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The Wolf in Brittany

There is currently some speculation that wolves are once again roaming wild in parts of rural Brittany. After an absence of over a century, their presence is now being greeted with a measure of acclaim but it was not always so. For centuries, the wolf was regarded as a figure of dread throughout the land and there are countless accounts of wolves destroying livestock and attacking horses, dogs and people.

In the 17th and 18th centuries it was often reported that wolves hunted men into the towns and villages of central Brittany, keeping the inhabitants virtual prisoners at night. The menace posed by wolves is frequently mentioned in the government records of the time; in 1796 the Commission of the Executive Directory noted that in southern Brittany: “The countryside is infected with ferocious ravenous animals. They already appear in bands of fifteen to twenty wolves. What will this winter be like during the snow?”

Similar concerns were raised in central Brittany where, in 1807, the prefect of the Department reported of “the presentation by the mayor of Rostrenen where wolves frequently show up in large packs in the vicinity of the town, threatening cattle and even the people.”

wolf medieval - Brittany - folklore

Wolves were regarded as a dangerous menace to everyday life and official bounties were offered to those who killed a wolf; this had been the case since a capitulary of Charlemagne in 813 ordered the creation of official wolf hunters who were charged with eradicating wolves and rewarded with a modus of grain for each wolf pelt submitted. By the late 15th century the French Court included a position known as the Wolfcatcher Royal and in 1520 François I revisited and formalised the old Charlemagnian bounty system but it would still be almost a generation before the laws of a French king held sway in independent Brittany.

In 1676, Louis XIII offered two denarii for each wolf and the records of these bounty payments provide a useful insight into the presence of wolves in Brittany at that time; for instance, in 1685, some 42 bounties were distributed in the town of Quimperlé alone.  Abuses to the bounty system saw its abandonment in 1787 only for it be resurrected after the Revolution; in 1790 twelve new francs was set as the new bounty and in 1794 free powder and shot were also added as an incentive.

However, the scarcity of firearms at the time meant that take-up was very small, prompting the authorities to exhort to the regional prefects: “There are a thousand ways to capture wolves in the traps that are set for them; research these means, publish them, so that your fellow citizens’ profit and the territory will be purged.

Wolf devouring a man - woodcut - Brittany - werewolf

Some well-documented wolf attacks in western and central Brittany around this time include: in September 1773, near Rosporden, a wolf devoured two children and several head of cattle; in the same year, thirteen people in the village of Saint-Caradec were bitten by a rabid wolf. Twelve died, the thirteenth survived thanks to the bite not penetrating her heavy canvas clothes.

In 1777, wolves were reported ravaging charcoal-makers in the woods of Plounéour-Ménez; in Châteaulin in 1797 a wolf attacked three young men, opening the skull of one and permanently disfiguring another. Thankfully, the other man was able to hold the beast until the arrival of a fourth man armed with an axe. Near Bannalec in the same year, an eight year old cowherd was viciously attacked and maimed. At Huelgoat, in January 1811, a wolf attacked a labourer; a fierce struggle ensued in which the man was only saved thanks to his sickle and the energy of his brother.

Later the same month and just a few miles away, a young shepherdess had her face lacerated by a wolf who attacked her after killing one of her sheep.

18th century wolf attack - Brittany - werewolf

At the time, many people believed that a rabid wolf only attacked livestock but records show that this was not the case. In 1715 a rabid wolf wreaked havoc around Concoret, biting over twenty five people, several of whom died. In 1849, a fourteen year old boy from Châteaulin was attacked by a rabid wolf whose bite had already resulted in the deaths of two neighbours; fortunately he subdued the animal with an axe. A few years later, in 1851, hunters managed to capture and kill a wolf thought to have been responsible for up to forty attacks in the woods around Quintin.

In 1872 in Plouguerneau, four cows were attacked by a rabid wolf, one of whom was almost completely devoured. When rabid wolves bit people it was popularly thought that they had only done so under the spell of a sorcerer.

In 1811, the bounty was increased to 18 francs, payable upon presentation of the carcass or simply the head to the local Mayor; some forty years later the bounty increased to 30 francs for a male and 50 francs for a female. It was then still common practice for a dead wolf to be paraded around the streets on a cart or wheelbarrow before being hung from a suitable oak tree near a forest away from town.

