The lives of those who inhabited the rural Brittany of yesteryear were guided by the seasons and their precious hours of daylight. For them, the unpredictable year was punctuated by the key dates of the agrarian and liturgical calendar. With harvest well underway here in today’s Brittany, a look at some of the old rituals, beliefs and superstitions once associated with the agricultural cycle here might be timely.
It was important on the last day of April to put a little salt in the four corners of the pastures in order to protect the cattle from evil spells. Likewise, on Palm Sunday, it was necessary to place blessed branches in the sown field in order to prevent witches from casting a spell on the future harvest. To ensure a good crop of apples in the following year, the fruit trees were surrounded with straw on Christmas Eve. While those wishing to ensure success in rearing poultry believed that it was assured if they danced on the farm’s dunghill on Shrove Tuesday. Sheep shorn during the octave of Corpus Christi (a movable feast observed sixty days after Easter whose octave was suppressed by Pope Pius XII in 1955) were believed to die within the year, while the rain that fell during those days was said to kill caterpillars. The rain that fell on May Day was believed especially harmful to the bounty of fruit trees but the appearance of swarms of flies were thought to presage an abundant crop.
Many prohibitions and prescriptions were also linked to the feast days of particular saints. For instance, weak wheat was guaranteed if it was sown on Saint Léger’s Day (2 October) but that sown on the day of Saint Francis (4 October) would grow strong and full. The feast days of Saint Joseph (19 March) and Saint Benedict (21 March) were considered most propitious for sowing parsnips and flax. Various traditions surrounding Saint Peter were known; it was recommended to plant garlic on 15 April, knot it on 29 June and to pluck it on 1 August. While some parishes rang their bells to drive away the witches that were thought to run during the night of the feast of Saint Agatha (5 February), the day was a most auspicious one for sowing leeks. All Saints’ Day (1 November) was regarded as a good day to sow wheat and to gather the final fruits although all the fruits were thought ripe by the feast of Saint Matthew (21 September).
Other favourable days for sowing can be seen in some proverbs that have long fallen out of use but were recorded here between the two World Wars: When the water drips from the horns of the ox, it is time to sow the wheat; When the moon rises before dark, sow your parsnips the next day; When the frog sings in the middle of the day, it is time to sow the barley. Leap years were not forgotten and seem to have been held as an opportunity for crop rotation: On the leap year, the fine man abandons oats and sows flax; Whoever is thin, the following year, abandon flax and sow oats. Alas, only misfortune was said to ensue from work done on a Friday; important tasks such as sowing or ploughing were therefore avoided on that day.
The protection of valuable crops was a constant concern to the rural peasants of Brittany; superstitious ritual and religion were both called upon – together and apart – to support their endless efforts in the fields. Even up until the First World War, people would travel from far afield to buy the ashes of Motreff’s midsummer bonfire whose miraculous properties were said to help corn grow. Some farmers turned three turns around their plough, holding bread, oats and a lighted candle in their hands, before beginning to plough, so that their work would be fruitful. Others, before starting their labours, walked in prayer three times around the parish church to gain the same result.
Perhaps more important than the ox that was used to pull it, the plough itself once held a revered place in the mind of the Breton farmer; it represented an integral part of the fabric of rural life. As the families of a commune were counted by their hearths, so the farms of a district were counted by ploughs. It was also once traditional here to measure areas of arable land by ploughs or ploughing days. Indeed, the use of the term acre as a historical unit of measurement in north-west France and Great Britain is believed to have derived from the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plough in a day.
In Brittany, the early Christian saints could have been said to have lived under the maxim of the cross and the plough; labour and prayer, and many legends associate them with ploughing or preaching to ploughmen. Interestingly, even into the middle of the 8th century, the pagan practice of drawing a furrow around a settlement with a plough, in order to ward off evil spirits, was still prevalent enough in this region to have been proscribed by Charlemagne.
The esteem which our ancestors held for the plough can be glimpsed from the importance once attached to defending its ownership; in medieval Brittany, the theft of a plough was considered a most serious crime and it was an offence specifically highlighted in several old penal codes. Additionally, the plough was sometimes called upon as an arbiter of justice in the Ordeal By Fire. Here, six or nine ploughshares were laid across a fire pit until red-hot and arranged on the ground at equal intervals over a set distance, usually about three metres. In order to prove their innocence, the accused had to walk barefoot over the glowing iron without being injured but, typically, the wounds were bandaged and examined by a priest after three days. If the wounds showed signs of healing, the accused was innocent but condemned if found festering. Thankfully, the practice dropped out of favour towards the end of the 13th century.
