In Brittany, it seems almost impossible to travel more than a few miles without seeing some form of ancient megalith. While many are older than the written word, their real meanings today remain clouded in mystery, shrouded in superstition and folklore.
Category Archives: history
Some Superstitions of May Day
Representing one of the key stages in the life of the rural peasant farmer, the arrival of May announced the appearance of summer and the renewal of the land. Nature’s re-awakening reminded the Breton farmer of the fragility of the boundary that separated success from failure; the safety and joy of an abundant harvest or the misery of a winter spent in dire straits. Little wonder then that such notions of rebirth and new growth gave rise to superstitions and rituals designed to celebrate and encourage fertility and to protect the community against all opposing forces.
Some Customs of May Day
May Day is known as La Fête du Travail (Workers’ Day) in France and celebrated with a public holiday. It has become 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 Lily of the Valley are presented to loved ones. However, in Brittany, the custom of using green foliage to express hope at this time of year extends back to antiquity.
The Art of Collecting Seaweed
For centuries, the gathering of seaweed was an important activity along the coasts and islands of western Brittany. The back-breaking work involved in harvesting, drying and burning the seaweed changed little between the ends of the 17th and 20th centuries. Sometimes, whole families laboured together, for others it was a means of supplementing the meagreContinue reading “The Art of Collecting Seaweed”
California Dreams Can Come True
In the mid-19th century, a Breton trader owned most of the US city of San Francisco as well as a further 900 square miles of the then newly established state of California; landholdings that would have made him one of the richest men in the world. Just two years later, his ownership was unrecognised by the US government but that may soon change as an international court demands restitution for his defrauded descendants.
Abelard and Heloise the Witch
Often described as one of the world’s great love stories, the relationship between Abélard and Héloïse is often celebrated alongside such fabled affairs as Helen and Paris, Dido and Aeneas or Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. However, the Bretons of yesteryear carried a very different remembrance; that of Héloïse as evil witch but does either standing hang true?
Carnival Chaos and Lenten Sacrifice
Although perhaps not as closely observed here as in the past, the approach of the period known to Christians as Lent was long marked with festivities and licence; a storm before the calm of six weeks solemn observance marked by self-discipline, abstinence and spiritual reflection that conclude with the celebration of Easter.
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.