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The Devil, the Miller and a Milestone

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.

Moulin Cremeur Mill

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.”

Miller and the Devil

“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.”

devil and the miller

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.

Miller and 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.

Devil and the Miller

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.

Devil and the Miller

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.

Devil and Miller

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.

Mill Brittany Gauguin

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!

Bonjour from Brittany

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

250 thoughts on “The Devil, the Miller and a Milestone

  1. Congratulations on two years at WordPress and your 100th post. 😀

    Loved the story of the Devil, the miller and a mill. ❤

    Sounds like the rural economy of Britanny through the centuries was the ideal sustainable development economy.

    Maybe we should go back to it instead of embracing the global dystopia that the global elitists called the Build Back Better Great Reset.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Miller’s wife 1, Devil 0! 🙂 Great story.
    Progress marches on but leaves some chaos in its wake.
    Congratulations on your 2 years here and 100th post! Engagingly-told stories and so educational. I always learn something new! 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Interesting facts about the millers. Unfortunately, all is gone vain due to urbanisation. In India, we are circling back towards stone milling and organic materials of our ancestors. Congratulations for your 100th post and 2nd anniversary. Keep enlightening us with your Brittany stories.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Congrats on your second blog anniversary and 100th post! So happy to have found your blog 🙂 The Devil, it seems, continues to do well in securing more souls in exchange for riches and the good life. The wheels of economic progress for a few select souls roll on…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Many thanks! Haha, yes, it would certainly create a sensation, wouldn’t it? I can just imagine that story being embellished and filled with local flavour and characters and told of a winter’s night! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love your blog and congratulations. This one was particularly interesting — my Swiss ancestors were millers for several generation and it was definitely a very lucrative profession. Keep posting, please!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. They had two mills, each in a different town. From what I’ve been able to decode from a very heavy book in German, the guild was kind of a “mafia”. I wish so much it was easier to learn languages. The youngest sons had to find some other way to live. This was back in the 16th century.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Congratulations on your 100th post. You consistently publish high-quality, interesting and unique material. This post is no exception. It was fascinating to read about the the role of millers in Britany and how this changed over time. Your tale of the miller selling his soul to the devil (almost) was thrilling. I hope his wife got the appreciation she deserved. One thing I don’t get is the link between millers and bone setters. I don’t know much about either profession but I can’t quite get where skill as a miller might be useful in bone setting…cranking that bone back in place with the wind mill…please, no!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Many thanks indeed for your kind, supportive words! I am glad that we chanced upon each other! 🙂
      I believe that the link between millers and bone-setting is due to sheer strength but maybe not. Certainly, in the records of prosecutions for practising medicine without a licence, millers are in the majority. There is a little more on how they re-set bones here .. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Congratulations on the blog anniversary. Your posts, especially the ones featuring places I kno and love, have been a joy to read, since we haven’t been to Brittany for close to 2 years now and miss it. Thank you.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Congratulations on your anniversary! And thank you for the beautiful story about the devil.

    Well, it is obvious that you are a big supporter of the rural economy that has disappeared in the last two centuries 😉
    I also think that the old economy definitely was FAR MORE sustainable that our present way of producing goods. It’s up to us customers to support the local producers, even when their prices are higher (taking a global view, their prices are very often lower, because the price you pay in money doesn’t take into account the negative effects of the production and transport, especially the emissions…)

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Many thanks!! I am also grateful that you enjoyed the read! 🙂
      Ha, yes, it is something that I have given much thought to recently. I enjoy the benefits of free, competitive markets but, like you, I struggle with the idea of buying vegetables grown in Ethiopia or meat from Australia. While the economic costs are obviously covered, what of the environmental costs?
      You are right, if we do not use our local services or suppliers then we must accept that we will eventually lose them. Just wandering around small villages here, one notices how many of the houses have what were once clearly shop fronts or display windows. All long since gone but an indication of how vibrant even small villages once were!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Wow, I’ve never heard anything as wonderful as the story of the Miller! His wife was brilliant enough to defeat the devil! Just how amazing is that! I also like how this folk story presents intelligence as superior over the devil, in a way.

    Their disappearance has left the “Breton countryside peppered with picturesque ruins and restored homes for families now used to supermarket shopping”- tragedy in one sentence. What we’ve lost in the name of civilisation and progress is astonishing. I’ve been ruminating over this a great deal lately.

