As with most other rural communities, considerable importance was once attached to milk in Brittany; it played a vital role in the people’s diet and livelihood. It is therefore not surprising to find a number of once popular superstitions and beliefs surrounding it; including special practices to preserve one’s cows from the evil spells thrown at them by jealous neighbours.
For centuries, it was commonly believed that milk production could be influenced, for good and especially for ill, by acts performed outside the cowshed. In Brittany, a silver coin held in the hand or hidden in the stable insured good luck for the dairy. Similarly, certain plants and herbs were thought to have an influence on the production of milk: to ensure one’s cow gave as much milk as those of your neighbours, it was thought beneficial to place in the byre, every day, an amulet of ground herbs picked on the night of Midsummer, reciting a short prayer while the Nones bell was ringing.
To preserve the health of milk cows, their hooves were rubbed with a paste of ground herbs gathered before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day and in the southern Breton Marches, cows’ udders were rubbed with the early morning dew on May Day in hopes of the same result. In order for the cow to deliver ample milk without difficulty, it was often made to drink the first milk or colostrum after it had calved. Many farmers also put their faith in religion and regularly made offerings of butter at one of the many churches dedicated to the protector of cows, Saint Herbot, invoking the saint’s favour for full churns. Likewise, butter was offered to Saint Hervé to keep cattle safe from wolves; the saint, stricken with blindness, was once led about by a wolf.
If a cow’s milk dried-up unexpectedly or for no apparent reason, it was not long before the farmer suspected the influence of witchcraft; causing the udders of asses and cows to dry-up was one of the misdeeds often attributed to witches from at least the 17th century onwards. An amulet containing certain dried herbs, placed inside the chimney-breast of the barn was thought to bring-on the drying of cows’ udders. However, it was also believed that the same circumstances could also be produced if the cows chanced to be milked over their litter or if they were put in a blessed house.
A sympathetic bond between the cow and its milk was thought to exist even after the milk had left its body. It was believed that certain people possessed the ability to cast the evil eye, causing cows to lose milk simply by looking at them in a certain way; enchantments that could only be lifted by the intervention of a witch or sorcerer.
It was thought that the best milk was vulnerable to thieves able to draw the cream of others to their barn; before sunrise on May Day it was said that one’s enemy needed to attach a string to the filter of their milk churn and drag it in the direction from which they wanted the cream to come while reciting the charm: “Milk and butter, come all to me and nothing to my neighbours.”
To dispel this enchantment and chastise the one who cast it, the owner of the bewitched cow was required to boil a few pins in the animal’s milk; these were then thought to wound the one who cast the spell who, to alleviate the pain, hastened to lift the curse. In the north west of the region, another way to lift such a curse was to stick several pins into the heart of an ox which was then put into an iron pot hung over the flames of the farmhouse fire; the spell caster was now believed to feel compelled to present themselves to the accursed party.
Around Quintin in central Brittany, it was said that milkmaids ran naked at night, filling their churns with dew collected in their neighbour’s fields in order to steal the cream. Similar nocturnal naked expeditions were also reputed to have been undertaken by milkmaids in eastern Brittany. It was said that they stole milk by walking naked around the stables of the neighbouring farms, dragging behind them the rags used to clean the oven. This was thought to draw the cream from the milk of all the cows included within this circuit and pass it instead into their stable, so that even with just one cow, they would produce butter in abundance. This good fortune was held to last until another person, more powerful in the dark arts, again diverted the cream.
In western Brittany, it was thought that such an enchantment could be broken if the affected cow was walked around a three sided field. Indeed, one was believed to be able to turn the tables on the spell caster if, while walking the cow, one threw salt over their shoulder, chanting: “Cream for me and milk for my neighbour.” Salt as a preservative against drying-up also featured in the traditional beliefs of neighbouring Normandy, where, to counteract any possible bewitchment that had been cast on a new cow, molten salt was rubbed on the udder and around the base of its tail.
