Herbs and plants once played a key role in the traditional medicine of Brittany, being employed in a wide variety of remedies to treat all manner of diseases in humans and animals. Most proprietary recipes were tightly guarded, being handed down within the family from generation to generation. However, knowledge captured from the popular memory in the early 20th century and uncovered in the old pages of witch’s spell books and folklore, allow us to construct a Breton herbal pharmacopoeia.
Traditional healers and herbalists long subscribed to the theory that the beneficial qualities of healing plants were revealed by their shape, colouring, texture and habitat; unique signatures that helped define the virtues of such plants. For instance, the yellow sap of Celandine was considered appropriate for treating jaundice; the blue of the Cornflower recalled the iris of the eye; the tubers of the Lesser Celandine were thought to resemble haemorrhoids.
In Brittany, the preparation of herbal remedies could differ from healer to healer and was also adapted to the ailment to be treated. Some plants needed to be gathered on certain auspicious days to be held effective, such as Corpus Christi for Elderberry, or collected in a certain way, such as when cutting Verbena or Broom. Most of the plants were dried for use, others were preserved by maceration in alcohol or oil, some being exposed to the sun for forty days.
Medication was typically administered according to the complaint to be treated. The most common remedies involved herbal infusions and decoctions which were either drunk or poured over the seat of the disease. For external ailments and wounds, parts of the plant were directly placed on the body or else the remedy was applied as an ointment in a plaster or as a poultice. Sometimes, plants, such as garlic, were even worn about the person to cure or protect against illness.
Medicinal plants were typically gathered from the hedgerows, forests and meadows. However, the majority of these plants were typically found around the home, where the plants were readily to hand; rarer plants would have been grown and nurtured in the healer’s garden. The picking of medicinal plants was not surrounded with the high ritual employed when gathering magical plants or the seven sacred plants of St. John on Midsummer. However, some exceptions did exist, for instance, the curative panacea Verbena or Vervain was thought most effective if gathered during the rising of the dog-star (Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky) when neither sun nor moon shone; with the left hand only after having traced a circle around the plant.
In Brittany, verbena was once ascribed a multitude of healing properties, from conquering fevers to healing snake bites. The plant’s dry leaves, finely ground and mixed with a spoonful of rye flour and two egg whites, were applied as a plaster to treat external ulcers. A decoction of its leaves in vinegar produced a mixture that was used as a compress for treating rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica and even headaches. Boiled in red wine, it was even said to be effective in treating a prolapsed rectum. Verbena leaves crushed with salt were applied to wounds to stop bleeding. An omelette made with its dried chopped leaves was eaten in expectation that it helped to heal bruises. An infusion with water was used to treat eye ailments; the leaves of the Fir Clubmoss, similarly treated, were also thought an effective remedy against eye diseases.
Now popularly worn as a mark of remembrance for the war dead, Cornflower was another multi-purpose plant and was traditionally used here to treat eye infections; an infusion of the flowers was used to bathe the eyes and applied as an overnight compress. It was used to treat rheumatism and those suffering from stones in the urinary tracts; dried flowers were macerated in beer for eight days and the resultant liquid ingested. Dried flowers were also ground into a powder which was beaten into an egg yolk and taken twice a day to manage jaundice.
The plant known as Royal Fern was used to treat abdominal bloating in children and also hernias. A herbal tea made from Field Horsetail was thought effective in the treatment of hematemesis (vomiting blood), diarrhoea and even dysentery. Macerated in white wine for a fortnight, the plant was also said to be a potent diuretic, while a poultice placed against the lower abdomen treated incontinence. This herbal tea was also thought a good remedy for hematuria (bloody urine).
Those suffering from decreased urine output were advised to drink an infusion of Parietaria but for those suffering from urine retention, a very hot poultice of the plant was placed on the lower abdomen for as long as possible. A decoction of this plant in honey was drunk hot to treat asthma while a decoction in butter was applied directly as a hot poultice to ease neck pains. Difficulties with urine retention were also treated with Couch Grass, a noted host of the deadly scourge of the Middle Ages, the ergot fungus. The plant possessed diuretic properties, particularly when administered as a decoction with a handful of barley and a little liquorice root.
Boxwood features heavily in folklore and in certain superstitious practices but it also had its role in traditional medicine The plant’s bark was used as a soporific and purgative while its leaves were used in several preparations. To aid digestion, a spoonful of white wine in which boxwood leaves had been macerated for eight days, was recommended before a meal. A decoction diluted with a little water was drunk before bedtime as a laxative. To sweat out a cold, the water in which leaves had been boiled was drunk every half hour for two hours. If taken every night, a daily draught of this herbal tea was also said to cure rheumatism after seven months. Rheumatism was also treated with Wood Anemone, whose leaves and flowers were ground with a little butter and massaged as a liniment into the patient’s skin.
