The folk medicine and traditional remedies of rural Brittany changed little over the centuries; a fascinating blend of ancient superstitious practices, naturalistic beliefs, witchcraft, religion and empiric medicine. In an earlier post I highlighted some of the popular herbal treatments once used in the Breton countryside; this post will therefore focus on other traditional natural remedies once found here.
Some of the old folk remedies seem fairly benign, for instance, skin diseases were often treated by rubbing the affected area with a handful of oats which were then allowed to dry; the scabs were said to disappear as the oats dried. However, other treatments required a strong constitution and a deep conviction in the efficacy of the healer; one cure for rheumatism and gout involved scoring the patient’s soft palate and tearing out a piece of mucosa lining before gargling with salt water, while one remedy for toothache involved chewing sea holly as the healer recited a special charm nine times before invoking the 3rd century Christian martyr, Saint Appollonia.
In another popular remedy, a roasted hazelnut, as hot as one could bear, was applied directly to treat a diseased tooth but some healers recommended the application of an earthworm that had been reduced to ash on a hot shovel. One cure for jaundice recommended infusing earthworms and woodlice in white wine for twenty-four hours before drinking the resultant beverage for three consecutive mornings before breakfast. Another treatment for curing the same ailment called for goose droppings; dried and ground, stirred into a bowl of white wine and drank before breakfast for nine consecutive days.
Chicken droppings were used as a poultice against toothache and to prevent the formation of abscesses. This remedy was also believed to combat inflammation but to treat such an affliction, an ointment made of honey and an equal amount of dirt from a swallow’s nest was often applied. One practice, noted at the end of the 19th century, for treating the swelling caused by toothache, involved the application, upon the swollen cheek, of a poultice of freshly expelled cow dung. However, human faeces, provided that it was freshly expelled and still warm was considered more efficient.
Many other ailments were once treated with animal ordure here: an application of fresh cow dung was used in the treatment of angina while a handful of dung, infused for twelve hours in a pint of urine, was held to be effective against tumours. A poultice of warm cow dung was also used to treat tonsillitis and to relieve strains. Similarly, an application of pig dung was said to have been an effective means of relieving strains. A pint of white wine, infused for twenty-four hours with horse dung, was taken as a cure for pleurisy. To aid a pregnancy, an application of bull’s dung or a pessary of mouse droppings were recommended; dried and powdered mouse droppings were also used in the treatment of epilepsy.
Another medicine used to treat epilepsy was made from the legs of twelve moles that had been boiled in vinegar until completely desiccated. Once dried, this compound was ground to a powder which was added to jam and taken every morning before breakfast during the three days before the new moon and for the three days following its appearance. The healing power of the mole was also witnessed in the belief that the hand in which a live mole had been squeezed to death, while still warm from contact with the animal, was thought able to immediately cure all toothache and colic, while mole skin placed on a baby’s fontanel was said to encourage strong dental growth.
Similar to the belief in the healing power of herbal amulets, wearing certain items against one’s body was also thought to combat sickness. A ring made from a piece of nail taken from the foot of a donkey was worn on the finger to treat epilepsy although some folk recommended pressing the nail from a crucifix against the patient’s arm. A bag containing the tongue of a mole was carried by those wishing to recover memory lost following an illness and a necklace of limpets was worn around the necks of children at night to protect them from intestinal worms.
Typically, spider webs were applied to a wound to halt bleeding and to preserve it against infection, while the ear stone of a carp, placed against the fold of the little finger, was said to stem the most impetuous flow of blood. Sometimes, blood itself seems to have had value, as the blood from the tail of a black cat was thought to have healing properties if rubbed directly on the seat of the disease.
Water and stone once held significant positions in the old folk remedies of Brittany, while the practices associated with them may have altered and adapted with the Christianisation of the region, their importance was still noted late into the 19th century. I have already looked at the popular use of sacred springs as a source of healing, so, will not repeat that earlier post here. Suffice to say that people would visit certain springs and apply the water to their body or else drink it in expectation of a cure. These sacred springs often cured quite specific ailments and were usually associated with particular ‘healing saints’ and rituals.
For instance, those suffering from migraines would visit Saint Gildas’ fountain in Carnoët to drink its water; the 6th century saint was also invoked against madness, toothaches and rabid dog bites. In eastern Brittany, to cure a fever, one needed to collect water from a fountain at sunset, leave it in a glass outside overnight and drink it at sunrise the following day. This is notable because the tradition was not tied to a particular spring; any source was believed effective, provided the ritual was observed.
In western Brittany, one means to be rid of rheumatism required the patient to strip naked on the outbreak of a storm and lie on their stomach, under the rain, for as long as the downpour lasted. Another treatment from the same area, recommended rolling the affected limb on the ground immediately upon hearing the first cuckoo song of the year, while a more practical remedy involved the application of the fat of a badger. In the east of the region, another water-based remedy held that anyone who could gather the first drops of rain that fell on Saint Lawrence’s Day (10 August) was assured a cure for any burn.