A more elaborate ritual for lifting this type of curse involved cutting some hairs from the cow’s head, the withers and its tail, soaking them in the animal’s water trough before sunrise on each day of Holy Week before wearing them to mass on Easter Day.
In southern Brittany, May Day was believed to be the day when cows were particularly susceptible to the power of sorcerers and their evil spells. In order to protect them against such misfortune, an elaborate ritual was performed; the cattle were taken from the byre which was then cleaned thoroughly. The leaves of a number of plants, namely bay, bramble, elderberry and laurel, collected that morning, were then burned with scraps of old leather in all the corners of the building. Branches of elderberry were hung from the walls inside the barn and a bramble, with a root at each of its ends, fastened in the form of an arc above the barn door. This ritual complete, the cows were then returned to the barn, being led backwards through the doorway by the farmer.
The belief that sorcerers could steal milk by diverting its output is quite ancient and was specifically condemned by the Council of Paris in 829: “Among the very pernicious evils of pagan origin and which divine law orders to fight, it is necessary to announce the action of magicians, diviners, enchanters and interpreters of dreams. It is reported that, by their evil spells, they can disturb the air and send hail, predict the future, take away from some the fruit and milk and give it to others.”
In addition to its beneficial qualities, milk was said to possess other virtues in yesterday’s Brittany as it was thought effective against all deadly fires. It was also said to influence the physical abilities of infants and even adults. It was claimed in eastern parts of the region that children raised on goat’s milk were particularly nimble and jumped in the manner of the beast that fed them. In times past, this belief was quite common; the 16th century French physician Laurent Joubert wrote of a girl who, for this reason, always wanted to climb and jump and that those adults, who drank too much goat’s milk, became so restless that they only danced, jumped and ran.
A number of ill omens were once connected with milk here; it was considered that misfortune would befall the person who happened to drop a pail of milk. Another sign of impending bad luck was received when milk that had been put on the fire did not come to the boil quickly and it was also a bad omen if the milk boiled over. It was also said that giving away milk on May Day was to invite misfortune upon the household. However, milk was reputed to be the only thing that could break the terrible power of La Main de la Gloire or the Hand of Glory.
Some animals were thought to cast a sinister shadow over the health of cows and their milk. It was once believed that a cow bitten by a snake would give bloody milk; a notion that was refined in the south of the region where it was said that milk that was tinged red indicated that the cow had been suckled by a snake. Pouring the cow’s milk into an anthill was thought the only way to effectively destroy the offending ophidian.
Hedgehogs were also claimed to suckle the milk of cows and thus steal their milk and, in doing so, they caused the fatal cattle disease known as blackleg. It was also thought that those cows who ate the grass upon which a female hedgehog on-heat had previously walked fell ill. In eastern Brittany, a pregnant cow that ate the grass on which a hedgehog had walked was said to be cursed to calve painfully.
If a farmer with only one cow often succeeded in getting her to give him more butter than some neighbours could get from two or three cows, neighbourhood gossips lost little time in attributing such results to a pact with the Devil. However, in some instances, it might have been more proper to assign the honour to Saint Herbot, a semi-legendary 6th century Breton saint who was popularly invoked in order for cows to produce milk and for butter to take. Protector of horses and horned animals, cows’ tails were regularly hung by the altars of churches dedicated to him into the 20th century. The Saint was usually invoked in the following terms: “Blessed Saint Herbot, from the depth of my heart I beg you to pour out your blessing on the milk that I take, so that the cream rises abundantly to satisfy my masters and next year, if I live, I promise you a calf.”
Wearing a silver ring while churning was reputed to cause the butter to take quickly and to successfully churn when it was cold, it was once recommended to place a silver coin at the bottom of the churn. In some parts of Brittany, it was traditional to turn the crank of a butter churn in only one direction, that of the sun. A more widespread belief held that it brought bad luck to lend a churn to a neighbour as it was thought to reduce your fortune in making butter thereafter.
