Women Artists in Brittany

Brittany has provided a great source of inspiration for artists from across the world drawn to the beauty of its natural landscapes and unique quality of light. The women artists who came to draw inspiration from the rich colours and distinctive landscapes of the region have sometimes been overlooked and I hope to highlight some of these pioneering painters here.

Aspiring artists from across Europe, North America and further afield were drawn to Paris like moths to a flame in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; it was a vibrant cultural centre and one of the very few places that offered quality training and instruction in art. At the time, Paris offered the artist three main options for training and instruction. The most renowned of which was the prestigious state-run institution, the École des Beaux-Arts, which offered tuition-free education under the instruction of some of the world’s leading artists. As you can imagine, entry standards were high and the school could effectively pick and choose only the most talented applicants but this was an avenue denied to women until 1897.

It was therefore necessary for a woman of talent and aspiration to make use of the education offered by the city’s private academies; the best of whom delivered, for a fee, instruction comparable to that offered by the École des Beaux-Arts under the supervision of an accomplished artist. The most well-known of these private academies was the Académie Julian, founded in 1868 initially to prepare students for the examinations at the École des Beaux-Arts. The high quality education and relaxed French language requirements soon resulted in so many applications that the academy eventually opened several sites in the city. Finally, a less formal avenue of tutelage was that offered by professional artists who assessed and critiqued students’ work and provided guidance and mentoring.

Marie Bashkirtseff : An Atelier at the Académie Julian in 1881

While there are isolated examples of successful women artists that predate the middle of the 19th century, it if from around that time that we see an increasing number take their deserved place amongst the ranks of professional artists. However, it is important to remember that aspiring female artists faced considerably more obstacles to overcome than did their male counterparts. At a time when women were generally denied legal status and independence, the difficulties faced by a woman seeking to be a successful artist were not just institutional but social, economic and familial.  A cultured young woman might have been tutored in drawing or water-colouring but these were widely regarded, by men, as an amusement or as an accomplishment that she brought to a marriage. It is worth remembering that this was also a time when many influential artists and art critics held trenchant and oft-expressed views about women’s ability to even create good art!  Even if a woman had succeeded in becoming a recognised artist, societal pressures of the time meant that many women had to give up further aspirations for serious painting upon marriage in order to devote their attentions towards family and raising children.

Securing professional training was but one of many difficulties that impacted more on women than men; independent travelling was often more challenging for women as was advancing one’s career by the cultivation of contacts in the art world, such as exhibition judges, art critics and dealers; the social interactions in the bar or smoky café, then central to a large part of the artistic life in cities such as Paris, was an avenue mostly closed to women.

The marginalisation of women artists lasted long after their acceptance in the artistic world and popular conscience. Sometimes it was especially subtle, a notable example being the incorrect attribution of their works to male artists which was often done wilfully by some art dealers. Sadly, it still happens today and I noted several examples while sourcing some of the images used below.

Louise Becq de Fouquières : Young Breton Woman from Fouesnant (1869)

One of the earliest female artists whose Breton-themed works have survived to us is Louise Becq de Fouquières (1824-1891). Born into a rather well-heeled Parisian family, she was the sister of the painter Alfred De Dreux. Following the death of her elder sister Élise in 1846, she married her widowed brother-in-law, noted man of letters Aimé Napoléon Victor Becq de Fouquières, the following year. De Fouquières was tutored by the renowned artist Isidore Pils who, at one time, shared his Paris workshop with her brother. Strong family connections into the artistic world no doubt helped her work get taken seriously and she first exhibited at the Salon in 1857 and had several other worthy works accepted between then and 1884.

The English artist Emma Brownlow (1832-1905) was amongst the first foreign artists to spend time in Brittany. In the summer of 1863, accompanied by her sister, she spent two months travelling and sketching throughout western Brittany. This would have been a serious commitment for a pair of travellers on a tight budget particularly in the days before the railways had penetrated into Brittany beyond the regional capital, Rennes.

Emma Brownlow : Charwoman’s Daughter Feeding Chickens (1872)

A self-taught artist, she exhibited several times at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London between 1852 and 1867. Brownlow was the daughter of a former foundling and subsequently long-time Secretary of the Foundling Hospital in London and many of her most noted works promote the virtues of that institution. She married a singer in 1867 and is sadly thought to have painted little thereafter.

Unable to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot (1841-1895) who was related to one of France’s most important 18th century painters, Fragonard, had the good fortune to be accepted as a pupil by the influential artist Camille Corot and under his tutelage her style developed significantly. Two of her landscapes were accepted for the Salon of 1864 where she exhibited every year, bar one, until 1873. In 1874 she helped organise what became known as the first Impressionist Exhibition and no longer tried to exhibit at the Salon. Her marriage to the artist Édouard Manet’s brother later that same year did nothing to halt her artistic output; she exhibited in six of the other seven Impressionist Exhibitions, missing only 1878 after the birth of her daughter but had a hand in the organisation of them all. An important member of the circle of Parisian painters who became known as the Impressionists, Morisot remained a successful and prolific artist until her death from influenza. She painted several times in Brittany as did her sister, Edma, who was also a talented artist but who gave up painting after marriage.

Berthe Morisot : A Lady at her Toilette (c1877)

Pittsburgh born Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) spent most of her working life as an artist in France. The security of family wealth allowed her to pursue her passion for painting; a passion that was given renewed vigour and direction after seeing a display of pastels by Degas in an art dealer’s window in Paris in 1875. She eventually forged an unlikely friendship with the often difficult and highly opinionated older artist and after the Salon rejected both her entries in 1877 – the first time in several years that she had no works in the Salon – he invited her to exhibit in the third Impressionist Exhibition held in 1879. For a time, the two artists worked closely; Degas introduced Cassatt to pastel while she was instrumental in helping him to sell his paintings and build his reputation in the USA.

Mary Cassatt : Maternal Caress (1896)

Her work was well received and she participated in the Impressionist exhibitions that followed in 1880 and 1881, remaining an active member of the Impressionist circle until the final exhibition in 1886. She is known to have painted in Brittany in the late 1870s but I have been unable to find any copies of those works in the public domain. The disbandment of the Impressionist group saw the emergence of Cassatt’s most creative decade as an artist and by the turn of the century she was widely regarded as the doyen of the American artists in Paris. Unfortunately, severe cataracts caused her to stop painting around 1914 and she increasingly spent time at the family chateau north of Paris in the years leading up to her death.

Anna Petersen : Breton Girl Looking After Plants in a Hothouse (1884)

As was the case with so many talented artists, Anna Sophie Lorenze Petersen (1845-1910) sought to develop her artistic aspirations at a time when women were excluded from most of the world’s best institutions. Denied entry to the Danish Royal Academy for the Fine Arts, she graduated from the Drawing School for Women in Copenhagen in 1880. In 1884, she visited Brittany before studying in Paris in 1885 under the direction of the popular French painter Jean-Jacques Henner. Petersen returned to Denmark is 1890 but struggled to find a meaningful place in the male-dominated art world of the time.

Amélie Lundahl : A Girl from Brittany (1880)

Amélie Helga Lundahl (1850-1914) was orphaned when she was eight and from a young age focused her attention on art. She studied at the Drawing School of the Arts Association in Helsinki from 1872 to 1876 before travelling to Paris where she continued her studies at the Académie Julian under the supervision of French artist Tony Robert-Fleury until 1881. She spent a great part of her twelve years in France in Brittany, particularly in and around Pont Aven, Concarneau and Douarnenez. Returning to her native Finland in 1889, she subsequently spent some time in the short-lived artists’ colony at Önningeby in the Åland Islands.

Lundahl was not the only female Finnish artist in Brittany at this time. Maria Catharina Wiik (1853-1928) was a contemporary of Lundahl’s at the Drawing School of the Arts Association in Helsinki from 1874 to 1875, when she left to continue her artistic studies in Paris. Successfully enrolling at the Académie Julian, she was under the tutelage of Tony Robert-Fleury when Lundahl joined in 1877. Wiik had two spells at the Académie Julian in 1875-76 and 1877-80 and stayed in Pont Aven and Concarneau in the early 1880s. Almost a decade later she spent many years painting in the nascent artists’ colony in St. Ives, Cornwall.

Maria Wiik : In the Church (1884)
Maria Wiik : In the Church (1884)

Another Scandinavian woman who drew inspiration for her work from the unique light and landscapes of Brittany was the Swedish painter Emma Hilma Amalia Löwstädt-Chadwick (1855-1932). Enrolling in one of the earliest intakes to the Woman’s Department of the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts she left to travel to Brittany in 1879, returning to graduate the following year. Upon graduation, she returned to spend the summer in Brittany accompanied by her friend and fellow Swedish painter, Amanda Sidwall (1844-1892) then studying in Paris. Löwstädt-Chadwick subsequently continued her artistic studies at the Académie Julian in Paris from 1880 and, like Sidwall three years before her, was tutored by Tony Robert-Fleury. Regarded as a specialist painter of portraits and genre scenes, Löwstädt-Chadwick was often able to capture delightful shades of light in her work and exhibited regularly at the Salon where one of her early works was rather patronisingly praised for showing ‘no sign of hesitation or female fragility’.

Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick : Off to Sea (c1880)
Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick : Off to Sea (c1880)

Another Swedish contemporary of Sidwall at the Académie Julian between 1874 and 1877 was Anna Nordgren (1847-1916); a painter who primarily focused on rich genre scenes and portraits. She lived in Paris until 1883 when she moved to Brittany, producing several works painted around Concarneau before moving to London in 1885 where she exhibited widely and to much critical acclaim. Nordgren subsequently stayed in London until she returned to Sweden at the turn of the century.

Anna Nordgren : A Farmer at the Beach (1880)
Anna Nordgren : A Farmer at the Beach (1880)

One of the first American women to be elected a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Elizabeth Nourse (1859–1938) came from an Ohian family impoverished by the US Civil War but by 1887 she had saved enough money to travel to Paris to study at the Académie Julian. There, she studied under the well regarded artist Gustave Boulanger and her prodigious talent soon saw one of her paintings accepted for the Salon. Nourse is perhaps best described as a social realist painter and many of her works focus on the lives of the rural poor; her work sold briskly during her lifetime and she earned a decent living as a professional painter – a remarkable achievement in its day. She remained in Paris for the rest of her life and was a frequent visitor to Brittany particularly to the areas around Penmarc’h and Plougastel-Daoulas.

Elizabeth Nourse : Coming Home From Church (1900)
Elizabeth Forbes : A Breton Girl, Louise (c1882)

With her mother as chaperon, Elizabeth Adela Forbes (1859-1912) left Canada as a teenager to study at the National Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art) in London in 1873. After further studies at the Art Students League of New York under the American impressionist painter William Merritt Chase and a short spell in Munich, in 1882 she moved to the artists’ colony in Pont Aven, Brittany where she was mentored by painter and printmaker Mortimer Menpes. In Brittany, she experimented with plein-air painting and convincing social realism canvasses devoid of saccharine sentimentality, many of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts. Returning to Great Britain, she lived for a time in St. Ives before settling in Newlyn where, in 1889, she married the painter Stanhope Forbes, a leading figure in the local artists’ colony who had himself spent the summer of 1881 in Brittany. The pair returned to paint in Brittany together in 1891.

Elizabeth Forbes : Medieval Woodland Scene (1885)

In 1899, this artistic couple opened the Newlyn School of Painting which encouraged the techniques of plein-air painting and the study of figure painting directly from the subject. Marriage and motherhood did not dim Forbes’ commitment to her art and she continued to be an active and critically successful artist. In addition to her commitments to the school, she found time to exhibit in scores of London exhibitions, publish a collection of poetry, write and illustrate a book for children and found an arts magazine; an outstanding output that continued up to her untimely death from cancer.

Amongst the first generation of Finnish women to receive a formal education in art, Elin Kleopatra Danielson-Gambogi (1861-1919), had a difficult childhood before enrolling in the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki in 1876. For a short time after graduation she taught drawing but in 1883 secured a scholarship which allowed her to continue her studies at the Académie Colarossi in Paris under the supervision of Gustave Courtois. The following summer she travelled to Brittany where she stayed near Pont Aven and Concarneau until the spring of 1885. Returning to Finland in 1886, Danielson-Gambogi spent some time at the fledgling artists’ colony at Önningeby in the Åland Islands but continued to visit France regularly until finally settling in Italy in 1898.

Elin Danielson-Gambogi : Young Mother (1885)
Elin Danielson-Gambogi : Young Mother (1885)

One of Finland’s most highly regarded modernist painters Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) began drawing at an early age, starting at the Finnish Art Society Drawing School in Helsinki at just 12 years of age. It was here that she met another aspiring artist and lifelong friend Helena Westermarck (1857-1938), both girls subsequently continued their studies at a private academy run by the painter Adolf von Becker. In 1880, Schjerfbeck travelled to Paris for further studies, initially at the Académie Trélat under the guidance of Léon Bonnat and later at the Académie Colarossi, where she once again studied with Westermarck. She spent the summer of 1881 in Pont Aven where she honed her skills as a realist plein-air painter and returned again with Westermarck for several months in 1884.

The artists’ colony in St. Ives was Schjerfbeck’s home for a few months in 1887 before she returned to Finland and taught at her alma mater but she was forced to relinquish her position due to poor health and the need to care for her ailing mother; an artistic hiatus that lasted a decade. She continued to paint and exhibit between the world wars and died in Sweden where she had fled after the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. Sadly, Westermarck abandoned painting after contracting tuberculosis in Paris in 1884 and devoted herself to writing.

Helene Schjerfbeck : Funeral in Brittany (1884)
Helene Schjerfbeck : Funeral in Brittany (1884)

Frances Mary Hodgkins (1869-1947) has left a legacy of work that merits her inclusion in any debate regarding New Zealand’s leading artists. Arriving in London in 1901, she studied at the City of London Polytechnic under the painter Ernest Borough-Johnson and joined a summer school in Normandy led by Newlyn School artist Norman Garstin. Attracted to his plein-air approach, Hodgkins attended another of Garstin’s summer schools in Brittany the following year and in 1904 she became the first New Zealand artist to be exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1908 she moved to Paris where two years later she joined the Académie Colarossi as its first female tutor. One of her first pupils was the Canadian artist Emily Carr who also enrolled for the summer school that Hodgkins led in Concarneau in 1911. Hodgkins continued to teach in Paris and Brittany until the outbreak of the First World War when she left for England and settled, for a time, in St. Ives. Post-war, her painting style evolved from the artistic techniques of the Impressionists and plein-air schools into a confident modernist approach.

Frances Hodgkins : Rue de L'Horloge (1902)
Frances Hodgkins : Rue de L’Horloge (1902)

In 1890, Emily Carr (1871-1945) left Vancouver Island to pursue her artistic aspirations with a course of study at the San Francisco Art Institute. Further studies followed at the Westminster School of Art in 1899, followed by a lengthy stay at the artists’ colony in St. Ives before she returned to Canada in 1905. In 1910, she arrived in Paris where she attended the Académie Colarossi under the supervision of Frances Hodgkins.  In early 1911, Carr moved-in with the expatriate English modernist artist Phelan Gibb and his wife and travelled with them to a modest hotel near Plestin-les-Grèves on the north coast of Brittany where they took rooms for the season. Here, Gibb’s enthusiasm for capturing the vitality of space and form, rather than simply rendering a faithful depiction, had a significant influence on her. It was thus a profoundly different artist that traversed Brittany to join Mary Hodgkins at the south coast town of Concarneau in late summer. Returning to British Colombia in 1912, Carr found no appetite for her style of painting and painted little over the next two decades but became revitalised towards the end of the 1920s, taking up painting with renewed passion.

Emily Carr : Autumn in France (1911)
Emily Carr : Autumn in France (1911)

Elisabeth Sonrel (1874-1953) was born into a family of keen amateur painters and her father and uncle both provided the aspiring artist with early encouragement and guidance. In 1891 she left her native Tours to attend the Académie Julian in Paris where she was tutored by the accomplished French artist Jules Lefebvre. One of her early works was chosen for exhibition at the Salon of 1893; a distinction that she would maintain regularly up to the Second World War. A regular visitor to Brittany, Sonrel painted widely across the region, not only around the coastal towns of Concarneau, Loctudy, Plougastel and Pont l’Abbé but also inland around Paimpont and Le Faouët. Heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement, she is remembered today as one of France’s leading exponents of the Art Nouveau style.

Elisabeth Sonrel : The Forest of Brocéliande (c1900)

The American painter Martha Walter (1875-1976) studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under William Merritt Chase. While there, she secured a scholarship that allowed her to travel to Europe and when in Paris in 1904 she enrolled into the newly opened Académie de la Grande Chaumière where she was tutored by Lucien Simon, an artist renowned for his love of painting in Brittany, before transferring to the Académie Julian. Walter stayed in Europe until the outbreak of the First World War and became known for her bold, dashing brushstrokes, her love of plein-air painting of everyday scenes saw her visit many areas of Brittany during her time in France; from Saint-Malo in the north east to Quimper in the south west.