Many of the medicinal plants of Brittany were held to possess multiple virtues, such as Elderberry; its flowers, soaked in vinegar for a fortnight, were ingested as a treatment against rheumatism; its leaves, ground with salt and vinegar, were applied as a plaster to treat minor wounds; the bark, macerated in white wine for two days, produced an infusion that was taken to treat edema (swollen limbs) and to eliminate the burning sensation while urinating with nephritis.
Preparations from Meadow Scorzonera, also known as Viper’s Grass, were used in the treatment of rheumatism and coughs. Additionally, the plant’s roots were boiled in water for half an hour and the resultant brew was drank, on an empty stomach, as a diuretic but it was also said to be effective at inducing sweating and detoxifying the blood. Water infused with Knapweed root was drank to cure kidney ailments but when macerated in white wine, its crushed seeds provided a powerful diuretic. An infusion of the plant’s flowers in water was also thought effective at treating all manner of fevers.
Although a toxic plant, an infusion of Ragwort flowers in water was recommended as a treatment for coughs, asthma and even congestion. To treat a sore throat, a poultice of the plant’s leaves was placed on the patient’s throat and a decoction made of the same material used as a mouthwash. The leaves were also boiled in butter to create an ointment for treating all wounds. Stonecrop was another plant whose leaves were boiled in butter and applied as a plaster to heal ulcers and skin burns. Similarly, Wall Pennywort, also known as the Navel of Venus, was treated in the same way to cure the same problems. The leaves of this plant were thought to offer a most effective treatment for all cuts; the most common practices saw the skin of the leaf peeled-off and applied as a plaster directly to the wound, or the exposed part of the leaf was rubbed directly over the wound.
Sore throats and gum disease were also treated with a mouthwash made from an infusion of the petals of the Dog Rose but it was the plant’s rosehip that was more popularly used; chewed raw to combat intestinal worms or made into a jam to aid digestion. Dried rosehips macerated in lambig for a fortnight produced a liquid in which a cloth was soaked and then applied directly to the wound to help it heal. Rosehip juice was brought to the boil with a little sugar to create a medicine for treating diarrhoea if taken nine times a day.
Common Barbary, known in Brittany as the Grass of Saint Barbara, the 4th century Christian martyr tortured by fire before being beheaded by her father who was immediately struck by lightning, produced an effective balm for soothing fire-related wounds. Macerated for a month in vegetable oil, this compound of the plant’s leaves was also used to heal cuts and abrasions. The plant’s seeds, having been soaked in wine for four days, were used as a poultice applied to the body to treat kidney stones and liver ailments.
Kidney stones were also popularly treated with Common Groundsel, a plant that was thought effective in improving blood circulation and considered a powerful diuretic, purgative and anti-parasitic. Two popular remedies were noted for the plant’s leaves; a handful of which were mixed with a handful of those of the Mallow and boiled in butter for half an hour to deliver a concoction that was applied to the stomach of expectant mothers approaching labour. Those suffering from urinary retention were treated with an abdominal plaster which contained a preparation made from Groundsel leaves, Pellitory and nine cloves of Garlic that had previously been boiled together in red wine for an hour.
The flowers of the Common Marigold were used to prepare infusions and tinctures which were believed to have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Poultices made with crushed dried leaves were said to help heal wounds, ulcers and burns. The tea made with this plant was also thought effective in aiding digestion. To induce sweating, an infusion of dried Marigold flowers and Borage leaves was drunk.
To treat amenorrhea, an equal amount of Marigold leaves were ground with those of Mugwort and macerated for eight days in white wine; the remedy worked best if drunk every morning on an empty stomach in the week before menstruation was due to start. Red-Veined Dock, also known as Bloodwort, was also used to encourage menstruation but to combat heavy menstrual flow, an infusion made with the leaves or seeds of Privet was drunk.
Common Tansy or Saint Mark’s Herb was said to be a highly effective remedy against intestinal worms; its flowers were boiled in wine and the potion drunk, on an empty stomach; or else the plant’s leaves were ground with a head of garlic and applied as a plaster to the abdomen. A handful of dried leaves, crushed and boiled in very salty water, was applied as a plaster directly onto wounds in the belief that they would heal quickly without leaving a scar. An infusion of Tansy leaves was also taken to reduce fevers and to treat digestive ailments and rheumatism. The medicinal value of this plant seems to have been very broad as it was also used as an abortifacient, an insect repellent and as an aid to control flatulence.
