de Montafilan is home to a white lady who walks the battlements at night before disappearing near the castle’s old well. It is believed that she enters the subterranean passages where she can be heard counting coins and crying. This sorrowful shadow is reputed to be that of a lady of the House of Dinan once sold in marriage who has returned from the grave to claim the wretched blood money that was exchanged for her happiness.

Aron Wiesenfeld, The Grove - White lady
©Aron Wiesenfeld, The Grove

Today, the marshes around Glénac are serene places bursting with wildlife but in the 16th century this land was devastated by the brutality and violence that marked the Wars of Religion. Legend has it that after the Château de Malestroit had fallen to the forces of the French king, the lord of that castle tried to escape with a few trusted followers. Being hotly pursued, this small band soon found themselves in the marshland where several tributaries flow into the River Oust and it was here, with enemy forces rapidly bearing down, that the lord’s daughter, Ermengarde, acted. She leapt into a boat encouraging the French soldiers to follow, which they did with great speed. However, Ermengarde knew the river and allowed her vessel to be carried by the current; she perished in the chasm and by the time her pursuers could take stock, they too were caught in the torrent and were drowned.

Since that time, it is said that Ermengarde returns every night to drift along the western marshes and linger above the watery chasm which was her untimely tomb; cursed because she saved her honour and her father’s life by means of a sin. Sometimes, this white lady of the marshes is seen above the waters; the folds of her dress almost translucent under the moonlight, her hair billowing in the wind as if it might even touch the stars themselves.

White Lady ghosts - phantom monks

In the Gulf of Morbihan, off Brittany’s southern cost, the Île-aux-Moines is reputedly the haunt of ghostly white ladies who attend to their hair on the shoreline. On the neighbouring Île-d’Arz, tall white ladies were said to have been regularly sighted walking on the waves from the mainland or nearby islands. These ghosts were reported to sit on the shore, buckled-over in sadness, absentmindedly digging the sand with their feet or else stripping the leaves from the branches of rosemary they had picked near the dunes. It was believed that these were the ghosts of girls from the island who had long-since moved away and having died without absolution far from their native soil, returned there to ask their families to pray for their salvation.  

The fishermen of the south coast town of Piriac often reported seeing, at twilight, two figures running on the tops of the waves. Local tradition held that these were the ghosts of a lady and her husband; the latter having drowned before the eyes of his wife, she became so mad with grief that, one day, she allowed herself to be taken by the sea.

White Lady ghost - Brittany

According to local legend, a dishevelled white lady whose hands seem clasped together appears at the Château de la Ville Éven near the northern town of Saint-Briac; her appearance is believed to announce the imminent death of the head of the household. It is said that this is the ghost of a lady who died in the 17th century and who, on her deathbed, promised her eldest son that she would return to warn her descendants when they were to prepare for death. Under 10km (6 miles) to the west, a white lady has also been reported emerging, at midnight, from the ruined Château du Guildo at Créhen. Sometimes shrouded in mist, the ghost walks the 40 or so metres to the banks of the Arguenon estuary to wash her linen before suddenly vanishing.

Built hard against the old Breton border with Vendée lie the ruins of the once formidable Chateau de Montaigu; when it was rebuilt in the 15th century, its moat was said to have been some 16 metres deep! Every year – the exact date is unclear – a headless white lady appears amidst the ruins at midnight and walks the path of the old battlements. Local legend attributes her visitation as a plea by the lady to remember her savage death. Sadly, the castle was the scene of much slaughter during the 16th century Wars of Religion and again during the French Counter-Revolution of the late 18th century, so, the circumstances of this sad rememberancer’s death are unfortunately lost to us.

White lady ghost - graveyard - brittany

Returning to the north of Brittany, the majestic ruins of the once mighty Château de Tonquédec are home to a white lady who walks balefully around the summits of the medieval towers at night. Little is known of this spectral figure; some say that she is the ghost of a watchful Huguenot who once took refuge in the castle during the Wars of Religion and is warning those who would listen of some impending disaster. Interestingly, a young girl dressed in white is also said to haunt the castle ruins; she is said to be seen when the sun shines brightest and seems to retreat upon the approach of the living.

Sacked during the Wars of Religion by the bloodthirsty brigand La Fontenelle in 1595, the old manor of Kerprigent in Plougasnou is the scene of another ghostly white lady. She is said to appear walking near the ruins on the nights of a full moon and has been described as a great beauty whose hair appears scattered wildly over her shoulders as if she had been caught unawares. The lady’s half-open mouth seems to expresses anguishing pain and her right hand, holding a soiled cloth over her heart, displays a gaping wound bleeding heavily. Sometimes, this piteous lady releases heart breaking cries that attract a white doe that docilely lies at her feet and licks away the blood that constantly drips from her hand.


According to legend, a visiting lord, smitten by the lady of Kerprigent, had his advances rebuffed by her and determined that he would have his foul revenge. Following his departure, the servants of the house found the lady’s bloody body on the floor of her bedchamber and since that day she has returned to seek justice but her husband, who died in a foreign country, never heard of her calamity and her parents did not try to avenge her death. She is therefore fated to return, again and again, until the end of time.

In the east of the region, the 12th century Château de Châteaubriant was once home to Jean de Laval sometime Governor of Brittany. His wife, Françoise de Foix, was a noted beauty and a mistress of the King of France. Having lost the king’s favour, she returned to Brittany and died unexpectedly just nine years later in 1537. A number of legends attribute her death to the resentful jealousy of her husband who is said to have locked her in her chamber where he had her slowly bled to death. Her ghost returns to haunt the castle at midnight every 16 October; the anniversary of her death. Some variants of the story have her appearing alone; others have her being joined by her husband and even seen as part of a courtly procession of priests and other lords and ladies.

white ladies ghosts - brittany

Nearby, the ruins of the 13th century Château de Pouancé, which once guarded the border between Brittany and Anjou, is said to be haunted by a former mistress of the castle. This late 14th century lady is reputed to have been desperately in love with a Breton knight and one night, at his behest, opened one of the doors to the fortress; the gate was immediately rushed by the Bretons who quickly captured the castle.

With the departure of the Breton forces, legend tells us that the lord of the castle had his wife walled-up alive within the castle as punishment for her treachery. Since then, many people have reported seeing a white lady walking the ramparts, her finger pressed close to her lips. Another tale assures that in the 18th century, renovation work at the castle uncovered a sealed chamber where the body of a woman was found tied seated at a table upon which rested silver cutlery; inside her mouth, a single gold coin.

ghosts - lovers in death - white ladies

The stunning 13th century Château de Largoët near Elven, whose imposing keep is the tallest in France, once saw the future King of England, Henry VII, held within its walls. However, it is not the usurper of the Plantagenets that haunts this place but a white lady wearing a dress soiled with blood. Said to stalk the surrounding forest, the ghost is thought to be a former lady of the castle who killed herself with a dagger, struck through the heart, upon the death of her lover, a knight who perished defending her. The white lady of Elven is sometimes seen in the company of another ghost, draped in a tattered shroud; perhaps, in death, the lovers are now forever reunited.

white lady - ghost - phantom

Little now remains of the Château de Vioreau near Joué-sur-Erdre but it was a significant site in Medieval times and was, for a time, part of the powerful Barony of Châteaubriant. A tale tells that a lady of the castle once had a brief love affair with her husband’s page; a liaison that ended badly and saw bitterness soak the lady’s heart. One day, she sent her former lover on an important errand; to deliver a letter to her kinsman, the governor of Nantes. He was promptly clapped in irons after the governor read the message: “Hang, without delay, the bearer of this letter”.

Fortunately for the page, the lord of Vioreau had been concerned by the sudden departure of his page on a secret errand and had followed him to Nantes. In the dungeon of the city’s castle, he confronted his servant, demanding to hear the truth of the matter. Having already betrayed his master, the wretched man now betrayed his mistress.

Some weeks later, the lord and lady of Vioreau attended a great celebration at the nearby Château de Blain. As the music began, the lord took his wife to dance and did so with such enthusiasm that all remarked how joyful he seemed. The lively dancing went on late into the night and the attentive lord insisted that his wife dance with him without any interruption. Having danced for hours, the lady collapsed exhausted, hot and breathless. The lord lost no time in tenderly escorting his wife to rest on a nearby window seat. As he had hoped, the coldness of the stone seat served his vengeful designs well; the lady contracted a chill that soon proved fatal. Betrayed by the only two men she had loved, the white lady of Vioreau roams the castle ruins to this day.