    Heart Congratulations on your milestone! 2 years of gracing the blogosphere- requires so much of dedication and commitment. Wishing you many many more milestones. 💐🙏😊

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Ha, yes, she was the real hero of the tale and, like you, I like the fact that clear thinking and action can defeat evil! 🙂
      Agreed, we have accrued massive benefits during the march of progress but the cost is too often overlooked. Like you, I have often thought whether there was a way to retain the best of both worlds!!
      Thank you so much for your kind words and good wishes – both are much appreciated! Stay well, stay blessed! 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  10. Nottingham still has its single remaining windmill close to the city centre! Although highly decorated and furnished it’s practical use has sadly been severely limited…. It’s a tourist spot now, like the ruins you describe it is a symbol of another time.

    Please allow me to join so many others in congratulating you on your successful two years and one hundredth post! I am very glad to be following you and look forward to your posts!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is wonderful! We tend to think of cities as completely urban spaces these days but even into the 17thC, they included worked farmland and mills etc. Yours is an amazing survivor!!

      Thank you for your good wishes – they are much appreciated! Wishing you the very best! 🙂 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re very welcome! 😁

        An amazing survivor….. and one I should appreciate more. Thanks for the perspective!

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Congratulations! Brittany offers so much to write about. Your posts are always fascinating. I can’t help feeling that the advance of industrialism and technology has deprived the world of much that was good.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Many thanks for such kind and encouraging words!! 🙂 🙂 I sometimes have those same feelings too! It is not any kind of nostalgia or a yearning for some mythic time when things were ‘better’ because they were definitely not. However, I do believe that some of what was lost might have been worth keeping! Perhaps, people tried but once the first few bricks were removed, the wall came tumbling down unintentionally?

      Liked by 1 person

  12. What an incredible tale you’ve written, you’re so talented! Seems like a fitting post near Halloween and kept me very entertained on my subway ride. Congratulations on your blogging milestones!! Here’s to many more 🥂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I am happy that you liked it! Thank you!! Thanks also for your good wishes and for joining me on this blogging journey! I enjoy your posts as they offer a great slice of life which is so different to here! Stay well!!! 🙂 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Congratulations on your two milestones on wordpress! I don’t remember how I happened upon your blog, but I am so thankful that I did! Your posts are always so informative and entertaining. I delight in your writing style and your choice of artwork. I love the way the miller’s wife saved the day in this story. Your fans eagerly await your next post! 🌟

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Haha, I do not recall either but I too am glad we connected! 🙂 Thank you so much Susan – you have always been so engaging and encouraging! Many thanks! I look forward to reading your thoughts and I appreciate your inputs, always. Stay well!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Molte storie e leggende si sono spostate in lungo e in largo per l’Europa. Trovo che tutti noi abbiamo in comune le rivoluzioni, agricola e industriale, degli ultimi 2-3 secoli, ora stiamo vivendo una nuova rivoluzione il cui sviluppo lo vedranno i nostri nipoti. Chissà cosa conserveranno ed ammireranno della nostra era.
    I nostri mulini in fondo sono queste tastiere che macinano parole al posto di granaglie, e i blog sono come i sacchi che contenevano il macinato.
    Buon compleanno 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  15. ☆As for milestones; this is my two year anniversary with WordPress and also my one hundredth post!☆

    And your are a star with all your in-depth study and writings. Warmest Congratulations.

    The Miller, the wife and the Devil and local farming was a fascinating read.

    I’m in awe of people who work the land. They put food on my table.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Haha, what a coincidence! Happy Blogaversary to you too! 😉
      Thank you! I am pleased that you liked it! I agree totally and as we become increasingly separated from the land we get to the strange situation where children do not realise that mutton was once a sheep!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lol, thank you.
        Oh i can smell that feeling of closeness to the land, with all the amenities that goes with modern land living….it is so passionately romantic
        And even here the miller’s wife will tell you.

        Lol for the mutton story, the older lamb.

        Happy Saturday.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Wow 🙌❤️🙌 happy WordPress anniversary 🥂

    And congrats 🍾 on posts 👏

    This makes me remember things and how it was even in my lifetime… and then how it is now.

    We have the Amish… they are traditionalists.

    Do you yearn for that? I do love that slow simple pace – “to live life” ❤️

    I’m just not churchy 😉✌️ or religious like that – I am way more private

    People do sell their souls to the devil – for sure! There are temptations everywhere lol … many many influences

    Also… I am supermarket shopper lol – quick easy.

    I am a little spoiled with indoor plumbing and electricity lol

    Progress brings a lot!! We sometimes have people who made it over 100!!! And I always think about that 100 year span and what they went through or experienced – imagine the things they see!! 🙌

    But yes … they paved paradise and put up a parking lot ☹️

    We have areas up into the Sierra Nevada’s … that have little old west towns that still do the panning for gold and cool historical things – it is like stepping back in time. You can see how they live, or get a quick glimpse of it.