Martha Walter : The Pardon of Saint Anne at La Palud (1923)
Martha Walter : The Pardon of Saint Anne at La Palud (1923)

Gwendolen Mary John (1876-1939) is perhaps as acclaimed today as her younger brother, the Welsh Post-Impressionist artist Augustus John, was during their lifetime. In 1895 she moved to London and joined her brother in studies at the Slade School of Fine Art where her talent was widely acknowledged. After graduation she settled in Paris and pursued her artistic studies at the Académie Carmen under the supervision of James McNeill Whistler. After returning to London for a few years, she returned permanently to France in 1904. To make ends meet, she earned a living as an artist’s model, posing for the sculptor Auguste Rodin; the two were lovers for the next decade or so. Between 1914 and 1925 she devoted her life to painting and religion and while she found critical success and exhibited many times at the Salon d’Automne, financial security was always tenuous. John has been described as a very reclusive talent; deeply introspective, she seems to have had an obsessive trait that manifested itself in her love-life and in her painting, often painting the same subject – usually a solitary female figure – repeatedly, exploring and developing slight variations in each work.

Gwen John : Study of a Child (c1919)
Gwen John : Study of a Child (c1919) ©Tate

John visited Brittany many times and would frequently sketch figure-studies in chalk and wash. Most of her models are anonymous and perhaps this is deliberate as John’s work so often lacks any specific detail that the traditional term portrait is perhaps a misnomer; they are studies in light and contrast, tone and colour. Although she never dated her work, we know that the drawing above is of a girl from the village of Pléneuf on Brittany’s north coast where John lived between August 1918 and September 1919 and where she had hoped to buy an old manoir near the sea. John collapsed and died on a visit to Dieppe; unrecognised and without luggage, she was buried in a pauper’s grave. As with her work, her grave fell into obscurity, only being re-discovered relatively recently.

A native of the Breton town of Morlaix, Mary Piriou (1881-1956) initially studied art in Brest before moving to Paris in 1902 to enrol in the Académie Julian where she was supervised by Lucien Simon. After further studies at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, her application to attend the École des Beaux-Arts was rejected despite her achieving grades higher than her male competitors. She returned to Brittany in 1909, settling in Pont Aven and developing a style that contained elements of both Impressionist and Synthetist techniques that were well received; she was a regular exhibitor at many of the leading salons between 1908 and 1930. In 1928, she was commissioned to decorate the dining room of a grand hotel in the resort town of Saint-Cast on Brittany’s north coast. She considered the resulting work, a massive (almost 6m x 2m) painting of a procession during the pardon at Plougastel to be one of her most significant achievements. She stayed in Saint-Cast running summer schools for artists until the Second World War when, due to restrictions on accessing the coast, she moved her school to Dinan.

Mary Piriou : Procession in Plougastel (1929)
Mary Piriou : Procession in Plougastel (1929)

One of the leading female Surrealists, the Czech artist Marie Čermínová (1902-1980) is better known by her pseudonym Toyen. She became a key member of the Czech avant-garde movement after graduating from the School of Decorative Arts in Prague in 1922 and first exhibited in Paris in 1925. Returning to Prague in 1930, she was one of the founding members of the Surrealists Group in Czechoslovakia in 1934 and her meeting with André Breton the following year marked the start of a close lifelong friendship. A frequent visitor to France, she settled there permanently in 1947 and visited Brittany several times, being particularly drawn to the west coast. Through Breton, Toyen was at the heart of the post-war activities of the Surrealists and was deeply affected by the dissolution of the Surrealist Group in 1969 and rarely seen in public thereafter.

Toyen : A Portrait of Breton (1950)

The Parisian Odette Pauvert (1903-1966) was born into a family of artists and was initially tutored by her mother before gaining entrance to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1921 where she studied under the painter Ferdinand Humbert. Her talent brought her speedy recognition and she won several major prizes, most notably in 1925 when she became the first woman to win the coveted Grand Prix de Rome for painting; the votes in her favour from the jury were unanimous save from two members who still clung to the belief that women had no right to such an accolade! Pauvert painted several times in Brittany but as an example of her work, I have chosen a massive painting she executed in 1935 that was long thought lost but turned-up during an inventory of the museum in the small Breton town of Locranon in 2012. In a neglected part of the small museum’s stock room, the work was discovered folded-up and torn with a large portion of the canvas completely missing. Thankfully, the town’s mayor was able to get the painting classified as a Historic Monument; an act that made funding available for the restoration of this important work.

Odette Pauvert : The Invocation to Notre Dame des Flots (1935 )
Odette Pauvert : The Invocation to Notre Dame des Flots (1935)

Of necessity, this post highlights just a few of the many female artists who have worked in Brittany and found artistic inspiration there. In addition to Jeanne Malivel (1895-1926) and Simone Le Moigne (1911-2001) who were featured in an earlier post, other female artists who deserve serious consideration in any discussion of the art of Brittany and whose work is worth exploring include: Caroline Espinet (1844-1910); Anna Boch (1848-1936); Anna Gardell-Ericson (1853-1939); Emma Herland (1855-1947); Andrée Lavieille (1887-1960); Yvonne Jean-Haffen (1895-1993); Marie-Renée Chevalier-Kervernn (1902-1987) and Germaine Gardey (1904-1995).

Whether you appreciate the talents of these artists or not, you cannot but admire their spirit and determination to succeed, against the odds, and excel in their art.

The Bee Whisperers of Brittany

The humble honey bee has, from the earliest annals of recorded time, had a close relationship with humanity. The bee is depicted on one the earliest European prehistoric cave paintings and possessed sacred associations for the ancient Egyptians while also enjoying a prominent place in the mythology of the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. Such intimate connections between mankind and the bee appear quite universal; bees are to be found in the Hindu scriptures and in the mythologies of cultures as diverse as the Mayans and the Norse; Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australia all possess old native beliefs and traditions regarding the importance and symbolism of the bee.  

There has been a great deal written about the position of bees in Celtic countries and some authors seem to have conflated a mass of superstitions and beliefs from across the Celtic fringe and erroneously portrayed them as applying en masse throughout the Celtic world. There are also many picturesque but fanciful depictions of the role of bees in Celtic religion and mythology and many of the writings of Plutarch and Virgil regarding bees and their admiration of virtue or their supposed relation to the flight of the soul, have been rather imaginatively transposed to a Celtic setting.

The rich tradition of beliefs and superstitions surrounding bees and bee-keeping in Brittany mentioned below are those noted in accounts written between the 18th and 20th centuries. Some of these have commonalities with superstitions held in other parts of France and other parts of the Celtic world but we should be careful before inferring that these once formed part of a broader pan-European tradition of bee-related superstitions. 

Medieval illustration of man being chased by honey bees

A key element of the superstitions surrounding bees in Brittany involved the importance of sharing oneself with the bees, after all, bees were said to repay the generosity of their master if he shared his honey with many people. It was crucial to make the bees feel that they were appreciated as part of the farmer’s extended family and it was therefore important that the bees were told of all events of interest to their master. Otherwise, it was said, the hive would not flourish. Once each bee hive had been informed of any salient news; if the bees were content they would begin buzzing and that was taken as a sign that they were satisfied and would stay with the household.   Across the Channel in Great Britain, a similar custom known as “telling the bees” was practised although that often involved attracting the hive’s attention with the house key; farmhouse doors in Brittany were generally secured with a latch rather than a lock and key.

It was thought that a symbiotic relationship existed between bees and bee keeper and that the prosperity of the hives depended on the health and standing of the master of the household. One tradition in Brittany held that unless hives were decorated with a red cloth at a wedding and the bees allowed to share in the family’s rejoicing, they would leave the household forever. It was therefore customary for hives to be decorated with cloth or ribbons on family wedding days. On the wedding of the household’s eldest daughter, hives were especially decorated with red coloured ribbons. In the same spirit, if a daughter of the household became engaged to marry, she was expected to inform the bees of her forthcoming nuptials lest they leave the hive, never to return.

Other life events also merited decorating the hives so as not to offend the sensitive bees; in western Brittany, when a boy was born to the household it was common to tie a piece of red cloth around the bee hive. However, when the master of the house died, the hives were adorned with a black cloth and the reasoning behind it seems to have varied a little between the eastern and western parts of the region; in the east, it was so as not to lose the bees but in the more poetical west it was said that this was necessary otherwise the bees would die for want of mourning for their master. Although, in some communes in the extreme west of Brittany, it was once believed that the bees quickly followed their master in death. That said, all deaths in the household were popularly marked with a black cloth around the bee hives. If the mother of the family died, the cloth of mourning would remain for six months although in certain parts of the western region of Finistère, the mourning of the hives lasted a full year.

Telling the bees - a Breton beekeeper and his hives

Another Breton superstition said that if a farmer had his hives robbed of their honey; he gave them up immediately because the hives were held never to succeed under his care afterwards as it was believed that there was no luck after the robber. When bees were swarming, it was the custom to beat pans, kettles, tripods and other metallic objects while invoking various charms in order to cause the swarm to settle.  Furthermore, two strands of straw would be placed crosswise on the top of empty hives to help encourage the bees to make their home. However, bees were thought to only attach themselves to respectable houses and were thought to leave a household if harsh, disparaging words were said in front of them. They were also said to leave if the heir to the household held a bad reputation.  It is difficult to be certain whether those latter superstitions derived from the writings of the ancient Greeks or, more likely, the parish priest.

Some Breton superstitions are much easier for us to fathom: to see bees enter the hive and not to leave it in a very short time, was taken as a sign of forthcoming rain; bees that became idle announced some approaching catastrophe; a stray swarm that landed in your garden was thought to bring bad luck (as it likely belonged to a neighbour).

While the bee was regarded as a familiar creature and one of the forms sometimes chosen by witches and other shape-shifters, it was also viewed as highly auspicious. It was therefore frowned upon to attempt to buy or sell bees as if they were a mere commodity; they were only to be traded as part of a barter agreement. To give a hive to someone was a gesture of much significance as you were not only providing them with honey but also, and above all, good fortune.

There were several superstitions surrounding bees in Brittany that featured strong Christian elements. For instance, in some parts of the region, on Good Friday, a small cross of wax, often blessed by the local priest, was placed on the hive. One legend from western Brittany tells us that bees were created from the tears that Jesus Christ shed on the cross; not a single tear fell upon the ground but all immediately sprouted wings and became these wonderfully industrious creatures which flew away with His blessing to take sweetness to all of mankind.

Medieval bee hive

The Breton border town of Saint-Ceneri-le-Gerei was the site of an intervention by bees at the end of the 9th century where, it is said, a party of Norman raiders had set their sights on the riches believed to have been held by the abbey there. At the approach of the Normans, the community surrounding the abbey retreated within the protective walls of the site and the besiegers were soon haranguing the defenders with all manner of sacrilegious threats. The fearful defenders could only pray for deliverance and it appeared from the most unexpected quarter; thick swarms of angry bees were seemingly roused from their homes within the abbey walls and immediately descended upon the Normans, covering each man with a suit of stinging bees. Whether in confusion or desperation, one of the Normans leaped into the river Sarthe below, hoping to drown his assailants. Others soon followed, some jumping but most falling; all to their deaths on the rocks of the gorge below. The enemy thus routed, the becalmed bees quietly retreated to their abbey home. The abbey was eventually sacked and razed by the Normans just five years later but there is no record of any apine activity on that occasion.

In Brittany, during the festival of Candlemas, known as La Chandeleur in France, on 2 February, beeswax was traditionally brought to the chapels and churches for blessing.  While the blessing and subsequent procession of candles is an indicator of the forthcoming Paschal Candle in the church, the association of this day with the bee is due to the fact that church candles here were traditionally required to consist of at least 51 percent beeswax.

In southern Brittany, Saint Peter not only protected fishermen but also bees and supplications were directed to this saint to help ensure the health of the hive. It was also thought that if bees swarmed on Saint Anne’s Day, on 26 July, a wax taper would be found in one of the hives which was then named the hive of the king; if the bees swarmed on a day consecrated to Saint Anne’s daughter, the Virgin Mary, a honeycomb would be formed in the shape of a cross and that hive was then known as the hive of the queen.

When the bee does feature in Celtic mythology, it is generally taken as a symbol of wisdom and while there may be scant references to bees, there are many to honey and mead. The realms of the Celtic afterlife were said to contain rivers of mead and mead was undoubtedly a most popular drink amongst those still living in this world, at least until it gradually became supplanted by the brewing of cervoise and beer in the Dark Ages. The corpus of Arthurian literature includes many references to mead as do many other medieval writings which attach almost mystical powers to mead; purveyor of strength and virility, bestower of health and longevity.

Mead drinking

The appeal of mead was not, of course, limited to the Celtic world; this fermented honey and water based beverage also had sacred connotations to the Indians and Greeks of antiquity and references to it can be found in the literature of many cultures throughout the world. Despite its wide popularity, it was never a drink consumed by the cauldron-full; decent mead took time to prepare (at least two years) and required good quality honey. Even today, to produce just one gallon (4.5 litres) of mead, it requires three-quarters of a gallon (3.5 litres) of water and almost 5lbs (2.3kg) of honey; it was thus a rather prestigious beverage.

In Brittany, the most well-known manifestation of mead was in the form of chouchen; a type of mead produced from the fermentation of honey in water and apple juice or sometimes cider. Traditionally, buckwheat honey was used and this accounted for the strong rich colour and pronounced flavour found in chouchen. This ancient drink was known locally by many different names across Brittany, the name chouchen actually started out as a brand name after WW1 but quickly gained popular acceptance and becoming synonymous with the beverage.

Chouchen was once renowned as a drink that caused people to fall over after a spell of over-indulgence but analysis of Breton honey in the last century showed high concentrations of wax, dead bees and bee venom. Traditionally, the hives used on Breton farms were the wicker basket hives that necessitated smothering a large number of bees in order to access the honey. It seems that it was actually the presence of bee venom, attacking the cerebellum (the part of the human brain controlling movement and balance) which caused some drinkers to lose their balance after drinking chouchen. Given its long history and significant position in the popular imagination, it is not surprising that the drink was adorned with many special and curative virtues. It was even thought to be an aphrodisiac and it was traditional to serve it to newlyweds on their wedding night.

A woodcut of a straw beehive

As elsewhere in France, an enormous range of honey is produced in Brittany each year. While the old ways of keeping bees in basic hives made up of hollowed tree trunks or wicker baskets may have been replaced with more modern bee keeping techniques; the emphasis on good quality honey remains. Whether you prefer wild forest honey or beehive honey, single flower or multi-flora, local producers sell honey to cater for all tastes.

In fact, Brittany produces a significant amount of France’s honey thanks to the region’s mild climate, hedged farmland and floral diversity. Some of the tastier honeys produced here include chestnut honey, acacia, heather and sarrasin (buckwheat) honey; the first and last varieties being particularly rich and flavourful. Many honeys made locally are said to possess therapeutic qualities here, for instance; heather honey is said to be good for your urinary tract, lavender honey to aid respiratory ailments, and chestnut honey is thought to improve circulation while fir honey is said to be good for combating throat infections. The versatility of the folk remedies associated with bees and honey is quite impressive and it was even once thought that eating the queen bee provided one with a most potent pain suppressant; provided, of course, that you were unfazed by the bad luck that was always associated with killing a bee.

Sarassin or buckwheat honey

Spells and Curses from Brittany

Popular belief in the power of witchcraft survived in Brittany, as elsewhere in France, deep into the last century but the spells and curses of the witch were seemingly often as benign as they were malignant.

We have very little contemporary testimony to the popular mentalities, beliefs and superstitions of the majority of Bretons before the 19th century and nor can we be sure of how these people regarded their own particular brand of religion. They would certainly have avowed themselves Christians and members of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church but it is clear that their practices contained elements that were an inextricable blend of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs.

A Jesuit priest, Antoine Boschet, described 17th century Brittany as being in the primitive age of the Church; a place where one witnessed something akin to what the pagans experienced when the first apostles preached to them in the 5th and 6th centuries. Superstitions and witchcraft flourished, talismans and charms abounded, prayers were addressed to the moon and relics of paganism were noticeable everywhere. The region was therefore the focus of a systematic sixty year campaign, led by the Jesuits, to correct religious ignorance, even amongst the native clergy, and retrench an orthodox Christian faith.

At the very end of the 19th century, psychologist and author Léon Marillier noted that Bretons still possessed a state of mind where the explanation of a natural phenomenon, illness or death, which immediately came to mind, was a supernatural one. In a world full of perils, whether on the farm or at sea; a world where the forces of God and the Devil were constantly at work, it was necessary to reconcile by all means these supernatural forces which governed joy and sorrow, life and death.

On the periphery of the rites and prayers of the Church, it must have seemed natural to strengthen the effectiveness of these devotions by complementary practices, or to embrace religious pluralism and resort to the practices of a parallel system of belief, something ancient; agrarian, cosmic, magical even. There was a considerable, if not total, overlapping of these heterogeneous elements and there was no contradiction in the simultaneous use of the parish priest and the local witch; both invoked God and His saints, used the sign of the cross and attached certain numbers such as three, seven or nine, a special value.