White lady - ghosts - phantom - brittany

The ruined 15th century Château de Rustéphan near Pont-Aven is said to be home to the ghost of a young lady from the 16th century who died of grief after her fiancé renounced their marriage to become a priest. Legend tells that the lord of Rustéphan did not consider the prospective groom a good match for his daughter and pressured him to take holy orders and leave the parish. After midnight, during the nights of a full moon, the unhappy lady, wearing a green dress, has been seen weeping while walking along the castle’s walls. Sometimes, the ghostly figure of an old priest has been sighted at the windows, gazing longingly upon the green lady of Rustéphan.

In many Breton legends, the appearances of ghosts are often motivated by a request they have to make to the living; they often appear to claim the fulfilment of a vow or to honour one. There are also many tales of people condemned to return to earth to expiate their sins by a posthumous penance, such as the ghosts of priests begging for alms, condemned to wander the land until they have collected the money for masses for which they were paid but did not perform.

Ghosts - phantoms - spirits - brittany

Other tales seem to have their origins in the chaos and violence wrought in the aftermath of the Revolution when religion was suppressed and many of the religious houses forcibly closed-down. The sight of monks and nuns dispossessed of lands they had farmed for centuries must have struck a powerful chord in some areas as many localities contain tales of wandering clerics with uncertain back-stories. For instance, the ghosts of monks are sometimes seen to appear near the Iron Age tumulus known as Château-Serein near Plévenon on Brittany’s north coast but we know not why.

At night, around the village of Bourg-des-Comptes, a headless priest is said to walk slowly along an old path before disappearing and returning to walk the same ground again. The ghost of another headless priest has also been noted over the Breton border in Saint-Laurs although there the decapitation is attributed to the priest having had his head blown off by Republican troops during the excesses of the Counter-Revolution.

Ghosts - Monks - White Lady - Brittany

A farmhouse near the northern town of Lamballe is reputed to be the site where a sheltering priest was captured and killed by Republicans who had sought him for some time. Each evening, strange noises are heard emanating from the attic; a sound described as similar to that made by a falling sack of potatoes. Legend tells that one day the attic was cleared and at the very spot where the noise seemed to originate, a large blood stain was revealed. This proved impossible to scrub away and persists to this day, as fresh as if the blood had been spilled the day before.

To the east, just outside the town of Châteaubriant, the chapel of the Manoir de Bois-Briant was said to be visited by three beautiful ladies, dressed in white. These ghosts always appeared from the neighbouring woods and walked arm-in-arm towards the chapel singing with much sweetness. In the 19th century, these white ladies were said to reveal themselves every Christmas Eve and sometimes on the eve of other sacred festivals. Their lament was said to be a reproach to the local people for their disgrace in forgetting the death of a priest killed in the chapel during the Revolution.

White Lady ghosts - phantom monks Guildo castle
Château du Guildo

We have already remarked on the white lady of the Château du Guildo, so, it is only right that we note the phantom monk who appears some four times a year, when the moon is high in the night sky, near the site of the old priory of Guildo. The ghost is said to walk down to the estuary of the Arguenon River and over the water before disappearing somewhere behind the strange basalt boulders known as the ‘Singing Stones’ of Guildo. The Château du Guildo was also said to be visited each night by the restless spirits of Templar knights; warrior monks who wandered the castle ruins with backs bent under a crushing burden. These ghosts were commonly believed to have been souls of knights condemned, as punishment for their many crimes, to carry, for eternity, the weight of all that they had stolen whilst they lived.

Just six kilometres (4 miles) to the west, in the village of Saint-Pôtan, the ghost of another monk is seen between ten o’clock and midnight, on nights when the sky enjoys neither moon nor stars. The village has grown markedly in recent years and no sightings have been reported for some time but local tradition once held that the monk was greatly feared on account of the disturbing noise made by the creaking of his bones. The ghost was said to walk along the road to Guildo before stopping at a wayside cross a few kilometres away. Here, the monk turned back to face any imprudent enough to have followed him; those foolish souls witnessed, framed in the folds of his hood, a face without flesh.  

White Lady ghosts - phantom monks

We do not know whether the monk was associated with the 12th century priory that thrived nearby for some 600 years or of that once operated by the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller or whether he is someone trying to return home to the Abbey of Saint-Cast. A disturbing local legend tells that the monks of Saint-Cast once kidnapped seven young girls from the surrounding area. The broken bodies of four of these poor unfortunates were discovered when a search was eventually made of the abbey; three more captives were thankfully found alive.

Another monk from this abbey was believed to have been imprisoned in an underground chamber on the nearby isle of Ebihen. This was his punishment for having refused to perform the penance demanded of him for a murder he had committed. It was said that owls constantly tear out his hair to line their nests and that he will remain there, alive, until the day a white dove places a relic of Saint Anne upon his head.

Groups of ghostly monks and nuns have also been reported just 10km away around the town of Matignon. Unfortunately, the histories of these ghosts are lost to us, as are those surrounding the ghostly priests, dressed in white, sometimes sighted at night about 10km to the south on the old roads between Plancoët and Pléven. Curiously, these latter sightings were only recorded by unmarried women.

White Ladies ghosts - phantom monks

The presence of the ghosts of priests has also been noted on the moors around Paimpont; one could even be seen ready to say mass, with lit candles by his side. He was said to have pursued unwary travellers, seeming to ask them something and though they might run wildly away from him, he was always with them. Eventually, the locals paid to have masses said for his soul and he has not been seen since. About 10km away, the ghost of an unknown monk, sometimes described as headless, wanders the meadow that borders one of the lanes leading to the Château de Trécesson; his purpose unknown to us.

According to another legend, at midnight on 15 July, we might see appearing on the surface of the Saint-François pond in the forest of Fougères, two wretched ghosts who seem deeply entwined; whirling as if in some crazed dance before disappearing into mist. Local tradition insists that these are the ghosts of a monk and a lady from the neighbourhood who used to arrange their amorous meetings in a boat so as to avoid any prying eyes. One night, the lady’s outraged husband followed them in another boat and having been able to approach the lovers without alerting them, cut off their heads.

White Lady ghosts - phantom monks - Brittany

It is worth noting that not all spectral ladies seen in the Breton night lament their sad situation. The imposing Roman temple ruins at Bécherel, near the northern village of Corseul, are said to mark the entrance to a vast underground city whose houses are made of the purest gold. The city is hidden beyond the reach of man because it is home to the Devil, who lives there with a company of very beautiful women. Sometimes, on summer nights, these ladies can be seen playing on the ground near the ancient tower but we dare not approach them for these are the Devil’s own women.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincerest thanks to Aron Wiesenfeld; the staggeringly talented artist who created two of the finest artworks accompanying this post and who kindly allowed them to be featured here. The header image is a haunting piece known as The Pit, while the painting placed near the tale of the White Lady of Montafilan is The Grove. These works are not in the Public Domain and copyright thus remains with the artist. If you are not yet familiar with Aron’s work, I urge you to spend a little time browsing his site here.

To Become a Witch

We are in the time of year when the witch receives an enormous amount of attention but in yesterday’s Brittany the witch had no impact on Hallowe’en at all. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, the dead were believed to return to their former homes and in expectation of this, the fire would be kept burning overnight by a large log known as the ‘log of the dead’ and the table would be set with a few pancakes and a little milk for the dead to feast on. The souls of the dead were not feared but welcomed as the old friends they had been in life and Brittany’s witches would likely have been as absorbed in preparing for those nocturnal visits as anyone else. So, if the region’s witches were not a feature of Hallowe’en celebrations, what were they?

The Jesuit missions to Brittany in the 17th century described the land as being in the primitive age of the Church. Relics of paganism were noticeable everywhere; magical talismans and charms abounded in common use, superstitions and witchcraft flourished. Even at this late date, the missionaries found prayers were popularly addressed to the moon and that some women taught the mysteries of the sun under the name Doue Tad (God Father). Even into the early 20th century, visitors noted a rural hinterland where the division between the natural and supernatural was often tenuous.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - witches sky dance

The Scottish author Lewis Spence noted in 1917 that witchcraft was part of everyday life in the region’s more secluded départements and that people could still recall a time when farm and field were ever in peril of wicked spells and the deadly gaze of the Evil Eye. Witchcraft was clearly deeply embedded into the fabric of rural life here but the amalgam of sinister spell casters, magicians and folk healers makes a clear definition of witchcraft and its chief practitioner, the witch, difficult. A task rendered even more challenging if we need to frame our thoughts within today’s definitions and those used by followers of pagan religions such as the Wiccan movement.

