The Phantom Washerwomen of the Night

In a land rich in legend, myth and fable, the phantom washerwomen of the night stand out as one of the most striking and baleful characters in the folklore of Brittany; spectral women doomed to spend eternity labouring over their laundry from sunset to sunrise, terrifying unfortunate and unwary souls in the darkness.

Across the length and breadth of rural Brittany, there are many tales that feature the washerwomen of the night (known as kannerezed noz in Breton or lavandières de la nuit in French) and there are often quite marked differences in the, sometimes contradictory, characteristics attributed to them.

All accounts agree that the washerwomen – there are usually three of them, all tall and unnaturally strong – are condemned to forever haunt the washing places and wash their linen at night to atone for past misdeeds. Sometimes the washerwomen are the spirits of women once known in the locality, at other times, anonymous ghosts. Depending on the tale, they work noisily in silence or sing loudly, stopping only to address a passer-by, often by name, to ask for help in wringing out the washing. Although the women toil every night, some tales say that they can only be seen during the nights of the full moon or just on the night before All Hallows’ Day.

Phantom Washerwomen of the night
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The washerwomen of the night mainly appear only to men, particularly the drunkards who meander their way home from the tavern at night following the path which runs alongside the river or past the wash-house. If an unwary man stops to help these washerwomen wring their sheets, they are inevitably found in the morning with broken bones and enveloped in this white shroud.

Anne Plumptre (Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in France, 1810) relating some superstitions prevalent in Brittany during her stay, recounted that:

There are a set of washerwomen called ar cannerez noz, the nocturnal singers, who wash their linen always at night, singing old songs and tales all the time: they solicit the assistance of people passing by to wring the linen; if it be given awkwardly, they break the person’s arm; if it be refused, they pull the refusers into the stream and drown them.”

Rural washing points and communal wash-houses, known as lavoirs in France, were, of necessity, sited near a river or spring at the periphery of a village, sometimes at quite a distance from the nearest house. The lavoir was an important part of women’s lives and carried a significant social function; a woman-only domain, each with its own traditions and hierarchy. For instance, the spot nearest the captured water source was customarily reserved for the oldest washerwoman.

Washerwomen in Brittany
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Pierre-Jakez Hélias (The Horse of Pride, 1975) recounts in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars: “For the women, the big wash was a chore of great importance. Like all the really serious jobs, it lasted for three days, which corresponded to Purgatory, Hell and Paradise, in that order.” Soaking and drying were usually done at home but the hard tasks of scrubbing, paddling, rinsing and wringing took place in the communal lavoir.

Most of the structures that remain today were built between the 17th and early 20th centuries although some are hundreds of years older. With the coming of piped mains water and drainage, the lavoirs gradually fell into disuse in the early 1960s but the structures remain a familiar sight throughout rural Brittany today.

an abandoned wash house in Brittany
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In some tales, the washerwomen of the night are harbingers of death as the time and manner of one’s death is always known to the washerwomen; others imbue them with the power to grant wishes but only to those who answer the three questions they pose truthfully. If a question is answered dishonestly, the washerwomen will know and violently strangle the liar between their wet sheets.

Most commonly, the phantom washerwomen are held to be the spirits of women expiating at night, the sins committed during their lifetime.  Such sins seem to vary by locality and encompass a very broad range of socio-religious transgressions; from working at night or during the sacred days of rest to murdering children.

Walter Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911) quotes a description of the washerwomen given to him by Goulven Le Scour:

The lavandières de nuits were heard less often than the korrigans but were much more feared. It was usually towards midnight that they were heard beating their linen in front of different washing-places, always some way from the villages. According to the old folk of the past generation, when the phantom washerwomen would ask a certain passer-by to help them to wring sheets, he could not refuse, under pain of being stopped and wrung like a sheet himself. And it was necessary for those who aided in wringing the sheets to turn in the same direction as the washerwomen; for if by misfortune the assistant turned in an opposite direction, he had his arms wrung in an instant. It is believed that these phantom washerwomen are women condemned to wash their mortuary sheets during whole centuries; but that when they find some mortal to wring in an opposite direction, they are delivered.”

In many accounts from Lower Brittany, they are the ghosts of women who were once washerwomen who skimped on cleaning agents and instead used rough stones to scrape clean the laundry in their charge, damaging the clothes and linen of those who mostly had little enough to spare. To punish them for their greed, they were sentenced to eternally wash clothes that were cursed to remain forever dirty.

the washer-women of the night
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Some versions of the old tales say that the washerwomen of the night were the souls of washerwomen who had contravened the religious precepts surrounding Sunday rest, an observance that was followed quite strongly in the wake of the Catholic Counter-Reformation; as a result they were sentenced to work for eternity. Such prohibitions against working also applied to Childermas, New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Ascension Day; defying these prohibitions was said to bring death upon oneself within the year.