    But yeah … technology and machinery … the progress we create for ourselves

    Some is good, some is bad.

    California is agriculture state… many many many farms for many things. But it is with fancy equipment – not manpower like used to be lol

    Even fast food now has kiosks!!

    Then we wonder where and why disconnect?

    Could they automate my business more ? Yup

    Is matter of time and society ✌️

    Sad to see ways disappear – such beauty and connection … you can’t get that from a machine 😉 or can you? Lol 💋hmmm

    Kidding … little

    Anyway … progress yup – is change always ✌️

    The old world has a comfort to it ❤️😘✌️ slower more beautiful and richer 🙌 (not meaning money)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you!! The time seems to have flown and yet dragged! It has been a peculiar two years! 😉

      Haha, you are right! We have done a Joni Mitchel and that is not necessarily a bad thing as paradise was hard work and often brutal but it did have aspects, which as you say, we might have kept if we had but known! 😉 The march of progress is relentless and I guess it has always been so but I just think sometimes we lose/throw away elements that were indeed better than what replaced them. 🙂

      I suppose that smacks of having my convenient cake and wanting to eat large slices of it too! ;-p

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Peculiar is good… sounds interesting 🙌 …life is peculiar lol

        Yes we do lose in some areas – yup I agree with that. You lose tiny bit of what once was life – kind of identity of time period or location… and you have some fantastic and old stories. Languages and all things actually, do die out. Is sad because is lost to time.

        Lol yes… things are made easier with technology and machinery … but what is cost of that???

        You must still have olde world villages … no?? No where let’s you step back in time??

        Do they let you buy ruins?

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Ha, yes, peculiar covers a good range doesn’t it? 😉
        Well, we certainly have villages that have an olde world feel to them. Indeed, I live almost halfway between two such places. While they are charming and picturesque, you can see they are sad shadows of themselves. Only one bakery left in one but walking around you see old shopfronts everywhere and the faded signs for bars, restaurants and a hotel. All long gone now as the people do their shopping elsewhere on their way from work which is also elsewhere.
        Yes, you can buy ruins here. My home was built in 1720 but is a baby in terms of some of the old derelicts that you can buy. Maintaining them is the challenge! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Haha yes “peculiar” fits a great range 🙌😄

        Well shadows of what once was can be beautiful in itself too ❤️😘

        There is place in Massachusetts that has just always been in my life all my life… it was so vibrant and alive when I was young… now is like you say “a shadow of its former self” but it’s still beautiful and the cracks in sidewalk now grow grass but you still see the beauty sorta – is just a different beauty ❤️

        Wow!! 1720 how amazing! That’s so cool to imagine others back in that time period knew your house! What history it must have!

        Even in Massachusetts that would be considered old… you can find a few that old but not many. Is difficult to write insurance for due to upgrades needed, everything is checked lol.

        In California they think their house is old if was built in 1920’s lol 😄😄

        It would be really cool to own and bring back a ruin ❤️🙌 I’m sure it’s a challenge both maintaining and also the costs

        Lol slap on some solar panels, and sure up the roof and walls lol

        Do they let you “upgrade” it … or is it like here? When you buy a historical home, they usually want you to keep the historical integrity of the time period and the house

        Do they do that with ruins? Or can you add extra helpful stuff? Lol

        Cause you could make a pretty bad ass remake of a ruin if they let you – or maybe that’s just my imagination 😉✌️

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Yes, I know what you mean; some places retain their charm even if they lose their vibrancy.

        Ha, I remember that house you shared in Mass – that was gorgeous but, as you say, insuring it and maintaining it would make it a bit of a money-pit.

        Over here, the focus is really on the external appearance and the proximity to other notable buildings, such as a church. You have to maintain the integrity of the external appearance but inside you can create a Bond-villain’s lair haha.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Hahaha that’s a funny thought … outside esthetically pleasing to surrounding buildings … but inside this incredible lair done however you want

        That would be so cool!! 🙌

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Thanks for another great post and read. Again we have lost so many things that have resulted in the demise of the sense of community – “The Devil is in the details, but so is salvation.”(Hyman G. Rickover) Progress has so many negative facets. Congratulations on the 100th. post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are so welcome! Thank YOU for reading and for leaving such a great quote! 🙂 You have also hit on the nail on the head – it is the sense of community that has been eroded by the march of technology. Once people were forced to have to buy with ready money, they had to move to gain employment and so the fracturing gathered pace.
      Many thanks for your good wishes and your support over the years!! Both are very much appreciated! Stay well! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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