Like milk, butter was also the target of sorcerers and evil spells; it was believed that people could prevent it from taking by striking the churn three times with a stick and reciting, backwards, a verse from Psalm 31: “My times are in thy hand: deliver me from the hand of mine enemies and from them that persecute me”, or by reciting a verse from the Gospel of Matthew known as nolite fieri: “And when you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say, they have received their reward.”
Mendicants and tinkers who chanced to call at the farm when the butter was being churned were almost always guaranteed to receive some consideration from the household, if only out of fear that, if rejected, they would cast the evil eye over the butter. The sighting of a hare while churning was a cause for alarm as it was believed that butter stealing sorcerers had the ability to turn into hares to escape their potential pursuers. In western Brittany, the milkmaid whose butter was slow to take, averted the possible machinations of the sorcerer by changing her churn immediately.
Several unusual superstitions were once closely attached to dairy products here; for instance, it was considered especially bad luck to bring foxgloves into a room where yogurt was being made. In parts of eastern Brittany it was thought a menstruating woman could not make butter and it was more widely claimed that those with red hair made bad butter. Similarly, it was once believed that the cheese made by an adulterer did not keep and was quickly invaded by worms.
Many once claimed that the best butter was formed if it was churned during the time of the turning of the tides. According to the time when it was made, butter enjoyed several special attributes; in the west of the region, it was believed that the butter made during Rogations (the three days of prayer preceding the Feast of the Ascension) never corrupted and constituted a most effective balm for healing wounds. Similar attributes were applied to butter made in May which was also used to treat the injured hooves of cows and goats.
A number of superstitious beliefs also surrounded eggs here in Brittany where it was once common for those who kept chickens to place a piece of iron, such as a horseshoe, inside the henhouse in order to protect the brood from the disastrous effects of storms and lightning. It was also believed that foxes would never enter a henhouse that had been sprinkled with the water in which chitterlings (pig intestines) had been boiled. However, the ermine was thought so bold that it was said to enter the coop while the hen was laying and slip under her, ready to swallow her eggs. Another enemy of the chicken was the toad whose presence in the henhouse signalled that no hens would lay there anymore.
One of the biggest concerns of the Breton farmer revolved around choosing the most favourable moment for setting the hen on the eggs. This was thought important to ensure maximum success; factors such as the day of the week were said to influence the number of chicks born or cause the hatching of more males than females. It was said that a hen must never be put to set during a waning moon or when the wind was in the east. Fridays were to be avoided as the day would deliver mostly male chicks and misfortune was said to follow if a hen was set on a Sunday. Nor was a hen put to set on an even number of eggs, it was usually an odd number and most commonly a multiple of three.
It was popularly held here that eggs ought only be gathered in the morning and it was considered unlucky to gather eggs after sunset and at any time on a Sunday. Duck eggs brought into the house after dark were said never to hatch. Similarly, eggs brought into the house having been carried over running water were said not to hatch. In some parts of Brittany, even crossing a dry water course was held to bring on similar bad luck. To protect against such misfortune, it was necessary for the person who owned the eggs to crumble some morsels of bread over the eggs and the basket being used to transport them. Additionally, the basket containing the eggs which had passed over water was not to be placed on a table, chair or any other item of furniture; it could only be placed directly on the floor. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind these last two practices has long been lost to the mists of time.
Breaking a newly laid egg whilst collecting it from the roost was regarded as an omen of some misfortune ahead but breaking egg shells over a child was thought to bring on good luck and to protect them against witchcraft. The eggs laid on Good Friday were said to bring good luck to the household and were carefully kept as talismans to guard the house against fire. Easter was also a period when many people traditionally abstained from eating eggs throughout Holy Week only to eat a dozen on Easter Day; an observance that was held to be most effective in ensuring the fertility of one’s animals.
The small eggs that were sometimes found in chicken roosts were once attributed a most sinister reputation; a widely held belief said that these were eggs that had been laid by roosters. It was said 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. If hatched, this cursed egg would deliver a small serpent that grew into a basilisk; the product of the coupling of a rooster and a toad, brooded by a snake. To avoid unleashing a basilisk on the land, the rooster was therefore routinely killed before it had reached the age of seven.