In ancient times, the sources of that most important of elements – water – were widely venerated by peoples across the world, including the Celts of antiquity. To what extent the ancient Celts actively worshiped streams, fountains and springs is a matter of some conjecture but early writings and modern archaeological discoveries of votive offerings in and around such sources indicate that these were indeed places of significance for the Celts.
We know very little of the religious beliefs of the Celts but the evangelising saints of the 6th and 7th centuries found a pagan, mainly polytheistic society with an established water cult involving sacred springs and wells, each possessing its deity or nymph. These early Christian evangelists seem to have tolerated some of the native convictions and were careful not to abrogate all the ancient beliefs of Brittany immediately.
The importunate foreign priests recognised that establishing the Christian faith necessarily needed to precede teaching Christian doctrine and, over time, cleverly subsumed the natives’ traditional religious sentiment towards springs and fountains, attributing to them protective Christian saints. Often these saints were assigned the powers of the ancient deities who inhabited those sacred water sources that were traditionally held to hold curative powers. A Christian statue or symbol added to the rude structures that collected the water would emphasise that the power of the waters was due solely to the grace of God. The ancient deities were recast by the new religion as maleficent creatures and eventually reduced to the realm of stories and superstition.
The belief in the power of the water from springs and fountains remained so strong that in 743 the Council of Leptines ordered all bishops to see to the complete abolition of pagan beliefs, explicitly highlighting the oblations made to fountains; a charge reinforced by a capitulary of Charlemagne promulgated in 789.
Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die completely. Jesuit missions to Brittany in the first half of the 17th century were pained by the extent that distortions of the faith and primitive superstitions held sway; prayers were addressed to the moon and sacred springs considered the sources of healing. A contemporary of the Jesuit evangelist St Julian described faith in Brittany at that time as being “as in the primitive age of the Church.” It must have seemed as if Christianity had adapted itself to a pagan mentality and strenuous efforts were therefore made to revive a purer Christian faith and mould a suitable Christian lifestyle in tune with the realities of rural life.
It was around this time that small structures were built or re-built over the basins where water appeared. These edifices are quite charming and often took the form of a stone porch, some took on the air of small open chapels with carved decorations and a niche to hold a statue of the patron saint. Sometimes an oratory or a chapel was built nearby.
There is some uniformity in the architectural characteristics of those structures erected in the 17th and 18th centuries. In rural districts, it was common for the fountain to be reached by one or more sets of descending stairs. A large stone basin received the water, usually directly from the spring but occasionally via a spout. This basin was covered by a small porch with, at times, moulded arches and sculptured figures and escutcheons. This kind of fountain is frequently seen decorated with figures of the Virgin Mary or of saints and sometimes with the coat of arms of the local nobility. Very often, the water itself provided the only ornament of the structure. A large number of these fountains are to be found in Brittany and indeed throughout most of France.
A form more common in the towns was that of a large open basin with a column at the centre, from the lower part of which were arranged channels or spouts that would flow into other basins. The columns took various forms, from that of a simple geometrical block, with plain or grotesque water spouts, to very ornate Gothic structures with elaborate carvings and religious statuary.
Many sacred fountains have long been ascribed miraculous powers that can be broadly categorised into three main groups which sometimes overlap.
Firstly, the healing fountains where it was necessary to either drink the waters or to splash or rub the water over the body. While waters from all sacred fountains were regarded as possessing therapeutic or curative properties, many fountains were believed to hold qualities that tackled very specific ailments. For instance, Saint-Fiacre’s Fountain in Le Faouët was considered to heal leprosy and skin diseases, Saint-Mériadec’s Fountain in Pontivy to cure deafness, Sainte-Anne’s Fountain in Plonévez-Porzay cured rheumatism.
Pierre-Jakez Hélias, in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars (The Horse of Pride, 1975), notes that the fountain at Treguennec was considered to cure leg problems such as limps and recalls that “On the day of the Pardon, around 1925, I saw groups of mothers waiting their turn to splash the sacred water over their babies from waist to toe. Still in 1969, some grandmothers rubbed their little children with this water. The last grandmothers who perhaps held the old beliefs and nourished a little of the old hope.”