The medicinal value of Bryony, also known as Devil’s Turnip or Climbing Mandrake, has been noted since ancient times when it was said to treat neuroses. Most of the plant is toxic to humans except for its seeds; contact with the skin can cause dermatitis while ingesting its berries can have serious consequences beginning with nausea, violent vomiting and diarrhoea. A potion made from the plant’s leaves macerated in white wine not only served as a powerful purgative but was also said to be effective against kidney stones, edema, rheumatism and epilepsy. To treat sebaceous cysts, the leaves were ground with salt and applied directly to the cyst as a hot poultice for a fortnight.
The seeds of another poisonous plant, the Garden Spurge, also known as Mole Grass, were typically used as a purgative after having been crushed and soaked in vegetable oil for eight days. The plant’s sap caused contact dermatitis but was applied, daily, as a treatment for warts and to relieve bee stings. The sap of Greater Celandine, also known as Wart Weed and Witch’s Milk, was also used against warts, corns and calluses. Preparations made from a decoction of the plant in white wine were believed effective against jaundice, rheumatism and scrofula; its dried root chewed to ease toothache. Lesser Celandine or Pilewort was also employed in the fight against warts, scrofula, eye diseases and haemorrhoids. Indeed, Brittany’s most famous cosmetics and herbal care company, Yves Rocher, has its origins in a haemostatic ointment made from this plant according to a recipe given to him by a local healer just after the Second World War.
While the earliest references to the power of Betony or Bishop’s Wort attest to its effectiveness against witchcraft, it was used here to treat all manner of wounds. The plant’s leaves were macerated in white wine for a fortnight and the resultant liquid used to bathe the wound three times a day. To treat venous ulcers or open sores, it was necessary to boil the wine for fifteen minutes and apply the mixture as a hot compress. The plant’s dried leaves were also smoked to relieve headaches.
Drinking Mint tea was said to cure children of worms but a plaster could also be made with the leaves and applied warm to the stomach. This infusion was also thought to aid digestion, stimulate urination, relieve intestinal gas and, if taken with a little vinegar, cure hiccups. Mint leaves were also crushed and mixed with wheat flour to form a plaster applied to treat engorged breasts.
Another plant popular with the traditional healers of Brittany was the Common Broom. Its flowers were macerated in a mixture of honey and water, and several spoons of this liquid were taken to alleviate fever, rheumatism and kidney stones. To treat edema, the plant was burnt and the ashes macerated in white wine for four days and dosed at the rate of one spoonful every few hours. The plant’s bark, when cut at around half the total height of the plant, was crushed and applied as a plaster to stem minor bleeding.
Garlic, roasted in the Midsummer bonfire, was believed to be a powerful medicine against fevers. Ground with salt and introduced into the ear, it relieved toothache. It was also used against intestinal worms in the form of poultices applied to the stomach and worn as an amulet around the neck to treat croup. One remedy for dealing with intestinal worms here involved boiling fifteen cloves of Garlic in oil and taking a spoonful of this potion every morning before breakfast for three days. Wounds that were not healing quickly were washed with the water in which twenty-five cloves had been boiled but to cure a cough it was necessary to drink cow’s milk containing several cloves of crushed Garlic.
A large dose of raw Onion was recommended for those suffering from kidney complaints but another remedy called for several onion bulbs, finely chopped, to be macerated in white wine for four days before being taken daily. Cooked onions were also used as a poultice against whitlow, an infection of the finger and thumb caused by the herpes virus. Raw onion juice applied to the skin was said to increase blood circulation and to relieve muscular pains.
The medicinal value of Mallow was attested as long ago as the third century BC; a worthy reputation as the whole plant is edible and rich in mineral salts and vitamins. A concoction made from the plant’s flowers was used to treat cuts, ulcers and abscesses; a hot poultice of the plant was also applied to treat sebaceous cysts. An infusion of leaves and moss was employed in a plaster against breast abscesses, while the same mixture was used as a bath to relieve swelling and inflammations. As a powerful emollient, the plant not only soothed external irritations but when its seeds were taken in a decoction it also proved an effective demulcent, soothing coughs and sore throats.
Considered a universal remedy in antiquity, Celery was used here as a diuretic and as an antipyretic (fever reducer) but it also had more unusual applications. The plant’s roots were chopped and boiled in water to treat liver complaints; its leaves were boiled in milk and drunk hot to ease asthma. Dried leaves were ground and mixed into a lump of lard to create a plaster that was applied to treat a swollen stomach.