It was considered a sign of bad luck to step over a plough in a field and to avert any possible misfortune it was necessary to immediately retrace one’s step backwards over the plough. However, forgetting to sow all of the furrows in a field was perhaps regarded as a worse omen. It was thought that if the unseeded furrow was the longest in the field, death would strike the head of the family; if the furrow was the second longest, the mistress of the house would be claimed; if it was short, one of the children would be taken; if it was unremarkable then one of the farmhands would die.
Other superstitions once surrounded the ox used to pull the plough here. For instance, when a family bought an ox or a cow, it was traditional to keep the rope that had been around the animal’s neck when bought, tied for the first three days at its new home. It was also recommended to feed the animal a little salt with the left hand. Such practices were said to make the animal forget its former pasture. However, when selling an ox or other animal, the seller typically gave the buyer some coins, to bring them good fortune. Even the yoke of an ox was considered special as it was believed a sacrilege to burn the parts of a broken yoke on account of the ox having been sanctified by its presence at the birth of Christ.
Sowing also had its share of superstitions weaved around it. The best and most beautiful wheat was believed assured if the seed had first been stored in the cloth on which the Christmas meal had been served. However, in eastern Brittany, it was said if a farmer looked at the wheat growing in the fields before the first Sunday in March, it would be liable not to grow any further. Wheat was said to grow the most during three nights between the feasts of Saint John (24 June) and Saint Peter (29 June) but to monitor the field during this time was not recommended, for it risked ruining the crop. Before sowing flax, it was advised to send one’s wife to the field on her knees; if she returned with swollen knees, the flax was forecast to make the finest linen. Another curious belief held that one needed to refrain from eating toasted bread after they had sown wheat or they risked reaping a bad harvest.
The end of the main period of spring sowing was marked by the feast of Saint Mark (25 April) and by the three days of prayer preceding the moveable Feast of the Ascension, known as Rogation days. These were focused on imploring for God’s blessing on the crops and the forthcoming harvest. It was customary for the local priest to lead his congregation through the fields of the parish, blessing the sown fields in hopes of a bountiful yield. The Rogation processions here usually started early morning and each day followed the direction of the cardinal points, starting from the church and ending at some wayside calvary or sacred fountain.
The octave of the feast of Pentecost (fifty days after Easter) was another sacred time when the farmers of Brittany believed that the forces of nature were acutely powerful and when the planted fields should not be disturbed by any agricultural work, under penalty of bringing misfortune upon the crop. The power of nature’s influence was profound; sowing was avoided during the period of a waning moon which was considered especially malignant to the health of crops, as was the east wind. However, good harvests were assured if they had been sown during a waxing moon or with a northeast wind.
The fragile boundary between the success or failure of a crop gave rise to a number of curious rituals designed to protect the fields and their precious charge. Many gateways to fields were honoured on May Day with a branch of budding beech in order to ensure a good harvest. In western Brittany, they placed a toad in a jug in the field in the expectation that it would keep mice away. Similarly, it was once customary to place a frog in a new earthen pot and bury it in the middle of a field in the belief that it would prevent birds from eating what was sown there. Such magical practices were noted into the 20th century when witches’ enchantments were often placed in earthenware vases concealed in the ground at the entrance to the fields they had cursed.
Sometimes, the appearance of natural phenomena such as unseasonal weather or crop blight was blamed on the malign influence of the witch. In times past, Breton witches boasted of stopping spring water, diverting the course of rivers, of causing rain to fall only where they wanted and of making fertile land barren. This last curse was often practiced by means of a large stone which was placed in the target field; its presence indicated that the area was cursed and that any who dared to cultivate it were, in their turn, doomed.
Witches were also attributed the power of transferring the harvest from one field to another; a sinister ability that found its way into several legends. Perhaps the most evocative of which told that when witches wanted to appropriate the produce of a field, they ploughed it with a team of toads. Sometimes, the Devil himself was said to drive their plough, the ropes of which were made from quackgrass, the ploughshare fashioned from the horn of a castrated ox. This singular ploughing complete, all the produce of the field passed to the witch and the poor farmer was left with nothing but thorns and thistles.