At Notre-Dame de la Clarté in Combrit, a cloth soaked in the water of the fountain served to heal eye ailments The fountain of Saint-Bieuzy in Pluméliau-Bieuzy cured headaches (the saint died from an axe wound to the head) and toothaches but only if the fountain was circled three times with one’s mouth full of the sacred water. Rheumatism could also be cured at the Fountain of Saint-Guyomard but it was necessary to rub your body against the great stones nearby immediately after drinking the water. The Fountain of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Fontaine-Blanche in Plougastel-Daoulas cured rickets if the child was immersed in the water three times.
In addition, therapeutic virtues were given to several fountains for healing abscesses, coughs, colic, stomach aches and, at the Fountain of Saint-Colomban at Locminé, even madness. Sainte-Anne’s Fountain in Plonévez-Porzay also remedied madness and warded off evil and others were held to cure haemorrhoids and to ease PMT.
Fountains possessing multiple benefits were not unusual. At the 17th century Fountain of the Seven Saints in Bulat-Pestivien the spring water falls into seven basins, each dedicated to one of the founding saints of Brittany and each with its own distinct beneficial quality. Nearby, the 16th century Fountain of the Rooster (named after a once-present carving) is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and had universal therapeutic properties but it was also said that, after performing the right ablutions, one could read their destiny in the water. Within the parish close is the 18th century Fountain of the Virgin whose waters were prized by expectant mothers and mothers who had difficulties expressing milk.
The 16th century Fountain of Saint-Gilles in Saint Gilles Pligeaux is actually two fountains, fed from the same source, dedicated to three saints; one structure has niches dedicated to Saint-Gilles and Saint-Loup and the other to Saint-Laurent. While the waters were widely regarded for their restorative qualities for rheumatics and epileptics, the saints individually were accorded special powers; St Gilles for protecting children, St Loup to dispel fear and St Laurent for curing burns.
There were also divining fountains, the most well-known being the Fountain of Barenton in the heart of the forest of Brocéliande, famous for its association with Merlin and Viviane, which was said to possess a particular characteristic; whoever drew water from it and sprinkled the stones therewith, produced a terrific thunderstorm accompanied by thick darkness.
At Saint-Laurent’s Fountain in Ploemel, seafarers and their families would throw pieces of bread upon the water; if they floated, it was taken as a sign of good weather ahead. At other oracular fountains, pins were considered effective mediums: if they floated, one’s wishes were granted. In other fountains, a shirt was dropped into the water: if it floated, the ills of the owner would be lifted. Saint-Diboan’s Fountain in Gourin was thought to foretell the fate of a sick person. For this, it was necessary to empty the fountain and allow it to refill. If the new water gushed gently, the patient would heal but would fatally succumb to their illness if the water level refilled in a convulsive fashion.
Saint Eloi’s Fountain in Plozevet seems to have had two divining rites associated with it. The shirt of a sick person was dropped into the basin; if the collar of the sodden garment remained floating, then the person would recover. Additionally, the shirt of a newborn was cast onto the water; if the collar sank first, it was a sign that the baby would not live long.
If a person was anxious (having not been cured of anxiety at Sainte-Barbe’s Fountain in Gouesnac’h) to know how much longer they were to live, they had only to look into the water of the Fountain of Death at Plouigneau at midnight on the first night of May. If an image of a skull was reflected instead of a face, they knew that death was near. There was another ‘fountain of death’ just five miles away in Plouégat-Guérand.
May Day was also the day to visit these fountains of divination with an infant under one year of age; their feet were immersed in the water, if the child removed their feet it was seen as a sign that they would suffer an early death.
Fountains of protection and good fortune were numerous, widespread and popularly frequented but perhaps most keenly by those seeking marriage or children. The power of many fountains was held to work best if pins, or occasionally coins, were dropped into them and they were often thrown into the water to attract the saint’s favour but it was not unheard of for disgruntled visitors to turn the saint’s statue in his niche if favour had been denied them. Pins also had other functions at some sites, for instance in Ploumanac’h, the 12th century Oratory of Saint Guirec is only accessible at low tide but if an intrepid and unmarried girl manages to put a pin into the statue’s nose without it falling out, she would be married within the year.