For centuries, the Church had generally tolerated this syncretism but the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation that followed the Council of Trent towards the end of the 16th century, increasingly witnessed reforming bishops condemn beliefs and practices deemed incompatible with official Church dogma.

Preaching card once used to illustrate religious teachings to the illiterate in France
A Preaching Card used to illustrate the Seven Deadly Sins

However, eradicating these long-accepted beliefs and practices was not without its challenges as it was often difficult to draw a distinct line between faith and superstition. Implementing synodal statutes or percepta at the local level was often a difficult task for the parish priest who, in Brittany, was often regarded as a sorcerer himself. The Jesuit missions of the 17th century certainly had an impact, focussing as they did on basic re-education of Christian tenets and rebuilding the faith: ignorant local priests were dismissed; sacrileges and blasphemies were denounced; salvation through faith, good works and absolution stressed as the only way to avoid eternal damnation. The missionaries’ work was not always easy; they were often accused of being sorcerers and of bewitching children, sometimes they were even forbidden to enter particular parishes. Slowly, their work bore fruit; parties, drinking and dancing were forbidden within church grounds and nocturnal dances and music were condemned as diabolical.

While these were significant steps towards establishing a change in cultural practices of some antiquity, tackling the ancient superstitions and practices proved a much more ambitious undertaking. Denouncements from the pulpit coupled with ridicule and repression failed to eradicate the popular belief in the efficacy of practices such as undue worship, divination, conjurations, charms or the cure of sickness by incantation. Inconsistencies in the Church’s approach left significant grey areas for the humble parishioner; for instance, the worship of healing saints and their attendant rites and pardons might offer an unclear distinction of where appropriate worship ended and superstition began. Thus, a number of questionable traditional practices continued to be tolerated. Another example might be, as happened in Brittany, when the local priest offered a prayer in order for someone to obtain a particular grace or a cure from sickness while the congregation offered silver pins on the altar and nodded three times in a cupboard or niche by the altar.

It is difficult to say what allowed the persistence of traditions often contradictory to orthodox Christianity to persist into living memory. However, it is important to remember that the people who fostered and transmitted such beliefs and practices were not theologians and would have regarded themselves as pious Christians and it is within such a framework that they should be viewed. These were small, close-knit societies firmly rooted in tradition albeit one that could be regarded as anachronistic. One could reasonably argue that some of these traditions retained vestiges of pre-Christian beliefs in as far as they focused on the key events that marked the life of an individual or their community such as birth, death, love, loss, sowing and harvesting.

As noted above, most people saw no contradiction in the simultaneous use of the parish priest and the local witch; protection against the dangers of the world would be better ensured if one accepted both as a safeguard against life’s ills. This might help to explain the continued belief in witchcraft and the practice of healing magic that existed in rural Brittany and other parts of France into the 20th century.

Woodcut of two witches crafting a spell in a cauldron

The local witch, despite their wicked role in many folk-tales, was widely held to have a profound, practical knowledge of herbalism, healing and potions. In many instances, they were also thought to be able to listen to the dead and be skilled in divination and prophecy. Witches often had an ambivalent role in their community but some that focussed on healing and un-bewitching were an integral part of their society. Although natural phenomena such as unseasonal weather, crop blight, illness and death (of both humans and livestock) were blamed on them; consulting a witch was seen as the surest way of countering a witch’s enchantment.

However, the witch was not the only person believed to be able to cast curses; they were merely those able to cast them wilfully. It was commonly held that others, afflicted with the evil eye, had the ability to cast misfortune, such as those who, on the day of their baptism, had remained on the porch without receiving the sacrament; rag-pickers and, to a lesser extent, tailors were also believed to have the power to bring-on bad luck. Even those people who had mistakenly put one of their clothes on inside out were considered to temporarily be able to cast the evil eye. Just a single look of malice, pride, desire or envy from the holder of an evil eye was thought enough to cast a curse on the unfortunate victim who fell under their gaze.

Human nature appreciates balance and thus it is no surprise that there were ways to counter such curses. For instance, throwing a broom onto the ground in front of a rag-picker who entered your home was enough to counter his curse. If one of your animals had been cursed, it was necessary to invite the one you suspected of having caused the curse to visit your home; their appearance across the threshold would nullify the curse.

Some witches were traditional healers known as diskanterezed (a Breton word that means one who can undo or remove) and were commonly consulted for their expertise in handling benign ailments; usually achieved by a mixture of a propriety concoction and the precise recitation of chants accompanied by high ritual with the execution of very specific gestures in a special sequence. However, the diskanterez was also typically approached for the preparation of charms, concoctions and amulets of bewitchment and un-bewitchment. It is thus difficult and probably unhelpful here to attempt to draw firm lines of definition between the two terms which were often interchangeable in Brittany.

The witch as herbalist

In many cases, the chants and invocations used by witches contained religious rather than occult terminology and both they and those seeking their services would often refer to their spells and charms as prayers. Although specific to each ailment and often to each practitioner, the incantations of healing were very often adaptations of the liturgical prayers for healing recited by the local priest or contained supplications to local saints. More often than not, there was no deliberately malicious heresy in such petitions; the charms contained sacred motifs delivered by those that, both parties believed, had been blessed by God with the gift of healing.

In addition to the specific words used and their precise delivery, spells usually required particular gestures to animate them; spell-casting required as much ritual as any religious service. Some spells could only be performed under specific circumstances such as on a significant date or time of day or on the optimal position of the moon. Only a witch was held to posses the understanding of the ingredients and formulas needed for effective magic as well as knowledge of their associated precepts.

One recipe used to protect against curses required a sou coin, nine grains of salt and nine stems from nine plants, namely: ground-ivy, common fumitory, spotted medick, common daisy, chickweed, greater celandine, dovesfoot geranium, pilewort and verbena. It was first necessary to pronounce the invocation ‘Doue Araog Oll’ (Breton for God Above All) into a linen pouch and recite the Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers three times without taking a breath. After this, three stems from each of the nine plants were placed crosswise on top of one another and then another three stems of the nine plants were similarly placed. Again, three Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers were recited in the same manner as before and the remaining stems placed atop each other into the bag. When the last of the stems was in the bag, it was necessary to recite another three prayers under the same breathing constraints as earlier, before finally adding the nine grains of salt. The pouch was then sewn tight with a linen thread and stitched into one’s clothing.

It was once believed that only children who were born feet-first possessed the gift necessary to be a diskanterez but the most evil curses and spells were those cast by witches whose mothers had died in childbirth. The curses wrought by these people were considered especially powerful and were thought more dangerous because their spells could only be lifted by themselves.

It has been recorded that when these witches cursed a person or their livestock their enchantments lay in earthenware vases concealed in the ground where the victim was sure to pass, such as under floors or beds or near bread ovens and wells. To damage livestock and thus livelihood, the enchanted vessels were placed near stables or by the entrance to pastures or fields.

Again, the precise recitation of the desired incantation was crucial; was it misfortune and misery or death that you sought for your victim? If you were targeting his livelihood, were you seeking to impose on them a setback or did you desire their complete ruin? The severity of the curse and the necessary evil to be thrown against your victim was recited nine times into the vase without taking a breath: if you paused to take a breath, the partially crafted spell fell on its author! While reciting the spell, a series of items were placed in the vase, such as: yellow broom and marigold flowers, fern, various grains including wheat, oat husks, dried oak leaves, the sting of a viper, the left eyes of a toad and raven, the head of a lizard. Sometimes, whole animals such as black hens or the heart and liver of larger animals were called for but never parts of a cat or goat due to their diabolical associations.

A witch preparing a spell

Other spells required bones, teeth or hair taken from a grave at night and it was said that the body parts of children who died without baptism provided witches with the ingredients for the most powerful spells. The baptism of babies generally took place as quickly as possible within a few days or birth and sometimes even the same day; an unbaptized child was considered extremely vulnerable to the evil eye. In some parts of Brittany, new-borns were immediately passed through the fireplace to protect them against evil spells.

To throw someone under a curse of death it was necessary to approach the local witch; a little silver being exchanged for a small bag or pouch containing a secret mixture. To this mysterious concoction it was necessary for one to add: nine grains of salt; some earth taken from the cemetery; a little virgin wax; a spider that one caught in a corner of their home; and a piece of one’s own finger nail bitten off by their own teeth. Thus full, the pouch needed to be worn hanging from a string about the neck for nine consecutive days. On the tenth day, the little bag needed to be left somewhere where it could be guaranteed to attract the attention of one’s target, such as their window sill or beside the path to their door. It was necessary to tempt the target’s curiosity; the enemy picks up the pouch perhaps thinking that they have found a purse and opens it. The wilful act of opening the pouch completed the spell and the victim was doomed to die within the year.

Alternatively, the witch might instead give you a pierced two liard coin which you had to slip into your target’s pocket during Sunday mass but only if you had not eaten that day. Another option popularly used in parts of Brittany involved the recitation of Psalm 109 three times; invoking its curses upon the target that you had marked for death. This psalm is said to contain some of the most invective imprecations in the Bible.

The contiguity of belief or acceptance in Christian and pre-Christian, agrarian practices might seem incongruous to us nowadays but such religious pluralism was not uncommon in Brittany. Perhaps the best known example of this is the once popular practice known as the adjudication of Saint Yves. One of the few Breton saints officially accepted by the Vatican, Saint Yves was a 13th century priest and judge renowned for the fairness of his verdicts and his generosity towards the poor and downtrodden. He is the patron saint of Brittany, abandoned children and lawyers. Saint Yves was often invoked by those embroiled in a serious dispute or nursing a strong grievance but the so-called adjudication sought through the medium of his statue was distinctly un-Christian.

It was first necessary for the aggrieved party to make a pilgrimage to the statue of Saint Yves known as Saint Yves-de-la-Vérité and undertake a series of rituals, namely: slip a liard coin into the clog of the person whose death you sought; while fasting, undertake three pilgrimages to the statue on consecutive Mondays; on the final visit, take the statue by the shoulders, shake it roughly while making the invocation ‘Te eo Zantik ar Wirion. Me a westl dit heman. Mar man ar gwir a du gant han, condaon ac’h anon. Mes, mar man ar gwir a du gan in, grad’ez han merwel a berz ann termenn rik.’ (You are the little saint of Truth. I accept this of you. If the truth is on his side condemn me but if the truth is with me, condemn him; cause him to die before year end.) It was then necessary to leave an offering of a silver coin marked with a cross and to recite the Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers before making three circuits of the oratory containing the statue without once moving your head. This done, a final prayer of supplication was made at the entrance to the oratory and the curse was cast; the guilty party would die within the year and justice will have been served. However, it was important that you did indeed have right on your side; if you were the one who was in the wrong then the curse would strike you instead.

Some accounts say that the person who was justly dedicated to Saint-Yves-de-la-Vérité withered away for nine months but did not succumb to death until the day that the one who effected the curse crossed the threshold of their home. Sometimes, the parties to an intractable dispute would agree to the adjudication of Saint Yves and visit the statue together. In such cases, it was customary for one of the two sides to throw a coin on the ground in front of the other before the statue of Saint Yves-de-la-Vérité and invoke the Saint’s judgement with the words: ‘You were just in your life; show that you are still so.’

The site of the adjudication of Saint Yves
The oratory popularly known as Our Lady of Hatred before its destruction

The chapel of Saint-Yves-de-la-Vérité was originally a small ancient chapel near the north coast of Brittany dedicated to Saint Sul although which particular Saint Sulien has been lost to us. In an attempt to end this cult of revenge that seems to have been well established by the 16th century, the Church abandoned the chapel sometime in the 18th century. However, a stone ossuary had been built nearby for the family of a local landowner and the statues from the chapel were transferred there. Over time, this ossuary became the new site of pilgrimage as one of the two wooden images of Saint Yves it contained was regarded as that of Saint Yves-de-la-Vérité. It was this statue that subsequently became the patron of this ossuary, transformed into an oratory.

A murder trial in 1882, involving two men who had invoked the intervention of Saint Yves but had taken matters into their own hands when the saint refused to intercede on their behalf, sounded the death knell for the oratory; the local clergy, unable to succeed in destroying the cult, managed to get the building demolished. However, over twenty years later, people still continued to visit and make invocations at the site of the ossuary, some even being so bold as to demand the local priest to show them the statue that he now housed. The priest must have rid himself of the statues rather than destroy them as it is reported that one was burned by the nuns of the local Augustine convent in 1920 and the other is said to have turned-up in the workshop of a local cabinetmaker in 1930 and shortly thereafter sold at auction; its whereabouts is currently unknown.

The interplay between religious and non-religious practices is evident elsewhere. In the not too distant past, sometime after giving birth, the new mother would go to church to undergo a ceremony of re-admittance into the congregation known as the churching of woman. While official Church teaching saw this as a ceremony of thanksgiving, many priests and churchgoers associated it with Old Testament notions of uncleanliness associated with childbirth. In Brittany, the new mother was forbidden to cook and care for the animals until she had been churched as it was believed that she cast a curse on everything she touched except for her child. The churching rite was fairly simple: the mother presented herself at the porch of the church and knelt there with a lighted candle. The priest came and blessed her with holy water before leading her into church where she knelt before the altar and was again blessed with holy water in front of the congregation. New mothers in yesterday’s Brittany were not allowed to go to church for this ceremony alone, else all the potential curses she carried befell her.

Not all curses were designed to end in misfortune and misery; if a girl was in love with a boy and she wanted him to love her in return, it was said that she had only to make him eat some bread that she had baked with a little of her menstrual blood. Alternatively, religion could be co-opted into the matter and the lovelorn girl could take a lock of the boy’s hair and offer it three times to the altar of the church with a lighted candle and then plait it with a lock of her own hair.

A sorcerer's calendar

There were also many practices recommended to help thwart evil spells that were cast against you and these varied from carrying nine grains of salt in your pocket to washing your hands in urine. Striking, three times, the shell of an egg you had just eaten and spitting on the clog of your right foot before putting it on were also advised. To counteract a spell that had brought about a fever, it was necessary to drink from a bucket of water after a horse had drunk from it or to receive three sprinkles of holy water in three different parishes on the same Sunday. Similar protection was thought to be gained from drinking holy water on the eve of Pentecost or exposing oneself naked to the rising sun while reciting a certain number of Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers. To save a person cursed with fever, one remedy suggested kneading a small roll of bread with the urine of the sick person and once baked, feed it to a dog three times; the fever would then leave the sick person and be absorbed by the dog.

The range of spells and curses was as broad as the human imagination; to prevent someone from eating, it was necessary to hide a needle used to sew a funeral shroud under your victim’s table; to prevent someone sleeping, place the eye of a swallow under their bed; to induce night terrors, place a crown of feathers under the bed. To prevent the consummation of a marriage, a curse known as the knotting of the needle was cast; one spell required the name of the intended victim be called out at his home and once acknowledged, a tight knot of white twine had to be tied around the penis of a wolf. Others involved attending the wedding and tying a knot in a piece of string just as the priest announced ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ while muttering the riposte ‘Let the Devil do it’. This was viewed as a most serious curse and priests are known to have threatened excommunication to those who might attempt to cast the spell. However, the seriousness of the situation also meant that the newly married spouses did not much care whether it was the power of prayer or the power of the witch that delivered them from it.

In order to guard against falling victim to this curse, a number of precautions were popularly spoken of, such as walking together, as a couple, in front of the major crucifix of the church in which they were to marry, three days before the wedding. The groom was recommended to carry salt in his pockets and coins in his footwear and even to urinate three times through the wedding ring intended for his bride. If these precautions subsequently proved ineffective, remedies for countering the curse ranged from the application of houseleek (a plant once believed to protect against witchcraft and recommended by some today for the treatment of skin inflammations) to reciting certain prayers and charms for seven consecutive dawns with one’s back turned to the rising sun. Other, more symbolic, practices involved piercing a new barrel and pouring the first draught through the wife’s wedding ring and urinating three times through the keyhole of the church where the newlyweds were married.

Another way that both witches and non-witches used to cast a spell was the practice of enchantment using a figure made of clay, wood or wax, known as a dagyde, to represent the named person to be cursed. The association between the dagyde and the subject target is strengthened by anything tangible; a piece of clothing, hair, nail clippings or even excrement. Such figures would, accompanied by incantations, be pierced with a needle or brought near a flame so that the animated original person would bodily suffer the effect of the outrages committed on their effigy. Used to cause all manner of physical discomfort, such practices were considered effective means of preventing the consummation of a marriage or for creating marital discord through means of obturation and ligation or castration. Domestic animals and livestock could also be cursed in this way. Countering the spell cast by a dagyde was a serious business and not surprisingly involved a great deal of ritual.

A dagyde or voodoo doll

Grains of salt, phials of holy water, saints medallions, written prayers, sacred images and pieces of coal were all held to protect one against the power of spells and curses. Although belief or disbelief was likely the strongest weapon for and against the spell-caster. What one man dismissed as a mere turn of fate, another seized upon as misfortune resulting from a magical attack; a feeling bolstered by any manner of private and social anxieties and so, the witch is called upon once more.

