For centuries, marriage, whether motivated by romantic idealism or social necessity, was a key concern for rural societies across Europe. In Brittany, where traditionally an early wedding was expected and the unmarried viewed with suspicion, a number of unusual customs and superstitions once surrounded marriage and the quest for a worthy spouse.
Across Brittany, many sacred springs and fountains were widely believed to have possessed divinatory powers and it seems that pins were considered the most effective medium for consulting these oracles. Different pins were used at different fountains; mostly silver hairpins were used but sometimes the ritual required a wooden pin or one taken from the bodice of the dress. The most auspicious pin to use was widely held to be one of the pins used for a bridal crown or wedding dress and such pins were highly prized by those wishing to get married.
The omens drawn from the behaviour of the pins cast into the water also differed according to the site. Whether a pin simply floated or sank was often not enough to draw meaning; in some locations it was important that the pin sank without making a whirling motion or that it turned on itself before hitting the bottom of the fountain.
With many thousands of sacred springs scattered across the Breton countryside, deciding on which source to consult was no trivial matter; something as important as a happy marriage could not be left to mere chance. Unmarried women therefore routinely visited the local witch in hope of securing her recommendation as to the right fountain to be consulted. This was typically done by a ritual known as ‘the pull of the saints’; the bent branch of a hazel tree was burnt over a container of water while the names of propitious saints were recited. The name pronounced at the moment the first piece of charcoaled residue fell into the water, signalled the saint’s fountain to be visited.
In Brittany, the 3rd century Christian martyr Laurent or Lawrence, who was said to have been roasted alive, was popularly invoked for burns, shingles and difficulties in walking. However, many fountains dedicated to him were also ascribed miraculous powers of prophecy. Near Pleyben, on the day of the Pardon of Saint Laurent (10 August), young women would visit the saint’s fountain in an attempt to float a pin on the water in hopes of being married within the year; a ritual that was also popularly observed there on May Day. Similar rituals were undertaken at the Saint Laurent chapel in Yffiniac and at the fountain of Saint Laurent, just north of Plémy.
The Saint Laurent fountain at Stivell features a spring encased by a circular stone basin, reminiscent of a well, from which the water is channelled through a culvert for about six metres before emerging at a spout carved into a granite wall from which it cascades two meters down into a stone basin. This basin fed a large stone pool that accommodated bathers while stones, sealed into the wall, allowed pilgrims to be seated while making their ablutions.
On the night before the saint’s Pardon, it was traditional for the devout to circle the 15th century chapel on their knees before enjoying the evening festivities; boisterous drinking, energetic dancing and bouts of bloody wrestling by the light of consecrated candles being the norm. After sunset, the men bathed naked in the pool; the waters were believed to strengthen the body. At sunrise, the women took their turn to bathe together. Those who did not want to appear naked in public would send a beggar to perform this ritual on their behalf. The practice was clearly an echo of some ancient belief but we can only speculate as to what that might have been. Perhaps the association of sacred water and fire was related to pagan notions of the sun regaining its vitality and strength in the underground waters before being reborn with the dawn.
The religious authorities finally managed to get such practices proscribed in 1855 when an official decree prohibited night fighting and excesses of all kinds; the temporary drinking tents set-up for the Pardon were henceforth forced to close at the same times as the licensed taverns in town and displays of nudity were branded offensive to public decency and expressly forbidden. However, old traditions die hard and the timeworn practices were still reported in 1864. Having failed to eradicate the belief, the Church focused on making the site irrelevant and abandoned the chapel in 1879.
Sainte Barbe’s fountain in Le Faouët was once a popular site for those in central Brittany to visit in order to find out if they were to be married in the year ahead. Here, it was traditional to throw a pin into the basin of the fountain while one’s back was turned. If the pin fell into the small vertical cavity at the base of the fountain, a suitable marriage within the year was assured. Young girls also visited another fountain dedicated to Sainte Barbe some 30km away in Pont-Augan near Quistinic but the ritual here appears to have involved simply making an invocation and throwing a pin into the water in hopes of being married within the year.
Saint Lawrence was one of the most widely venerated Christian saints; the cult of Saint Barbara, another 3rd century martyr, was also fairly widespread, so, we should not be too surprised to see sacred springs devoted to them in Brittany. However, the majority of such ancient sites were successfully Christianised by being devoted to local saints not recognised by the Vatican.
