In Brittany, the miller enjoyed a rather ambivalent reputation. 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.
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.
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.
During the French Revolution, large swathes of Brittany and neighbouring Vendée found themselves embroiled in a bitter civil war between the forces of the new Republic and the counter-revolutionary movement loosely known as the Chouannerie.
The bestiaries of the Middle Ages included fantastic beasts such as the unicorn, mermaids and dragons but popular belief in such creatures did not entirely die away after the Age of Enlightenment. Along Brittany’s wild coastline, stories of sailors and seashore gatherers encountering mermaids remained commonplace well into the 19th century.
Found within the mythology and folklore of countless disparate cultures across the world, are stories of giants; sometimes described as mighty men and women of towering stature but sometimes portrayed as a distinct race of huge humanoids. The folklore of Brittany is rich with tales of the deeds of giants and their impact in moulding the nation’s landscape.
May Day is known as la Fête du Travail in France and celebrated with a public holiday. It is an occasion to be seen to campaign for workers’ rights and social justice but the date also carries a much older tradition here; it is also la Fête du Muguet, when sprigs of muguet or Lily of the Valley are presented to loved ones. It is also the day of one of the most important festivals celebrated by the ancient Celts, Beltain.
Herbs and plants once played a key role in the traditional medicine of Brittany, being employed in a wide variety of remedies to treat all manner of diseases in humans and animals. Most proprietary recipes were tightly guarded, being handed down within the family from generation to generation. However, knowledge captured from the popular memory in the early 20th century and uncovered in the old pages of witch’s spell books and folklore, allow us to construct a Breton herbal pharmacopoeia.
A fascinating insight into the popular mentalities of 19th century Brittany as seen through the critical eyes of a remarkable man; sometime beggar, soldier, farmer, bar keeper, tobacconist and paranoid vagrant. This autobiography is an absorbing account of a “long lifetime of poverty, slavery and persecution” and one that I would recommend.
The history and folklore of Brittany contain many intriguing references to once flourishing cities that disappeared from the face of the earth, having left little or no trace of their ruins upon the land.