To avoid falling down too many rabbit holes, I propose to focus on the question based on the world-view of the rural peasants of pre-World War One Brittany. The popularly accepted characteristics of a witch, whether male or female, here then seem little changed from those noted across Europe in the preceding centuries; they were believed to possess special power and an acute knowledge of how to wield that power so as to control and manipulate natural or supernatural forces. The witch was not feared because of any innate capacity for harm and mischief but because people did not know the limits of their power.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Witches coven

We often fear what we do not understand and witches were ascribed an enormous range of fantastic powers; from the removal of warts and locating lost wedding rings to raising hailstorms and talking the languages of beasts. The fact that many of their magical rituals were performed in secret or contained charms that were indecipherable to the ears of others likely fostered a mantle of ‘otherness’ that probably suited both the witch and the wider community.

The trials of witches noted here in the 19th and 20th centuries – mostly for fraud or practicing medicine illegally – reveal a landscape gripped with perceived threats and vague fears; an insecurity that bred an almost permanent state of anxiety that only traditional, familiar superstitions could alleviate and appease. Writing in 1893, the French psychologist Léon Marillier proposed that Bretons still possessed a state of mind where the explanation of a natural phenomenon, illness or death, which immediately came to mind, was a supernatural one. When one’s family or livestock were struck by some unforeseen misfortune it took no leap of the imagination to view one’s plight as the result of some spell cast against you.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - A Witch

It was then necessary to consult the local witch, known in Breton as the Groac’h; an archaic term that was also used to describe both crones and fairies. The witch was often called upon to identify the spells that had been cast on others and was believed able to both identify the source of any spells cast and to counteract their effects. Lifting curses through charms of un-bewitchment seems to have been as significant a part of the witch’s role in rural society as ensuring the good health of people and their livestock or of foretelling the future.

The local witch, despite their wicked role in many folktales, was widely held to possess a profound, practical knowledge of herbalism, healing and potions. In addition to being effective healers, witches were also commonly approached to find water sources and lost objects and to bring-on rain or fair weather. In many instances, they were also thought able to act as an intermediary between the dead and those family members still living. Witches often had an ambivalent role in their community but nevertheless remained an integral part of it. Although natural phenomena such as unseasonal weather, crop blight, illness and death were often blamed on the power of the witch, consulting one was seen as the surest way of countering another’s enchantments.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Dead Listeners 1890

The Breton countryside also featured characters known as diskanterezed (one who can undo or peel away). Like the Groac’h, these people were noted healers of benign ailments who often specialised in a limited number of afflictions such as removing warts or healing eczema. However, they were also approached for the preparation of charms, concoctions and amulets of bewitchment and un-bewitchment. Traditional healers, known as louzaouer (best defined as herbalists) were once also noted in nearly all communities here; sometimes several being active in a single commune and covering a range of specialities. Typically, these people prepared and administered remedies derived from plants that were either ingested or worn as an amulet. Such preparations were mostly composed of a mixture of bark, flowers, fruits, leaves, roots and seeds although animal products such as butter, eggs, milk and even dung were also used along with minerals such as antimony, mercury, salt and sulphur.

It is quite difficult and probably unhelpful in a blog post such as this to draw clear distinctions between the two former terms that were often interchangeable in parts of western Brittany. Thus, the vagueness inherent in the label of ‘witch’, as applied in Brittany, allows us to highlight the characteristics most closely commonly associated with all these practitioners.

Becoming a witch - Brittany -Three Witches Macbeth

In Brittany, it was believed that only children who were born feet-first possessed the gift to be a diskanterez and that only an experienced practitioner could identify the child worthy of initiation into the mysteries of the craft. Like witches, they were thought to have been bestowed with their powers at birth although certain circumstances were thought more favourable than others. For instance, the strongest evil spells were those cast by witches born under a half moon or whose mothers had died in childbirth. The curses wrought by these people were considered especially powerful and were thought more dangerous because their spells could only be lifted by themselves.

The most powerful spell casters were held to be found amongst those born on the afternoon of Good Friday or on the first day of August or on a Friday in March, provided that day was one of the odd days of the month. Similarly, the seventh child born of a family where all six siblings were of the same but opposite sex, was considered destined to be a great healer. Likewise, the seventh child of a family of seven boys was thought to possess the gift to cure fevers and scrofula but only on a Good Friday. Only a witch born in May was said to possess the power to stop an expectant mother passing on an unmet craving to her baby in the form of a birthmark or noevi materni.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - witches at the gibbet

However, the witch was not the only person believed to be able to cast spells and curses; they were merely those able to cast them at will. It was widely held that others, afflicted with the Evil Eye, had the ability to cast misfortune, such as those who, on the day of their baptism, had remained on the church porch without receiving the sacrament. Beggars, rag-pickers and tailors were also believed to have possessed the power to cast misfortune upon unsuspecting households and their livestock.

An examination of the Breton court records of the latter part of the 19th century also highlights that many spell casters were not the isolated witches of popular tradition but part-time practitioners who also held steady employment as clog-makers or farmers. Many were charged for having sold magical amulets but one witch was prosecuted for claiming to heal people by blowing on mirrors and a master mason from Rédéné, in western Brittany, was accused of cursing another man with “the bad wind”!

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Preparation for Witches Sabbath Teniers

Whatever the circumstances of one’s birth or status, the ability to cast spells required knowledge and a deep understanding of the rituals required to affect the desired outcome. The words used by the spell caster were crucial, as was the delivery; several of the old spells that have survived to this day stress the need for a certain tone of voice to be used or for charms to be recited on one intake of breath only; failing to observe these crucial rites was said to annul the spell and even risk the incomplete spell falling against the caster.

In addition to the specific words used and their precise delivery, spells required particular gestures to animate them. For example, to heal eczema, the spell caster would recite the following formula three times in a single breath while continually tracing the sign of the cross with a silver coin: “Go away, go away. This is not your home, neither here nor anywhere. Between nine seas and nine mountains and nine fountains, turn northwest!” Other some spells could only be performed under specific circumstances such as on a particular date or time of day.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Sneddon - Witch - Warboys

Knowing the appropriate remedy to apply or charm to cast against specific situations was one of the key attributes that set the witch apart from other wise folk in the community. This ancient wisdom and secret knowledge was jealously guarded and was often thought to have been the exclusive preserve of a select number of families who only passed-down their precious charge to a privileged few in each generation. Some have speculated that the charms and rituals used by Brittany’s witches in the modern era were likely debased survivors of those once employed by the ancient druids.

In many cases, the charms and invocations used by witches here contained Christian rather than occult terminology and both they and those seeking their services often referred to their spells and charms as prayers. Although specific to each ailment and often to each practitioner, the incantations of healing were very often adaptations of the liturgical prayers of healing recited by the local priest. Likewise, many charms contained supplications to local saints invoking their power to act rather than their grace to endure. Such saints were often obscure, almost semi-legendary, characters whose names might have substituted for those of older Celtic deities as happened during the Christianisation of the land’s sacred springs.

Becoming a witch - Hermann Hendrich - Cloud Walker

Our modern notions of witchcraft might sit uneasily with Christian beliefs but this was not so in the rural Brittany of old. Many of the spells and charms that have survived to this day called for the invocation of God or particular saints, although the Virgin Mary was notably invoked in a spell to prevent theft. The use of Christian motifs was not some subversive act of heresy but a petition to the ultimate power made by one who was believed to have been blessed by God with the gift of healing. However, some witches were believed to invoke not God and the saints but the Devil and his demons; such people were widely regarded as evil witches who practised sorcery in pursuit of selfish aims or to cause harm to others.

Those whose mothers had died in childbirth were thought to make evil witches but it was also said that anyone could, under certain circumstances, become a powerful witch. One means of doing so called for a green frog, caught on the day of the full moon, to be placed in an anthill while reciting a charm requesting the animal to call upon the Devil and plead for his attention. It was then necessary to go to a crossroads where five roads met and, during the chimes of the midnight bell, to pronounce another charm swearing patience and loyalty to the lord of darkness, ending with the promise: “For him, I will run”.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Devil and witches - Medieval woodcut

With the utterance of these last words, the Devil was said to appear upon one of the five roads, while a black cat appeared on the opposite road. Of the other roads, one was graced by a white hen, another by the green frog accompanied by an army of ants. The final road was the one by which the supplicant had initially travelled to this fiendish meeting and was free of any danger so that, after the conditions of the Devil’s contract had been accepted, the witch might withdraw without fear of harm. One of the witnesses to this diabolical pact was gifted to the witch to whose service it was now attached; tradition suggests that preference was usually given to the cat.