The fountain attached to the 16th century church at Saint-Servais was consulted by young girls seeking to know when they would marry; if the pin floated it was taken as a fortuitous omen. However, at the fountain of Saint Alor, a little south of the city of Quimper, the pin had to sink directly down with its head pointed upwards. When the pin thrown into the fountain of Saint-Gobrien sank upside down through the water, the unmarried girl was said to find a husband before the end of the year.
Those seeking a marriage in the far west of Brittany would visit the fountain of Saint Ourzal’s chapel near Kervézennoc. Here, it was necessary to offer a pin to the water before invoking the saint with the words: “Mr Saint Ourzal, please, give each a wife, Mr Saint Ourzal, once again, give us each a husband.”
If the pin thrown by a girl into the waters of the fountain of Saint Vio at Ploneour-Lanwern did not quickly sink through the water, she was said to be guaranteed to marry within the year. While at the saint’s fountain in nearby Tréguennec, it was necessary for those seeking marriage to throw a coin into the circular depression found in the middle of the fountain’s outer basin. Coins were also the medium used at the fountain of Saint-Gouesnou where they were thrown into the waters of the spring while asking for the saint’s favour in securing an early marriage. The grace of this saint was considered most auspicious given his reputation for forbidding women from entering his monastic territories in 7th century Brittany.
In the forest of Brocéliande, the fountain of Barenton, long famous for its association with Merlin and Viviane, is one of the few sacred sources in Brittany not to have been successfully Christianised by the Church. Unmarried women visited the fountain to offer it a pin; if the waters of the spring bubbled, it was a sign that she would be married before Easter. If fate was favourable, those seeking marriage were said to see the image of their intended reflected in the waters if they visited the fountain alone, at midnight, on the night of a full moon.
It was not always pins that were cast into the waters. At the fountain of Saint Drien in Penmarc’h, girls traditionally threw pieces of broken pottery into the water; the number of air bubbles that rose to the surface foretold how many years separated her from marriage. Nor were pins used at the fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves; a source reputed to have been raised by the saint to quench the thirst of King Arthur, weary after having spent three days fighting a dragon in the vicinity. This fountain was once the scene for several special divination rituals; the young woman threw a piece of bread onto the water, if it floated, it was taken as a sign that she would be married within the year.
Another rite involved placing two small pieces of bread, representing the prospective bride and groom, on the water channel that flows from the fountain’s basin. This channel widens and a slight eddy is formed in the water; if, during this journey, the two pieces floated side by side, the marriage was assured within the year. However, if the pieces, caught in the eddy, separated, the wedding would not take place soon, possibly never.
Probably the most impressive fountain related to those desiring a marriage is the fountain of Quinipily. This monumental fountain is topped by a nine foot high pedestal on which stands a seven foot tall statue of Venus thought to be a relic of the Roman occupation and to date from 50BC. The fountain possessed a massive water basin where women bathed naked in the hope of securing a marriage, much to the consternation of the local clergy.
In Ploumanac’h, on Brittany’s Pink Granite Coast, the 12th century Oratory of Saint Guirec is only accessible at low tide but if an intrepid and unmarried girl managed to put a pin into the statue’s nose without it falling out, she was thought to be married within the year.
It was not only the sacred sources that were visited in hopes of influencing the future; certain monoliths and megaliths were also the scene for a variety of rituals designed to effect a marriage. In the eastern Breton village of Maen Roch, the large quartz-rich boulder known as Le Rocher Cutesson was climbed on the morning of May Day by unmarried people, of both sexes, each carrying a bowl full of water. Holding their bowl, the young folk allowed themselves to slide down the rock face; those who managed to reach the ground with their bowl intact were said to be married within a year. A little over 3km away in Saint-Étienne-en-Coglès, a similar result was said to be achieved if a young woman climbed the large boulder in the churchyard of Saint Eustache’s chapel on Good Friday and stood on its summit in front of the congregation without blushing.
Just 20km away at Monthault, unmarried women would slide down an enormous inclined ashlar, leaving behind a piece of cloth or ribbon, in the expectation that they would be married within the year. However, it was important that no one witnessed this rite as it was thought that only the stone could keep the secret of the maiden’s heart. Similar practices were known to have taken place on other stones, such as the inclined Menhir de la Thiemblaye near Saint-Samson-sur-Rance.
