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Disease and Despair in Brittany

While outbreaks of bubonic plague and their dreadful death tolls might have been consigned to history and efforts to eradicate coronavirus continue apace, other diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, measles and influenza, were once responsible for extraordinary devastation here in Brittany.

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.

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.

The Pardons of Brittany

A distinctly Breton tradition that has survived into the 21st century is the Pardon. In this context, a religious Pardon is perhaps best described as a communal expression of devotion to a particular saint, from whom grace or a pardon is requested. Since the 15th century, these annual festivals, celebrating and honouring local saints, witness the gathering together of worshippers; some local and others who have made a special pilgrimage from further afield.

Witchcraft in Brittany

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.

The Pilgrim Trails of Brittany

Home to more hiking trails than any other part of France, many of Brittany’s ancient pilgrimage routes can still be experienced today, including stages of the Camino de Santiago and the Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints, offering travellers a chance to discover the country and connect with the past and themselves.

The Devil, the Miller and a Milestone

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.

Dragons and Dragonslayers of Brittany

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.