In yesterday’s Brittany, the miller enjoyed a rather ambivalent reputation in society. His trade brought him into regular contact with a wide range of people across the community; guaranteeing any visitor would leave the mill with all the latest news of any importance. Admired for his hard-work and often his skill at resetting broken or dislocated bones, the miller was also viewed with some suspicion and a once popular saying told that nothing was bolder than a miller’s shirt because every morning it caught a thief.
In the south of Brittany, on the road between the town of Guérande and La Roche-Bernard, lies the restored 15th century mill of Crémeur. Today, the mill no longer grinds but it still retains its long-standing popular nickname of the Devil’s Mill; the site of one the region’s most well-known legends of reputed interactions between the Devil and hard-working Breton peasants.
While the master miller of Crémeur could boast of owning the mill, he could make no claim to providing security for his family because his mill steadfastly refused to grind little more than a few ears of corn; the winds from the south coast blew strongly across his little plateau but the blades of his mill scarcely turned. It was therefore unsurprising that no customers came to grind their grain; forcing the miller and his family to rely on the most meagre of existences.
One autumn day, while the miller lamented his wretched situation to no one in particular, a richly dressed stranger passed along the nearby road and walked over to speak to him, asking the reason for his obvious distress. With a heavy sigh, the miller unburdened himself to the stranger; telling him that the mill was so poorly positioned that even the March winds were not enough to turn its wings. The mill should have been a source of wealth and pride but it contributed so little to the family table that he was now thinking of abandoning it and leave to beg elsewhere for some dirty work to feed his family.
“It is possible that I can help you,” said the traveller. Upon hearing these few words of hope, the miller wondered if it was not the winds of Providence which had sent this stranger to deliver him from his problems; perhaps this was a wealthy man who would, as an act of charity, buy his mill for a good price.
“I see that you have a hill on your land, to the west of your house. I can build a new mill there which will have all the wind it needs and will grind so well that all the people of the country hereabouts will bring you their custom and make you your fortune. All this I can do for you in one night.”
“In just one night but that is impossible,” exclaimed the miller; “only God or the Devil could do such a thing.” In this, the hapless miller was not mistaken because it was the Devil himself who had come to offer him a bargain.
“Of course,” said the Devil carefully, “such an undertaking cannot be done without due consideration. I will require possession of your soul when you die but fear not, for all the years that you have left to live will be free of worry for you and your family.” The miller, a pious man, immediately refused the deal for he could not to accept to condemn his soul to the torments of Hell.
However, a moment of reflection reminded him of his family’s misery and so, he accepted the bargain. “Then it is agreed,” said the Devil; “you grant me your soul in exchange for a mill built entirely on top of that hill and before the rooster crows tomorrow.”
The miller returned home but was so heavily weighted with shame for his diabolical pact that his wife, seeing her husband even more unhappy than usual, asked him what could have happened. Hesitantly, he confessed all that had passed between him and his infernal visitor.
Stunned by his tale, the miller’s wife was, in equal measure, aghast and angry at her husband’s weakness and his wanton betrayal of God and His saints. To safeguard her children from any of the Devil’s mischief, she left with them, in all haste, for the house of her mother, just one league distant. However, the good lady felt herself compelled to return to the mill for she could not willingly abandon her husband to the Devil.
The darkness had descended by the time she reached home but the noise of furious activity nearby confirmed her darkest fears that the Devil was at large; delivering his part of the bargain. Anxious with worry, the miller’s wife prayed throughout the night but stopped a little before dawn in order to prepare three lanterns. She moved quickly and noisily through the yard, waking-up the slumbering pigs as she did so, and set-up her lanterns around the hen-house. At the sight of all these lights, the deceived rooster began to crow with such fervour that the Devil, believing himself at dawn, swiftly deserted his site.
Roused from his torpor, the miller now prepared to face the day. He had walked but a few yards from home when he saw, upon the hill, a mill so beautiful and so large that he felt even more desperate; the Devil had kept his promise. His wife, taking pity on her husband’s despondency, quickly revealed her subterfuge to him and showed him a point, a little below the wings: a single stone was missing! The contract had not been properly fulfilled and so the miller kept his precious soul.
The Devil was so enraged at having been duped that he unleashed a violent storm throughout the peninsula but the miller was alert and placed a small statue of the Virgin in the empty space in the wall. This talisman defeated the demon and helped revive the prosperity of the miller; a man whom Providence had protected by choosing for him a bride of such keen intelligence and piety.
