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.
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.
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.
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.
A look at some of the rare, rude and unusual elements of Brittany’s unique religious heritage.
In the rural Brittany of yesteryear, where doctors were very rare, the populace were happy to utilise the healing power of plants and other natural remedies. Sometimes, the intervention of the local healer or witch was sought but often people were content to apply the ancient wisdom that had been transmitted within the family from generation to generation
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.
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.