Brittany has often been called the Land of Saints and with good reason; some 750 saints ranging from obscure personalities known in only one isolated location to renowned healers popularly invoked across the region were once venerated here. Many of the early evangelising saints, some kin of King Arthur, were believed to have arrived from the British Isles in the 5th and 6th centuries in stone boats propelled by angels.
Pardons in Brittany : A religious and secular celebration that you really must see
In the 17th century, the division between natural and supernatural differed markedly from our modern-day notions. The concept of the natural world was not restricted to things corporeal and observable but included the incorporeal and unobservable. It was not considered irrational to believe in the existence of spirits causing natural effects and it was widely accepted that demons and witches existed in nature, acting according to its laws.
Monumental ossuaries are a striking part of Brittany’s religious heritage. Although widespread in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries, nowhere else did they systematically take such monumental form and stay in use for so long.
Deified and demonised across the world throughout the ages, the dragon of yore also left its footprints upon the lives, legends and landscapes of Brittany. Indeed, Breton lore once held that the peninsula of Brittany itself was the body of the enormous dragon slain by the archangel Michael.
To talk of the soul is, to some, to touch on the very essence of existence. First century authors noted that the ancient Celts believed in the indestructibility and inevitable transmigration of the human soul and, despite the march of Christian dogma, such beliefs remained in the Breton tradition where there was no significant separation between the living and the dead; both dwelt in discrete worlds that were in perpetual relation with one another. The souls of the dead surrounded the living, wandering the skies and sunken paths of the land as black dogs, petrels, horses or hares.
In the west of Brittany, when the mysterious glow of a torch seemed to dance on the moor at night, it was said that it was the phantom of the Ligueur, the brigand La Fontenelle who, during the Wars of Religion, ravaged the land, indiscriminately massacring thousands of innocents and leaving intolerable misery in his wake. In some parishes wasted by him, where the population had numbered a thousand adults, he reduced it to a dozen.
A terrifying cacophony of noise crashes across the night sky; demonic howls hang on the wind and blast through the dark forest; thunder rumbles across the moorland and lightening streaks across the bruised sky. Children hide in fear while their parents murmur a quiet prayer; it is the passing of the dreaded Fantastic Hunt.
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.
A look at some of the rare, rude and unusual elements of Brittany’s unique religious heritage.