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Brittany’s Women Pirates

Breton pirates or privateers such as Jean de Coatanlem, Duguay-Trouin and Robert Surcouf amassed great prestige and wealth from their buccaneering exploits on the high seas. Other Breton pirates are perhaps not as well known today as they once were and the adventures of two particularly remarkable women are well worth retelling; stretching as they do from one of the bloodiest conflicts of Medieval Europe to the golden age of the pirates of the Caribbean.

Some Sports from Past Times

With working hours that traditionally aligned to the hours of daylight, the time available for pastimes and sports was, at best, limited to the Breton peasants of days gone by. This narrow opportunity was limited further by the often isolated nature of rural dwellings and the poor transport infrastructure that connected communities. It is therefore unsurprising that people took full advantage of the opportunities offered by major communal events and celebrations, such as weddings, saint’s pardons and quarterly markets, to amuse themselves in competitive field sports and games of strength and skill.

Bird Watching in Brittany

Birds once enjoyed a rather colourful position in the folklore of Brittany. They were often attributed with many marvellous qualities, from guarding the gates of Heaven to doing the bidding of witches. However, it was their capacity for predicting the future that bestowed these creatures with such noted significance in the mind of the Breton peasant who looked upon the flight and calls of birds as augurs from the natural world much as the ancient Druids might have done in antiquity.

The Unicorn and King Arthur

The legendary unicorn is probably one of the world’s most famous fantastic beasts. This white horse-like animal sporting a long, spiral horn on its forehead was said to live for a thousand years. Long held a symbol of purity and chastity; a protector of the just endowed with exceptional magical powers. Little wonder then that the unicorn myth developed its own associations with the fabled King Arthur and mystical Brittany.

Brittany’s Magical Trees

Since antiquity, trees have been associated with the mystical forces of nature and the Divine. Special or sacred trees are to be found in the traditional beliefs of cultures across the world; many possessed particular characteristics based on natural properties or else were laden with deeply-rooted symbolism. Brittany contains its share of sacred trees and a trove of legends and superstitious beliefs that attest to the reverence long afforded to trees here.

The Wind-Charmers of Brittany

For centuries, humanity struggled to make sense of the natural world and its unpredictable weather. Sometimes, the blood and sweat of months of hard toil could be torn apart in a matter of minutes; an uprooted crop or spoilt harvest often spelt total disaster for a poor farming family. One of the most feared natural events here was the sudden storm or violent wind and many explanations were once proffered in an effort to make sense of these; the most popular being that certain, gifted, people could control the wind and storm.

The Beggars of Brittany

Beggars once exerted a ubiquitous and very noticeable presence in Breton society, particularly in the countryside, but their position was often ambivalent: they were feted as the most honoured guests at wedding feats but also feared for their purported ability to cast the evil eye that brought-on misfortune.

King Arthur in Brittany

The true origins of the legends surrounding the 6th century King Arthur and his knights are lost in the distant mists of time. Scattered references to this warrior king can be found in early Welsh literature, hagiographies and historical chronicles but it is in the 12th century that the characters and features of Arthurian legend familiar to us today, such as Merlin the magician, Queen Guinevere, the Round Table and the sword Excalibur, coalesce into a single narrative about the rise and fall of a king of the Britons who defended his people against the Saxon invaders. Arthur’s connections with Brittany are littered throughout these early works and I propose to highlight some of the most significant links both in literature and local legend.