Another means of becoming a witch, noted in the east of the region, was even more repulsive. The ritual here called for the prospective witch to rub their whole body with the fat of a child that had been torn from its mother’s womb before the expiry of its natural term. The baby needed to be cut into pieces and put to boil over a large fire, its fat was then collected and poured into jars that were sealed and hidden behind the rock of the hearth (a large stone that often acted as a fire back).

Before using this ointment, it was necessary to first present it to a priest, who was also a secret witch himself, so that he might, by reciting certain charms in reverse order, imbue the ointment with the required effectiveness. Finally, this ghastly grease needed to be taken to a crossroads at night and smeared over one’s naked body during the chiming of the midnight bell while reciting a brief charm that ended with the words: “Where all companions are”. It was believed that the spell was now cast and that the new witch was immediately transported to the midst of a Sabbath.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Dance of the Fadets - Ryckaert

For those without the innate talent or the patience to learn the ways of the witch, other fantastic rituals were said to allow one to possess magical abilities. For instance, anyone who ate the heart of an eel, warm from the body, was supposed to be at once endowed with the gift of prophecy. Possession of a four leafed clover, a seven headed ear of grain or the grain that had passed through the millstone without being ground was said to allow its possessor the ability to see what remained hidden from the eyes of others; the four leafed clover found under a gallows was held to be the most powerful of these rarities. The spores of the green fern, collected on the night of Midsummer, were believed to be effective in helping locate hidden treasures and to give the possessor the ability to read the deepest secrets hidden within the hearts of others.

When a person stood between two lands – their feet on the ground with a sod of earth held above their head – on a moonless night, they were believed to be granted the privilege of seeing things that were unknown to others. It was said that if a woman cooked an oak apple in the water of a fountain whose source watered a cemetery, she would be endowed with the wisdom and knowledge of the ancient fairies. Similarly, if one could cut the branch of the hazel tree which revealed itself as pure gold during the striking of the Christmas bell, one would have a wand equal in power to those wielded by the greatest fairies.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - moonrise Harpignies

Belief in the power of the witch did not disappear here due to the evangelising efforts of local priests who, in Brittany, were often regarded as sorcerers themselves. Indeed, most people saw no contradiction in the simultaneous use of the parish priest and the local witch; surely protection against the dangers of the world would be better assured if one accepted both as a safeguard? Popular belief in the power of witchcraft and of healing magic faded as the isolated, inward-looking communities that had long sustained such superstitions changed forever under the guns of the Western Front and the bombardment of industrialisation.

Spirits of Storm and Shadow

Many stories told across Brittany warn of the dangers that await those traversing the lonely places after dark. While the desolate moors and uncultivated lands were always closely associated with the ghostly activity of the dead, the creatures that traditionally inhabited these areas in Breton folklore were the wicked children of the night. The night belonged to the dead but it was a dark realm that they shared with dangerous spirits who were not of the race of men and whose encounter could be fatal for us mortals.

Previous posts have looked at many of the creatures that roamed the Breton night, so, I shall not repeat the old tales of supernatural black dogs and magical korrigans here. Instead, I propose to highlight some of the less well known but equally feared spirits that haunted the dark shadows of the night here. In times past, the doors of isolated farmhouses were not shut as prevention against thieves but to protect against the entry of these malevolent spirits.

Fairies Brittany Korrigan Demons

While it might sound contradictory to modern sentiment, the Bretons of yesteryear did not fear the night or the behaviour of those beings well known to them, such as the spirits of the dead or the mischievous korrigans; there were prayers, amulets and charms aplenty to assure their safety with these creatures. What the rural Breton peasant feared were the dangers inherently hidden by the enveloping darkness.

Young children here were once commonly threatened by their parents with stories of vague croquemitaines such as the ‘Gentleman of the Night’ who might take them unless they returned swiftly home. However, other ill-defined creatures seem to have carried more sinister overtones; the Aëzraouant was a protean spirit said to inhabit ponds and springs, where it tried to attract passers-by with the lure of gold lying under the water. Those imprudent enough to succumb to the Aëzrouant’s deception were thought to have been quickly seized and dragged to its underground lair; a crystal palace where the unwary child was chained forever and subjected to a lifetime of the hardest labours.

Brittany - brous - fairies - demons - aezrouant

Another poorly defined creature here was known as Brous; supernatural beings that were said to gallop all night through the thickets and forests, killing and devouring dogs and other small animals. Like werewolves, these were sometimes claimed to have been dishonest men who were condemned to transform at night and live as beasts during the hours of darkness. Some accounts say that they were people who had been cursed by the local priest for not having returned property they had once stolen.

Breton tales also tell of Rounfl; giant ogres that dwelt in caves, as high as a church, dug out from the sides of mountains. These creatures are portrayed as formidable enemies who had mastered dark magic so as to lock away their souls from their bodies. They were also notorious cattle thieves and lovers of human flesh who could only be defeated by the rare bravery and ingenuity of resolute souls.

Brittany - giants - Rounfl - fairies - korrigan

In Brittany, ponds and springs were usually only associated with female korrigans; malevolent creatures such as the Aëzraouant were more typically associated with marshes, bodies of stagnant water or the edges of pools and fords. However, another exception was the Teuz ar Pouliet; a mischievous creature noted in the west of the region that dwelt in the waters and low burrows. This creature was said to be able to make itself invisible or to assume any shape it wanted although its true appearance was said to be that of a small male dwarf, dressed in green. These attributes are all shared with korrigans and it is likely that this creature really belongs within that category of magical beings but clearly its local notoriety was once strong enough to ensure it retained a distinct identity.

Other diminutive folk that were regarded as discrete from the race of korrigans were also noted across the region. The sea caves found on the north coast of Brittany were reputed to be home to a race of little men known as Fions. These men – there were no female Fions – performed the functions of servants to fairies and were said to be so small that their swords were no longer than bodice pins.

Brittany - fions - fairies - korrigans

Along the south-eastern coast, mysterious little creatures were said to live in caves and rocky burrows; to the west, these dwarves were known as kouricans but distinctions between them and the race of subterranean dwarves called Duzig are often vague at best. Several parishes in western Brittany retained legends of both creatures, suggesting that these were popularly regarded as two separate beings. Certain caves in the far east of the region, bordering Poitou, were believed to be home to a species of little folk called Fadets. Although noted for their ugly and hairy appearance, the fadets were not considered harmful to humans. Interestingly, these creatures were not considered supernatural beings like the korrigans but a race of men who had occupied the land before them.

Not all dangers were tangible; in central Brittany stands a mountain known as Mont Saint-Michel and it was around this desolate place that it was believed all demons cast out from the bodies of men were banished. If, at night, any one were to set their foot within the circle they inhabit, the hapless traveller was said compelled to begin running and unable to stop doing so for the rest of the night. All who passed this lonely spot, even in daylight, were reported to have immediately suffered with heavily chapped lips.

Brittany - fairies - fadets - sea witches

The region’s other lonely places, such as the windswept coasts, also gathered legends of sinister happenings and strange creatures lurking in the darkness. A stretch of rocky coast near the northern town of Tréguier was once believed so cursed that no one ventured there at night and it was avoided, as far as possible, even during the hours of daylight. This half a league of coastline was said to be the domain of a fallen angel that jealously guarded their loneliness.

Some 70km (43 miles) east, a portion of steep coast near Cap Fréhel was thought to be the lair of the Devil for it was assured that no one had descended to the sea there without experiencing some accident or other. The Devil was also said to haunt the south coast Île d’Arz; on stormy nights he was sometimes seen seated on a rock on the seashore, exciting the waves with his voice and howling into the wind.

While many in the far western département of Finistère once blamed mermaids for causing storms and high waves, the people who lived a little to the east along the coast of Tréguier attributed such phenomena to the Dud-a-Vor (Sea Men); little black demons who roused the storms and were sometimes seen dancing on rocks before the most violent winds struck. Some local legends talk of people having seen other storm casters known as Tud-Gommon (Seaweed Men), described as small human-like beings, clothed in seaweed, who walked on the waves.

Brittany - dud a vor - fairies - korrigans

Sailors from the same part of Brittany also once spoke of thick fogs at sea being inhabited by little black demons known as Diauwlo Bihan (Little Devils) who deliberately led vessels astray so that even the most experienced mariner could not recognise their route. The shadows of such creatures were reported to have been seen joyfully dancing in the mist before the outbreak of a sudden squall or immediately before a ship failed upon a reef; their presence was not to warn of approaching danger but to celebrate the imminent disaster they had set in motion.