Belief in the healing power of stone was once widespread here and numerous rituals connected with healing stones were noted as extant in Brittany at the end of the 19th century. For instance, youngsters would rub their loins against the stele in the churchyard of Saint Samson in Pleumeur-Bodou in the hope of improving their strength while men would rub their shoulders against the menhir in Landunvez for the same purpose. To ward off rheumatism, people rubbed their backs against the leading stone of the dolmen at Guimaëc and on the menhir in the churchyard at Saint-Guyomard.
The feet of children who had difficulties walking were placed into the small depressions found on a rock near Ménéac, while the mother placed her foot and knee in another hollow; divine healing was thought assured in the belief that these depressions had been made by the Virgin Mary. Another healing stone was found 50km south in Plumergat where those suffering from colic invoked Saint Stephen while lying on a stone basin. Weak children were taken to the church at nearby Pluneret and placed on a quartz block known as the Boat of Saint Avoye in expectation that they would be imbued with strength from the 3rd century Christian martyr. Touching a stone near the Saint Egarec chapel in Lampaul-Plouarzel was believed to heal ear problems.
Warts were clearly a popular concern in yesterday’s Brittany as they were the focus of several prescriptions. One remedy called for the warts to be rubbed with fluff found fortuitously upon a path or with a large red slug. In some parts of the region, it was important that the slug was then impaled upon a thorn or on the tallest stalk of cereal that remained standing after harvest; the warts were believed to disappear as the slug dried-out. Rubbing the tail of a black cat over warts was also said to help them disappear but only if done under the new moon in May.
Other treatments for warts appear to have been vestiges of quite ancient practices where the ailment was magically transferred from its human host into another being or even an inanimate object. For example, one cure called for as many pebbles as there were warts to be placed in a small bag that was then tied shut and left on a road. The curious passer-by who subsequently opened the bag was believed to take-on the warts that would have immediately left the original patient. A similarly underhanded way of ridding yourself of warts required having them counted by some naive person in the expectation that they would absorb all that they could count.
Some traditional remedies were a little more unusual, as another cure for warts required the sufferer to cut a pigeon’s heart in half and rub the warts with both pieces before tying them together in a fig leaf; as they rotted, the warts were expected to disappear. Some healers believed an apple was as effective as a pigeon’s heart, while others said that the apple needed to be buried at the foot of a walnut tree. Around Rennes, peas were thrown into a sacred spring on the sighting of the rising sun in the belief that the warts would disappear as the peas rotted.
The custom of throwing peas into water sources and wells, with the intention of getting rid of unpleasant growths, was once quite widespread in Brittany. In the east of the region, it was believed necessary to throw them with your eyes closed and without the ritual being witnessed by anyone. Peas were not the only object thrown into a sacred spring to rot in expectation of a cure; a barley grain was thrown in hope of getting rid of a stye around Fougères, while a chicken egg was used about Rostrenen to be rid of a fever.
Another means of transferring a fever involved de-shelling a hard-boiled egg and pricking it in several places. After having soaked it for three hours in the patient’s urine, it was then given to a person of the same gender in the belief that the recipient of the egg would acquire the fever. In some areas, the film of an egg, placed around the little finger of a feverish patient, was also thought to absorb the fever.
On the isle of Sein, those suffering with a fever wrapped nine pebbles in a cloth that was then tied and placed at the foot of one of the two menhirs popularly known as The Talkers; whoever picked-up the cloth was said to take on the fever. However, to treat chest infections in central Brittany, nine white stones gathered from a road where a funeral had recently passed were boiled in milk; the patient drank the milk and pressed the stones against their chest.
Other treatments against fevers once noted in central Brittany ranged from the bizarre to the unusual. One remedy recommended preparing a small roll of bread with the urine of the sick person and once baked, it needed to be fed to a dog three times; the fever was then said to leave the patient and be absorbed by the dog. Another cure called for a freshly killed and quartered magpie; two hot pieces of the bird were applied to the kidneys, the other two to the soles of the feet. A perhaps more palatable belief held that nail scrapings, absorbed in a glass of water, cured the most vigorous fever.
Cures involving birds were found in other parts of the region; in the west, the fat of a gull killed on a Friday was rubbed onto the chest of the patient to cure a fever. For a stubborn fever, a pigeon was cut in half; the pieces were applied to the soles of the patient’s feet, the bird’s head being turned towards the heel. The application of a freshly killed and halved pigeon was also noted in the treatment of meningitis.
The ever-present threat of succumbing to a fever can be glimpsed by the plethora of popular remedies and superstitious recommendations that were once widespread here. Drinking from a bucket of water after a horse had drunk from it was thought to fight off a fever by strengthening the patient’s constitution. Those who managed to receive three sprinkles of holy water in three different parishes on the same Sunday or who drank holy water on the eve of Pentecost, or who exposed themselves naked to the rising sun while reciting a certain number of Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers, were thought assured of defeating their fever. Alas, the reasoning behind the practice of stealing a cabbage from a neighbour’s field and putting it to dry in a rack in one’s barn eludes me.