Anthropologists, ethnographers, historians and psychologists may well argue over the social significance of practical witchcraft with its associated spells, curses and counter-curses in the modern era but its close association to folk medicine and traditional healing is beyond doubt. That there was a very close link, even if only in the popular imagination, between folk medicine and popular religion should not surprise us. In many ways both played a key role in supporting the life of the community and the wellbeing of its inhabitants from the cradle to the grave.

Bookish Browsings in Brittany

It is not only artists that have taken inspiration from the rich landscapes and unique culture of Brittany; generations of writers and poets have also been keenly stimulated by this enchanting region of France.

Any mention of books and Brittany must surely start with Jules Verne (1828-1905); one of the world’s most published authors and a native of the Breton port city of Nantes. The publication of his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, in 1863 heralded the start of a wonderfully productive decade, marking the appearance of, amongst others; Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869) and Mysterious Island (1869). English translations of Verne’s work first became available in 1867 and the publication of Around the World in Eighty Days in book form in 1873 propelled the author from national icon to world-renowned celebrity.

Verne’s work often weaves a great adventure with an optimistic imagining of the opportunities for human progress through scientific advancement. Although none of his novels are set in Brittany, many contain references to the city of his youth and its seafarers; Nantes obviously features prominently in his autobiographical work The Story of my Boyhood (1891). Today, he is best known for the over 60 novels that constitute the Extraordinary Voyages series but he was also a prolific writer of short stories, historical works, poetry and drama. Verne is the second most-translated author in the world, ranking between Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare; he is also the fourth most screened author, after Shakespeare, Dickens and Doyle, his works having been adapted for cinema and television more than 300 times since 1902’s A Trip to the Moon.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Born into a world of wealth and privilege in New York, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) had required a growing reputation as an author of note by the time she settled permanently in France in 1907, thanks mainly to the critical reception of The Touchstone (1900) and The House of Mirth (1905). Other major works soon followed, including Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912) and that classic satire of social-climbing by marriage, The Custom of the Country (1913). In 1921, she became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for The Age of Innocence (1920).

Although her first novel was not published until she was forty years of age, Wharton published some 40 volumes during her lifetime, ranging from books on interior design and architecture to travelogues and collections of short stories and poetry. In an autobiographical sketch written towards the end of her life, A Little Girl’s New York (1938), she recalls when, as a 17 year old, she looked out of her city window and imagined the forest of Brocéliande spread out before her. Almost forty years later, she imagined a similarly mysterious Brittany; one that provides the atmospheric back-drop for two of the very few ghost stories she wrote: Kerfol (1916) and Miss Mary Pask (1926).

Creating a captivating but believable atmosphere was something that French naval officer and writer Louis Marie-Julien Viaud (1850-1923), who published under the pseudonym Pierre Loti, excelled at. Sometimes described as the finest descriptive writer of his day, he depicted the harsh and lonely life of the Breton fishermen who spent long seasons fishing for cod in the wild north Atlantic in his wonderfully evocative novel An Iceland Fisherman (1886).

Early twentieth century fishermen

François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) is one of Brittany’s most historically influential authors; soldier, statesman, diplomat and father of the French romanticism movement. His ambivalent attitude to the French Revolution saw him journey to North America in 1791 where he travelled quite extensively for a year; a journey that would inspire several future works such as Atala (1801) and René (1802) and a full account of his experiences in Travels in America (1826).

During his seven year exile in England he wrote his first significant work, Essay on Revolutions (1797), a powerful survey of world history through the lens of ancient and modern revolutions. He also wrote his epic novel The Natchez during this time but it would not be published until 1825 although the novellas Atala and René were early discarded excerpts from this book. Both these works were very well received, combining notions of idyllic innocence with the troubled melancholic angst of romanticism: in one, a young girl kills herself to protect her vow of chastity, made before she found love; in the other, a girl enters a convent in an attempt to escape her passion for her brother.

Other works followed and his treatise extolling Christianity, The Genius of Christianity (1802), was widely admired across the political spectrum, some scholars point to this work as the source of the renewed interest in Gothic architecture taken in the 19th century. In 1809 he began writing his memoirs, a project that he would return to every so often until his death. Published posthumously in 1849-50, his Memoirs From Beyond The Grave is as much a history of the turbulent times in which he lived as it is an exposition of his philosophical musings or conventional autobiography. It seems that he regretted the publication of René, saying “if it were possible for me to destroy it, I would destroy it. It spawned a whole family of René poets and prose-mongers; all we hear nowadays are pitiful disjointed phrases; the only subject is gales and storms and unknown ills moaned out to the clouds and to the night”. His legacy to French literature was profound; as a teenager, Victor Hugo wrote “I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing.”

Final scene of Rene by Chateaubriand
Franz Ludwig Catel : The Final Scene of René (1820)

Chateaubriand should not be confused with the similar sounding Alphonse de Châteaubriant (1877-1951), another noted Breton author. His two most highly regarded novels both won prestigious national awards either side of the First World War; Monsieur des Lourdines (1911) and La Brière (1923). Both works focus on the battle of man against his, sometimes overwhelming, fate; nature versus industrialisation; the erosion of community amidst the corruption of the modern world. La Brière was the biggest selling French language book between the world wars but is not so well known these days due to Châteaubriant’s post-war ignominy; he was a vocal supporter of Nazi ideology and an active collaborator with the German occupying forces. He fled to Germany as the allies approached Paris in 1944 and thence to Austria after the German surrender the following year. In October 1948, he was sentenced to death in absentia as part of the legal process purging France of wartime traitors and collaborators but he escaped justice, having taken refuge in a Tyrolean monastery where he died a few years later.

The Second World War features as backdrop to two quite different works evoking Brittany in wartime and both published while the war was still raging. The Anchored Heart (1941) by Ida Treat (1889-1978), an American writer and journalist who had lived in Brittany for some fifteen years, offers a keenly observed account of life on the Ile Bréhat off the north coast of Brittany prior to and during the initial German occupation in 1940.

The author once known as the queen of spy writers, Scottish-American Helen MacInnes (1907-1985), published 21 espionage thrillers during her career as a writer that began with a volume on sexual life in ancient Rome. Her second novel, Assignment in Brittany (1942), was a New York Times bestseller highly praised for its depiction of covert espionage and clandestine living in German-occupied Brittany in 1940. MacInnes’ books have sold over 25 million copies in the USA alone and have been translated into over 22 languages. Several of her books have been adapted for cinema including Above Suspicion (1941) and The Salzburg Connection (1968).

Emile Bayard : Cosette (1862)

When one thinks of novels depicting Brittany during times of war, a much earlier conflict is usually brought to mind – the French Revolution of 1789-99 – due to one of the greatest of French writers, Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Profoundly influenced by the work of Chateaubriand, Hugo’s talent was prodigious; publishing several volumes of highly acclaimed poetry and two novels by the time he was 29. His novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) confirmed his reputation as a powerful writer of note and was, tellingly, cited as a major influence by both Dickens and Dostoyevsky. Although a popular playwright in his day, he is perhaps best remembered internationally as the author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862) which he wrote during his long exile in Guernsey.

Acclaimed a national hero upon his return to France in 1870, Hugo re-entered the political arena; his literary output now mostly consisting of collections of poetry and political tracts. However, his last novel, Ninety Three (1874) is a drama centred around the Breton counter-revolutionary revolts known as the Chouannerie in 1793. This was a popular movement that was less inspired by the royalist cause than anger at the heavy-handed acts of the republican government including its suppression of the Parliament of Brittany and the rights guaranteed under the acts of union with France and repression of the Church. Hugo weaves his tale between Brittany and Paris and the narrative is broken into three parts, each offering a slightly different view of events through the eyes of the main protagonists.

The Chouan rebellion of 1792 to 1800 also formed the back-drop to the first novel that Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) published under his own name; Les Chouans, written in 1827. Set in 1799, the book is the earliest historical setting for the vast collection of novels and short stories that would eventually constitute La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy). A well-paced historical romance, the book perhaps lacks the depth of characterisation that would later become a key feature of the author’s work. His reputation as the supreme observer and chronicler of contemporary French society has often seen him labelled as the greatest French novelist of all time.

One of France’s most widely read authors, Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), was a prolific playwright and writer of non-fiction, predominantly travel related books, but his best legacy is surely his extensive series of historical romance and adventure novels. Incredibly, three of his most famous works were published in the same year, 1844, namely: The Corsican Brothers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The final volume of the trilogy featuring the musketeers, The Vicomte of Bragelonne (1847) concludes with the story of The Man in the Iron Mask.

The Man in the Iron Mask

It is on the foreshore near Le Palais on the island of Belle Île, off the southern coast of Brittany, that Aramis, Porthos and d’Artagnan meet for the last time; a few miles east along the coast is the site of the climactic scene in the grotto of Locmaria. Dumas’ work was published in English several times during his lifetime, cementing his reputation and celebrity status throughout Europe. Although Dumas is credited as sole author of his novels, he had a ghost writer, Auguste Maquet, who produced drafts built around plots based upon historical events; Dumas polished or re-wrote these drafts adding his signature flair for character and drama. Maquet took Dumas and his publishers to court several times over unpaid fees and for recognition as co-author but eventually dropped his copyright claim for a lump sum settlement.

Not long after the publication of The Black Tulip (1850), Dumas went into exile, travelling extensively, and maintained his impressive literary output during those thirteen years, including writing one of the earliest werewolf fantasies, The Wolf Leader (1857). He returned to France in 1864 and spent much of 1869 in Brittany writing a book to the glory of good food which was published posthumously as A Dictionary of Cooking (1873). Dumas’ work has been published in over a hundred languages and adapted into a multitude of cinema and television offerings.

Numerous authors have continued the tradition of crafting historical romances set in Brittany, first established by Wace of Jersey and Marie de France in the 12th century.

Born in Brittany, Marguerite Cunliffe-Owen (1859-1927) was a Countess who became a successful newspaper columnist and author who often published under the pseudonym La Marquise de Fontenoy. Two of her novels are set in Brittany; Emerald and Ermine (1907) has all the ingredients that you would expect to find in an historical romance of its time; a brooding château, secret passages, fabulous jewels and the battle between heroine and villain. Her subsequent book, The Cradle of the Rose (1908) is a more atmospheric novel that tries hard to evoke the spirit of Brittany, telling as it does the tale of a diplomatic spouse who returns to her roots while her husband is on assignment in the Orient and quickly finds herself mysteriously thrust into the role of feared feudal princess.

Susan Carroll is an award-winning American writer of historical romance novels; her The Dark Queen Saga (2005-12) consists of six interesting novels based around a family of legendary healers and mystics in Brittany, known as the Sisters of Faire Isle and their battle to thwart the sinister ambitions of Catherine de Medici, the Dark Queen.

Brittany during the Middle Ages also forms the backdrop to the five novels that make up the His Fair Assassin (2012-20) series of books by the American author Robin LaFevers. Aimed primarily at young adults, the books merge a significant amount of historically accurate details amongst tales of high intrigue, romance, betrayal and a convent that secretly trains deadly assassins.

Amongst the many works written by American author Gillian Bradshaw is the historical novel The Wolf Hunt (2001); a book based on Marie de France’s Breton lai of the werewolf, Bisclavret.  The book is strong on historical atmosphere and features well drawn characters mired in often complex situations and even if you know the lai of Bisclavret, the tale crafted by Bradshaw is a compelling version worth reading.

The Winter King
The Winter King – The first book of the Warlord Chronicles

The Warlord Chronicles (1995-97) is a trilogy of books by English author Bernard Cornwell featuring the legendary King Arthur and set around the 6th century; a time when the old religion of the Celts was finally supplanted by Christianity and when the native Britons were fighting a steadily rear-guard action against the Saxon invaders to the east and repelling Irish incursions in the west. The British colonisation of Armorica and the roles of Arthur and his knights in forging Brittany feature throughout the books which offer a wonderful blend of historical fiction and Arthurian mythology. Cornwell, a prolific writer, himself once said that of all his books, these were his favourites.

Another British author, Robert Holdstock (1948-2009), took inspiration from the mythology surrounding King Arthur’s sage Merlin in his fantasy novel Merlin’s Wood (1994); a contemporary story of a young couple returning to their childhood home near the forest of Brocéliande whose deaf, dumb and blind child slowly gains all his faculties while his mother loses hers. The theft of power is a core theme in the book which revolves around the eternal struggle between Merlin and Vivien and its impact on those who live within the shadows of the magical forest.

The folktales of Brittany also find their way into one of the many works penned by the English writer, A S Byatt, in her award-winning novel, Possession (1990). This is a very entertaining book and difficult to sum-up in a sentence but essentially the tale revolves around a pair of academics determined to uncover the truth about the depths of the relationship between two Victorian poets; both stories run parallel throughout the book and spend much time in Brittany, and also explore the legends of the fairy Melusine and the sunken city of Ker-Is.

The lost city of Ker-Is forms one of the major elements in the occult fantasy The Vampires of Finistère (1970) by Peter Saxon; this was a pseudonym used by various authors who wrote what might be termed pulp fiction for a small British publishing house in the 1960s. The author is believed to have been Rex Dolphin (1915-1990) whose tale features many of the tropes one would expect to see in a Hammer movie of the period: men dressed as skeletons dancing around nocturnal bonfires, a kidnapped virgin, the Green Wolf, hostile locals, a feral girl, werewolves and the Princess Ahès re-imagined as a lusty shapeshifting vampiric mermaid.

Vampires of Finistere

The symbolism associated with Gothic horror fiction features heavily in the first novel of the French writer Julien Gracq (1910-2007). The Castle of Argol (1938) tells the tale of a wealthy man who has bought a mysterious castle in rural Brittany and invited his best friend to visit, who arrives accompanied by a beautiful woman. Gracq described his work as a demonic version of Wagner’s opera Parsifal although the book is, at times, overburdened with symbolism and verbose descriptions. The interplay between the three characters takes place over a deliberately unspecified amount of time and is related to the reader, there being virtually no dialogue in the book.

At the other end of the literary spectrum, the prolific English author P G Wodehouse set his farce Hot Water (1932) in the fictional Breton resort of Saint-Rocque. Some people have suggested that this town is a fictionalised Monte Carlo but this is unlikely; Wodehouse was not an author to waste words and would not have given a Breton name and specified Brittany as the town’s location if he had intended the south of France.

It is far more likely that Saint-Rocque is a fictionalised Dinard; a resort on the north coast of Brittany that was very popular with wealthy British and American high-society and celebrity visitors, including Wodehouse himself, right up to the mid-1930s when it started to lose favour to the resorts of the French Riviera. Indeed, other literary luminaries such as Churchill, Colette, Agatha Christie, Tolkien, T E Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Verne and Proust were regular visitors and today, just across the Rance estuary is the home of one of the most successful contemporary Russian writers, Grigory Chkhartishvili, who publishes under the name Boris Akunin. An accomplished historian, he turned to writing fiction at forty and since the publication of his first novel, The Winter Queen (1998), has amassed sales in excess of 30 million books.

Art Deco advertising poster of Dinard

Although Hot Water contains none of Wodehouse’s regular characters, the character types he often depicts are all present: an ambitious wife, English aristocrats, an American millionaire and ex-football star, a prohibitionist but hypocritical US senator, con artists, jewel thieves and an undercover private detective. The book is not one of Wodehouse’s better known works but it is classic Wodehouse and amusingly captures the carefree atmosphere of a French resort between the world wars. Saint-Rocque also appears in in his later novel, French Leave (1956).

Another English author who specialised in humorous fiction, H E Bates (1905-1974), set his follow-up novel to The Darling Buds of May (1958) in Brittany. A Breath of French Air (1959) takes place a year after the events of the previous book and sees the Larkin family escape the summer rains of rural Kent for the sun of Brittany only to find more summer rain, weak tea and a rather curmudgeonly hotel keeper.

The Belgian writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989) was a frequent visitor to Brittany. His most famous character, the detective Maigret, features in an astonishing 75 books and 28 short stories, and despite the character having spent his formative years in the Breton city of Nantes, only one novel features an entirely Breton setting; Maigret and the Yellow Dog (1931). This is a classic Simenon whodunit with Maigret called to investigate an attempted murder and soon becoming embroiled in a poisoning, the mysterious disappearance of a journalist and a suspicious vagrant with a yellow haired dog.

Simenon also wrote a number of weightier novels or what the French call romans durs, one of these also has a Breton setting, The Red Donkey (1933). The book is a coming-of-age drama telling the story of a troubled young newspaper reporter in Nantes who spends his evenings in a nightclub where he grows obsessed with an older woman and through a combination of debt and naivety becomes involved with criminals for whom he steals identity documents. This novel was published in English as The Nightclub and is one of almost 400 books written by Simenon who is one of the most translated and best-selling authors of the last hundred years, with over half a billion books sold.

Sometimes described as the heir to Simenon, former editor and publisher, the German author Jörg Bong has written nine crime novels set in Brittany under the pseudonym Jean-Luc Bannalec; the first in the series was published in English as Death in Brittany (2012). His books follow the many investigations of a maverick, coffee-loving fictional detective banished to the province from Paris and are rich in local colour and detail.

