At a time when the rural population believed that disease and misfortune were manifestations of divine judgement or else produced by a spell cast by a jealous neighbour, relief was available only from the priest or the sorcerer; people turned to the old saints, miraculous fountains and the ancient stones in their attempts to gain better favour.
As elsewhere, here in the Brittany of yesteryear, the blessing of children was the biggest hope of newly married couples; being unable to meet these expectations was a major concern. To guard against infertility which was often believed to have been the result of sins committed during a woman’s lifetime, young women would invariably devote themselves to prayer and superstition, such as performing certain rites against special menhirs or making devotions and ablutions at sacred springs in hope of a pregnancy or safe childbirth.
Several superstitions once surrounded conception here in Brittany. Local tradition rather than Church dogma claimed it was necessary to abstain from sexual relations on certain sacred days at the risk of deformity or handicap in the child conceived then; to prevent procreation, it was advised that the couple drink the blood of a hare or sheep urine. To facilitate a pregnancy, an application of bull’s dung or a pessary of mouse droppings were recommended.
If newlyweds accepted hot wine, it was a sign that the couple had consummated their union before marriage and a child was already conceived. However, spouses who ate or drank before the celebration of their marriage were believed to produce dumb children. It was said that when the woman was on top of the man in coitu, the child she delivered would become a priest and that male children were conceived during a rising tide, girls when it was in retreat. If a pregnant woman carried her baby forward, the child would be a girl, similarly, a well-rounded stomach heralded a boy would be born.
Belief in the power of the moon to influence childbirth, not altogether absent today, was once well entrenched in the popular mentality here. Young women who answered a call of nature at night were careful never to turn to the moon when they did so, especially if it was a waning moon. Otherwise, they risked conceiving by virtue of the moon.
The circumstances of the birth were thought to wield an influence on the child’s future life and the behaviour of the moon served as a particularly powerful omen. If a child was born with the new moon, it was thought destined to die a violent death. Girls born to the old moon and boys under the new moon were fated not to live long. Those born under a half moon and those whose mothers died in childbirth would inevitably be evil and made the most powerful sorcerers.
Deliveries under the last quarter of the moon were believed to be more laborious than others. Those children who were born feet first would inherit the gift of diskanter, that is to say they could lift spells and cure certain diseases such as rickets. Children born in the new moon were said to be more erudite than others, while those born under a waning moon were said to speak less but to reason better. Girls born under a crescent moon were thought to become precocious in everything they did but those children born between eleven o’clock and midnight were destined to never find happiness.
When a child was born at night, it was once the role of the oldest woman present to move to the threshold of the house and examine the state of the sky. If the clouds surrounded the moon as if to strangle it, or they spread over its face as if to cover it, it was thought that the child was destined to be hanged or drowned. The star that seemed to sit, at that moment, above the main fireplace was also consulted; if it shone brightly, the new-born would be happy but it was a bad omen if it was pale.
The notion that everyone was born under their own star was once quite widespread here. The ability to distinguish between benign and malign stars was said to be a gift possessed by priests and wandering beggars and tales tell of such people urging delivery or advising delay until the propitious star’s appearance. Children were cautioned, when admiring the stars, never to count them because anyone who happened to count their own star would immediately fall dead.
Childbirth was and remains a formidable adventure and certain omens were once believed to allow us the means to know in advance how it would unfold. Typically, pregnancies were not immediately announced, this being done when it was no longer possible to hide its signs; such caution was to keep, to a minimum, the amount of time that one’s unborn child was vulnerable to malicious spells.
There were a great many other superstitions surrounding childbirth; if a pregnant woman left her washing barrel empty on the tripod, it was a sign that she would be a long time in labour. A pregnant woman should not see a priest dressed at the altar and especially not when he puts on his cincture and stole, lest her baby be strangled by its umbilical cord while being born. Likewise, a pregnant woman should avoid being in a room where someone is dying: the child she is carrying could be born marked with a spot above its nose; a sign that the child would not live long.