Wolf hung from a tree - Brittany - werewolf

At times, the carcass of a wolf was depredated; paws were popularly nailed to doors as charms to keep the wolf at bay and teeth carried for good fortune. Other parts of the carcass were also of value. In 1702, a man from Concoret was condemned as a sorcerer and sentenced to public humiliation for having cast the spell of ‘knotting the needle’. This curse was widely held to prevent the consummation of a marriage and required the penis of a freshly killed young wolf. For the spell to work it was necessary to call out the name of the intended victim and once acknowledged, a tight knot of white twine was tied around the wolf’s member, leaving the new groom unable to perform.

By the late 19th century packs of seven or nine wolves were rare; groups of two to five being most commonly reported but the wolf menace was still keenly felt. The Welsh clergyman Edward Davies, in his account Wolf Hunting and Wild Sport in Lower Brittany (1875), noted: “It is only during a long-continued season of snow that the wolf, pinched by hunger, hardens his heart and becomes at once both a daring and destructive brute. At such a time it has been found necessary to light fires nightly at all the road entrances into Carhaix, Callac, Gourin, Rostrenen and other small towns in that vicinity, in order to save the cattle and even the dogs from the rapacity of the hungry wolves.”

wolf attack - brittany - folklore

In the year 1879, almost a third of the 555 wolves reported killed in France were slain in Brittany where local priests often blessed the pitchforks and guns of those setting out to kill wolves. While the popular perception might be of images of intrepid hunters armed with simple slow-loading firearms stalking the countryside, the more popular means of capturing wolves was by a covered pit trap and poisoned bait. However, from around 1880, the systematic use of strychnine in those areas known to be home to wolf dens precipitated a sharp decline in wolf numbers leading to its effective disappearance within a decade or so. Changes to the animals’ natural habitat such as deforestation and the construction of more and more roads helped seal the wolf’s fate in Brittany.

The last wolf bounty here was awarded in March 1891 to three hunters from the town of Milizac but it seems that the last wolf killed in Brittany was captured and destroyed around Ménez Hom in January 1903.  However, a hanged man was allegedly devoured by wolves near Plouay in 1905 and a three-legged wolf was sighted near Brasparts in 1906 while other sightings were reported near Molac and the forest of Loudeac in the years leading up to the First World War.


Although wolf attacks were far from commonplace (just 81 deaths recorded from wolf attacks in Brittany since 1600), the threat to life and livelihood was very real for the rural farmer surviving on subsistence agriculture. Children, who were usually used as cowherds and shepherds, were unable to offer any useful defence against a determined wolf thus many cattle were lost; an expensive asset for a Breton farmer.

To keep the cattle or sheep secure in the summer months, it was therefore necessary for the men to sleep outside or to look after the cattle themselves thus diverting much needed labour away from the crucial seasonal tasks. However, the loss of a horse was often the farmers’ greatest worry and there are several pitiful accounts of people forced to become townsmen due to the loss of a horse. In 1796, authorities in the town of Retiers were asked to provide “a few pounds of powder and lead … to continue hunting these destructive animals which, in one year, destroyed in a single neighbouring commune over forty foals.”

17th century wolf woodcut - Brittany - werewolf

Given the real dangers to rural lives and livelihoods posed by wolves it is not surprising that this animal occupied a unique place in people’s imagination. For centuries, the wolf was the anti-hero or villain of countless folktales and legends which were 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.

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

60 thoughts on “The Wolf in Brittany

    1. Agreed. I suppose it’s a wonder that they managed to survive in huge swathes of Europe for so long. There’s a wolf sanctuary a few miles away and they seem quite shy animals but then again I’m sure they aren’t hungry 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It is a compelling account. India had similar stories of tigers. We had the largest population of tigers in the world, but due to rampant killings, by the 20th century, the lion had become an endangered animal.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Incredible post. So well researched and easy to follow and the images add to the overall charm.
    It would look great in a book.

    Feeling sorry for the wolfs, though. In Romania the brown bear is mostly feared. Just like the wolf, looking only to survive.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. You’re quite welcome 🙂 I’m not sure the Wendigo is really known outside of North America, although if you watch the show Supernatural, I think it comes up a couple of times. The similarities to some of what you wrote about werewolves struck me.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow 🤩 I love this I find the folk and legends have some element of truth to the
    Within welsh history female Druids were accused and said to be of witch craft and also sorcerers too but in the main not targeted as much within the as druids were both female and male. males tending to males and females tending to females they were the leaders of the community who acted as lawyers/mediators/doctors able to cure ailments of the mind and also the body further Brittany was part of the Celtic nation too and the yellow cross and black flag (st David’s flag) this truely resonated with me and still does thank you 😊

    Liked by 1 person

      1. What fb I was trying to say rather badly is we have similar legends here in Wales 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿 also so thank you 😊

        Liked by 1 person

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