Asterix in Brittany

No literary look at Brittany would be complete without mention of those most colourful of Bretons, Astérix and Obelix, created by Albert Uderzo (1927-2020) and René Goscinny (1926-1977) in 1959. A few towns have tried to lay claim to being the inspiration for that small village populated by indomitable Gauls who, time and again, resist the Roman invader but the strongest claim seems to belong to Erquy on the north coast of Brittany. It enjoys the right coastal setting with evidence of an Iron Age defensive fortification, has the requisite stone quarries and even the three menhirs featured in the fictional village. When asked, Uderzo suggested that he might have been unconsciously drawn to the area around Erquy as the setting for his comic strip; his family settled near Saint Brieuc during the Second World War and it was an area that he returned to often. In Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix (1963), published in English as Astérix and the Banquet, Astérix and Obelisk decide to break out of the stockade the Romans have built around their village and travel throughout Gaul to collect regional delicacies for a special feat; the map drawn by Astérix notes the route they will take and places the area around Saint Brieuc and Erquy as home.

Since their first appearance in 1959, the characters have morphed into an industry; 34 books published in over a hundred languages with over 280 million copies sold, a dozen movies and even a theme park. Not bad going for a little guy from Armorica!

As is the case with all works that have been translated from one language into another, the competence and skill of the translator and their editor is crucial. There are plenty of great translations around but also some less good, albeit linguistically accurate, ones; choose your edition with care. If unsure, why not have a hunt here on WordPress to see what others recommend?

Coronavirus in Asterix

Lai of the Breton Werewolf

The 12th century poet Marie de France remains a mystery to us but her writing had a strong and lasting influence on the development of medieval literature. Adapted from traditional Breton folklore, her tales are recognised as a treasure of European culture.

One of the most intriguing figures in medieval literature, Marie de France is among the first recorded female authors in Europe but we know almost nothing about her despite her exhortation that: “Those to whom God has gifted eloquence of speech, should not hide their gift but display it willingly”. Sadly, for one so eloquent, she offers us very little clues beyond her name being Marie but this could even be a pseudonym; in another work attributed to her she tells us: “Marie is my name, I am of France”.

A few further clues about Marie can be gleaned from an examination of her known texts but they do not allow us to infer very much: she had connections at a royal court and was familiar with the chivalric code and notions of courtly love thus she was most likely a noble and possibly an abbess; she wrote in an Anglo-Norman dialect but also seems to have been conversant with Breton, English and Latin, having declared that she had translated from all three languages. So, possibly she was from Normandy or Brittany and had followed her family to England where many Breton and Norman lords had secured fiefdoms for services rendered to William the Conqueror and his house.  

Not only are we unable to fully confirm the identity of the mysterious Marie but dating her work is also not without difficulties. We can be fairly confident that some of her work was known before circa 1180 as that is the approximate date of a manuscript that provides the only contemporary reference of her; a Life of Saint Edmund written by Denis Pyramus, a Benedictine monk from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, who talks in his prologue of “the Lady Marie who composed in rhyme, lines from lais, which are not in the least true, indeed she is highly praised for them and the rhyme is appreciated everywhere.”

Marie de France manuscript

These lais are fairly long narrative poems written in rhyming verse composed sometime between 1155 and 1175. Marie also produced a collection of the fables of Aesop and a long poem, the Purgatory of Saint Patrick, and it is generally believed that these were composed after the lais. Only one extant manuscript is known to contain all the twelve lais attributed to Marie although some scholars argue that another two, including one featuring King Gradlon, should rightfully be attributed to her.

In her prologue, Marie tells us that she had been looking for a work to translate into “the common tongue” and could find nothing suitable that had not already been done, so she decided to set down the stories that she had heard sung as lais by Breton minstrels. We know that the bards of Brittany and other Celtic nations performed narrative tales to music and the latter day Breton minstrels would have been heir to that ancient tradition. Sadly, no confirmed written examples have survived the years and it is therefore quite prescient of Marie to have committed the stories contained in the old lais to parchment, as she mentions in her prologue her earnest desire that they should “not perish and be forgotten”.

Marie herself notes that her compositions are not translations of the original lais; they are new works based on them, creating a new direction for a long established genre of story-telling. Marie effectively took the lai from the oral tradition and its delivery as a musical performance to a written poem designed to be narrated to an audience. The story at the heart of the old lai having been retold and recast in a world that her audience would find both seemingly exotic and ancient but also quite familiar. Marie weaves her tales of great heroes and marvellous beings from the Celtic tradition with the contemporary motifs of Christian virtue, marriage, courtly love and Anglo-Norman feudalism.

Medieval minstrels

It was said that William the Conqueror had been passionately fond of Breton lais since his youth and this might help explain the continued popularity of the genre in the Anglo-Norman court at the time of Marie. Like the tales performed by the Celtic bards of old, these Breton lais were sang aloud, usually accompanied by a harp or hurdy-gurdy, as memorials of noteworthy men and events. In the romanticised, courtly world of the medieval minstrel, the ideal knight was both a gallant warrior and a talented poet and singer; as the knightly hero was described in Thomas of England’s poem, Tristan: “He sang the air of his lai so beautifully in Breton, Welsh, Latin, and French. So sweetly he sang that no one could tell which was sweeter or more praiseworthy; his harpistry or his singing.”

Whether we agree on twelve or fourteen, the lais of Marie de France, all focus, to one degree or another, on the trials and tribulations of men and women brought on by love. Today we are so used to seeing the idea of love, in all its guises from platonic romance to erotic desire, played out and presented to and for us in popular drama, literature and culture, that we barely register its presence. Indeed, we assume that it was always there, after all love is an intrinsic part of our human nature which all great literature shines a light on but this was not always so. For the most part, the literature of antiquity and the Dark Ages virtually ignored it; focusing instead on heroic deeds and quests, battles, glory and the Divine. The idea of friendship and loyalty was often present but not so love.

The lai’s of Marie de France are amongst the earliest written European literature where the notion of love is central; that love motivates and produces humanity’s best and basest behaviours.  Her tales mix traces of Celtic beliefs and concepts of fate and fortune with themes of life and death, love and loss, fidelity and betrayal. Although her perspectives on these subjects would have been strongly influenced by her courtly upbringing, she presents her themes not as a moraliser but as a storyteller; the lais are peppered with asides to the listener but these serve to emphasise points of fact rather than highlight points of Christian morality. The world of Marie’s Breton lais is therefore a nuanced one and one where female characters play a more central role than typically found in the literature of the period where women were often peripheral figures.

Medieval illustration of courtly love

As mentioned above, despite the lais being squarely set within the framework of the Anglo-Norman courtly worldview, Marie retains strong traces of the Celtic superstitions and belief in the marvellous that would have featured strongly in the lais sung for her in her youth. Her lais feature incredible creatures such as a fairy queen, a talking deer, a weasel who holds the flower of resurrection, a hawk that turns into a man and a man that turns into a wolf. It is this latter tale that I have chosen to illustrate below.

As you can appreciate, the lais of Marie de France have been translated and edited into modern English and French many times, particularly over the last two hundred years, some have even been produced in rhyming verse. However, the translation that I have chosen is drawn from Jessie Weston’s book Arthurian Romances Unrepresented in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1910) which presents lais rendered into English prose from the poems of Marie de France and others that might form the back-story to characters mentioned in Malory’s epic work.

The author notes that a single sentence in Morte d’Arthur suggested this story, namely: “Sir Marrok, the good knight that was betrayed with his wife, for she made him seven year a werewolf.” In Malory’s tale, Sir Marrok features in the roll of knights who attempted to heal the injured knight, Sir Urry. In combat, Sir Urry had suffered seven great wounds, three on the head and four on his body and upon his left hand but a sorceress cursed him so that his wounds would never heal until treated by the best knight in the world. Sir Urry travelled across Europe in search of one who might heal his suppurating wounds and, at length, arrived at the court of King Arthur where all the knights at court tried to help him. Their attempts were in vain until the appearance of that Breton “flower of the world’s knights”, Sir Lancelot.

Sir Marrock

The Lai of the Werewolf

Amongst the tales I tell you, I cannot forget the lai of the werewolf. Such beasts as he are known in every land; in Brittany he is named Bisclavaret whilst the Norman calls him Garwal.

It is certain and we all know it, that many a christened man has suffered this change and ran wild in woods as a werewolf. The werewolf is a fearsome beast; lurking within the forest, mad and horrible to see. All the evil that he may, he does. He hunts about the place, seeking man, in order to devour him. Listen now, to the adventure of the werewolf that I have to tell.

In the days of King Arthur, there lived in Brittany a valiant knight of noble birth and countenance; in high favour with his lord and much loved by all his fellows. This knight was wedded to a fair and gracious lady whom he loved tenderly and she too loved her lord but one thing vexed her sorely: three days in every week would her husband leave her and none knew where he went or what he did while absent.

And every time the lady vexed herself more and more, ‘till at last she could no longer keep silence and when her husband returned, joyful at heart after one of these journeys, she said to him: “My dear lord, there is something I would ask you and yet I scarce dare, for I fear lest you be angry with me.”

Then her lord drew her to him, and kissed her tenderly. “Lady,” he said, “fear not to ask me, there is nothing I would not gladly tell you, if it be in my power.”

“In faith,” she said, “now is my heart at rest. My lord, if you only knew how terrified I am in the days I am alone; I rise in the morning afraid and lie down at night in such dread of losing you that if I be not soon reassured I think I shall die of it. Tell me, I pray, where you go and on what errand, that I who love you may be at rest during your absence.”

“Lady,” he answered, “for the love of God ask me no more, for indeed if I told you evil would surely come of it; you would cease to love me and I should be lost.”

Medieval illustration of wolves

When the lady heard this she was ill-pleased, nor would she let her lord be at peace but day by day she besought him with prayers and caresses, till at length he yielded and told her all the truth. “Lady,” he said, “there is a spell upon me: three days in the week am I forced to become a werewolf; and when I feel the change coming upon me I hide myself in the thick of the forest and there I live on prey and roots till the time has expired.”

When he had told her this, his wife asked him what of his clothes? Did he still wear them in his wolf’s shape? “No,” he said, “I must set them aside.”  His wife pressed him keenly and demanded to know what he did with his clothes. “That I may not tell you, for if I were to lose them, or they should be stolen from me, then must I remain a wolf all my days, nothing could aid me save that the garments be brought to me again. So for my own safety I must keep the matter secret.”

“My dear lord, why hide it from me? Surely thou has no fear of me who loves you above all else? Little love can you have for me! What have I done? What sin have I committed that you should withdraw your trust in me so? You must tell me.” Thus she wept and entreated until, at length, the knight yielded and told her all.

“Dear wife,” he said, “near the forest on the highway, at a cross road, is an old chapel wherein I have often found help and succour. Close to it, under a thick shrub, is a large stone with a hollow beneath it; under that stone I hide my clothes until the enchantment has lost its power and I may turn myself homewards.”

Man and beast

Now, when the lady had heard this story it fell out even as her husband had foretold, for her love was changed to loathing and she was seized with a great dread and fear of him. She was terrified to be in his presence and no longer wished to lie with him, yet he was her lord and she knew not how she might escape from him.

Then she remembered a certain knight of that country, who had loved her long and wooed her in vain before she wedded her lord; and one time when her husband went forth, she sent for him in secret and bade him come give her counsel on a matter that troubled her. When he came she bade him swear to keep secret what she might tell him and when he had sworn, she told him all and prayed him for the sake of the love he once bore her to free her from one who was neither beast nor man and yet both.

The knight, who loved her still, was ready to do all she might desire and she said, “It is but to steal his clothes, for then he can no more become a man but must dwell in the forest as a wolf all his days and someone will surely slay him.” So, he went forth and did after her bidding and brought her husband’s clothes. She hid them away saying, “Now am I safe and that monster can return to terrify me no more.”

When time went on and her husband came not, the lady feigned to be anxious for his welfare and sent his men forth to seek him; they went through all the land but could find no trace of their lord. At length, they gave up the search and all deemed he had been slain on one of his mysterious journeys. When a year had passed and the lady thought the wolf had surely been killed, she wedded the knight who had aided her and thought no more of the husband she had betrayed.

Bisclavret's wife and the knight

But the poor werewolf roamed the forest in suffering and sorrow, for though a beast outwardly yet he had the heart and brain of a man, and knew well what had happened and he grieved bitterly, for he had loved his wife truly and well.

Now it chanced one day that the king of that land was hunting in that very forest and the hounds came on the track of the werewolf and roused him from his lair and gave chase to him. All day he fled before them through the woodland and at last when they were close upon him and he was in peril of being caught and torn in pieces, the king came riding after the hounds, and the wolf swerved aside and ran to him, seizing him by the stirrup, and kissing his foot in sign of submission.

The king was much astonished and called to his companions to come swiftly. “See here, my lords,” he said, “what do you think of this marvel? See how this beast entreats mercy of me; he has the sense of a man! Drive off the dogs, for I will not have him injured. Turn we homewards, I take this beast in my peace and will hunt no more in this forest lest by chance he be slain.”

Wolf hunting

With that they turned their bridles and rode homewards but the wolf followed and would not be driven back, even when they came to the royal castle. The king was greatly pleased, for he thought the matter strange and marvellous; no such tale had he ever heard before and since he had taken a great liking for the beast he bade his knights not merely to do the wolf no harm but to treat him with all care and kindness, on pain of losing royal favour. So all day the wolf roamed the court, free among the knights and at night he slept in the king’s chamber. Wherever the king went, he would have his wolf go too and all the courtiers made much of the beast, seeing that it pleased their lord, and finding that he did no harm to any man among them.

Now when a long time had passed the king had occasion to hold a solemn court; he summoned all his barons from near and far and among them came the knight who had betrayed the werewolf and wedded his lady; he had little thought that his rival was yet in life, still less that he was so near at hand. But as soon as the wolf saw him he sprang upon him savagely, tearing him with his teeth and would have slain him if the king had not called him off and even then twice again he would have seized him.

Everyone in the castle was astonished at the rage shown by the beast, which had always been so gentle and a whisper went round that surely there must be something which no one knew against the knight, for the wolf would not have attacked him without cause. All the time the court lasted the wolf had to be kept in close guard. When at length it broke up, the knight who had been attacked was the first to leave and when the knight had gone the wolf was once more as tame and friendly as he had been from the first and all the courtiers made a pet of him as they had done before and forgot that he had ever shown himself so savage.

At length, the king decided that he would make a progress through his kingdom and at the same time hunt for a time in the forest where he had found the wolf. As was his custom, he took the beast with him. Now the lady, the werewolf’s treacherous wife, hearing that the king would abide some time in that part of the country, prayed for an audience that she might win the royal favour by presenting rich gifts, for she knew well that the king loved not her second husband as he had loved the first.

Medieval king's progress

The king granted an appointment but when the lady entered the meeting hall the wolf suddenly flew upon her and before any could hinder had bitten the nose from off her face. The courtiers drew out their weapons and would have slain the beast, when a wise man, one of the king’s councillors, stayed them. “Sire,” he said, “listen to me, this wolf has long been with us, there is not one of us here who has not been near him and caressed him, over and over again; yet not a man of us has he ever touched or even shown ill-will. But two has he ever attacked, this lady here and the lord, her husband. Now, sire, consider, this lady was the wife of the knight that you once held dear and who was lost long ago, no man knowing what became to him. Take my counsel, put this lady in guard and question her closely as to whether she can give any reason why the wolf should hate her. Many a marvel has come to pass in Brittany and methinks there is something stranger than we know here.”

The king agreed the old lord’s counsel; he caused the lady and her husband to be put in prison and questioned separately with threats if they kept silence; till at length the lady confessed how she had betrayed her first husband by causing his clothes to be stolen from him when he was in a wolf’s form. Since that time he had disappeared; she knew not whether he was alive or dead but she thought that perhaps this wolf was he. When the king heard this he commanded them to fetch the clothes belonging to the lost knight, whether it were pleasing to the lady or not; and when they were brought he laid them before the wolf and waited to see what would happen.

However, the wolf made as if he saw them not and the wise councillor said, “Sire, if this beast is a werewolf he will not change shapes while there are any to behold him; since it is only with great pain and difficulty he can do so. Bid them take wolf and garments into your chamber and fasten the doors upon him; then leave him for a while, and we shall see if he becomes a man.”

The king thought this sound counsel and he himself took the beast into his chamber and closed the doors fast. Then they waited for a time that seemed long enough to the king, and when the old lord told him he might do so, he took two nobles and unlocked the doors, and entered, and lo, on the king’s bed lay the long lost knight in a deep slumber!

The king ran to him and embraced him warmly. When the first wonder had somewhat passed, he bade him take back all the lands of which he had been robbed, and over and above he bestowed upon him many rich gifts.

The treacherous wife and her husband were banished from the country; many years they lived in a foreign land and had children and grandchildren but all their descendants might be known by this, that the maidens were all born without noses.

Born without a nose

The old books say that this adventure is verily true and that it was in order that the memory of it should be preserved for all time that the Bretons put it in verse and called it ‘The Lai of the Werewolf.’