Across the peninsula, in the far west of Brittany, the Devil is also a character that features in several old local legends. Some of whom contain no moral messages to reflect upon but rather the kernels of a story one can easily imagine being told around the fireside at night. One such tale tells that, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, two men had travelled to the Kerharo mill near Cléden to play some hands of cards with the miller while the millstone was grinding their wheat.
As dusk turned to dark, a stranger entered the mill and offered to play a few games of chance with the trio. The offer of another hand was warmly accepted but the men’s good humour struggled a little in the face of the newcomer’s complete dominance; he won every hand convincingly. At one point in the evening, one of the players, having dropped a card, stooped to pick it up. It was then that he saw the stranger’s feet under the low table: they were the feet of a cow! He barely had time to cry out: the devil, for it was he, had already disappeared.
Once, small mills such as those at Crémeur and Kerharo were to be found in almost every Breton commune; these buildings were more than mere economic processing centres and once carried out an important role at the centre of community life. Villagers, most usually only the men, would gather at the local mill, even when they had no real business there, to share the latest news and gossip. Often, the miller’s wife operated a small cafe for their clients and other travellers, heightening its role as a hub of the community.
For centuries, life in rural Brittany remained little touched by the industrial and agricultural changes that swept across Europe and right up to the turn of the last century, most people still practiced a means of farming designed to satisfy just their own needs. People grew what they needed or were conditioned to need only what they could grow; they kept what they could store and bartered or sold what they could, as best they could. Poor communication networks meant that no market other than the local one really mattered.
As road and later rail communications improved towards the end of the 19th century, so, the lifestyle of the Breton country dweller changed, forever, beyond measure. The small-scale cottage industries, such as spinning, weaving and embroidery that had long supplemented the family income were the first to disappear; unable to compete with the industrially manufactured goods now becoming widely available. Domestic enterprises such as making clothes or processing food also began their relentless decline; a process exacerbated by the appearance of the humble sewing machine and industrial canning.
The demand for faster travel eventually brought about the demise of the wheelwrights, carters and the grooms, relay-stations and inns that supported them. Even coopers and blacksmiths soon found their hard-learned skills unable to contest the demands made by new, improved agricultural machinery and their intricate machine made components.
At a time when the majority of rural transactions were conducted by barter, the removal of even one trade from the community pool risked the long-term survival of communities that, for centuries, had been almost completely self-sufficient. Few rural artisans could earn a living from the practice of a single trade and it was not uncommon for the local butcher to also keep a tavern or for the miller to do some bone-setting or barbering on the side. While this might portray a community living close to the bone, it also indicates one that was remarkably independent; a self-supporting society in which everyone could contribute, as only a few trades required specialist but learnable skills.
The inevitable march of progress seems to have cast its darkest shadow over Brittany’s smiths and millers in the years immediately prior to the First World War. These years witnessed the final dominance of industrial production; a state of affairs cemented during the war years and from which rural communities, bereft of suitable manpower, could never hope to recover.
At the end of the 19th century it was recorded that bread was the staple diet for the peasants of central Brittany. Bread soaked in salt water with a little butter in it, followed by a piece of dry bread, being the most common meal for breakfast and dinner. Lard was a treat reserved for Sundays and meat for only the most important festivals and celebrations. Otherwise, the typical diet consisted of a pottage of buckwheat, millet or corn, chestnuts, cabbage and turnips or potatoes with a little bread made of rye or barley.
So, demand for the miller’s services remained strong but the economies of scale offered by the new, industrial mills posed an overwhelming threat to their survival. Improvements in transportation meant that many large farms increasingly took advantage of the rates offered by the new mills for their grain or its resultant flour. It was at about this time that white bread became increasingly fashionable here, relegating rye bread to the status of mere peasant food. Improvements to agricultural practices, such as the adoption of scythes over billhooks and the introduction of mechanisation into the harvest routine also took their toll. With gleaning steadily becoming uneconomic, the local mills saw another once vibrant part of their customer base disappear forever.
The windmills were the first to fade away here, gradually but inexorably followed by the more populous water mills. Their disappearance has left the Breton countryside peppered with picturesque ruins and restored homes for families now used to supermarket shopping. Sadly, the old mill stones no longer grind corn or wheat but still excite conversations, as quaint rustic features in the gardens of suburban Paris.
From millstones to milestones; this is my two year anniversary with WordPress and also my one hundredth post! I would therefore like to thank all who have taken the time to read any of my ramblings about this little corner of the world over the last two years – your kindness and generous support has been much appreciated by me! Thank you so very much. I wish you all the very best of health and sincere happiness for the future!