Near the north east coast, in Plouër-sur-Rance, young women would climb to the top of the rocky outcrop known as La Roche de Lesmont to take position on the highest block of quartz. This abuts a large pyramid shaped boulder which, over the years, has been rubbed quite smooth by the elements and human action. It was on this angled face of rock that girls would slide down in the expectation of gaining a marriage within the year. For the ritual to be effective, it was necessary that, before commencing her slide, the young lady rolled up her skirt so that her bare flesh was in constant contact with the stone (underwear not being commonly worn until the turn of the 20th century). If the girl reached the bottom without scratching herself, she was said to be sure of securing a husband within the year. Some reports claimed that the slider also needed to urinate in a cavity in the stone.
The symbolic importance of flesh against stone is quite ancient and was often noted in archaic societies who practiced an element of stone worship; bodily contact with that to which they attributed power was crucial. A bared bottom was also a requirement for sliding down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir at Locmariaquer on Brittany’s southern coast but to succeed, the ritual had to be completed on the night of May Day. A scratch deep enough to bleed augured a future marriage. The menhir was recorded as still standing at the beginning of the 18th century thus this custom, which could not have been observed when the stone stood vertical, twelve meters in height, must have been relatively modern. Most likely, the unmarried women of the area followed, on the broken pieces, an ancient custom which was formerly held on another stone in the neighbourhood.
The Neolithic dolmen of Cruz-Menquen in nearby Carnac was popularly known as Pierre Chaude (the hot stone). During the nights of a full moon, young women seeking marriage would sit atop the capstone with their skirt lifted above their waist. It was, no doubt, to counter such pagan practices that the local clergy decided to Christianize the megalith in the early 19th century. Accounts from the same time relate how young women seeking husbands, undressed completely and rubbed their ‘navels’ against another menhir near Carnac that was especially devoted to this usage. Similar practices were also recorded at the megalith known as La Roche-Marie near Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier.
Further along the coast, near Guérande, the French diplomat Charles Coquebert de Montbret noted the presence of many pieces of red cloth pushed into the clefts and cracks of the dolmens of Kerbourg during a visit in the early 19th century. He was assured that these were favours entrusted to the stone by young girls in the hope of being married within the year, such secret deposits being made far from the watchful gaze of the local clergy.
The interpretation of omens and the practice of specific rites to ward off misfortune or to encourage good fortune was an important part of everyday life in the rural Brittany of yesteryear. It was said that if a young girl danced around nine Midsummer bonfires, she would marry before the next Midsummer Day; a similar outcome was assured if she found, on Midsummer’s Eve, a vantage point that allowed her to see nine fires burning at once.
A marriage, within a year, was also thought assured if one found, first thing in the morning, a flowered thistle. Similarly, anyone who saw a star between nine and ten o’clock in the morning was believed to marry within the year. However, if an unmarried woman wore her petticoat in such a manner that it exceeded her outer skirt, it was a sign that she would not marry for a long time.
A thistle was also used by young women to identify the suitor that loved her the most sincerely. Taking as many heads of thistle as she had suitors, she would remove the tips and assign each thistle a boy’s name before placing them under her bed. The plant that decayed the least told her whose sincerity was the strongest. In some parts of Brittany, aspiring suitors placed a hawthorn leaf on the door of the object of their affections; if their attention was unwelcome, the young lady replaced the leaf with that of a cauliflower.
Finding a four leafed clover, when one had not been looking for it, was a widespread omen of good fortune here but it was said that if it was discovered by an unmarried girl she would soon be married. When a bramble clung to a woman’s dress, it was another sign that love was near and that she would marry within the year. In the east of the region, if a young girl wanted to see who she was destined to marry, it was necessary for her to place three bay leaves under her eyes before going to sleep on Christmas Eve while reciting: “Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, tell me while I sleep, who will be mine for life.”
If a woman wanted her partner to love her dearly, it was recommended that she put a walnut leaf, picked on Midsummer’s Eve, in her left shoe while the Nones bell was ringing. An equally bizarre ritual was advised for the girl whose love for a boy was unrequited; it was said that she had only to make him eat some bread that she had baked with a little of her menstrual blood. Alternatively, the lovelorn lady could take a lock of the boy’s hair and offer it three times to the altar of the local church with a lighted candle and then plait it with a lock of her own hair. Another procedure said to have been effective was a love potion composed of water or cider infused with the powder of a bone taken from a fresh grave or ground cantharides.
The broader animal kingdom was also called upon to throw light on matters of the heart; young girls consulted the ladybird to draw some omen from its flight. In eastern Brittany, young women would take a harvestman or daddy long-legs and pull off its legs; if the dismembered limbs twitched when placed in the palm of the hand, a marriage was near.
