If you were looking for a guide to the best Bed and Breakfast establishments in beautiful Brittany, I am afraid to say that this is not it. Instead, today’s post offers a little look at the unique beds and breakfasts that were once commonplace throughout much of rural Brittany until around the time between the two world wars.
The main item of furniture in the rural houses and farms of Brittany was once the closed bed, known as the lit clos in French and the gwele kloz in Breton. Made from local oak or sometimes chestnut, these closed beds were, more often than not, intricately carved and well decorated; making them statement pieces and a source of pride for the householder. Often, the bed and associated storage chest would form part of the wife’s dowry upon marriage.
For all intents and purposes, the closed bed was a multi-function piece of practical furniture that combined the functions of bed, wardrobe/cupboard, storage chest and seating bench and was usually the principal item of furniture in a rural dwelling.
As you can see from the illustrations, the closed bed was essentially a small double bed on a raised platform, surrounded on all sides by wooden enclosing walls. Access to this sleeping chamber was afforded by an opening on one of the two main sides which was covered by either one or two sliding doors, a regular hinged door opening laterally or simply a pair of curtains. Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his A Summer in Brittany (1840) described it thus :
“On one side of the ample fire-place was the invariable box bedstead. This is ‘de rigueur’ in a Breton cottage. On the side of the fire-place farthest from the door there invariably stands a huge dark oaken piece of furniture, which would have the exact appearance of a clothes-press, were it not that in the side next the fire there is a square aperture, which discloses a pile of mattresses reaching nearly to the top of the machine. This is the bed of the master and mistress.
Very frequently a similar box on the opposite side, but exhibiting a less monstrous pile of bedding, is the resting-place of the maid, or of any other member of the family.
The aperture, which is left as the sole means of access to the interior of this retreat, is furnished with sliding doors, generally—as well, indeed, as the whole of the front of the bed— handsomely carved. So that the occupant may, if he so please, entirely shut himself in.
This is termed a ‘lit clos’, for which I should think ‘a close bed’ must be a very appropriate translation. Indeed it is marvellous how the owner of a handsomely furnished ‘lit clos’ can breathe in it, or even get into it at all, so great a proportion of the enclosed space is occupied by mattresses and beds, piled one on another.
… In front of this bedstead is seen, almost as invariably as itself, a large oaken chest, the same length as the bed, about twenty inches high and as much broad. This is always the seat of honour and serves also as a step to assist mine hostess in mounting to her exalted couch.”
Decoration and ornamentation were mainly reserved for the sliding panels of the bed with the main decorative features being intricate rosettes on cartwheels formed from carved wooden spindles, often in galleries. Sometimes, brass or copper nails were hammered along the edges of the panels or were arranged to form inscriptions such as the names and the date of marriage of the owners.
Some have suggested – rather fancifully – that the closed bed was born from a need to protect the occupants of the house from predatory animals such as wolves or as protection from the animals that typically shared the domestic living space; neither explanation really holds much water.
The rural dwellings of yesterday’s Brittany usually consisted of just one or two rooms, housing the entire household, and so the closed bed allowed a little privacy and helped keep the occupants warm during the colder months. The beds were either arranged in a row against the side walls near the open hearth or immediately against the wall of the back of the fireplace; this room (where it existed) was known as ‘the room at the end’ and was thus completely separate from the cows and chickens that usually shared the room containing the main fireplace.
The bed was raised in order to avoid the unhealthy dampness of the compacted earth or clay floor which was then common; a linen storage chest of the same length served not only as a bench but also as a step to access the top tier bed. Typically, the beds measured as wide as 1.7m (about five foot, seven inches) inside; a tight fit even allowing for the size of the Bretons of yesteryear! The beds could be on two levels; if this was the case, the children or young people slept on the upper tier.
Pierre-Jakez Hélias recounts, in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars, (The Horse of Pride, 1975), that he himself was born in a closed bed in 1914 and that those who possessed such a bed took a great deal of pride from them:
“That box-bed was .. a double-decker crate in which my father and his brothers – all four of them – had slept until they left home. But during family reunions I myself had slept in it with three others. ..The enormous crate would creak all over every time anyone turned in it. You’d also hear the straw crackling and the bales of oats rustling. ..One time the two uncles on top deliberately rammed their backs against the straw mattresses, threatening to make the whole top collapse onto the two occupants below (one of whom happened to be me), who in turn banged their fists up against the boards to make them keep still. I was a bit frightened when it creaked too much but the crate was strong, so on we’d go!”
The importance of the bed was not dimmed by the death of its owner, Hélias notes that, after a death : “The bed was fixed-up for the lying in state. If it was a box-bed, sheets and cloths were hung on the inside of the enclosures, or if not, on the walls around it. It had become what we call a ‘white chapel’.”
The closed beds of Brittany fell out of use gradually but were effectively abandoned in the years between the two world wars of the last century. You do not need to visit any of the local museums to see examples of this furniture in Brittany as you will regularly see them for sale in brocantes (second hand shops that usually also sell an assortment of antiques) for about a hundred Euro. Some are still set-up as intended but many have long-since been converted into bookcases or A/V units.
So much for the bed, what of breakfast? Traditional Breton cooking was, and remains, simple and wholesome and most rural dwellers began their day with either a wheat gruel or a humble pancake cooked on a hot plate or skillet over the cottage’s open fire. Typically, these would be cooked in batches once a week rather than each day. Usually made with buckwheat flour, known as sarassin in French, these thick pancakes known as crêpes or galettes (depending on which part of Brittany you were from) were either eaten with butter or stuffed with cooked eggs, or slices of pork sausage or sometimes just some baked apples.
Contrary to what the name implies, buckwheat is not part of the wheat family but of the sorrel family; flowering plants cultivated in Brittany since the 12th century, producing seeds rich in proteins and minerals. Nowadays, the designation crêpe is often applied to sweet-filled pancakes made with white flour while galette is applied to heavier, buckwheat-made savoury filled pancakes. In times past, the distinction was also noted that the former were made with milk and butter, while the latter were made using only water.
Although a feature seemingly born in medieval Brittany, the closed bed was also found in parts of western Great Britain particularly Wales and similar bed furniture is known in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. As for the breakfast pancake; crêpes have long since moved from the rustic Breton kitchen, becoming a staple and tasty fixture across France and indeed, the world!