In central Brittany, the horrifying washerwomen were often thought of as the damned souls of women who had murdered their own children. The 19th century folklorist Paul Sébillot noted that, in some tales of the phantom washerwomen, the laundry that they presented to passers-by, sometimes contained the body of a screaming, bleeding newborn baby. To the author George Sand (Rustic Legends, 1858), they represented the ‘most sinister of visions of fear’, and she described them thus:

The real washerwomen are the souls of infanticide mothers. They incessantly beat and twist something that looks like wet linen but which, when seen closely, is nothing but a child’s corpse. Each has their own, if she has been a criminal several times. We must beware of observing or disturbing them; for, even if you were six feet tall with muscles in proportion, they would seize you, beat you in the water and twist you no more and no less than a pair of stockings.

Breton Banshee
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While some stories identify the washerwomen of the night with the souls of the dead who were buried in a dirty shroud, others claim that they are in fact the spirits of widows who had buried their husbands in a filthy shroud; consigned to wash these shrouds until the appearance of a Christian saviour. It was sometimes believed the washerwomen were souls trapped in purgatory undergoing penance for having wilfully brought on an abortion by their work or for having strangled their own baby and it is interesting to note that the belief that the washerwomen had no power over mothers with young children was quite widespread.

Muttering a prayer and making the sign of the cross were said to offer protection for those people that ventured abroad at night and happened across the washerwomen. Ignoring them, even if one was the tormented spirit of a close relative, was sometimes not enough to avoid their deathly clutches; they were known to give chase but were unable to do so over freshly ploughed fields.

The origins of the tales of the phantom washerwomen of the night are lost to us but we should guard against immediately jumping to the assumption that they were merely Christian homilies about the need to respect the Holy Days, being dutiful to one’s family or not staying overlong in a tavern et cetera. In some tales, the washerwomen serve as both a warning and a lament but other tales are simply spooky fireside stories, perhaps first told to explain the unfamiliar nocturnal noises carried on the night wind.

The concept of ghostly night-women exists in other parts of France as well as in the old folklore of many Celtic nations. Whatever their genesis, they are perchance another reflection of water’s timeless association with the mystical.

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

115 thoughts on “The Phantom Washerwomen of the Night

      1. I believe in spirits, coz why not, but some of this stuff doesn’t make sense, but I know some legends to be facts and some crazy stuff has actually happened so you never know…

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I think it’s quite likely that each little area had their own version of the tale which was embellished differently down the ages, long before being set on paper. Tracing those back to the primary source is probably impossible now but some argue it could be Morrigan or even Morganna.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. I don’t know if this is related in any way, but apparently doing laundry this way was actually quite dangerous. Embankments were often steep and slippery and the voluminous wool clothing women wore would get sodden and drag them down into the water, while also making it difficult to get out again. Drownings were common, even in relatively shallow water. I can see why these spirits would be angry.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That’s an interesting thought and one I’d not considered. I’ve not come across any old washing points that had particularly steep sides but I’ll now be keeping a keen eye out! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. History and myths presented lucidly. Reading it makes it very clear that the research is stupendous.
    And one small point I wish to make. Wherever one lives on this earth some things are the same. I realised that on reading about the washing places and the women folks backbreaking work.

    Thanks again for a beautiful article.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Doomed to haunt drunken men as they pass by for cheating people out of doing a good job with their laundry? This is a peculiar folklore. Part of me wants to laugh at it and part of me thinks a serial killer got away with a lot! Maggie

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Excellent article, as always, Colin! I like your concluding remarks about not jumping to assumptions about the origins of the tales of the phantom washerwomen of the night. I’ve come from a world where less fortunate women wash clothes to support their families. For many years, before I could afford a washing machine, I washed our towels, bedding, and clothing by hand. In those early days when clothing was so voluminous, it must’ve been a very heavy and time-consuming task for the women in a family. (I imagine washerwomen developed toned biceps and strong hands.) No wonder they got together in groups to make their burden lighter! Happy the household that could afford to hire a washerwoman to do the task! With this in mind, I can well understand why spending an eternity as a washerwoman would become a punishment worthy of hell.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The initial idea was so bizarre to me that it made me laugh. What an interesting article! I love stories about folklore around the world. Your writing makes these stories come alive. Whew! Mostly men see them, so I am probably off the hook. Hope all is well with you. Have you gotten your keyboard fixed?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, yes it is a peculiar one, isn’t it? I am glad that you enjoyed the read and am thankful to you for doing so!
      Sadly, no new keyboard and today was my first access to the internet since Monday! Hope that things are faring better with you! Stay well. 🙂