Probably the most impressive fountain related to those desiring a marriage is the Fountain of Quinipily. This monumental structure is topped by a nine foot stone pedestal on which stands a seven foot high statue of Venus believed to date from 50BC. It possesses a massive water basin hewn from a single block of granite and originally also featured a basin of about 325sq feet where women bathed naked in the hope of securing a marriage. Childless couples also bathed together in the hope that they might be favoured with a child. To be sure of delivering a healthy baby, pregnant women would circle the fountain three times while touching their stomach, bathing in the basin after childbirth. The strong pagan undertones of these rites saw the statue broken down twice by the Church in the 17th century. It was retrieved on both occasions and re-sited on private land some miles away in 1701.
Given the crucial importance of agriculture to the region, it should come as no surprise that there are many fountains that were said to protect the health of animals. The waters of Saint-Anthony’s Fountain in Tressignaux fortified the health of pigs, while those of the Saint Eloi fountain near Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem were held to provide good health to horses, whose ears were doused in its waters. Nearby, the 18th century Fountain of Saint-Gildas in Laniscat preserved the health of cats and dogs, the fountain contains three stone basins; the dog fountain, the cat fountain and that of St Gildas.
The elaborate gothic fountain in Saint-Nicolas-des-Eaux is dedicated to three saints; Nicodème, Gamaliel & Abibon with the Fountain of Saint-Cornely just a stone’s throw away. The water from St Nicodème’s basin guarded against skin diseases but was also considered especially auspicious for protecting the health of horses while the waters from St Abibon’s basin were taken for protection against bad luck and death. Unfortunately, the qualities once attributed to St Gamaliel’s basin have been lost to us but the water from St Corneli’s fountain (built in 1790, almost 200 years after the monumental triple fountain) was given to cows to protect them against disease.
Horses are still blessed in the waters flowing from the Fountain of Notre-Dame de L’Isle in Goudelin during the Pardon but since the First World War such horse blessings have become rather tamer affairs compared to the spectacle recounted by Jean-Baptiste Ogée in his Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Brittany (1778):
“Near Plérin is a chapel dedicated to Saint Eloi, whose feast is celebrated in June. The peasants of the surroundings made this saint the patron saint of horses. Every year, on the feast day, the inhabitants of the parishes of ten places around come there on pilgrimage. After their prayers made in the chapel, they go to the fountain which is near, draw water from it with a bowl and throw it in the matrix and on the ears of their mare, and water the testicles of their horse in the persuasion that this water has prolific virtues. This opinion is so engraved in the minds of these good people that it would be impossible to uproot it“.
As illustrated earlier, drinking the water was sometimes not enough; rituals were often required for some healing waters to be effective. The Fountain Notre-Dame des Trois Fountaines in Briec was said to cure problems with breast-feeding; after drinking the water it was necessary to wash one’s breasts in it and empty the basin. As the basin refilled from the spring, the breasts would fill with milk. In Baud, to cure colic, the sick were expected to rub their torso with stones and only then drink the water of the fountain. The water of the Fountain of Notre-Dame du Niver in Edern was thought to enhance a woman’s fertility if she offered three pins to the water before sprinkling it over her stomach and breasts.
Distinguishing a holy fountain from a profane one or a healing fountain from a divining one is only possible through an understanding of the historical foundations of a fountain, its function over time and the traditions surrounding the distinctive qualities of the water and any special rites performed there. The quality of the architecture and the presence or absence of a saint can be misleading determining elements; sometimes the traditional performance of a rite alone can qualify a fountain as special.
To date, there is no definitive list for the numbers of extant sacred or special fountains in Brittany but over 1,500 have been noted by the anthropologist Sylvette Denèflein in the territories of Léon and Cornouaille (roughly the department of Finistère) alone. We can only wonder how many existed just a few centuries ago when the sacred fountain was at the heart of life in Brittany. Unfortunately, thousands of fountains were filled in the 19th and 20th centuries; razed and buried during a period that saw widespread development, land consolidation and a levelling of the landscape. Changes that forever distorted the ancient places; the traditions and practices once so rooted there, slowly sank into oblivion for want of being transmitted and are now lost to us.