The appearances of these malevolent creatures were almost always linked to tales of the storms that they liked to orchestrate in order to cause shipwrecks and some accounts from the northern coast tell that just before a storm, the sailors witnessed a small white dwarf dancing on the sea rocks. Another mysterious character who was sometimes noted to appear in the midst of storms off the north-west coast was an evil spirit known as the Red Witch. Local legends describe a small man, red in colour, who walked the seashore at night spreading fear amongst the families of fishermen through his command of the elements. It was said that this sorcerer excited thunderstorms by striking the waves with blows of his staff and that anyone who dared to disturb his loneliness was immediately cast into the waves.

Brittany - Red Witch - Witches Boat - fairy

The old folktales rarely associate witches and sorcerers with the sea and shore but, like the Red Witch, there are a few notable exceptions. For instance, some tales claim that, on certain nights, one could see small boats steered by solitary women riding the waves in the Bay of Audierne off Brittany’s west coast. These were the Bagou-Sorseurez (Witch Boats); sinister vessels that were said to be driven by widows from the nearby Île de Sein who possessed the Evil Eye.

It was believed that these sea-faring witches tried to manoeuvre their boats towards those of the fishermen sailing the bay in order to tell the captain a terrible secret. If the captain were to reveal it, he and his crew would be doomed to the waves the next time they put to sea; if one of the captain’s men spoke of having encountered the witch, he was cursed to die within the week. One local legend asserts that as recently as 1890 a young sailor who had seen a witch boat had the imprudence to speak of it to his friends when he arrived ashore. The next day, having set out for the port of Brest, he fell overboard and although he was brought out of the water immediately, he was dead.

Brittany - Witches Boat - fairies - catouche

Around the Cap Sizun peninsula in Douarnenez Bay, the most wicked of these witches was given the rather enigmatic name Catouche. (This French word literally means cartridge and may possibly be a corruption of some Breton word; the French language having made little popular imprint in this part of Brittany until the 20th century.) This witch was said to have been seen at daybreak wandering near the seashore, soaking wet and carrying an empty kelp basket. How else could this forlorn sight have been explained but that she had ridden the waves at night; her basket having magically transformed into a boat, her kelp stick into a mast and her apron a sail!

The notion of witch boats and the long-standing tradition of witches on the Île de Sein seem to have been expanded upon in other old tales. These tell that the widows of this isle who had been born with the gift of enchanting wielded a most formidable power; the ability to curse a man to certain death. It was said that these women sailed at night in a boat that was also their kelp basket, controlled by their kelp stick that served as both oar and rudder, to attend the Sabbaths of the Sea. Those cursed by these witches were believed sure to die within a certain time if they had not repaired the damage that had caused their damnation. In order to affect their curse, the witches were required to attend three Sabbaths of the Sea, on each occasion making an offering to the demon of the wind and sea of an object that belonged to their intended victim.

Brittany - witch boat - fairies - bolbigueandets

On the south coast of Morbihan, sinister boats were also associated with magical dwarves known as bolbiguéandets. In some accounts these creatures formed part of the race of korrigans but others claim they were a distinct breed of little people whose backs were covered in algae due to their living half immersed between the rocks of the cliffs and shore. These dwarves loved to announce storms and shipwrecks but they were also reputed to force weary travellers to enter a mysterious black boat, crowded with the ghosts of the dead. When fully loaded, this boat was said to sail with the swiftness of an arrow for an unknown island. Alas, this land is never recounted by any human passenger as they always fell into a deep sleep as soon as the ship had cast-off, only to awaken at dawn still dozing on dry land.

With some 3,000km (almost 1,900 miles) of coastline, it is little wonder that the seashores of Brittany were rich in legends of fantastic creatures and unnerving hauntings. In the area of Cap Sizun, indistinct dwarves were reported to roam the dunes at night, taking the appearance of stray fires. If any man had the effrontery to call out to them, they would run up to fight with him! On the north-eastern coast, a rather poorly defined creature known as Saint-Nicolas was said to have been armed with sharp claws with which it tore the faces of any young boys it happened to meet on the beach at night.

Brittany - Gros-Jean - fairy - jetin - saint nicolas

Near Saint-Malo, a character known as Gros-Jean (Big John) watched for those who lingered alone on the seashore. Those children who tarried too long near the sea were said to be at grave risk of being taken by him and locked in a barrel where he kept his prey confined, giving them nothing to eat and drink but seaweed and salt water. To the west, a strange shadow was said to wander around the rocky shore near Plestin-les-Greves; this spirit was drawn to tardy travellers who were gradually but steadily led towards the sea which quickly swallowed them up.

Returning to the east, the lands surrounding the Rance and its estuary were traditionally held to be the home of a race of cave-dwelling little people known as jetins. Although no more than half a metre/yard high, these creatures were reputed to have the strength of giants and amused themselves by throwing the ancient standing stones or menhirs about the fields or by playing tricks on their human neighbours to whom they were generally benign. Some have suggested that the jetins were the only little people to remain in Brittany after the departure of the fairies.

Brittany - jetins - fairies - fions

The fairies in this part of Brittany were quite distinct from the other sprites and female korrigans noted here and across the rest of Brittany. As with the jetins, these sea fairies were generally reported to be benign to any humans that treated them respectfully but ruthlessly punished those who cheated or otherwise wronged them.

As ever, exceptions to this happy state of affairs exist for the unwary traveller. Around the bustling port of Saint-Cast le-Guildo, the northernmost promontory, the Pointe de l’Isle, was said to be the domain of fairies who whipped human trespassers with the long strips of seaweed. Some 12km (8 miles) directly across the Bay of Saint-Malo lies the Goule aux Fées, just north of the once fashionable resort of Dinard. Popular tradition attests that those people who, at night, dared to venture on the clifftops here risked being seized by a ferocious whirlwind that would drag them down into the cave below, where they would be devoured by the evil fairies chained there.

The fairies of this region and along an associated coastal strip about 130km (80 miles) long were notably different from others found in Breton folklore and are fully deserving of their own post; an undertaking high on my “to do” list!

Wolf Leaders and Werewolves

In considering the real dangers to rural lives and livelihoods once posed by wolves it is not surprising that this animal occupied a unique place in the popular imagination of rural Brittany. For centuries, the wolf was the villain of countless folktales passed down through the generations and the beast’s victims of choice were seemingly always young lambs: innocent children watching-over their sheep and cattle or virtuous young girls travelling through the woods after nightfall.

Over time, the wolf had accumulated the diffuse fears of the rural folk to become the most terrifying of animals; a beast that dominated the land that man himself claimed dominion over. In yesteryears’ Brittany, most rural dwellers even feared to acknowledge a wolf (bleiz in Breton) by name, referring instead to Yann, Guillou or Ki Noz (the Night Dog); a term sometimes also used as a synonym for the Devil. The wolf was therefore seen as evil incarnate and was often depicted in the region’s lore as cruel, cunning, voracious and violent.

werewolf - brittany - wolf

This same folklore was rich in tales of shapeshifters; magical beings who could turn themselves into domesticated animals such as cats or pigs but when there was talk of a metamorphosis of a man, it was often into a wolf or man-wolf. The werewolf (den bleiz in Breton or loup-garou in French) superstition was once as prevalent in Brittany as in other parts of France but the region was, thankfully, spared the werewolf hysteria that gripped eastern France in the 16th century.

The notion that a man, and it was usually a man, could be temporarily or permanently transformed into a wolf stretches back to antiquity and probably beyond but it was the Roman poet Ovid who provided the image that took root in the popular imagination. In the first book of his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells how Lycaon, King of Arcadia, was turned into a wolf by Zeus as punishment for feeding him the roasted flesh of his murdered son: “His clothes changed into bristling hairs, his arms to legs and he became a wolf. His own savage nature showed in his rabid jaws and he now directed against the flocks his innate lust for killing. He had a mania for shedding blood but, though he was a wolf, he retained some traces of his original shape.”

werewolf - lycaon - brittany

This image of a man-wolf full of cunning and savagery resonated through the ages amongst the rural folk of Europe. In Brittany, where there existed many superstitions surrounding the power of a name, the werewolf was sometimes known as Bleiz Garv (Cruel Wolf). A central element in European folktales featuring werewolves is usually the destruction of innocence – the murder of a child, not with thoughts of self-preservation but out of sheer blood lust.