I will make no attempt to analyse the tale but let you take from it what, if anything, you will. Some scholars have made much of the idea of transformation in the story and the notion of man as beast. Others have seen the key theme as one of innate nobility or the importance of courtly hierarchy. While some call it a protofeminist tale, others call it misogynistic and some declare that it is really about the struggle for homosexual acceptance. I will leave the last words to Marie herself, who wrote almost 800 years ago: “He performs his task poorly who lets himself be forgotten”.

The Lost City Of Brittany

One of the most beautiful in Europe, the large horseshoe Bay of Douarnenez on Brittany’s western Atlantic coast boasts some stunning coastal scenery, from towering cliffs to secluded sandy coves. Just five miles (8km) offshore lies the Île de Sein, reputed birthplace of the legendary wizard Merlin and sacred burial place of the druids but said to lie in the waters of the bay itself is the magnificent but damned sunken city of Ker-Is.

Douarnenez Bay
The Bay of Douarnenez

As with any story, we should start at the beginning with the semi-legendary fifth century Breton warlord, Gradlon or Grallon, who held sway over a large part of southern Brittany; a territory known as Kernev (Cornwall in English, Cournouaille in French).

Reputed to be the son of Cynan Meriadoc, founder of Brittany, King Gradlon was said to have been something of an adventurer, renowned for capturing vessels at sea and raiding coastal settlements in the cold lands to the north. During his last marauding expedition, he was abandoned by his warriors, who had become weary and homesick after fighting for so long in the harsh northern lands; thus Gradlon found himself alone. That night, in the depths of his anguish, he was startled by the appearance of a woman whose radiance was reflected by the light of the northern stars that illuminated her long red hair. This was Malgven, a northern Queen and sorceress who tells him: “I know you; you are a courageous and skilful warrior. My husband is old and his sword is rusty. Let us be rid of him and return together to your country of Kernev.”

Enchanted by Malgven, Gradlon slays the old king in the North and loots his treasury for a chest full of gold. The couple make good their escape by mounting Malgven’s horse, Morvarc’h; a powerful beast, black as night, who breathed fire from his nostrils as he galloped to the sea and raced on the crests of the waves. No sooner had they caught up with Gradlon’s homebound fleet than a violent tempest flared which scattered the ships until the horizon was empty, leaving their vessel the only sign of life.

Gradlon and Malgven were destined to spend a year together at sea; during which time Malgven gave birth to a baby girl they named Dahud. Some versions of the story have Malgven dying in childbirth while others have her casting a spell that will ensure her daughter grows up looking exactly like her, shortly before being set-down on a small island so that she might return home. All tales agree that Gradlon and his daughter reached Kernev safely, whereupon he quickly re-established control over his lands after being so long absent. In his grief over the loss of Malgven, Gradlon became a virtual recluse within the walls of his castle, seeing only Saint Guénolé while Dahud was usually to be seen wandering close against the sea to which she thought she belonged, having been born on the waves.

Dahud grew jealous of what she perceived to be Saint Guénolé’s influence over her father and spent more of her time at the seashore to avoid the preacher’s visits to the castle. She was so possessed by the sea that she begged her father to build for her a city by the sea. To her delight, Gradlon conceded to his dear daughter’s wish and ordered the construction of this new city and several thousand workers came from across the land to help build this pearl of the ocean and its formidable dyke that would shield it against storm and surf; some tales attribute the construction of this massive defensive wall to the magic of the korrigans.

Finally, the city was complete; viewed from afar, the city of Ker-Is seemed to rise from the depths of the very ocean itself. To control the water level in the enclosed harbour, a set of monumental bronze gates were set into the encircling wall; the keys to which only Gradlon, as king, took guardianship of and wore from a chain around his neck.

City of Ker Is

The new city, esteemed for its magnificence and splendour, quickly attracted the notables of the land to live within its stout walls. Although King Gradlon transferred his capital to Ker-Is, he remained as reclusive as ever and so Dahud fell easily into the role of the beating heart and soul of the city. However, the luxurious living within the city walls steadily led to all manner of debauchery and soon the city was renowned as a den of iniquity and vice. The exhortations of the priests, preaching repentance and reformation, made no impression upon the townsfolk; even Saint Guénolé, one of the mightiest among the saints, preached in vain, thwarted at every turn by Dahud.

Princess Dahud set an example of depravity that none in the city could match; she adhered to the old religion, she feasted and drank to excess every day, and every night would take a new lover. Each morning, her discarded lover would be given a mask to wear before quitting Dahud’s tower. Ostensibly this was to allow him to leave the castle unnoticed but the grim reality was that it was an enchanted mask that quickly suffocated the wearer and each morning another dead body was thrown into the sea. Amidst the city’s debauchery, only King Gradlon preserved his soul; untainted by the vice surrounding him, he lived a modest life of the stoutest virtue.

One evening, a handsome stranger captivated Dahud and later, when they were alone in her chamber, he persuaded her to display her desire for him by bringing him the keys her father always wore. Dahud obligingly stole the keys from her sleeping father and proudly presented them to the stranger who now revealed himself to be the Devil. The gates that protected the city ​​were opened and the sea began to rage in. As the water spread through the streets, the king was roused from his prayers and quickly made plans to flee. He summoned his horse and, with Dahud seated behind him, raced from the city. Powerful though he was, Morvarc’h struggled in the water and floundered as though being ridden by a group of heavily armed men and it seemed as though Gradlon and his daughter were doomed to destruction. When all hope seemed lost, a voice like thunder was heard above the waves; “King, if you would save yourself, shake off the demon that you carry behind you.”  

As Morvarc’h wrestled with the water, so too did the good king with his conscience – should he obey and cause the death of his beloved daughter or disobey the command of God and face the fearful judgements that might overtake the country through his guilt? Suddenly, the Devil leapt out of the sea and seized Dahud; he carried her away and made her his servant; a mermaid. Freed of the burden of Dahud, Morvarc’h surged to shore, the king was saved but his daughter and her treasured city were lost forever to the sea.

The Flight of King Gradlon and Saint Guenole
The Flight of King Gradlon

As you can imagine, there are many versions of this tale; some make no mention of the Devil at all and say that Dahud herself opened the city’s gates in a state of drunkenness and that Gradlon voluntarily yielded up his daughter to the waves; others tell that she nobly resigned herself to her fate to save her dear father.

The heavy religious undertones of the story offer us an example of divine wrath provoked by unvirtuous living reminiscent of the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah and it is worth noting that, until the story was significantly embellished in the last century, the religious element was even more to the fore. Substituting the last two paragraphs of the above account for the following two will give you a flavour of the earlier tale:

One day, while the king was attending Divine service, he was approached by Saint Guénolé who addressed him urgently, saying “Oh king, the sickness of your city is at its height; the arm of the Lord is stretching out for it; the sea begins to rage and the city shall soon disappear! We must hurry and leave this place of sin!” Gradlon, trusting implicitly the words of the wise saint, called for his daughter and together they mounted his horse; and in the company of Saint Guénolé left the city with the utmost speed. The waves immediately began to rise and the city was soon overwhelmed.

Due to the weight of her sins, the horse carrying Dahud and her father made slow headway in the water and it seemed as though both were doomed to destruction. Seeing their plight, Saint Guénolé shouted at Gradlon; “King, if you would save yourself, shake off the demon that you carry behind you.”  However, the king could not countenance consigning his only daughter to the waves and even if he had the mind to do so, Dahud’s grip on him was too strong for him to have shaken her loose. Understanding this, Saint Guénolé manoeuvred his horse closer and touched Dahud with his staff whereupon she was immediately propelled backwards and cast into the deep. The king and saint finally reached the shore together; they looked back but not a trace of the city could be seen.

Saint Guenole and King Gradlon cast Dahud to the Devil
Saint Guenole and King Gradlon leave Dahud to the Devil

Legends generally survive the centuries because they are adapted and retold to suit the audience of the day and the story of the lost city of Ker-Is is no exception. Interestingly, we are able to trace the modifications to the tale since it was first set down on paper; at least in the papers that survived the Viking raids of the 10th century.  The 9th century cartulary of the monastery at Landévennec – founded at the end of the 5th century by the first-generation British immigrant, Saint Guénolé – which is itself believed to be a copy of a more ancient document, mentions Gradlon Meur (Gradlon the Great). He is also a key character of one of the 12th century lays often attributed to Marie de France but Ker-Is does not feature in either text although there is no reason why it should.

To date, the earliest mention found of Ker-Is is from La Compillation des Cronicques et Ystoires des Bretons written by Pierre le Baud in 1480: “The great city of Is, located near the sea, was, for the sins of the inhabitants, submerged by the waters issuing from this sea. King Grallon who at the time was in this city, miraculously escaped by the merit of Saint Guénolé.” Another 15th century manuscript, L’Eloge de la Bretagne, refers to Ker-Is as a “formerly considerable city that was utterly engulfed by the sea’s jealous and ravenous wrath.” A history of Brittany, produced in 1582, adds nothing to these few lines beyond a note of scepticism: “… is not this city of Is (if it was), named of old, for some legends?”

There is another early reference in Canon Moreau’s Histoire de ce qui s’est Passé en Bretagne Durant les Guerres de la Ligue (circa 1605) which notes of a “very famous and imaginary city called Is in the vulgar tongue of the country, which they say was located where the bay of Douarnenez is presently and which was successively conquered by the sea around 1200 or 1300 years ago. Knowledge is from the time of the holy characters Corentin, Guénolé, Tadec, reigning at that time in Brittany, the King Grallon the Great … and everything happened by a just punishment from God for the sins of the people of the said city.” It is essentially the same bland reference but now two additional saints have been associated to the city and the notion of Divine intervention is now offered as an explanation for the city’s submergence.

The Lost City

The hagiographer, Albert Le Grand, wrote his monumental Les Vies des Saints de la Bretagne Armorique (1636) based on ecclesiastical manuscripts that are no longer extant, so we are unable to verify his sources but within his account of the life of Saint Guénolé (one of the few phallic saints) he adds some new details:

After having appointed Corentin bishop and lord of Quimper, King Grallon transferred his court to a big city on the coast. This city was called Is. … Guénolé often went to see the king in his superb city of Is and preached very highly against the abominations which were committed in this city all absorbed in luxury, debauchery and vanity.  … God revealed to him the just punishment he wanted to make of it and the hour of retribution. He said to the king: ‘Ha, Sire, let us get out of this place as soon as possible because the ire of God is going to overwhelm it now!’  …

Grallon immediately packed up his luggage and, having had his most expensive items removed, mounted his horse with his officers and servants, and, at the point of a spur, fled from town. No sooner had he left the doors than a violent storm arose with winds so impetuous that the sea, throwing itself beyond its ordinary limits and rushing into fury on this wretched city, drowned several thousand people; the main cause of these deaths was attributed to Dahud, immodest daughter of the good king, who perished in this abyss and almost caused the loss of the king. … History assures us that she had taken from her father the key he wore hanging on his collar as a symbol of his royalty. ”

The King of Ys opera

The character of Dahud and the key as a symbol of royalty are now added to the tale; the implication being perhaps that Dahud had attempted to usurp her father as ruler. Almost 150 years later, the first seeds were sown that would, over time, lead to confusion over the role of Dahud.

In Jean-Baptiste Ogée’s Dictionnaire Historique et Géographique de la Province de Bretagne (1780) the author notes recent conjectures on the origin of the town of Keraës (Carhaix): “several have gone so far as to regard Keraës as the Ker-Is of the ancients, and, by a slight transmutation of Ker-Is into Keraës, have endeavoured to re-establish on the surface of the globe, a city that seemed to be missing for centuries. … This city, famous in the idea of people who like to feed on fables, was swallowed up according to vulgar tradition in the time of King Grallon for punishing the crimes of its inhabitants.”  The etymological association has long since been discredited but linking Keraës with Ker-Is also linked the person after whom the town was then thought named for; the fairy Ahès.

Writing of his tour of the province in the mid-1790s, Jacques Cambry in his Voyage Dans le Finistère (1799) noted of Carhaix that “It has been claimed that it got its name from Princess Ahès daughter of Conan Mériadec or King Grallon, she had it built.” Perhaps he thought that Grallon had two daughters rather than the one son listed in the genealogies, as less than thirty pages earlier when describing the west coast, he talks of “The waters of the raging sea engulfed the opulent city of Is and drowned the immodest Dahud, daughter of King Grallon.”

Ahès seems to have first become the villain of the piece in Pierre Bruno’s Histoire de Bretagne (1826):  “The city was only defended from the invasions of the ocean by a dyke in the middle of which, ingeniously arranged locks, delivered passage to the volume of water necessary to supply the numerous canals. King Grallon had the keys to these locks carefully kept and himself presided over the entry of the waters into the city. The intrigues and crimes of Ahès having finally wrested power from the king, she seized the keys. However, in the frightful uproar which arose in the midst of this frantic license which she herself had excited, she could not keep this precious talisman; it fell into ignorant and barbarous hands and the locks were opened.”

This passage not only replaces Dahud with Ahès but also introduces the protective dyke, the floodgates or locks and the keys that open them into the narrative. These motifs were also present in a traditional Breton ballad noted by Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué in 1840. The tale now has the foundations upon which Pitre-Chevalier will elaborate in his La Bretagne Ancienne et Moderne (1844) in which he talks of “beautiful Ahès or Dahud” and “… The town of Is … occupied a very low beach, constantly threatened by the waves; it had ramparts, dykes and locks, the keys to which were placed in an iron casket; the king alone opened this casket with a golden key hanging from his neck. Now Dahud who had promised this golden key to one of her lovers, stole it from her sleeping father…”


The legend of Ker-Is reached a wider audience under the pens of two of the 19th century’s most prominent Breton folklorists; as a consolidated folk tale in Emile Souvestre’s Le Foyer Breton in 1844 and as a folk song in La Villemarqué’s 1845 edition of Barzaz Breiz. Souvestre’s account contains several new features: Saint Guénolé is replaced by Saint Corentin; the dykes and floodgates were constructed by the magic of the korrigans; Dahud is a powerful sorceress and the holder of the key rather than her father; an enchanted mask strangles Dahud’s lovers and their corpses are taken away and hurled into a pit near Carhaix.

The ballad included by La Villemarqué, in the second edition of his work, ends with some verses depicting Dahud as a mermaid or morgane, having been transformed into one by God as punishment for her wickedness: “Did you see, fisherman, the mermaid, combing her gold hair by the shore, when the sun shone bright? I saw the white girl from the sea, I even heard her sing, her song was sad like the waves.”

The author Pierre-Jakez Hélias in Bretagne aux Légendes (1967) also recounts a legend depicting Dahud as mermaid: “… Ker-Is had been submerged and when the sea was calmed, Saint Guénolé wanted to say a mass for the salvation of the city. As he raised his chalice, he saw the white torso of a copper-haired girl, arm raised to the sky, rise from the waters. A heavy tail of blue scales ended her body. It was Dahud, who had become a Marie-Morgane. Guénolé’s hand trembled so hard that his chalice escaped him and broke on the rocks. Mass was not consummated and for this reason, Ker-Is remained cursed and Dahud trapped in her mermaid form. Each time she appears, a terrible storm soon breaks.”


Both La Villemarqué and Souvestre claimed that their stories about Ker-Is were authentic transcriptions from an oral tradition, stretching back to antiquity, of poems, songs and tales collected by them in Brittany. It is difficult to say how ancient some of the tales associated with Ker-Is are and perhaps some stories contain fragments from a number of different traditions. The ethnologist Anatole Le Braz also collected several folktales related to Ker-Is which he published in La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (1893). The tales he collected are rich in purgatorial symbolism; Ker-Is and its inhabitants are awaiting salvation:

Two young men from Buguélès had gone to cut seaweed at Gueltraz overnight, which, as everyone knows, is severely prohibited. They were busy with their work when a very old woman came to them, stooping low under the weight of the wood she carried on her back. ‘Young people,’ she said, pleadingly, ‘you would be very kind to carry this burden to my home. It is not far away and you would be doing a great service to a poor woman.’

‘Go away!’ replied one of the men, ‘we have better things to do.’ ‘Besides,’ added the other, ‘you would be able to report us to the Customs.’

‘Cursed are you!’ cried the old woman. ‘If you had answered me but yes, you would have revived the city of Ker-Is.’ On these words, she disappeared.”

The legend received a comprehensive re-working by Charles Guyot in his La Légende de la Ville d’Ys, d’Après les Textes Anciens (1926) although the ancient texts actually consisted of flights of his imagination and pieces of other, un-associated, legends. It was his work that introduced the northern enchantress Malgven, ascribing to her the horse Morvarc’h that had previously been associated in a legend concerning another fabled king of Kernev. Guyot’s work is far from the last major re-telling of the legend – there have been at least three major historical novels about Ker-Is published since the 1960s and the story of the city has featured in comic books and even an opera.

