For over two centuries, a remarkable phenomenon was once noted in central Brittany; a seemingly spontaneous outbreak of barking women that disappeared as suddenly as it had first appeared. The reasons for these strange behaviours have, at times, been attributed to causes ranging from demonic possession to sexual frustration.
Records indicate that during the popular Pardon of Notre-Dame-du-Roncier (Our Lady of the Bramble) in the small town of Josselin on 25 May 1728, two young girls and their brother were healed of an illness described as “strange and unknown to the witnesses of the time, a frightening illness in its manifestation. They would fall to the ground as though they were unconscious with their mouths open and screaming in the manner of barking dogs, which sometimes lasted for over two hours and fell upon them more than eight to ten times each day and night.” After having been brought before the altar of the Virgin, the children drank the water of the nearby fountain devoted to her and the “extraordinary and unknown evil” vanished as inexplicably as it had emerged.
Since then, on the day of the Pardon, at Pentecost, local women were brought to the church in Josselin, barking like dogs and suffering great agony, to invoke the aid of the Virgin and be miraculously cured of their strange malady. By the middle of the 19th century, the Pardon had become popularly known as ‘The Pardon of the Barkers’.
One 19th century witness described the phenomena thus: “We designate by the name of barking women, unfortunates who, under the influence of a certain nervous agitation, utter hoarse cries similar to the growl of the dog. Little by little the voice becomes clearer and spreads in sonorous calls, precipitous, shrill like the notes of the bugle; it becomes a real bark, the tone of which gradually rises with the progression of the crisis. After the period of paroxysm, the intonation decreases and is exhaled in a plaintive howl recalling that of a dog in distress; thus the human creature has, like the beast, the complete range; it growls, barks and howls.”
A legend helped to explain the history behind these barking women. It tells that, a long time ago, in a nearby parish, a group of women were washing their clothes at a fountain, when a poor dishevelled beggar shuffled past, asking for alms. Unfortunately for this old woman, the washerwomen were hard of heart and too preoccupied for any thoughts of charity; they dismissed the sad beggar rudely and sent their dogs to drive her away.
As the dogs rushed forward, the old woman’s spine suddenly straightened and her wrinkles fell away as her rags transformed into the finest linen, accented with gold thread and fine jewels. Standing in utter radiance and glory, the woman addressed them thus: “Heartless women, I am the Blessed Virgin Mary. You have been merciless to the unfortunate and for this I condemn you and your daughters to bark like the dogs you threw upon me.”
It is said that, moved by the heartfelt despair of the washerwomen, the Virgin relented; allowing them to obtain forgiveness on the day of Pentecost provided they were not in a state of sin and made a pilgrimage to the Pardon of the church dedicated to her in nearby Josselin. This favour would be extended to their descendants but only after they had suffered a year in a state of atonement.
The Notre-Dame-du-Roncier church in Josselin was reputedly built on the site where a statue of the Virgin Mary was discovered in the early 9th century. This wooden statue was found by the blind daughter of a poor peasant working in the fields who told her father of a light she could see in a bush. Cutting away the brambles, the man uncovered a statue which he revealed to his daughter who immediately gained her sight.
The pair took this miraculous effigy home and were heartbroken to find it missing on the following morning; the statue was later found to have returned to the bramble bush. The statue was promptly recovered and returned to the peasant’s home but it again vanished in the night only to be found the following day amidst the brambles. In honour of these miracles, the locals decided to build a devotional chapel which, over time, was re-built and expanded to the grand church we see today. Unfortunately, the statue itself was destroyed during the Revolution but some fragments were saved that were subsequently housed in a small reliquary.
It was this glass-sided reliquary, placed near the high altar, which the barking women were brought, willingly or by force, to venerate with a kiss; a sacred act of devotion that was believed to cure them of the evil which possessed them. However, one account from 1882 claimed that the barkers were made to kiss the feet of the Virgin’s statue – possibly the new statue crowned in 1868. Another central part of the ritual took place at the nearby fountain where the women washed their hands and face and drank its water from a wooden bowl. Those who were too weak or too wild to attend the fountain were able to buy a handkerchief soaked in its water from enterprising beggars. Only after having drunk the water of the sacred fountain were the women freed by their escorts.
As you might imagine, the spectacle of howling and barking women being forcibly dragged through the streets, struggling violently against the grips of their burly male escorts, attracted a considerable crowd of, not necessarily pious, spectators who typically lined the route from the church to the fountain. Many eye-witness accounts remain from the 19th century; some are quite sensationalist while others adopt a rather mocking tone. The more balanced one that I have chosen was written by the Breton author Hervé de Kernouab in 1888, recounting the Pardon he had attended some thirty years earlier.
“It is six o’clock in the morning. The faithful flock to the first mass. Suddenly the air echoed with cries of distress. It is a barker being brought. Held by two men with long hair and wide breeches, she struggles energetically on the path. Her face is wet with sweat, her voice a dull growl. The journey to reach the relic is long. She takes advantage of this and redoubles her efforts to be free. Pushed brutally, she falls to the ground; they pick her up and the ordeal begins again. Exasperated by the suffering, she drools and makes desperate calls qualified as barking. Her guides remain impassive but do not let go of their prey. They cling to the unfortunate woman whose clothes are all torn. The church is near. With a supreme impulse they drag her to the threshold of the square.