The image of the werewolf was one of a ferocious fiend, a cold-blood killer who tasted human flesh for pleasure. Such traits were little changed since the myth of Lycaon and, like Lycaon, it was believed that the transmutation from man to werewolf could only be achieved through divine or demonic intervention. Only through powerful supernatural forces could man alter so profoundly, thus werewolves were usually linked to witchcraft and were pursued and prosecuted as wicked sorcerers.

werewolf - witch - familiar - brittany

Witches and sorcerers were said to be able to transform themselves into animals such as bees, cats, dogs, hares and wolves. Such transformations were regarded as an innate capacity of the witch but it was also believed that such powers were the gift of the Devil; a reward for entering into a solemn pact with him. The metamorphosis from man to wolf was thought to be most commonly done by shedding their human clothing and putting on a girdle or belt made of wolf-skin but other methods were spoken of, such as applying a special lotion over the body or drinking rain-water from a wolf’s footprint or eating the brains of a wolf. Donning the wolf’s girdle or rubbing oneself with an ointment was viewed as a wilful act; man thus volunteered to become a werewolf; similar practices were said able to transform a person into a witch.

In addition to the voluntary werewolf, there were also believed to be involuntary ones too. These were typically men who had been transformed into a wolf as a punishment for their sins, particularly thievery, and condemned to pass a certain number of years as a wolf or until the curse was lifted. One tradition in central Brittany held that werewolves were men who had been turned into wolves for not having confessed their sins for more than a decade. Involuntary werewolves were popularly believed to revert permanently to their human form if they bled from a wound inflicted by an iron sickle or a black-hafted blade.

werewolf - wolf man - brittany

After roaming the countryside at night, a werewolf had only to throw off his wolf skin to return to human form, taking pains to hide their wolf skin with care. In Brittany, it was said that if this skin was placed in a cold place, the man actually felt the chill. Conversely, there is a tale of a man who had hidden his skin in the communal bread oven; his wife having lit a fire there, discovered her husband shrieking and struggling as though he was really surrounded by flames. Burning the wolf skin was thought to forever sever the link between man and werewolf, while destroying the werewolf’s human clothes made it impossible for him to regain his human form.

The werewolf superstition was at its height in France during the 16th century and numerous records attest to the trials of people, predominantly men, who were accused of being a werewolf. One of the first celebrated werewolf trials occurred in 1521 in Poligny, a town some 480km (300 miles) east of the then Duchy of Brittany but it is worth highlighting as an indicative example of the typical charges levied and the subsequent investigation and prosecution of the accused.

werewolf - medieval - brittany - michel verdun

While travelling near a forest outside Poligny, a group of men were attacked by a wolf but successfully managed to beat off their assailant, injuring him in the process. The injured wolf was tracked to the hovel of Michel Verdun who was found inside dripping with blood; he was promptly seized and subsequently arrested. Under torture, he confessed to being a werewolf and implicated two friends; Philibert Montot and Pierre Bourgot, the latter likewise confessed to being a werewolf but also told of having once made a pact with a mysterious black-clad man to protect his sheep. Bourgot claimed there had been a hailstorm when he was collecting his sheep and that the stranger, likely a demon, told him that he would not have missed gathering a single sheep if he but served the demon as his lord.

Bourgot’s testimony describes how he agreed the pact the following night: “kneeling before the demon in homage, vowed to obey him, renouncing God, Our Lady, all the Company of Heaven, his baptism and chrism. He swore also never to assist at Holy Mass nor to use Holy Water. He then kissed the demon’s left hand, which was black and cold as the hand of a corpse.” He alleged that Verdun gave him an ointment that turned him into a wolf and together they killed at least two children: “…they killed a woman who was gathering peas. They also seized a little girl of four years old and ate the flesh, all save one arm. Several other persons were murdered by them in this way, for they loved to lap up the warm flowing blood. Another time they killed and ate raw a goat belonging to Maître Bongré.” It is unclear if Montot also confessed but he was executed with the others.

werewolf - jacques roulet - brittany

Another well documented werewolf trail took place in the Breton border town of Angers in August 1589. Jacques Roulet, a local vagabond, was accused of having been found, hiding amongst some bushes, in the form of a werewolf, half-naked with matted hair, his hands covered in blood and fingernails sunk in the remains of human flesh. The mutilated body of a 15 year old boy was discovered nearby. Roulet confessed to the murder and claimed “to have attacked and devoured with his teeth and nails many children in various parts of the country whither he had roamed.” Furthermore, he claimed to have been a werewolf ever since using an ointment that his parents had given him some years earlier.

Roulet’s confessions during the trial were often contradictory and improbable; he was prone to convulsions and most likely mentally ill. The tribunal sentenced him to death but he appealed to the Parlement of Paris, which commuted the death penalty, probably due to the lack of evidence, to two years confinement at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés asylum “with instruction in the faith and fear of God, which he had forgotten about in his huge poverty.” Roulet was perhaps fortunate that his appeal was heard at the time the Parlement of Paris was stamping its authority over local tribunals, requiring all capital sentences of witches be appealed to them.

werewolf - werewolf trials - france

Due to their renouncement of God and their alliance with the Devil, werewolves were regarded as damnable sorcerers and like those of their female counterpart, the witch, trials focused on the diabolical pact, confessions were gained through torture and punishments were severe. In the same year as Roulet’s trial, Peter Stubbe was convicted of being a werewolf just over the French border in Westphalia; he was sentenced to “have his body laid on a wheel and with red hot burning pincers to have the flesh pulled from his bones in ten places, after that, his legs and arms to be broken with a wooden hatchet. Afterwards to have his head struck from his body, then to have his corpse burned to ashes.”

The notion of a pact with the Devil, freely entered into, and the renunciation of God were at the very heart of werewolf trials. Under torture, many hapless unfortunates also confessed to having worshipped the Devil at a Sabbath and it was the demonic implications of these two key acts that were the focus for prosecutors. In Brittany, it was believed that the sorcerer who agreed to the Devil’s covenant was bound to it for seven or sometimes nine years; the contract being automatically renewed if the werewolf was seen by anyone other than fellow werewolves. If the werewolf died before being released from the contract he could expect to descend to Hell without hope of redemption.

werewolf - wolf leaders - brittany

While many scholars of the day argued that human to animal transformation was impossible. Others, such as the 16th century French jurist, Jean Bodin, stressed that such damnable witches should be sentenced to death since “it is a vile belief the Devil puts into the hearts of men in order to make them kill and devour each other and destroy the human race.” A position echoed by Jean Beauvois de Chauvincourt, in his 1588 Discours de la Lycanthropie, who described werewolves as “men so denatured, that they have made bastards of their first origin, leaving this divine form and transforming themselves into such an impure, cruel and savage beast.”

The official position of the Church was that any human to animal transformations did not happen in the physical body but through diabolical illusions in the spirit only. A position the Church had held for centuries, condemning as illusory those vestiges of pagan superstitions and beliefs in magic, animal transformations and night-flights which were contrary to the true faith. Lycanthropy was something induced by evil spirits that created a delusion in some men, culpability therefore lay with the Devil rather than the weak-willed but the culpability of witches and sorcerers for striking a bargain with the Devil was a heresy that demanded a vigorous response.

werewolf - wolf leader - brittany

While the demonic element was usually the key feature of a werewolf trial, the charge was closely followed by accusations of murder and sometimes cannibalism. The accused were usually said to have a predilection for young children and especially little girls and the lewd sin of lechery, sexual assaults and acts of incest were commonly found in such trials. With very few exceptions, it was men that were accused of werewolfism and no matter the physical attributes of the accused, in wolf form he was usually described as strongly-built with sharpened teeth and claws. These were crucial elements in the popular image of a werewolf during the 16th and early 17th centuries; a lustful, lecherous and savage predator.

Without straying into pop-psychology it does not take a giant leap to consider that the werewolf might have served as a useful medium for the people in small rural communities to accept how a seemingly rational neighbour could also, for a moment, act as a completely irrational creature. Even if the metamorphosis is always supernatural, the werewolf remains partly human, thus is would have been understandable to dehumanise the image of the man who threatened the stability of the community.