To prepare for a happy and painless childbirth, it was necessary for the expectant mother to remain seated while reading the Gospel during the last mass that she attends before childbirth. The same outcome was assured if, at some point before the end of her pregnancy, she wore her husband’s trousers. Moreover, if her husband was unfaithful, it was he who would endure the pains of childbirth.
However, it was believed to be critical that the mother-to-be had the will-power to control her cravings or, at least, the ability to satiate them. If a pregnant woman scratched herself out of frustration, her craving would imprint itself on the corresponding part of the child’s body in the form of dark coloured patches of skin such as birthmarks. To prevent these forming, it was necessary to consult a witch but only one born during the month of May was thought able to avert the transference from mother to child. To do so, the witch applied a paste made from ground heath bedstraw onto the mother’s body and recited a charm of expulsion.
Similarly, it was once thought that when a pregnant woman looked upon a deformed object or some monstrous beast, the child she carried would sense it. It was therefore important that she refrained from visiting fairgrounds and menageries, for fear she could give birth to a monster. It was a bad omen if a woman gave birth to a deformed child and such children were usually denounced as changelings, magically substituted by the mischievous korrigans.
During childbirth itself, the baby was said to be delivered sooner if the mother put on her husband’s sabots or if she held, in her right hand, the words of a special prayer that had been recited beforehand. A quick delivery was also certain if someone climbed onto the roof of the house and invoked a certain charm.
Until the early 20th century, midwives were rare in rural Brittany; births took place with the help of women from the neighbourhood or a local ‘wise woman’ renowned for her expertise. Such women were practiced in the use of medicinal plants and their application as well as in the manipulation of the body. When the crucial moment arrived, a fire was lit in the fireplace, linen strips for the swaddle were put to heat and a vat of water prepared. While many people might have surround the parturient at this point, childbirth was a woman’s business and men and children were excluded from the delivery room.
To help assist childbirth, a combination of massage and ointments were applied by the woman acting as midwife. If it was feared that the baby was too big, the parturient would be given a warm bath in hopes of aiding delivery. To facilitate the birth, the parturient was encouraged to breathe into the palms of her joined hands or else she held coarse grains of salt in one hand and, in the other, a bottle into which she blew until delivery. Sometimes, the woman’s belly was rubbed with a mixture of camomile oil, gelatine and butter foam or an ointment made from the ground leaves of laurel and wormwood was applied.
The treatment of pain seems to have been marked by a feeling of fatality: the woman was held condemned, by original sin, to give birth in pain, so, few serious attempts were made to alleviate it. One peculiar practice to relieve labour pain called for the parturient to sit on a flask of hot water that had been mixed with a little powder of dried toad. A draught of her husband’s urine was also said to ease the pains of childbirth.
At a time when one in ten women died from childbirth-related causes in rural France, particular care was taken to make certain that the placenta was fully expelled so as to avoid infection and potential sepsis. Childbirth complications such as puerperal fever were one of the biggest killers of women of childbearing age. Indeed, a married woman would become pregnant, on average, six times. Given that up to ten per cent of labours proved fatal to the mother, a woman had a sixty per cent chance of dying during her childbearing years.
To help ensure the expulsion of the placenta, the new mother was made to swallow an infusion of figs boiled in water. If that proved unsuccessful, another treatment called for her to urinate upon warm horse-dung, provided only that the horse was not fatigued at the time of its evacuation. The placenta and umbilical cord were carefully treated; the latter was thought to develop the mind and was often kept by the mother as a powerful lucky charm. Otherwise, they were buried so that they could not be subject to any evil spells or used in magical acts.
The midwife typically cut the umbilical cord at a length approximate to the width of four fingers and tied it. Sometimes, the full width of five fingers was left if it was a boy. The child was then washed and its lips moistened with a little alcohol in order to make it wince so that it would not be dumb. In some parts of the region, it was traditional for one of the women present to remove the new mother’s wedding ring and put it in a glass of wine before applying some onto the lips of the new-born to protect it against the evil eye. In western Brittany, the new-born was passed through the fire in order to protect it from evil spells and great care was taken to avoid passing the new-born over the table, as this was said to bring on bad luck.