Carrot juice was drunk as a medicine to cure sore throats and manage asthma but eating raw carrots was recommended against intestinal worms and to relieve stomach aches. An infusion of carrot leaves was used to bathe wounds and it was also said to be particularly useful in treating scalds and for healing whitlow.
Parsley was another versatile plant that was thought to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion. Its leaves were rubbed on bee stings to relieve the pain and on bruises to prevent swelling. Additionally, the leaves were chopped and mixed with salt and vegetable oil to make a poultice that eased toothache and earache. Bizarrely, a poultice of parsley was applied to the throat of those suffering from angina and to the eyes to treat conjunctivitis. The vapours of parsley boiling in salted water were used to treat women suffering from a breast abscess or swollen lymph nodes. Its juice was recommended to asthmatics and those bothered by a persistent cough, while an infusion of the plant’s chopped root was drank against liver disease.
The healing powers of Common Purslane, also known as Duckweed, were thought so strong that Pliny advised wearing the plant as an amulet to expel all evil. In Brittany, the root was typically used to treat gum diseases and intestinal worms. The juice of the plant, boiled with honey and red rose petals, was directly applied to treat haemorrhoids. Similarly, the juice of Hogweed or Cow Parsnip was also used in the battle against haemorrhoids.
Scarlet Pimpernel or Red Chickweed boiled in honey was said to be effective against eye problems if applied as a plaster on the eyes. Although the same decoction was drank in the treatment of epilepsy. Another plant that offered very different treatments from the same preparation was Common Centaury or Knapweed; its leaves, infused for a fortnight in red wine, was prescribed as a treatment for anaemia but a mere spoonful of this same medication was also taken against worms and diarrhoea.
The roots of the Primrose, boiled in red wine, were taken to treat stones in the urinary tracts and also to combat intestinal worms. A tea made with the plant’s dried petals was drunk as a remedy for severe diarrhoea. The leaves were used as part of a poultice applied to the wrist in order to treat gout; macerated in vinegar for a fortnight, a cloth soaked in this liquid was pressed against the forehead of those suffering from extreme headaches. The flowers seemed to possess a sedative quality and were ingested to treat diseases of the nervous system and heart palpitations. Those patients seeking a more powerful soporific drank an infusion of Hemp seeds in cider.
Once popularly strewn on floors to improve the smell of the farmhouse, the herb known as Meadowsweet or Meadow Queen was used to ease rheumatism and kidney ailments; its flowers were macerated in white wine which was then drunk daily on an empty stomach. It is worth noting that the plant contains salicin; one of the active ingredients in aspirin. Another natural pain reliever was said to be Yellow Bedstraw, which, as its French name, Caille-Lait Jaune, suggests, was traditionally used to curdle milk for the production of cheese. The flowers of this plant were boiled in water and applied as a compress which acted as an astringent and pain reliever. Infused in water and ingested, the plant’s leaves also acted as a diuretic.
An infusion of Redcurrant leaves in water, taken daily before breakfast, was used to treat those with anaemia; the same concoction was drunk three times a day against diarrhoea and dysentery. Urinary problems were medicated with an infusion made from the plant’s bark. An infusion made from the plant’s berries was drunk daily by those with a fever and also measles.
To detoxify the blood and reduce swollen glands, a poultice made with the leaves of the Figwort was applied to the body. Infused in water, the leaves of the plant were also used to combat malarial fevers; as was an infusion made with the bark of the Golden Willow. The active extract of the bark of the White Willow, like Meadowseet, contains salicin. To cure a fever, it was necessary to drink, each morning and night, the potion that had been produced after the bark had been macerated in white wine for four days. To treat dysentery, the leaves were boiled in milk. Eating a few bunches of Elderberry was also said to prevent dysentery.
The Small Nettle was employed against rheumatism, sciatica and lumbago but was also used to treat ailments identified by the coughing-up of blood, such as tuberculosis or bronchitis. Some healers here advocated a nettle leaf tea while others advocated that the nettle seeds be boiled in water for thirty minutes before being mixed into a fresh egg yolk. The same concoction was recommended for treating heavy colds but drank as hot as could be borne. In central Brittany, Nettle baths to calm leg and foot pain were noted well into the 20th century, as was the practice of striking bunches of the plant against the body of a patient affected with rheumatism.
These natural remedies are not only testimony to the patient ingenuity of the healers of yesterday but also provide us with a fascinating insight into the most common ailments once faced by the people of Brittany.