The emphasis on the sexuality of the werewolves likely reflects the anxieties felt within the community surrounding the issue of safety. Mutilated livestock, murders and disappearances of children and young women would naturally spread alarm and feed the collective fear of a wicked sorcerer at large. An active sexual deviant could easily destroy the equilibrium in a small village and so, in their fear, the community would turn to God and the local magistrates for help and so the witch-hunt would begin!

werewolf - wolf leaders - brittany

The accused in most werewolf trials had three things in common: they were poor, male, rural peasants, depicted as evil but weak-minded men who were easily tempted by the Devil and his promises of reward. Some modern scholars have focused heavily on the extreme poverty faced by many of the accused and questioned whether these men were simply social outcasts without means and thus, as the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, easily chosen as scapegoats for society’s ills. However, it is important to recall that, at the time, most rural dwellers lived in abject poverty and outbreaks of plague and famine were common in 16th century France.

Werewolves were widely held to only roam freely at night, particularly when there were violent winds; in some areas of Brittany this was thought to be only on the nights of a full moon but in others, all nights belonged to the werewolf. The werewolf as symbol of storm, of night and of winter, is a vivid one and some tales add to this sense of otherworldliness by taking the werewolf out of the forest and placing him on the heath or at a crossroads; both locations rich in symbolism – the transition between the wild and the cultivated and of paths chosen.

werewolf - wolf leaders - brittany - france

There are few Breton tales that involve a werewolf attacking people but some early 18th century works mention witches known as graguez-vleiz (Wolf Witches) who, under the guise of beautiful women, dismembered and tore little children to pieces. The werewolf is more often portrayed as a forlorn creature and many stories contain strong religious connotations surrounding the notion of sin and penance. Curiously, werewolves were believed never to attack musicians and were even said to flee upon hearing the binioù or Breton bagpipe; likely a superstition which had its roots in the 17th century when Jesuit missions in Brittany cursed musicians in their efforts to stamp-out music and dancing.

The belief in Wolf Leaders (meneurs de loups in French) was quite widespread in Brittany; men who directed wolves and were obeyed by them. They were also believed to command werewolves. Such men were not always werewolves themselves but sorcerers who had made a pact with the Devil and received something other than the ability to metamorphose as their reward. In some parts of the region, tales tell of men who secretly raised bands of wolves to ravage the land and destroy the flocks and herds of those that were pointed out to them.

In western Brittany, the role of wolf leaders was said to be handed down from father to son. These men were believed to stay for extended periods in the forests, where they were served by their wolves whilst sat on armchairs formed of intertwined oak branches trimmed with grass. It was even said that sometimes they ordered their wolves to lead lost travellers back home. Some stories emphasised the need to give bread, as thanks, to these nocturnal guides as they might be werewolves seeking to obtain the key to their return to the world by a good deed; the gift of bread would allow the involuntary werewolf to break his curse.

wolf leaders - werewolves - werewolf - brittany

The Christian undertones are clear and further examples can also be found scattered throughout Breton werewolf lore stretching back as far Saint Ronan, an early 6th century evangelist in Brittany, who was once famously accused of killing a child and of being a werewolf. The legends of other Breton saints tell how they changed unrepentant sinners into wolves. In western Brittany, priests were once thought to possess the power to transform unbelievers into werewolves and to be able to take on an animal form themselves during Advent.

Divine assistance was also called upon to slay a werewolf who it was believed could only be killed by being struck three times in the forehead by a dagger made of silver melted from a crucifix or shot by a ball moulded from the same silver source. Sometimes, it was said that it was also necessary for the firearm itself to have been blessed or its stock rubbed with wax from a Paschal candle. In western Brittany, a werewolf was believed able to rid themselves of their curse if they washed in a colonnaded fountain or sacred spring but only if they entered from the east side.

Adolphe Orain in his Picturesque Geography of Ille-et-Vilaine (1882) tells of another way to lift the werewolf curse in eastern Brittany: “The charcoal burners will tell you that the garou, that is to say the poor devil on whom a spell has been cast, and who is forced in spite of himself to run every night, can only foil the spell which undermines him by kissing a cross located in a forest clearing. But his efforts are in vain, a force keeps him at a certain distance from the cross, before which he crawls on the ground, screaming in rage. He can only reach it if someone spills his blood, either by hitting him with a stone or with a whip. If the blood does not flow before the sun rises, he will have to start again the following night and return to the same place to try to reach the cross.”

werewolf - loup garou - wolf leaders - kill a werewolf

Despite the confessions – given under torture – of the so-called werewolves, it is likely that many of the fatal attacks blamed on them during the werewolf trials of the 16th century were simply wolf attacks. Others were certainly brutal murders and would have been tried as such were it not for the superstitions surrounding the demonic element of a man-wolf. Some of the accused may well have suffered from lycanthropy, a psychiatric illness in which the sufferer imagines himself to have been transformed into an animal. By the middle of the 17th century confessions of werewolfism were no longer credited; the question of bodily transformation having lost its significance in natural philosophy and science.

Many men who confessed to being werewolves claimed that they used an ointment rubbed on their bodies to effect the transformation.  Such an ointment could have had hallucinogenic qualities that fooled a man’s mind into believing that he had actually changed into a wolf.  Other wolf hallucinations may have been accidental, for instance, a man’s diet might have included bread made from ergot-infected grain (the ergot fungus can cause hallucinations and irrational behaviour) as was quite common in France in the Middle Ages. We will now never know the truth of the matter.

werewolf - wolf leaders - wolf - brittany

Few of the tales collected by folklorists and ethnographers in the 19th century deal with werewolves and this perhaps reflects the decreasing importance of wolves in the Breton countryside by then but werewolves continue to remain in the imagination and old legends are still reworked in popular fiction and contemporary films and dramas. The demise of the wolf as a millennia-old adversary effectively made the werewolf redundant; a notion summed-up by the English antiquary Algernon Herbert, who said: “where there is no natural wolf, there is no werewolf”.

Fantastic Beasts of Brittany

The thick forests, lonely moors and windswept beaches of Brittany were long said to carry heavy dangers for the unwary traveller abroad in the Breton night. Local legends tell of frightening werewolves, menacing black dogs, murderous horses, sinister black cats and hungry basilisks but there are tales of many other, more ambivalent, fantastic beasts.

Most of the ruined castles that pepper the landscape of Brittany have some marvellous myths attached to them; one of the most commonly shared legends attests to the presence of enchanted hares. The castle of Tonquédec was said to be the home of an enormous hare that wandered amongst the ruins, particularly on the nights of the full moon. Hunting dogs were said to stop at its sight and when pushed to pursue, the hare did not flee in panic but withdrew slowly before suddenly disappearing without trace.

Fantastic Beasts - Tonquedoc castle - ghost - Brittany

Three other castles, namely Coatfrec, Kerham and Coatnizan, all within 15km (10 miles) of Tonquédec, were also said to have been haunted by mystical hares. This suggests a once powerful local belief in the punishment meted out to evil men after death, for these hares were believed to be the souls of the old lords forced to undergo their penance in this form. In life, the old lords had made their people tremble and so, in death, they were condemned to live as the most timid of beasts. It was said that their souls would only be delivered after they had suffered as much pain as they had once inflicted on others. The bullets of hunters were said to pass through their bodies without killing them and without spilling a drop of blood but they suffered as if they had been killed each time.

It is worth noting that, more generally in the Brittany of this time, the souls of girls who had been deceived by their lovers were believed to haunt them as hares.

The ruins of the 13th century Penhoat castle near Saint-Thégonnec (not to be confused with the 18th century castle of the same name once owned by Karl Lagerfeld) is home to a white rabbit of extraordinary size that only appears at night. The legend here does not connect the animal with a former lord; the family were one of Brittany’s most noted and deserted the castle after its partial destruction during the Wars of Religion at the end of the 16th century.

Fantastic Beasts - Brittany landscape

The rabbit is said to display itself before running furiously into the former moat and up along the lines of the old battlements, passing the same spot a hundred times or so before sprinting to the top of the south tower crying its pitiable lamentations. Hunting dogs were reputed to have refused to chase it and any human hunter that dared inevitably lost sight of it amongst the brambles. Perhaps this was once said to have been a former inhabitant of the castle, recoiling in terror, as the forces of the League advanced on the castle but their memory now long since forgotten?

In the east of the region, the Beast of Béré was a creature of immense size and strength that once terrorised the lands around Châteaubriant; sometimes reported to take the form of a dog, boar, horse or even a sheep. The beast was said to trample travellers to death or to drown them in Lake Courbetière or one of the surrounding rivers. Reputed to be immortal, the creature was believed to be the tortured spirit of a young woman who died hidden in captivity as the result of an illicit affair with a monk from the nearby Priory of Saint-Sauveur.