The newly born baby’s hands and feet were routinely rubbed with a little cold water so that it would not be sensitive to the cold. If the child exhibited any skin stain or birthmark, this was immediately rubbed with the still warm placenta in hopes of making it pass. Another once common ritual involved cleaning the new baby’s face with the first cloth that it had wet; a procedure said to guarantee the child would possess keen eyesight and a fresh complexion.
It was at this stage that the midwife performed a small but important ritual; pinching and massaging the baby’s nose, skull, limbs and its nipples, if it was a girl. Some old accounts say that this procedure was performed for several hours as it was believed to ensure the child would grow well formed; the new-born being thought incomplete until moulded by the midwife. Such practices were still noted in Brittany at the turn of the 20th century. The woman who acted as principal midwife was not usually paid for her services during the delivery; her efforts often considered a mark of female solidarity. However, she was always nourished and given gifts as a token of gratitude by the family.
As elsewhere, infant mortality was once was very high in Brittany; in the 19th century, one in four children died before their first birthday and only two reached adulthood. If a woman gave birth to a stillborn child, the body could not leave the house through the door but had to be taken out through the window, otherwise it was said that any mother who subsequently passed through that door would only give birth to dead children. The milk of a mother who has just lost her child was passed by soaking the baby’s linen in the husband’s urine and applying these to the unfortunate mother’s breasts.
The baptism of babies generally took place as quickly as possible, within a few days of birth and sometimes even on the same day; an unbaptised child being considered extremely vulnerable to the evil eye. The very real risk of a child dying within a week of birth must also have been a factor as not only were the souls of stillborns and children who did not live long enough to receive the sacrament of baptism, deprived of the grace of God but their bodies were also excluded from the right to burial in consecrated ground amongst their forebears. The crushing reality of this dogma, especially in close-knit communities, may help to explain why deeply religious Brittany typically reported 30 per cent fewer stillborns than other parts of France.
Baptism was celebrated with much aplomb and was a joy shared with the whole community; the church bells were rung as loudly as possible to help ensure the child would never fall deaf. The baby was dressed as splendidly as possible and the one who carried the precious charge to church also carried a small piece of black bread, sometimes this was hung as an amulet from the child’s neck. In western Brittany, a morsel of black bread was once a widely used talisman to protect against evil spells.
By tradition, the godfather and the godmother were always chosen from the wider family, with one from each side but it was said to bring on bad luck to choose the godparents before the child’s birth. A pregnant woman was never chosen as a godmother as it was thought that to do so would condemn her unborn child, or the one to be baptised, to an ugly death within the year. The choice of the child’s Christian name was left to the godfather for a boy, to the godmother for a girl. Although they kept their choices secret, the godparents usually proposed their own name for the infant; the priest being the first to hear it.
It was said that if the candle used during the baptism remained lit throughout the ceremony, that the godfather and godmother would soon marry; if it died before the end of service, it was a sign that no such marriage would take place. Once, it was customary to put a small floral wreath on the child’s head after the service of baptism was over. This wreath was said to bring good luck to the new-born throughout their life. So that it also brought good fortune to the mother, it was hung above the bed; tradition declared that it be hung very high if another pregnancy was to be avoided.
The mother was absent from the baptism of her child; she was, in the popular imagination, effectively considered unclean, as if childbirth had sullied her. Sometime after giving birth but usually forty days later, the new mother would go to church to undergo a ceremony of re-admittance into the congregation known as relevailles or the churching of woman. While official Church teaching saw this as a ceremony of thanksgiving, many priests and churchgoers associated it with purification and Old Testament notions of uncleanliness associated with childbirth. In Brittany, the new mother was forbidden to cook and care for the animals until she had been churched as it was believed that she cast a curse on everything she touched, except for her child.