In yesterday’s Brittany, a woman seeking a husband needed to avoid treading on the tail of a cat; in the west of the region, it was said no marriage would follow for seven years but in eastern Brittany it was held that she would remain unmarried for as many years as the cat had shrieked. Likewise, the call of the cuckoo was said to indicate how many years a young woman would have to wait until marriage. The bark of a dog could also be auspicious as young shepherds, whose dogs barked while seemingly asleep, once believed that their future husband would be sighted on the following Sunday; approaching from the direction indicated by the dog’s head.
A white doe that was said to wander the moors of Kerprigent near Saint-Jean-du-Doigt served as another animal progosticator. The beast was described as docile but agitated, seemingly searching for something and was quick to follow those who chanced across its path. If she met a young girl and blocked her path, the girl was sure to marry within months but was destined to die within the year. If she followed or walked alongside an unmarried girl, it was a sign that she would never marry. If she showed herself to a married woman, it was to announce the imminent death of her husband. If the doe met a young man, he would marry within the year but if he was under twenty years of age her appearance foretold the death of a close relative.
The course of true love never does run smooth and such are the vagaries of love that sometimes folk felt it necessary to seek affirmation of their partner’s devotion and fidelity. Many superstitious practices were once widely thought to pronounce on the sincerity of a lover. For instance, a piece of magnetite or magnet stone placed under the bed was thought to have the power to repel unfaithful lovers from the marital bed.
One way to attest to the virtue of one’s future bride was to present the young lady with a lighted tallow candle; if she managed to extinguish the flame by blowing on it once and succeeded in relighting it in the same fashion, blowing on it only once, the result was decisive; the lady’s virtue was intact. Sometimes portents were taken from the most everyday occurrences; a woman whose hair remained askew after she had prepared her headdress was said to be subject to the temptation of adultery, while the appearance of rain on laundry day indicated that the man of the house was not a faithful partner.
Near the south coast town of Concarneau, the massive boulder at Trégunc known as Men Dogan (the stone of the cuckolds) was visited by men to verify the fidelity of their partners; tradition held that a deceived partner could not make the 50 tonne stone move but those whose partners were true could move it with just one finger. The behaviour of another balancing rock nearby was said able to answer any question put to it; the rock could only be moved if the answer was in the affirmative. Those men who feared betrayal by their wives visited the rock at Combourtillé, hopping around it under the light of the moon in an attempt to retain marital faithfulness.
Many young people traditionally came to consult the fountain of Saint Thivisiau at Landivisiau before their wedding: a pin from the girl’s bodice cast into the waters of the fountain indicated whether the prospective bride had retained her innocence. The pin was laid on the water with the greatest care; if it floated for a moment, the young girl’s virtue was confirmed. Only recognised in this location, nothing is known of the life of the, possibly mythical, Saint Thivisiau whose name is attached to this fountain. However, the site’s importance stretches back millennia, as attested by the Iron Age steles uncovered here during excavation work in the 1980s.
Some 40km to the east, the fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves was the site of three distinct rituals. Consulted by men eager to secure affirmation of their partner’s faithfulness, it was necessary to visit the fountain without being seen, on an empty stomach, on the first Monday in May. Three small pieces of bread, representing the couple and the interloper, were thrown on the water, if the latter piece moved away from the other two, it was because any suspicions were well-founded.
In another rite, a woman threw a piece of bread onto the water; if it floated, it was a sign that her fiancé was faithful to her. The fountain was the site of one more practice, observed by those men anxious to know whether their wife was faithful to them. For this to be effective, it was necessary for the man to steal the pin worn closest to his wife’s heart and place it on the water; if the pin floated, his wife’s virtue remained intact.
The Breton writer Yann Brekilien once uncovered a most unfortunate episode in this fountain’s history: A young couple visited the fountain to offer to the waters a beautiful silver-headed pin that the boy had bought for the girl as a gift to mark their engagement. Neither were worried; both confident of their devotion to each other. Alas, the pin swiftly sank to the bottom of the basin. We can only imagine their devastated dreams as, heads bowed in silence, they turned away from the fountain. The following morning, the young girl’s lifeless body was found on the beach.
It is commonplace in our modern world to laugh at the superstitions of old but it is important to remember that, whether right or wrong, people once had faith in their power and effectiveness.