Dahud is the most interesting character in the legend of Ker-Is and many see in her the last echoes of the Celtic myth of the woman of the Other World or the White Lady, albeit one totally debased from the Celtic tradition to such an extent that she is sometimes depicted as some kind of pagan pantomime villain. Her name is derived from the old Breton words for good magic and her transformation into a mermaid or morgan/e seems appropriate given that the word is Breton for sea born. Her metamorphosis into a mermaid is sometimes attributed to God as a punishment or to the Devil as a reward, while another version tells how Saint Guénolé took pity on her as she fell from her father’s horse saying: “You will live as one of the merfolk, living in the sunken palace of Ker-Is for eternity.” This ties-in neatly with another tale which says that Ker-Is was not destroyed by the sea but merely submerged and that it is now populated entirely by merfolk.

In Breton folklore, mermaids are usually portrayed as small, mischievous creatures versed in the arts of magic and spells. There are no firm differences between them and the sirens of other legends but they are often depicted taunting young fishermen with their amorous solicitations. If an unwary fisherman submitted to their advances, he would be dragged under the waves never to be seen again. The captive would not be killed but was thought to live a happy, pampered life at the bottom of the ocean, forgetting his earlier life. Merfolk were held to be able to unleash the storm but also to calm the wind.

Medieval engraving of mermaid

To some people, the legend of Ker-Is is an allegory marking the end of an era when the ancient Celtic deities were supplanted by Christianity from the 6th century onwards. However, the legend forms part of a wider Celtic tradition regarding sunken cities; others exist in the mythology of Cornwall, Ireland and Wales. The Welsh tales possess many of the same elements as the legend of Ker-Is; transgression, a guilty woman, judgement, the opening of the floodgates/uncovering of a well due to drunkenness, a chieftain fleeing the surging water. Perhaps the water itself, primeval source of life, is the real hub of the earliest story; we know water was a crucial element of Celtic spirituality and it could serve in the tale as an illustration of the cycle of life along with its power to destroy as well as create. Then again, it could simply be the remnants of a medieval religious homily designed to show the consequences of immoral living.

Intriguingly, the legend could even be the embellished folk memory of a genuine cataclysmic event which was exaggerated and developed by the Breton bards of old. Since the 1930s, many scholars have propounded the theory that the fabled city of Atlantis lies off the coast of Brittany and that the megalithic monuments that constitute the great Carnac Alignments, the largest collection of megalithic standing stones in the world, are connected to Atlantis in some way. However, perhaps we are looking at an echo of something a little less grand. The name Ker-Is means low town in Breton but the word ker can be applied to any habitation from a city to a village or even a single dwelling. It is therefore entirely plausible that there was once a small hamlet located on the edge of the Bay of Douarnenez that was destroyed by a monstrous storm that raged in from the Atlantic Ocean.


It is said that when the wind is blowing in the right direction over the Bay of Douarnenez, that you can, if you listen keenly, hear the peal of the submerged church bells of Ker-Is and that the one who first sees the church steeple will become king of the city. If you are tempted to look, be careful what you wish for as there is an old Breton proverb that prophesies “When Ker-Is rises again, Paris will be consumed”.

The Bloody Baron of Brittany

Born into an illustrious and wealthy family, accomplished knight and brother-in-arms to Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais, was appointed Marshall of France at the age of just 25 but his meteoric rise was mirrored by a ghastly fall. He is best remembered today as probably one of the most depraved and prolific serial killers in history.

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval was born into a powerful aristocratic family at the Château de Machecoul in eastern Brittany towards the end of 1404, although his place and date of birth cannot be confirmed. He could claim kinship with two of Brittany’s most renowned medieval knights, Bertrand du Guesclin and Olivier de Clisson. His father, Guy II de Laval, Baron of Rais, was doyen of the barons of Brittany and owned extensive lands in Brittany, the Breton Marches and in France. Orphaned at ten years of age, de Rais and his younger brother René, were sent, against the express wishes of their father, to live with their maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon, a wealthy feudal lord and Lieutenant General of the Duchy of Anjou. It seems that de Croan was not a good role model for the young boys; he indulged their whims and tantrums and fostered a conviction that might was right.

The young de Rais seems to have seen his first action at 15 years of age when he joined the de Montfort faction in supporting John V’s position as Duke of Brittany against the rival house of Penthievre and was rewarded for his role in laying siege to the Penthievre castles thus helping secure the release of the kidnapped Duke in 1420. At 16, he kidnapped and married his cousin, Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, heiress of La Vendée and Poitou but the marriage was declared incestuous and annulled. However, a few months later they were absolved and legally married; a union that markedly increased his already substantial landholdings, making him one of the richest men in France.

Gilles de Rais
There are no contemporary images or physical descriptions of de Rais; this is an artist’s flight of fancy!

Political alliances in medieval Brittany were constant only in their inconstancy and in 1426 de Rais seems to have followed John V’s brother, Arthur de Richemont, into the service of Charles VII of France and the following year is placed at the head of an Angevin army. With seven companies of men-at-arms maintained at his own expense, de Rais distinguished himself in the ongoing war against the English, notably recovering the castles of Lude, Rainefort and Malicorne-sur-Sarthe. With the appearance of Joan of Arc, de Rais was charged with ensuring her safety and fought alongside her at the relief of Orleans, the subsequent battles of Jargeau and Patay and was with her when she was injured in the trenches before Paris in September 1429.

The esteem in which de Rais was held is evidenced by his being amongst the favoured nobles chosen to bring the Holy Ampulla to Reims cathedral for the anointment of Charles VII in July 1429; a coronation which saw him honoured with the appointment of Marshall of France, one of the Great Officers of the French crown and a position he could reasonably expect to retain for life. Thus, at the age of just 25, de Rais seemingly had the world at his feet.

The year 1429 also saw the eight year old Henry VI crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey; he was subsequently crowned king of France at Notre-Dame de Paris in 1431. Although the war against the English would continue until the end of 1453, de Rais effectively withdrew from court and campaigning not long after the death of his grandfather in 1432.

The Hundred Years War

Having expended a great deal of money in the service of the French king, a reasonable man might have taken stock of his finances but now in complete control of the family estates whose revenues were estimated at some 800,000 livres and without the moderating influence of his grandfather, de Rais indulged himself and made a point of publicly flaunting most of his excesses.

He maintained a permanent military retinue of 200 knights, along with their attendant squires, grooms, heralds and pages, who accompanied him wherever he went; his arrivals being announced by fanfare. From his private chapel at the Château de Machecoul he founded a chapter of canons and maintained a full choir and music school that was said to be fit for a cathedral and commissioned organs that could be carried on the shoulders of six men, so that he might enjoy music whenever it pleased him; in all, an ecclesiastical entourage of more than 50 people and as many horses. Such grand assemblies were more suited to royal rather than baronial status but these projections of grandeur and prestige were clearly important to de Rais’ image of himself.

Drama was another area of interest to de Rais and he would stage costly spectacles featuring hundreds of actors clad in bespoke armour or in the finest garments adorned with threads of gold and silver; such productions were usually followed by lavish banquets. In the summer of 1435 in Orléans, where his retinue filled every inn in the city, he was said to have spent 80,000 gold crowns while staging a series of elaborate re-enactments of the famous battle and his role in it.

Marshall of France de Rais

With such enormous expenditure proving unsustainable, de Rais soon found himself having to sell some family treasures, estates and seigneurial rights, usually reserving for himself a right of redemption within six years. However, he spent money faster than he could generate it and he is estimated to have taken under two years to completely exhaust the 200,000 gold crowns he had raised from the sale of half a dozen estates to the Duke of Brittany. By 1436, his family appealed to Charles VII to reign in the profligate baron and while the king acquiesced and ordered that no one should enter into future contract with de Rais, the edicts of the French king held no sway in Brittany. Indeed, the following year the Duke of Brittany paid 100,000 gold crowns for two of de Rais’ most important estates.

In 1439, de Rais sold the Chateau de Saint-Étienne-de-Mermorte to Geoffroy Le Ferron, the Treasurer of Brittany, but by the following year was intent of regaining this estate. However, Le Ferron refused to sell and in May 1440 de Rais resolved to take back the castle by force with a company of about 60 men-at-arms. The un-garrisoned castle was under the care of Le Ferron’s brother, a tonsured cleric, who was at his devotions in the local church when a bellicose and armed de Rais burst in, threatening to take his head if he did not cede the castle. The frightened cleric surrendered the castle to de Rais who thereupon had him clapped in irons and imprisoned in the castle’s dungeon.

Having violated ecclesiastical privilege and encroached on the rights of his sovereign, the Duke of Brittany, de Rais’ world began to unravel. He must have hoped to extricate himself from the inevitable reaction by the Church and Duke by exploiting the jurisdiction of powers; transferring his prisoner from Saint-Étienne-de-Mermorte in the Duke’s territory to his own stronghold at Tiffauges in the Breton Marches outside the Duke’s control. However, the Duke quickly captured the former and his powerful brother, Arthur de Richemont, obligingly besieged the latter thus forcing de Rais to come to terms.

Tiffauges Castle
Artist’s impression of Tiffauges castle in its heyday. This was one of several castles owned by de Rais and was part of his wife’s dowry.

Upon hearing of the fall of Tiffauges towards the end of August, several of de Rais’ closest confederates deserted him and it seems that he either did not hear, or simply did not care, of the investigations that the Bishop of Vannes was making into him, following the sacrilege he committed at Saint-Étienne, as he travelled home to Machecoul from sojourns in Josselin and Vannes.

On 29 July, Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes and Chancellor of Brittany, issued a declaration stating that he and his commissioners had found that de Rais was publicly defamed for murdering many children, and was guilty of invoking demons with horrid rites, of entering into compacts with them and of other enormities. The seriousness of these allegations eventually prompted enquiries to be made by emissaries of the secular court in the following month.

Confident in their case, on 13 September, the ecclesiastical tribunal sitting in Nantes, indicted de Rais and nine of his followers for murder, sodomy, the invocations of demons, heresy and the offending of Divine Majesty. He was arrested at his castle in Machecoul two days later and, along with four confederates, brought to Nantes where he was housed in an upper chamber of the castle; his confederates being consigned to the dungeon. Proceedings were begun, with an initial focus on heresy, before the ecclesiastical tribunal, over which the Bishop of Nantes and the Inquisitor of the Faith presided; the secular court overseen by Pierre de l’Hôpital, President and Chief Justice of Brittany, would run concurrently. Perhaps de Rais initially thought that he had a reasonable chance of beating the charge of heresy as he paid the trail scant attention until forced to appear on 8 October when all 49 articles of the 15 page bill of indictment were presented to him.

The trial of Gilles de Rais

Violating the sanctity of the Church at Saint-Étienne was now the least of his troubles; he was accused of being a “heretic, a relapsed heretic, a magician, a sodomite, a conjuror of evil spirits, a seer, a cutter of the throats of innocents, an apostate, an idolater, having deviated from the faith and being hostile to it, a diviner, and a sorcerer.” De Rais’ air of disdain for the proceedings quickly erupted into rage, he now refused to acknowledge the authority of the court, challenging and insulting the judges declaring that he would rather be hanged by the neck than acknowledge such scoundrels as his judges.

When he next appeared before the court just two days later, de Rais appeared a broken man; he was contrite and resigned. He tearfully asked the judges to forgive his insults, he admitted to the charges levied against him excepting the invocation of demons and begged to be allowed to enter a monastery. Over the next few days, de Rais sat in court and heard the testimonies of distraught parents and other numerous witnesses, even some given by his own confederates including his Italian alchemist and necromancer, Francesco Prelati.

According to his own testimony, de Rais turned his attention to sorcery and alchemy after the death of his grandfather; he sought the philosopher’s stone which would place unlimited wealth and power in his hands and revive his fortune. He devoted large rooms in his castles to the succession of sorcerers and charlatans that he hired from France, Germany and Italy. In May 1438, Prelati was brought to him from Florence but had no more success than his predecessors despite his claims to having a special link to a demon named Barron, whom he had no difficulty in evoking when alone but who stubbornly refused to appear in de Rais’ presence.

de Rais conjuring the Devil

Attempts were made to invoke the demons Barron, Beelzebub, Belial and Oriens by means of fire, incense, aloes, myrrh and other aromatics but they refused to appear. After many failed invocations, Prelati eventually suggested making an offering to the demons of the blood and limbs of slain children and de Rais duly provided him with a child’s hand and heart in a glass in another futile attempt to secure his demonic pact for wealth and power. The court noted that de Rais “was never able to see the Devil or speak with him, although he did everything he could, to the point that it was not his fault if he could not see the Devil or speak with him.” Damning though such revelations were, after he and Prelati had corroborated each other’s confessions and were about to part, de Rais embraced his former sorcerer, earnestly hoping that they would, by Divine Grace, meet again in Paradise.

Although the charges brought against him claim that his murderous activities began in 1426, de Rais asserted that his first killings were not committed until after his grandfather’s death towards the end of 1432. He admitted the charges brought against him and that he acted “according to his imagination and ideas … solely for his pleasure and carnal delight.” However, Pierre de L’Hôpital was unsatisfied by this and demanded to know, in open court, why de Rais had killed so many innocents without reason but de Rais would not be drawn and refused to submit to the humiliation of a public confession, saying “Truly, there was no other cause, no other end nor intention, if not what I’ve told you: I’ve told you greater things than this and enough to kill ten thousand men.”

Gilles de Rais victim

The court considered sanctioning the use of torture to encourage de Rais to offer a complete and frank confession but it was not necessary. Whether he was overwhelmed by the testimonies railed against him or overcome with a genuine desire to confess and secure redemption; whatever the reason, de Rais began to talk at length of his crimes. Only parts of the official record of the ecclesiastical trial have survived the centuries but what remains is harrowing. I will detail only a small proportion here from Georges Bataille’s account, Le Procès de Gilles de Rais (1965), who quotes directly from the official court transcript written in French and Latin:

“… these children had had their throats cut inhumanly, had been killed and finally dismembered and burned, and in other respects shamefully tormented; that the same Gilles de Rais, the accused, had sacrificed the bodies of these children to demons in a damnable fashion; that according to many other reports the said Gilles de Rais had evoked demons and evil spirits and sacrificed to them, and that with the said children, as many boys as girls, sometimes while they were alive, sometimes after they were dead, sometimes as they were dying, had horribly and ignobly committed the sin of sodomy and exercised his lust on the one and the other, disdaining the girls’ natural vessel.”

“… he stated and confessed that to prevent the children from crying out when he intended to have intercourse with them, the said Lord de Rais had a cord put around their necks beforehand and had them suspended about three feet off the ground in a corner of the room, and before they were dead he let them down or had them let down, asking them not to say a word, and he rubbed his penis in his hand, after which he spilled his seed on their belly; that done, he had their throats cut, having their heads separated from their bodies, and occasionally, after they were dead, asked which of these children had the most beautiful heads.”

“… occasionally the said Lord chose little girls, whom he had sex with on their bellies in the same way as he did with the male children, saying that he took greater pleasure in doing so, and had less pain, than if he had enjoyed them in their nature; thereafter these girls were put to death like the male children.”

“… he loved to see the children’s heads cut off after having had sex with them on their bellies, their legs between his own; and sometimes he was on their bellies when the heads were separated from their bodies, other times he cut them behind the neck to make them languish, which he delighted in doing; and while they languished it happened that he had intercourse with them until their death, occasionally after they were dead, while their bodies were still warm; and there was a braquemard with which to cut off their heads; if sometimes the beauty of these children did not conform to his fancy, he cut their heads off himself with a cutlass, whereupon he occasionally had intercourse with them.”

Gilles de Rais evoking the Devil

According to his valet, Henriet, de Rais “delighted in looking at their severed heads and showed them to him, the witness, and Étienne Corrillaut …, asking them which of the said heads was the most beautiful of those he was showing them, the head severed at that very moment, or that from the day before, or another from the day before that and he often kissed the head that pleased him most, and delighted in doing so.”

De Rais had boasted to him of taking “greater pleasure in murdering the … children, in seeing their heads and limbs separated, in seeing them languish and seeing their blood, than he did in knowing them carnally … and he gave way to contemplating those who had the most beautiful heads and members and he had their bodies cruelly opened up and delighted at the sight of their internal organs.”

There is no agreed figure for the number of children butchered by, or on the orders of, de Rais although the ecclesiastical indictment stated “one hundred and forty, or more, children, boys and girls” and the civil court spoke of over two hundred victims. However, some historians have argued that the figure could have exceeded 700 while others have even tried to argue that he was innocent. De Rais himself was unable to ascribe an accurate tally but he did not dispute any of the testimonies against him and confessed that “he killed children and had them killed in large numbers – how many he is uncertain”.

For the most part, de Rais’ victims were chosen from amongst the poor urchins who begged for charity around his castles. Often his servants would lure away a boy from his parents with the promise of employment and he even engaged two women who actively procured children for him from the neighbouring countryside. According to the testimony of his servant, when de Rais “was unable to find more children at his convenience, boys and girls on whom to practice his execrable debaucheries, he practiced them on the children in his chapel”, another servant added “but he did not kill them or have them killed, because they kept these things secret.”