When flax grew inconsistently on the same piece of land, some people confidently asserted that the field, seemingly without division, belonged to two distinct masters, even if the boundary stone could not be seen. The reason one farmer’s efforts were favoured over his neighbour was ascribed to his having invoked the influence of Saint Genevieve in a rather lengthy but particularly mean-spirited and self-righteous prayer. To produce its effect, this prayer was recited when the last handful of linseed was sown and the sign of the cross scored on the last furrow. Another flax-related practice noted here was the custom of singing whilst harvesting it; said to prevent the spinners falling asleep while spinning it.
Harvest was once marked by certain traditional rites which effectively disappeared here in the middle of the last century. In many areas, before leaving for the first gathering, the family and neighbours who were to assist with the labour assembled at daybreak in the farmyard and the head of the household would recite a short prayer to ask for God’s blessing on the tools and the work that was about to require them. Before harvesting a field, everyone recited the Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers and a De Profundis for all those who had worked the field in the past. Any man, the head of the family or a labourer, could ceremoniously cut the first sheaf but never a woman. The position of lead reaper was usually given to the strongest son but the role was mostly surrendered, out of familial deference, to the head of the family.
When the field had been cleared, one of the workers, usually the eldest man present, recited: “Doue bardon an anaon” (May God forgive the dead), to which the others responded “Amen”. It is worth noting that a small area of each field was never cultivated or cleared; it was believed to be a home for the dead undertaking their penance. On the party’s return to the farmyard at sunset, the head of the household again led a short prayer that again included Pater Noster, Ave Maria and De Profundis. Traditionally, when the last sheaf was tied, a cross made of strands of straw was placed upon it.
As soon as the wheat was reaped, it was threshed. The last cart from the field was usually abundantly garlanded as was the ox or horse pulling it. The children of the neighbourhood, carrying bouquets of flowers, were perched on the load, often ringing little bells while the adults sang during the journey back to the farm. The following days were then devoted to threshing; a process done outside and led by the head of the household. When the last ears had been threshed, the eldest man present would again implore for God’s forgiveness of the dead. The grand communal meal to celebrate the end of threshing was also concluded with a prayer for the dead, before the rest of the night was given over to music and dancing. Saint Michael’s Day (29 September) was considered the close of harvest and it was also the date when rental leases ended.
Perhaps the largest number of crop-related superstitions here once surrounded wheat and it’s most popular by-product, bread. If, when removed from the oven, a loaf of bread was found to have torn during baking, it announced a wedding was near. If the bread had completely split and separated into two or three pieces, only misfortune could follow; the death of a loved one was imminent. Pieces of bread were also the divinatory medium used when consulting several oracular fountains here that were visited to answer questions of marriage, fidelity or even death. Similar rituals involving bread also took place in less sacred settings. For instance, in the west of Brittany it was customary at New Year to butter as many pieces of bread as there were members of the household. The head of the family would then name each person and toss the bread into the air; whoever’s bread landed on the buttered side was said to die within the year.
Another New Year’s custom thought to allow one to learn the secrets of the forthcoming year called for the curious to stare into a cold bread oven and listen carefully to the noises they heard. More prosaically, if a knife that had been inserted for a few hours into a fresh loaf on New Year’s Eve was withdrawn and found to have crumbs attached to it, a rainy year ahead was forecast but a year of famine could be expected if the withdrawn blade was wet.
The prophetic qualities of bread were also noted in the practice of collecting, without being seen, the pieces of bread left by the guests of a wedding dinner; the person whose morsel first sprouted mould was thought the first to die. The behaviour of five balls of fresh bread thrown upon a table was also said to provide a sure answer to any question posed; it was held to be an affirmative response only if they fell in the shape of a cross. Dumplings and wheat grains were also said to have been equally effective.
Other days were considered propitious in harnessing the supernatural power of wheat. If a pyramid of flour created on the night of Saint Andrew (30 November) had collapsed by the morning, death was near. Similarly, if a group of people prepared balls of dough on the night of Saint Hervé (17 June) and left them outside all night, in the morning, the dumpling without any cracks was said to belong to one who had not long left to live.