In eastern Brittany, snails that had been de-shelled were applied as a poultice to the soles of the feet of patients suffering from typhoid. Crushed snails were also applied directly as an ointment to treat whitlow while the juice of a crushed snail was applied into the ear as a treatment for deafness. In the west of the region, ear infections were treated with a drop of milk expressed directly from the breast of a nursing mother into the affected ear; a practice still noted in the 1930s.
One treatment for tuberculosis required that a crayfish be pounded alive and macerated in white wine overnight before being drunk. However, this remedy was not as unpleasant as another 19th century treatment for easing the plight of those suffering from this dreadful disease which recommended that patients visited their garden at dawn and swallowed all the dewy slugs they found alive there.
The notion of transferring disease from a human patient into another being can also be seen in the old practice of bandaging a live toad over a cancer in the belief that it would consume the disease. An appropriately sized toad was bound over the cancer for twenty-four hours and replaced with another if the cancer had not been completely eaten. In eastern Brittany, a toad was sometimes placed in the room of a feverish patient to absorb the fever and toads were placed in the beds of those afflicted with smallpox in the belief that their presence would prevent the patients from being scarred.
To treat eye ailments, some healers employed nine grains of wheat, begged from nine different houses. Each grain was used to trace a cross on the patient’s eyelids while certain charms were recited but some healers circled the affected eye nine times with each grain, reciting a charm at the end of each revolution. Both rituals were completed with the grains being plunged into a bowl of water which was then thrown into a fire. A more popularly used treatment for eye diseases involved the application of freshly laid, still warm, eggs but another remedy involved exposing the infected eye to the smoke produced by roasting a live snake on hot coals.
In the 17th century, the soil of Île Maudet, infused in a bowl of water, was widely taken as a cure for intestinal worms; the north coast island is named after the 6th century saint who is said to have once cleared it of snakes. By the mid-19th century, the island’s soil was also popularly used as a remedy against snake bites, eye diseases and skin complaints. The saint was also invoked to cure knee swelling and sufferers would visit the chapel dedicated to him in Haut-Corlay to take a handful of soil which they applied as a compress before washing the limb in the saint’s fountain nearby. At the saint’s fountain near Josselin, it was necessary to locate an earthworm and place it on the body; the ailment was cured if the worm died, otherwise, the ritual needed to be repeated.
The practice of transferring a disease to the land itself was also noted here. To cure whitlow, it was necessary, at nightfall, to go to a crossroads and press the infected hand upon the ground. This sod of earth was then cut-out and lifted, leaving a cavity in which the patient placed his hand for a few moments before leaving a coin and covering it with the overturned sod. The disease was now thought to heal but only if the patient had not been seen by anyone.
The belief that one could get rid of disease by visiting an anthill was once found in several parts of France. Along the Breton border with Normandy, urinating on an anthill for nine consecutive days was said to cure the patient of jaundice. However, typically an object, such as an egg boiled in the patient’s urine, believed to contain the disease was buried in the anthill; healing took place as the egg rotted. Clearly, some mystical power was once associated with anthills here as it was also said that one could conjure the Devil if, during the night of a full moon, one placed a green frog on an anthill and invoked certain charms.
The milk of a white mare was thought effective in treating whooping cough but in the south-west it was believed that it was possible to grind-out whooping cough. This was achieved by taking the sick child to the first mill in the neighbourhood, the child was placed on the hopper and the millstone set in motion. It was at this moment that the person who had brought the child recited a series of charms and the whooping cough was magically ground-out of the body. Another curious example of magical healing was seen in a cure for epilepsy, where it was necessary to place the patient in one of the balances of a scale and their weight of rye in the other.
In the late 17th century, several churches in Brittany were noted for having masses said to cure or preserve people from diseases and illness. While there may be nothing too unusual in that, the rituals noted at these masses formed no part of Church dogma; people offered crooked pins upon the altars and nodded their heads three times in a cupboard or in an alcove near the altar. Even into the 20th century, one of the altars of the Saint Mériadec chapel in Plumergat was the repository for three black and white quartz stones which people rubbed against their temples to be cured of headaches. Similarly, the chapel of Saint Egarec in Briec was home to nine stones shaped like ears that were applied against the ear as a cure for ear problems. Those suffering from hearing difficulties could also visit one of four chapels that possessed healing hand-bells that were rung over the patient’s head in expectation of a cure.
If most of these traditional treatments appear incredulous to us today, it is because we are unable to properly enter the mind-set and world view of the Breton peasant of yesterday. Even into the inter-war years, most rural dwellers depended more upon the herbal remedies and traditional medicine, long used in their communities, than upon the professional doctors of the cities. Crucially, people believed in the efficacy of their local healers and trusted in the power of their treatments. Shakespeare once wrote that “the miserable have no other medicine but only hope”; sometimes, hope goes a long way!