In Brittany, the arrival of midsummer was traditionally celebrated by the lighting of massive communal bonfires and their attendant rituals; ancient practices that, despite the best efforts of the Church to suppress them, continued here well into living memory.
It is important to note that in establishing its liturgical calendar, the early Church took care to divert the popular feelings associated with the major pagan festivals by supplanting these with Christian ones. Thus assigning the Feast of Saint John to the twenty-fourth of June was likely a deliberate attempt to displace the Midsummer festivals so popularly rooted in European culture.
As a major celebration of the power of the natural world, we should not be surprised that native plants once played a key role in many of the rites associated with the celebration of Midsummer in Brittany. Sadly, the original names of the most important ceremonial plants have now been lost to us; they having long been dispossessed by designations such as Saint John’s Plant, the Grass of Saint John or Saint John’s Wort and the Herbs of Saint John. In some parts of France, Saint John’s Plant was another name given to Saint John’s Wort but in Brittany it was a term applied to Stonecrop.
Bunches of Saint John’s Plant were used in the ceremonial processions around the Midsummer bonfires; young women, alternating with young men carrying burning torches, would carry it while they circled the communal pyre. After nine circuits had been completed three times, the women held out their branches towards the centre of the fire while the men used their flaming torches to describe a series of three circles above their heads. While the men took their burning brands into the surrounding fields, the women passed their branches through the fire and circulated amongst the crowd as the smoke from the smouldering plant was believed to fortify one’s eyesight over the year ahead. Likewise, Garlic, roasted in the Midsummer fire, was prized as it was believed to be a powerful medicine against fevers.
The Stonecrop branches that had been used by the dancing women were usually retained by them as a charm against illness over the year ahead. They were taken home and often hung from the ceiling beams; if they continued to grow, it was taken as a sign of good luck but if they withered, as an omen of a death in the household within the year. In the local folk medicine, Stonecrop was commonly used as a purgative and also in the treatment of burns.
In the Breton tradition, the Herbs of Saint John were more popularly known as the Seven Sacred Herbs of Saint John; a collection of plants that included Daisy, Ground-Ivy, Houseleek, Mugwort, Sage, Saint John’s Wort and Yarrow. To harness the innate power of these plants, it was believed necessary to harvest them at the most auspicious time – the summer solstice, when the benevolent force of nature was thought at its most powerful; an energy that was said to be transmitted to the plants themselves.
In time, the morning of St. John’s Day replaced actual Midsummer in popular devotion but it was still believed necessary to only gather the plants with the left hand whilst walking backwards, barefoot through the dew in a state of grace and on an empty stomach; such proscriptions were said to help ensure that the hand did not take too much of nature’s bounty.
This ritual bears remarkable similarities to those noted by Pliny when discussing, in his Natural History written in the late 1st century, the remedies derived from the forests by the ancient druids: “Care is taken to gather it without the use of iron, the right hand being passed for the purpose through the left sleeve of the tunic, as though the gatherer were stealing it. The clothing must be white, the feet bare and washed clean, and a sacrifice of bread and wine must be made before gathering it: it is carried in a new cloth.” Like other European traditions surrounding the picking of special plants, yesterday’s Bretons seem to have absorbed some elements of these early rituals for their own plants.
The Dog Daisy or Marguerite was often known as the sun’s flower in Brittany and was once employed against a wide range of ailments. Dried and crushed, the plant’s flower was applied directly to wounds as a treatment but the same compound was infused in cold water when the resultant liquid was used as an eye bath to relieve conjunctivitis. A decoction of the plant, boiled in red wine, was drunk before bedtime in order to reduce a fever but a decoction boiled in water was believed to deliver calming, anti-spasmodic benefits and to aid digestion.
The plant’s leaves and roots were crushed and macerated in white wine overnight before the compound was applied as a poultice to treat sebaceous cysts although some healers recommended regularly bathing the cyst with this liquid instead. Other healers here thought the ailment was best treated by the application of a hot plaster composed of the plant’s leaves previously boiled in vinegar. When boiled with Walnut leaves, an infusion of the plant’s petals was said to be a useful means of purifying the blood if drunk regularly. Preparations made from the plant were also said to be effective in treating rheumatism.
Ground-Ivy, sometimes also known here as Saint John’s Belt, was a plant more commonly employed in the fight against bronchial disorders at which some healers swore that it was without equal. A length of the plant was crushed and boiled in water which was then left to infuse for a further third of an hour and usually sweetened with a little honey. A few bowls of this concoction was taken three times a day before meals as an effective treatment. When boiled in milk and drunk before going to bed, the plant was believed to alleviate coughs and asthma. A compound of crushed leaves and lard was applied as an ointment to treat burns, while an amulet containing the same mixture was often given to children to wear in the belief that it protected them against night terrors.
In Brittany, Houseleek was once attributed marvellous qualities; Breton households traditionally cultivated one or two plants on the lower parts of their roof to preserve their homes against lightning strikes and to warn against the approach of a witch as the plant was said to immediately wither whenever a witch entered the house. Folk healers most popularly applied the plant’s juice directly into the ear to treat infection and severe earaches but the fleshy leaves were also peeled and applied directly to cuts and burns and even crushed to form a poultice used in the treatment of corns and eczema.
Mugwort is another plant that was sometimes known as Saint John’s Plant and was popularly regarded as a magical herb in the late Middle Ages; it was believed that, if gathered on the eve of Saint John’s Day, the plant provided protection against disease, evil spirits, poisons and all misfortunes arising from fire and water. In the region’s traditional healing remedies, the plant’s flowering stems were used to treat menstrual difficulties and to strengthen the digestive system. Some healers advocated its consumption, before breakfast, after it had been macerated in white wine for eight days while others recommended that it be infused in water for thirty minutes and taken as a decoction three times a day between meals.