Fantastic Beasts - landscape

In southern Brittany, the Kole Brizh (piebald bull), and the Tarv Garv (rough bull) were dangerous bulls who carried away those people who crossed their paths. A similarly malevolent bovine was noted in central Brittany under the guise of buoc’h-noz (night ox). Clearly, the need to warn against such powerful beasts had distinctly local origins now lost as the bull is usually depicted fairly in Breton lore.

Indeed, the Blue Bull, one of the most famous Breton fairy tales, features a magical old bull who nourishes and protects a young girl tormented by her wicked step-mother. He leads her safely through enchanted forests and gives his life in her defence but before dying he tells her of a castle where she should go for safety. Taking work as a goose herder, the girl is known as Wood Jacket on account of her drab clothes but one Sunday she resolves to go to church and visits the bull’s grave to ask for a pretty dress. Her request is rewarded with a garment made of the finest silk and a pair of golden slippers. The young lord of the castle, who had paid little heed to Wood Jacket, was instantly smitten by this beautiful girl in a golden silk gown. When he sees her at church on the following Sunday, he rushes to speak to her but Wood Jacket flees, losing one of her golden slippers as she does so.

Fantastic Beasts - Breton cow - Blue Bull

A white doe was said to wander the moors of Kerprigent near the north coast town of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt. The beast was described as docile but agitated, seemingly searching for something yet quick to follow those who chanced across its path. If she met a young girl and blocked her route, the girl was sure to marry within months but was destined to die within the year. If she followed an unmarried girl, it was a sign that she would never marry but if she showed herself to a married woman, it was to announce the imminent death of her husband. Marriage within the year was also assured if the doe appeared before a young man but if he was under twenty years of age her appearance foretold the death of a close relative.

Another elusive creature was the Morilhon, an animal which was said to resemble a fox that only appeared on the night of 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption, when it circled the Ménez Hom mountain in western Brittany; according to legend, fabulous wealth will fall to the one able to capture the beast. In recent years, some have argued that this beast was no more than a practical joke but it was attested in the region’s folklore in the second half of the 19th century.

Fantastic Beasts - Dahu - bugul-noz - Brittany

On the Île des Ébihens off Brittany’s north coast, a red donkey was often reported perched on the steep rocky ridges overlooking the sea. This ungodly beast was thought to be the ghost of a former owner of the island who is doomed to atone for the many scandals he inflicted upon the town of Saint-Jacut; a penance that will not end until a woman from that town makes him bleed with a stroke of her sickle. This notion of evil not resting until blood has been shed is also found in Breton werewolf superstitions  and noted as a means of destroying the power of the bugul-noz; a mostly malevolent chimeral monster of the Breton night.

A beast that lurks in the forests between Fougeray and Pierric in eastern Brittany is another accorded a most peculiar pedigree. It is said that at the end of the 17th century, a powerful baron presented the lordships of Fougeray and Roche-Giffart as a dowry for his daughter on her marriage to the Lord of Coetenfao; a man renowned for his cruel nature and whose dissolute life brought desolation to so many families. One of his most notorious crimes was the murder, near Pierric, of two young women who had spurned his advances and it was near this spot that, after his death, a previously unknown animal was sighted. Nicknamed the Beast of Pierric, this strange animal, black as night and the size of a heifer is said to constantly prowl the old pathways between Fougeray and Pierrict. No clear description has ever been given of this beast but it was said to be stronger than the largest dog and often announced by a mysterious ball of fire.

Fantastic Beasts - Millet Hunting Birds at Night

There are other local legends about strange creatures that seem to have once been people supernaturally transformed and cursed to spend the nights running as white greyhounds, red owls or white cats. One popular tradition from western Brittany talks of mysterious white-tailed beasts that roam at night, jumping on the back of any late night wanderers and forcing the unlucky traveller to carry their enormous weight.

While the crow and the magpie were popularly regarded as birds of ill omen and the owl and the sparrowhawk as birds of death, others were to be feared for the immediate danger they posed to the living. In northern Brittany, an indistinct bird known as Ar Vaou was said to kidnap small children, while in central parts of the region, a bird known as Ar Liketaer enjoyed a similarly sinister reputation but was also said to push children, particularly girls, into rivers. In some districts, this bird was confused with the kestrel whose Breton name sounds quite similar.

Fantastic Beasts - Breton children Václav Brožík - Brittany

Sometimes, local lore seems to have been moulded so as to warn children of unseen dangers, perhaps Ar Liketaer is such an example and possibly the tales surrounding the secretive two-headed viper (Naer a daou-penn) or the snake that was said to swallow its victims with a flick of its tongue. However, it is difficult to see the same connection with the horse-viper (Naer marc’h); a dragonfly that was accused of stinging as violently as a snake.

Although by no means regarded fantastic beasts, certain animals were thought to possess fantastic qualities. The hedgehog was thought to suckle cows and any cow that ate the grass upon which a hedgehog on-heat had urinated was certain to fall ill; the same was believed true of the grass visited by a female hare on-heat. Pigs were said to be condemned to death if a shrew walked on their backs, while the last glance of a weasel condemned any poor beast to death within the year.

Fantastic Beasts painting

Some peculiar beliefs once surrounded the lizard here, for it was said that while the creature was ambivalent to men, it hated women so much that it would attack them by leaping onto their faces. However, it was believed in eastern Brittany that if a woman managed to tame a lizard, she would have the power, when she wore it in her dress, to know all that had been said and done for ten leagues around and the ability to cure all diseases.

Similarly, the humble toad once enjoyed a most sinister reputation and I have yet to discover why this was so. Possibly it was because the toad was frequently associated with evil spells designed to harm livestock. To counter this, in the west of the region, one was often nailed to the stable door to ward-off evil although impaling the little creature on a pointed stick and leaving it die under the glare of the sun was quite commonplace. It was said that if one wounded a toad without killing it outright, it would return at night to suffocate its attacker in their sleep. Some even claimed that the wounded toad never forgot its enemy and could wait many years before enacting its revenge; if its target died before it had claimed its vengeance, the toad was said to throw venom upon the grave of its enemy.

Fantastic Beasts - the toad - Brittany - medieval

Belief in the toad’s innate power can be sighted in several other old superstitions. In the Breton borderlands it was once believed that if a man stared at a toad for long enough he would eventually kill it but that the opposite could well happen! The toad was thought to blind those in whose eyes it urinated and that young toads could be born in the eye where the urine had entered. Hens were said never to lay eggs in a coop that had been visited by a toad and that anyone who drank milk touched by a toad would die. Toads were also called upon in folk magic; placed under the pillow of someone suffering from smallpox, the presence of the toad prevented the patient from being scarred. They were also placed on cancers in the expectation that they would somehow suck out the offending venom.

Other unassuming creatures, such as the bat, were afforded fantastic origins. Seeking refuge from a violent windstorm, a mouse sought shelter in the old chimney breast of a ruined cottage only to find it already occupied by a swallow who had built a fine nest there. The bird allowed the mouse to stay on the condition that it would brood her eggs for the following three days; the mouse accepted the swallow’s terms and brooded her eggs while she searched for food. After three days, the mouse left and it was not long thereafter that the eggs hatched and the swallow shrieked in agony; her little ones were covered with hair instead of feathers and they possessed the head and body of a mouse, with ears and hooked wings like the Devil. The swallow died of grief and after her funeral, the Queen of the Swallows had the orphans confined in the cathedral of Tréguier and forbade them, under penalty of death, to ever leave and fly in the light of the sun.

Fantastic Beasts - Bat and Rats - Bat engraving - Brittany

One Breton legend tells of a time when cats had horns but that they bartered them for the easy gratification of a cartload of drink and fish. The merchant who made this unusual exchange placed two of their horns atop his ox and since that time, cattle have had horns but alas they never grew back on the heads of cats. A less charming belief tells that when a rooster reached seven years of age, it laid an egg during the hottest day of the year formed from the rotten excrement of its seed. When hatched, this cursed egg delivers a small serpent that grows into a basilisk; the product of the coupling of a rooster and a toad, brooded by a snake.

The behaviour of many malevolent beasts was thought able to be controlled by sorcerers; people who even possessed the power to transform into beasts themselves. For instance, those that stole the ability to make butter were said to turn into hares to escape their pursuers or could also metamorphose into a snake in order to visit the farm surreptitiously to suckle the cows and steal their milk. Animals or parts of them were frequently called upon in spells to prevent such sorcery, burying the corpse of an enchanted mole was thought particularly effective in eastern parts of the region; another humble animal to which fantastic qualities were once attached.

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