The churching rite was fairly straightforward: the mother, dressed in white, presented herself at the porch of the church and knelt there with a lighted candle. Many mothers also carried about their person, the linen cap with which her baby’s head was covered after having been anointed with holy chrism at its baptism. The new mother had to avoid taking holy water from the stoup in the porch, instead, the woman who accompanied her to church took some for herself and threw a few drops on the forehead of the new mother; death within the year was said to befall any woman who, even out of habit, forgot this precept.
The priest came out to the porch and blessed the mother with holy water before leading her into church where she knelt before the altar and was again blessed with holy water in front of the congregation. New mothers in yesterday’s Brittany were not allowed to go to church for this ceremony alone, else all the potential curses she carried befell her. Leaving church at the end of the ceremony, many mothers took pains to carefully observe the first people met: of good character or bad, her child would infallibly hold the same traits. Similarly, whether the first person met was a man or a woman foretold the sex of her next child. However, nursing mothers needed to avoid meeting the eyes of a dwarf; otherwise they risked losing all their milk immediately.
It should come as no surprise that many superstitions once surrounded the earliest years of a child here in Brittany. Children born with hair on their head were thought predestined for happiness, those born lame were said to be bawdy while those with a hunchback were thought cleverer than others. When a baby suffered from regular hiccups it was taken as a sign that it would be prolific but those children who, from an early age, were endowed with a prodigious spirit were said destined to die young. Those children who were born with impetigo were said to have been chosen by Providence to remain celibate and without another sign of vocation, they were sent to the arms of the Church.
Children who drooled were said to have been born to parents who attended mass on the day that their marriage was announced. To keep a child from drooling, the godfather provided a pierced penny or one marked with a cross, which was then hung around the child’s neck. To make teething easier, children were usually given a piece of apple to suck. It was believed that if the mother did not touch her baby’s gums, its teeth would grow crooked and a mole skin placed on the fountain of the child’s head was said to facilitate teeth growth; subsequently, children chewed radish leaves to keep teeth in good health. Great care was also taken when a child lost a tooth; if a dog were to swallow it, it would be replaced in the child’s mouth by a dog’s tooth. Throwing the tooth into the fire was thought to be the safest course.
If a child’s fingernails were cut before they were a year old, it was said that their mind would be cut off forever but no nails could be cut on a day of the week containing the letter R, as this was thought to invite misfortune. Another curious belief said that a small child should not be placed in front of a mirror for fear that they might be struck dumb.
The health of children, so threatened on all sides, was also the object of certain prescriptions. Swinging an infant nine times over the Midsummer bonfire was said to make it immune to fear. If a child was afflicted with night terrors, it was dressed in its father’s shirt, which was then put on an altar dedicated to Saint Gilles. To treat abdominal bloating in children it was necessary to put oil in the lamp that burned in front of the Blessed Sacrament: if the lamp cast a brighter light, the child would heal.
To cure children of worms, an amulet made of white linen containing a mixture of nine cloves of garlic, salt and oil was hung around their neck. A less pungent remedy recommended they drink an infusion of mint leaves. A little roasted mouse, eaten in the evening, was said to stop children wetting the bed at night but in neighbouring Normandy, mice were fed to children to cure whooping cough.
If a mother wanted her next child to be a boy, it was thought necessary to teach her youngest child to pronounce the word tad before the word mam. Conversely, if she longed for a daughter, the child was taught to pronounce the word mam before tad. Perhaps of more realistic help to a new mother was a remedy for stretchmarks that called for a marinade of snails and rosemary; the juice squeezed from this mixture was then rubbed into the skin so that it again became as smooth as it was before marriage.
For childless couples, adoption was not an option in France until 1804 and even then it was restricted to people over 50 years of age only being able to adopt adults. However, the 1625 Breton edition of the Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine’s Great Catechism makes a curious observation about adoption in Brittany. It notes: “The common people, in the bishopric of Leon and Tregor, affirm by ancient tradition that in Lower Brittany the places to adopt children were the fair of La Martyre and the pardon of Treguier.” An intriguing reference to a market for children that has not been found recorded elsewhere and one that raises many questions that, alas, we cannot now hope to answer, four hundred years later.