The herb Sage is another plant whose effectiveness has been attested to since the days of Ancient Rome. In Brittany, its use was recommended in all manner of treatments for curing various ailments in animals and humans, even rabies. Infusions prepared from the plant’s leaves were taken to aid menstruation and to treat abdominal bloating and diarrhoea; used as a mouthwash, the same concoction was used to combat toothache and bleeding gums. Applied topically, the plant was used as a remedy against skin irritations and minor injuries.
Another plant whose medicinal value has been noted since antiquity, Saint John’s Wort, also known as Saint John’s Beard, was once the key ingredient in a variety of treatments and natural remedies here. The plant’s flowers and leaves produced an effective emollient and skin balm with anti-inflammatory qualities. One popular remedy derived from the plant called for its leaves to be macerated in vegetable oil and exposed to sunlight for three weeks; the resultant oily mixture was then filtered through a cloth and applied directly, as an ointment, in the treatment of burns. The same blend was also massaged into the body to alleviate rheumatic pain and to treat wounds and sores.
Preparations from the plant were also taken in the belief that it purified the blood. Since the Middle Ages, the plant has possessed a reputation as a mood elevator or anti-depressant and modern scientific research would tend to support such beliefs. Alongside its ability to chase away melancholia, Saint John’s Wort was also considered a plant capable of warding off evil spirits. Likewise, Chicory, picked by the root on the morning of Midsummer was said to thwart the evil spells that might be cast against you.
The virtues of Yarrow have been noted since ancient times when it was said to help heal wounds. In the traditional medicine of Brittany, the plant enjoyed a reputation for possessing a multitude of healing properties; preparations from the plant were used to stimulate the appetite, cure digestive difficulties and relieve menstrual pain. An infusion of the plant’s flowers, taken three times a day before meals, was believed to attack intestinal parasites. A decoction of the plant in hot water was taken as a remedy against colds, fatigue, stomach aches and even varicose veins and haemorrhoids. However, some healers advised treating the latter problem with a plaster that had been soaked in the same decoction; this was also the procedure used to treat sore and chapped breasts. One recipe to ease toothache called for a little of the plant’s leaf to be crushed and inserted into the ear nearest to the afflicted tooth in order to gain relief from the pain. The plant’s extracts remain in popular use in herbal medicine in France today.
Typically, all these plants were dried and carefully stored to help cope with the everyday ailments anticipated over the course of the year ahead. Sometimes, they were mounted in bouquets or wreaths and placed to bring on good luck or to ward off the evil spells. When combined appropriately, this combination of herbs was believed able to counteract most fevers and be powerful enough to repel witchcraft. In the 16th century, bathing in water in which a hot decoction of these herbs had been mixed was believed to aid female fertility.
Midsummer’s Day was also believed to be the most auspicious occasion for gathering the plants that made the strongest love potion, namely: Marjoram, Myrtle, Thyme and Verbena. The dried leaves were ground to a fine powder and taken as a snuff. However, if a woman wanted her partner to love her dearly, it was recommended that she put a Walnut leaf, picked on the eve of Midsummer, in her left shoe while the Nones bell was ringing. An equally bizarre ritual was advised for those whose love was unrequited; it was thought necessary to collect some Elecampane before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day. Once dried, the plant’s crushed leaves were mixed with ambergris and worn in an amulet around the neck for nine days. All that then remained was to somehow get the object of one’s desire to eat, without being aware of doing so, a little of this concoction three times.
Additionally, Midsummer was also a time very closely associated with some of Brittany’s magical plants, many of whom were also reputed to carry harvesting rituals similar to those reserved for the Seven Sacred Herbs of Saint John. Gathering these plants on the night before or on the morning or evening of Midsummer was believed to protect their magical virtues.
The fern or, more properly, the spores of the Eagle Fern collected on the eve of Midsummer were held to be effective in helping one find hidden treasures and to read the secrets hidden in people’s hearts. It was said to ensure victory in a struggle but also to grant invisibility to whomever held it in their mouth. Belief in the supernatural power of the fern, particularly its ability to resist all magic spells, was widespread enough in Europe for the practice of collecting ferns during Midsummer to have still been proscribed by Church Synods into the early 17th century.
Sometimes said to emerge spontaneously on Midsummer’s night, the Grass of Oblivion was thought to make it possible to understand the language of animals and to find lost items. It was also believed able to allow one to thwart the malice of witches but whoever unknowingly stepped on it, immediately lost their way and at risk of finding themselves at the mercy of the mischief of the korrigans.
Panicaut gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Eve was believed to be cure sick animals, while the health of cows was thought preserved over the year ahead if their hooves were rubbed with a paste made of the ground Herbs of Saint John gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Day. Similarly, to protect against witchcraft over the year ahead, it was necessary to assemble, at dawn, all one’s sheep at a crossroads on Midsummer’s Eve and smoke them with the Herbs of Saint John picked on the previous Midsummer.
Such fires, lit at crossroads, were said to prevent witches passing there during the night and some have suggested that the ancient fire festivals of Europe, such as the bonfires of Midsummer, were, in fact, rites aimed at cleansing the land of curses and the malevolence of witchcraft in an attempt to ensure a fruitful harvest and healthy livestock over the year ahead; once such key concerns for our ancestors.