It was believed to invite misfortune if a loaf of bread was placed upside down on the table, for it had not been earned by lying on one’s back. Children were told that if the bread that they took from their mother broke in their hands, it was because they had neglected their prayers; if the knife used to cut the bread did not cut straight, it was because they had lied. However, a more sinister superstition said that if the bread on the table was completely consumed by a house fire, the family’s home would soon be destroyed by a new, more powerful, conflagration.
Bread, as well as bran and straw, was also the medium once said to have been most effective in locating the bodies of those who had drowned. A loaf, containing either a lighted candle or bearing the name of the missing person, was placed on the water and abandoned to the current. Its movements were carefully watched for the body of the drowned was thought to lie very close to where the floating loaf stopped. Curiously, in the mid-19th century, in some of the communes surrounding the town of Dinan, it was noted that pieces of blessed bread were often placed in the coffin of the deceased.
Grains of wheat were once used, with much mystic ritual, in two areas of most concern to the average Breton peasant; to foretell the future and to expel evil spirits thought to cause bad health. The magical quality of this marvellous seed can also be noted in two practices separated by a thousand years. In the late-19th century, a pig’s bladder stuffed with straw and nine grains of wheat was hung at home to protect the family against the malice of the korrigans, while in the mid-8th century, the grains were burned where a man had died, to help guarantee the health of the living.
Straw was also not without its peculiarities here. If after having swept the house thoroughly, a straw was found on the floor, it was a sure sign of impending visitors. If one encountered two pieces of straw shaped in the form of a cross, it was seen as an invitation to retrace one’s steps; if the omen was ignored, they could expect another cross would soon stand over their grave. If a bale of straw fell from the attic for no good reason, it was because the ghosts of the dead had been lying upon it. If a hen, after getting entangled in straw, had a piece of it stuck to its tail, it was a sign of impending mourning for the household; if the straw bore a spur, it was the death of a young man that was announced.
One popular use for straw, noted here in the early-19th century, was to aid in the identification of a thief. Each suspect in the household was presented with straw pieces of the same length which were then re-examined some twenty minutes later; that held by the guilty party was thought sure to have lengthened. A more serious application of the straw can perhaps be seen in the text of the 12th century French tale, Roman de Renart, which shows that the gift and acceptance of straw symbolised a bargain had been struck. The ritual of picking up and proffering the straw was a token of free-will publicly declared. Likewise, a bargain was cancelled by breaking a straw; it symbolically broke the agreement. The practice was noted in feudal Normandy, where to break a straw, was to signify a repudiation of service between lord and vassal. While I have yet to encounter any written evidence that the same practice prevailed here, it is more than likely. One curious practice that was noted this side of the border was a declaration of war made by casting a handful of gathered and lit straw to the winds.
The folk medicine of Brittany also utilised straw in its healing treatments. Following the belief that disease could be transferred from the patient into another being or even inanimate object, people would sometimes bind themselves to a tree with a tie of straw in hopes of passing their fever. However, it was more typical for the patient to visit a tree before breakfast and bind a tie of straw that had been in contact with the disease onto the tree, at the height of the sick part of their body. The sickness was said to ease as the straw tie rotted but only if a certain charm had also been uttered and the bark of the tree bitten. It was also essential that no part of the ceremony had been witnessed by another. Children were warned against removing these straw girdles for fear that they might contract the disease themselves. Interestingly, in southern Brittany, the belief that a tree whose trunk was tied with a straw rope would bear better fruit was also noted in the 19th century.
It was once a widely accepted belief here that God had created certain plants for the benefit of humanity, particularly rye, wheat, oats and carrots. Other plants were traditionally ascribed to the Devil, namely buckwheat, dodder, quackgrass and ryegrass. In parts of Brittany, farmers’ harvesting buckwheat would often leave a few sheaves uncut in the field or else throw several handfuls into the ditches bordering the fields where it had grown; this was the Devil’s share. However, this practice is likely one of great antiquity that was, at one time, given a Christianised gloss.
In all likelihood, the offering was originally addressed to the spirits of the dead believed to reside there. We can witness this in the tradition of planting an evergreen shrub, such as boxwood or laurel, in a field dedicated to growing crops. These plants were believed to be one of the preferred abodes for the souls of the dead; to plant a branch of it was therefore to involve the beneficial influence of the spirits of one’s ancestors in the fertility of the land. In Brittany, the dead were never far removed from the living.