There is a last fight; they have to climb the high granite steps. The body thrown back, suspended in the air, she still challenges her guides, who have great difficulty in restraining her and preventing her from falling but victory is theirs. Tamed, annihilated, livid; she sinks. Her face is stained with dirt and great tears flow from her dead eyes. She is pitiful. Thrown against the reliquary, she kisses it, unconscious, screaming in a weakly plaintive manner and her voice, broken by the struggle, exhales in a last hiccup. Here, she is calmed down, this is called healing.
In fact, she stops barking. Exhausted by the crisis she no longer has the strength to stand and so we sit her on a chair. In this position she is curious to observe: no awareness of her being; lying rather than seated, her arms hang inert, perpendicular to the body, motionless. Her face, deadly pale, is drenched in sweat; her eyes close under the influence of an irresistible force, her mouth, half-closed, lets out intermittent hiccups. She looks like she is sleeping, subject to a dream.
Striking is the contrast of her calm face and messy clothes. In her struggle with the peasants her tulle headdress came undone; the raw-coloured shawl, which sheltered her breast, crossed in front, was untied revealing her shirt under which the breast shakes with a jerky palpitation. This takes place during mass, which is in no way interrupted despite this disorder. The celebrants continue to pray and it ends in absolute peace. That one finished, another one starts again and so on.”
By all accounts, the natives of Josselin, long-used to the spectacle, appeared quite indifferent to the commotion caused by the barking women; an attitude that visiting spectators found striking in the face of such suffering. So much so that some visitors suspected that the maniacal barking women and their stoic escorts were more an empty hoax rather than a poignant reality.
In his 1855 work, Pèlerinages de Bretagne, Hippolyte Violeau recalls his visit to Josselin: “Suddenly, there was movement around me and up went the cry: ‘Make way, make way for the barkers’. Men were dragging and carrying with difficulty, several women; pale, their mouths foaming, their eyes half closed, struggling like demoniacs and uttering hoarse cries not unlike the barking of a dog.” Interestingly, he noted the local belief that there were several families of barkers living around Josselin; descendants of the washerwomen of legend, who suffered from hereditary convulsions, not understood by science, which reappeared each year around the time of Pentecost.
The precise malady that affected the barking women of Josselin remains unknown to this day. Locals seem to have taken a rather fatalistic approach and regarded the women as those marked by the words of the Virgin, destined to fulfil the ancient curse imposed upon their ancestors. For some, the continued belief in witchcraft and the practice of healing magic in the Breton countryside convinced them that these women were the victims of demonic possession.
This was a notion considered by many seriously-minded 19th century commentators who were keen to see, in Josselin, a modern example of mass possession or demonopathy while others argued that the roots of these phenomena lay not in the bowels of Hell but in the depths of mental illness or mass hysteria. Others attributed the cause to some sort of mass delusion brought about by the powers of suggestion or religious fervour.
De Kernouab believed that the women he witnessed were probably epileptics and thought that their over-excited state caused tensions in the muscles of the throat that progressively increased due to stress and subsequently subsided with fatigue. He also noted that the women were remarkably similar; they were all around forty years of age and all “had a heavy demeanour, their features downcast, almost withered.”
He thought that these women were likely well-known in their communities and aware of their illness, the legend and its associated custom; they therefore awaited the inevitable knock on the door on the morning of Pentecost. If so, the apprehension of being forcibly taken would, understandably, increase their anxiety and agitate their nervous system. Little wonder therefore that when their stony-faced escorts arrived, the women’s nerves were at fever-pitch and a hysterical crisis erupted. The widespread belief in the legend of the washerwomen accounted for why the women’s loved ones allowed them to be abducted and forcibly cured; they had accepted their fate.
Fascination in the barking women of Josselin has diminished little over the years and new theories to explain their behaviour have emerged. One writer is convinced that the women were feminists rebelling against the Church and the belief in the power of the Virgin. Another, that they were resisting the ideal of chaste femininity propounded by the Church and community at large; their refusal to be submissive and their yearning for sexual freedom required correction. There is even a school of thought that says the women were gripped by some ancient folk memory of the conquest of Brittany by Conan Mériadoc, the semi-legendary 4th century king of Brittany who, they claim, had his men remove the tongues of young native girls so that their children could not speak their Gallic mother tongue.
Many people were and remain convinced of the divine healing power of the Virgin but some have suggested that the collapse of the barking women’s resistance and the end of their convulsions could also be explained by the fact that kissing the reliquary was the moment of maximum intensity. The paroxysm ceased because that key moment had passed and the patient collapsed through the complete exhaustion of their mental and physical strength; and likely out of sheer relief.
We cannot be certain how many barking women were taken to Notre-Dame-du-Roncier over the years, some Pardons witnessed dozens of women dragged, kicking, biting and screaming to the church. Nor do we know how far some of the women were brought or how many of them received only a temporary cure and were thus dragged back to suffer their fate again the following year. However, we do know that the last recorded barker to be healed was cured during the Pentecost festival of 1953 although who knows how many anonymous rites have been performed there since then.