      Like

  6. Super!
    It is very interesting to see this difference in mentality between Western and Eastern Europe. It is probably due to the Church, with a much harsher attitude towards the people of the West, which led to the retreat into the mystical and the supernatural. And in the east there are stories with fairies, witches and ghosts, but the perception is more humorous, aphoristic.
    Lo! 🙂
    😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks!! 🙂 I am glad that you liked it! I agree, I am sure that the diligence and approach of local churchmen had a profound and lasting impact on our folklore and they lessons drawn from such. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. How fabulous, I love the way the lavoirs have been preserved in the villages and demonstrate another era when women came together to do their work. And to discover these washerwomen haunt those spaces and are often seen by wayward men making their way home – priceless! I can just imagine it, the long shadows, a kind of village meeting place after dark, perfect for apparitions. 👻

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, they are a joy to see! Some have had their roofs restored while the ones on the edges of villages are cleared of weeds and had the stonework re-pointed!
      Ha, yes, lonely sites that would excite the imagination on a winter’s night! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Washerwomen of the night didn’t sound too scary at first, and then I got to the version of the infanticide mothers. Goodness, now THAT kind of “clothes wringing” is frightening! Another interesting post.:-)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am so grateful for the modern washing machine. Laundry was such a laborious task and not that long ago, even in my Mother’s Day the machines were rudimentary at best. The muscle power and time commitment along with the strong products that took the skin off hands – yep, no thanks, I’ll push a button any day.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Maybe they are the lost souls of the wives who beat their drunk husbands to death for coming home drunk, hence the reason that drunk husbands see the apparitions. Great tales. Thanks for sharing. Have a great weekend. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for sharing another set of interesting haunting tales. The margin of difference between that which we think we know and understand and that which we find hard to explain is extremely tenuous. It is this uncertainty and ambiguity that seem to fire the imagination with the possibility of
    the existence of such ‘beings’. Great read!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Haunting and terrifying, these poor women doomed to launder forever, scaring those who stop. Let’s certainly hope there are no penalties we have to endure forever because of missteps in our lives!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I well remember helping my Nana laboriously wash her way through Monday, hoping desperately for good weather and grateful for my help with the mangle. It doesn’t surprise me that the task of the lavoir became a superstition or part of folklore. Drunk men certainly deserve to be frightened by the idea of being strangled by sheets! Love the idea of communal lavoirs – it would make the day go so much faster with gossip included… There is a hilarious Glasgow play called “The Steamie” (the local word for public washhouse) set in the 1950’s that I think you would enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Apparently, in medieval times, if you ever wanted to get real gossip you would go down to the washers as they would know all kinds of secrets: washing the emissions of people’s affairs and when young girls became women, that kind of thing. So, on one hand, no wonder the washer women were treated with such fear!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. The washerwoman of the night is an interesting character to have choices to present staggering thoughts which are funny and spooky as hell.
    His acts of ‘wrung like a sheets’ made me to remember the Aladdin magic carpet scene, although the rest of the actions were scaremongers. I wonder where do you get such stories?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. These old tales sound like something people would believe in Texas. Now. Today, lol
    I’d pretty much almost rather be burned in eternal hellfire than spend my afterlife wringing out dirty laundry for my punishment ! ! ! Truly diabolical. 🙂

    I love the photo of the women dressed, neck to toes, in those dark, heavy dresses, complete with hats, as they bend over and scrub in the water. I can’t even imagine how hot they must have been !!!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. lol … the women are little scary ✌️

    I have not heard this one before.

    And that’s one way to have alot of kids… always have small children and they won’t have power lol

    What were the families of France like? Many children?

    Also is quite interesting that the women are scarier than the men.

    🤔

    My mother always always always drilled it into my head to always wear clean clothes and underwear … just in case you ever in any kind of accident or emergency – everything is clean and tidy lol 🙌

    Funny with the laundry and cleaning

    Very cool stories! Would make good camp ⛺️ stories 😮 …gives me images of the girl from The Ring 😮😮

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, yes, that might offer some comfort to a lady pregnant with her fifth child! Families here were traditionally large – for a whole heap of reasons 🙂
      Yes, it’s noteworthy that while men always laid claim to mastery of the household but the women were no passive fools!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hahaha… I am Irish ☘️ … they also traditionally large for many reasons lol … “Irish twins” is also really a thing lol

        You reminded me of my grandparents with that lol

        He used to totally act like the King of the world lol ❤️

        But behind the scenes – she ruled the roost lol ❤️ she just let him look like ruler of the world lol ❤️

        My mom was more “let my dad just be King” lol 😘✌️❤️

        Liked by 1 person

  18. Very interesting. I was surprised to read that some lavoirs were in use until the 1960s. Washerwoman seems like perhaps the hardest profession a woman might choose. Makes my back ache just lucking at the images. Another excellent post that transports the reader to a different time and place. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, they survived in use here for longer than one might have thought but gradually disappeared as more villages were connected to mains water. Thankfully, so many of the structures still remain – even if a little overgrown nowadays! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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