Gilles de Retz and the bones

At first, the victims’ bodies were dumped in rooms in the towers of whichever castle they met their sad end and witnesses’ spoke of once having to hastily remove the bones of some 40 children from one castle before the new owners arrived to take possession. Subsequently, de Rais had the bodies burned in the fireplace of his chamber and the ashes scattered in the castle’s rubbish pits and moats. The bodies of those children slain while de Rais was travelling were, more often than not, burned or dumped in cesspits.

During his public confession, he spoke of sometimes having wished to renounce his wicked ways and of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but did not know how to carry out his resolution and returned to his depravity “as a dog returns to its vomit.” De Rais also repeatedly addressed the onlookers, urging parents to strictly instruct their children in the ways of virtue and faith, for it was, he claimed, his unbridled youth that had led him to crime and a shameful end. He implored God’s pardon and that of the parents and friends of the children whom he “so cruelly massacred” asking all to pray for him.

On 25 October, de Rais was summoned for sentencing by the ecclesiastical court; two sentences were read. The first, in the name of both judges (the Bishop of Nantes and the Inquisitor of the Faith), condemned him guilty of “perfidious apostasy as well as of the dreadful invocation of demons”. The second sentence, rendered by the bishop alone as the Inquisition had no cognizance of these offences, judged him guilty “of committing and maliciously perpetrating the crime and unnatural vice of sodomy on children of both sexes”. For these acts and for his sacrilege and violation of the immunities of the Church, de Rais was excommunicated and told he had incurred other lawful punishments. However, before he is sent to hear his fate at the civil court, the judges asked if he wished to be reincorporated into the Church. On his knees, de Rais pleaded tearfully that “he had never known what heresy was, that he did not know that he had lapsed into and committed it” and begged re-admittance to the Church; the judges lifted his excommunication and appointed a confessor for his absolution.

The judges must have been very impressed by de Rais’ seemingly profound contrition as they also allowed his request for his body to be spared the purification of fire and even to choose his place of burial – the auspicious church of the Carmelite convent of Notre-Dame in Nantes. A location that was close to the Duke’s heart and one that benefitted handsomely from the Duke making good on a vow he made in captivity in 1420 to give his weight in gold to the convent once freed. Perhaps even more remarkably, the judges also agreed to de Rais’ request that the Bishop of Nantes and the men of his church arrange a general procession in order to ask God for his salvation.

The execution of Gilles de Rais

At the civil court, de Rais was fined 50,000 gold crowns (appropriated in property), for having taken the castle at Saint-Étienne and sentenced to be hanged and burned for his other crimes; the sentence to be carried out on the following day. A day that witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of the city’s clergy, followed by a mob of thousands who had once bayed for his blood, earnestly marching through the streets of Nantes to the field of execution, singing and praying for de Rais’ salvation.

As he and his servants, Henriet and Poitou, had committed the crimes together, de Rais asked that they face death together and that he should die first to show them the example of a good death and so that they would not think he had escaped and thus be cast into despair. Gathered at the gallows, all three expressed profound regret and contrition for their evil deeds and it is recorded that de Rais “made beautiful speeches and prayers to God, recommending his soul to Him”. As they swung from the gallows, the piles of wood were lit under them but when de Rais’ rope was burned through and his body fell, several ladies rushed forward to save it from the flames for burial. Henriet and Poitou’s bodies were allowed to burn and their ashes were scattered to the winds.

Several years after de Rais’ death, his family erected a propitiatory shrine some way from the field of execution which, over time, acquired a reputation for helping mothers produce milk for breastfeeding their children. One of the shrine’s statues was venerated as la Bonne Vierge de Crée-Lait and was often visited by expectant mothers until its destruction during the French Revolution; the remains of the shrine itself were extant until the late 19th century. The Revolution also saw the destruction of de Rais’ tomb but his terrible legend lives on.

Gilles de Rais shrine in Nantes

The Best Beaches in Brittany

Brittany, the westernmost part of France, can lay claim to having some of the country’s best beaches. The peninsula is surrounded by sea on three sides; to the north by the English Channel, to the west by the Atlantic Ocean and to the south by the Bay of Biscay. The beauty and drama of the natural environment and ecosystems change markedly as you meander along the region’s 1,800 miles (2,900km) of coastline. Follow any of the coastal hiking routes or roads and you will encounter innumerable picturesque estuaries, moody dramatic cliffs, historic maritime towns, little fishing ports and pretty small harbours. Offshore, a large number of the region’s 800 islands and islets are accessible to visitors.

You will also discover hundreds upon hundreds of wonderful beaches; some stretch for miles into the distance while others are just 800 yards (730m) of picture perfect soft white sand and turquoise sea. With such a diversity of seascapes and landscapes; from grand La Belle Époque resorts to secluded coves visited only by seabirds and intrepid travellers, any list of Brittany’s best beaches can only be subjective and ephemeral.

With that important proviso, here is a brief run-through of what, I believe, are currently some of the best beaches in Brittany worth exploring. To make the journey easy to follow on a map, I have grouped the beaches within a short drive from the nearest main town.

The coastal footpaths of Brittany, courtesy of FFRandonnée Bretagne


Located in an area of the north coast known as La Côte de Penthièvre, the area around Erquy boasts some great beaches and I would highlight Plage Saint-Michel and Caroual Plage as worth visiting; both offer miles of soft white sand and are great for children. At low-tide, it is possible to walk from Caroual around the headland to the nearby beach at Saint-Pabu.  The neighbouring beaches of Lourtuais, Portuais and Guen have a wilder, more secluded, feel and are also worth visiting. Towards the end of the large beach at Lortuais, there is a 550 yard (500m) strip (if you pardon the pun) where nude bathing is permitted.

Caroual beach

To the north of Erquy, the stretch of coastline heading towards the dramatic cliffs at Cap Fréhel offers the visitor a series of beautiful, broad sandy bays to discover and, depending on tides, it is possible to explore a few from Sables D’Or Les Pins.

Sables d'or beach
Near Sables D’Or Les Pins

Also worth a visit are the beaches around Pléneuf-Val-André just a few miles south of Erquy but before you leave the seaside town, do take the time to enjoy the panoramic view from the Cap d’Erquy.


Along the coastline known as La Côte de Goëlo and just south of the historic town of Saint-Quay Portrieux is the beach at Binic and the picturesque Plage du Moulin, a soft sand beach that is ideal for children. North of the town, you will discover the beautiful La Plage du Palus, Plage Bonaparte and Plage Bréhec. These are large and usually uncrowded beaches.

Bonaparte beach
Plage Bonaparte

A little further south along the coast is Rosaires beach which stretches for almost 1.5 miles (2.3km), it is a wide sandy beach which turns to shingle as you get closer to the abutting cliffs and is another beach that is popular with those with children.

Rosaires beach
A cove near Rosaires beach

North of Saint-Quay Portrieux, the north coast headed west towards the seaside town of Perros-Guirec possesses some stunning soft sandy beaches with beautifully clear sea and small bays peppered with picturesque islets and unique rock formations.

Turquoise sea at Plougrescant


The stretch of coast between Plougrescant and Perros-Guirec will delight you with some wonderful beaches such as that at Port Blanc.

Port Blanc beach
Port Blanc

The resort town of Perros-Guirec sits on a scenic stretch of coast known as La Côte de Granit Rose after its unusual and striking pink rock formations and has three stunning child-friendly beaches that offer sea views that are just as pretty as the actual beaches themselves: Trestrignel, Trestraou and Porz Garo are particularly worth singling out. 


Several miles to the south west are the great and often empty Plage de Maez-an-Aod and Plage de Goas Lagorn both of which are worth visiting. Naturists can enjoy an area to the right hand side of the former beach but be aware it can get rather windy on this stretch of coastline.


The historic medieval town of Roscoff boasts some beautiful beaches around it, in an area known as La Côte des Sables and the beach in the crescent bay at Pointe de Perharidi just west of town, looking over towards the Île de Batz, is a real delight. The Île de Batz is only a 15 minute ferry ride away and will reward you with several good, sandy beaches.

Dossen beach

Continuing westward from Roscoff, the two main beaches at Cleder – La Plage de Kervaliou and La Plage de Kéradennec are well worth visiting, as is Dossen Plage at Santec which boasts beautiful soft white sand looking across at the Île de Sieck. From here, the coast westwards offers miles and miles of sand dunes, beaches and ocean colours that dance between the lightest blues and emerald-turquoise. The beach at Keremma is a particular gem.

The beach at Keremma

The Atlantic coast is littered with beautiful coves and sandy beaches from La Plage Plougouri near Quistillic down to La Plage des Blancs Sablons near Le Conquet.

Aber beach
Kerlouan on the Atlantic coast


On the far west of Brittany, the Crozon Peninsula offers forests and forts aplenty as well as some beautiful coastal scenery.  The area has dozens of picturesque beaches for you to explore, some only accessible on foot or at low tide.

La Plage de Kersiguénou is an impressive expanse of sandy beach as is La Plage de Lostmarc’h just a little further south. If you do not mind traversing a rather poor pathway, I would definitely recommend a trip down to La Plage de l’île Vierge; a secluded picturesque gem of a beach where you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in the Mediterranean or Caribbean rather than Brittany. 

Île Vierge

Heading back east along the southern part of the peninsula, the oft-photographed beach at Morgat offers over a mile (1.5km) of soft, white sand that children and grown-ups will love. A few miles east is Raguénez and another sweeping sandy beach, La Plage d’Aber.  The footpaths here give you a great view of Douarnenez Bay and the Île d’Aber. This small island is accessible on foot at low tide and is home to an abandoned 19th century fort.


Just under 2.5 miles (4km) away is La Plage de Trez Bellec; a wide sandy beach about a mile long with an area set aside for water sports and sand yachting. Similar sporting opportunities are available at the nearby La Plage de Pentrez, just outside the small town of Saint-Nic, which offers a 2.5 mile (4km) stretch of soft sand.

Heading further south, La Plage de Kermabec is a good place to access a stretch of sandy beach over six miles (10km) long; it is contiguous with the beaches known as La Torche and Tronoën and predominantly backs onto sand dunes.


Turning east along La Côte de Cornouaille on Brittany’s southern coast, La Plage de Kermor is a popular sandy beach; the first of a series of noteworthy beaches dotted around the resort of Concarneau with its quaint walled old town. While the town’s main beach, La Plage des Sables Blancs, is wonderful, it does get very busy particularly during the summer holidays. Unless vying for a car parking space and threading through crowds of sunbathers is your thing, I suggest that you explore the much larger and far less crowded beaches at Mousterlin to the west or Kerouini to the east.

Concarneau is one of the gateways to the Îles de Glénan, a stunning archipelago of islands about 10 miles (16km) off the coast which you can visit during the summer only.

The Glenans

Continuing eastwards, the 10 mile (15km) stretch of coast between the beach resorts of Guidel Plages and Larmor-Plage is very popular with surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers. Just across the Blavet estuary from Larmor-Plage is the resort of Gâvres which it the start of over 16 miles (26km) of sandy beaches that continue to Quiberon. About half-way down this strip of coast is la Plage de Kerminihy, a 1.5 mile (2.5km) stretch of beach where nudism is allowed.


Located on La Côte des Mégalithes, the Quiberon Peninsula offers the visitor a swathe of good scenic beaches to choose from, particularly on the western Côte Sauvage.  Beaches that are perhaps more child-friendly, such as La Plage du Porigo and La Plage du Fort Neuf can be found on the southern and eastern coasts. The Grande Plage in Quiberon is a useful stopping point for lunch or for taking the ferry over to the wonderful Belle-Île and its many beautiful sandy coves and beaches, most notably Plage de Port-Donnant.

Quiberon Peninsula
Penthièvre on the Quiberon Peninsula

Although many people visit the south coast town of Carnac for a day out at one of its great sandy beaches, the town is better known as the home of the renowned Carnac Alignments and other megalithic monuments. Indeed, the main sites at Carnac contain over 3,000 menhirs arranged in about a dozen rows over 2.5 miles long.

Under eight miles east is one of the gateways to the Gulf of Morbihan, Locmariaquer. A small town with several beaches and another great megalithic site. It is worth visiting to see the remarkable Table des Marchands (a large dolmen with prehistoric decorations) and the Great Menhir (70 feet high and weighing 280 tons, this was the largest monolith ever erected by humans at this time – now, sadly, broken into four pieces). Excursions by boat are available to allow you to explore the Gulf of Morbihan; you can choose between cruises around the Gulf and its 42 islands or strike out to sea and on to the beautiful islands of Belle Île or Houat and Hoëdic.


If you are a fan of therapeutic body treatments or perhaps thinking of an unconventional day out while on vacation, you might wish to try one of the many thalassotherapy treatments that use seawater and seaweed to revitalise the skin and body. Thalassotherapy in the modern era was invented and popularised in Brittany and the region boasts the highest concentration of thalassotherapy facilities in the world.

Whatever your attraction to the sea and the beach, in Brittany you can be guaranteed to find one to match your every mood and to break open a smile on even the moodiest of days. Best of all – it is unlikely to be crowded!

House built between rocks

Buccaneers of Brittany

Bounded to the north by the English Channel, to the south by the Bay of Biscay and to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, Brittany has some 2,900km (1,800 miles) of coastline peppered with estuaries, maritime towns, naval bases, busy ports and small harbours. The sea has always played an important part in the life and soul of Brittany; from the arrival of the early Christian saints in their stone boats to the departure of hundreds of vessels carrying men to join the Free French Forces in England in the final days of June 1940.

Maritime activities such as fishing and international trade were always key parts of the Breton economy. The peninsula was located on the main sea routes between the big trading nations of Spain, Portugal, England and the Netherlands; in the 16th century, there were 123 significant working ports in Brittany and many, such as those of Saint-Brieuc and Brest expanded into international hubs. The region also benefitted from the expansion of France’s colonial empire and navy: the ports and shipyards at Saint-Malo, Brest, Nantes and Lorient were constantly improved; the latter was also the headquarters of the French East India Company. A significant proportion of Brittany’s non-agricultural workforce were thus employed building, servicing and victualling its shipping industry.

With such a strong mercantile heritage, it is not surprising that Bretons came to constitute a leading component of the French navy and also played an important role in the colonisation of New France and the West Indies. Some of these Breton sailors – women and men – have left their mark on history.

The Lioness of the Sea

An element of the Hundred Years’ War, the Breton War of Succession (1341–1364) saw the House of Montfort, supported by the King of England, battle against the House of Blois, supported by the King of France, for the right to rule Brittany. The chief claimants were Jean de Montfort, half-brother of the last Duke of Brittany and his niece, Joanna de Penthièvre, who was married to Charles de Blois, the French King’s nephew. After a protracted conflict, de Montfort emerged victorious after winning the decisive battle of Auray in 1364.

Battle of Auray

However, one of the war’s early battles took place under 14km (10 miles) away in the city of Vannes. Having declared for de Montfort within weeks of his brother’s death, control of the city changed hands through four devastating sieges in 1342. During the final siege, the Breton commander of the de Blois garrison, Olivier IV de Clisson, was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for the Earl of Stafford and a relatively modest ransom which was seized upon by the de Blois camp as indicative of de Clisson having intrigued with the besiegers. Towards the middle of the following year, de Clisson and a dozen other Breton nobles were invited to attend a tournament in Paris; here they were seized and imprisoned. De Clisson was accused of ‘several treasons and other crimes perpetrated against the king and the crown of France’ and summarily executed. To add insult to injury, his body was publicly humiliated; his corpse hung from a gibbet in Paris and his head displayed on a pike in the city of Nantes – outrages usually reserved for low-born criminals.

Execution of Olivier de Clisson

The treachery of the King of France, Philippe VI, consumed de Clisson’s widow, Jeanne de Belleville, who swore revenge. Selling her estates before they could be confiscated by the French, she raised a small army and began attacking French forces in Brittany; her wrath first falling on Château Thébaud whose occupants, including women and children, she slaughtered, leaving just two men alive to tell of the stronghold’s fate. The forces of France pursued her vigorously, forcing her to flee eastern Brittany and after a brief sojourn in the north west of the region, eventually re-group with loyal Bretons in England.

Finding land attacks impractical, she acquired and outfitted three ships; painted deathly black and carrying blood red sails, and would personally lead her Black Fleet from her flagship, My Revenge. Her fleet scoured the Channel and the north coast of France in search of targets; all French vessels whether warships or traders, were fair game but de Belleville did not play fair. She became renowned for her ruthlessness; killing entire crews and beheading nobles and anyone linked to the exercise of French authority, sometimes she was said to have wielded the axe herself. It seems she always left at least one survivor who was charged to tell the French king of her revenge. Her exploits clearly affected French maritime trade along is northern coast and it is said that, at times, she even sacked coastal settlements. At the request of the King Philippe VI, Pope Clement VI unsuccessfully petitioned England’s King Edward III to put an end to the actions of this “Breton tigress”. 

Some authors claim that de Belleville’s violent vengeance spanned some 13 years and that she continued to attack French shipping after the death of King Philippe IV in August 1350. However, this is unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, in late 1344, her flagship was wrecked after a battle with a French warship and in 1348 she married one of King Edward III’s military commanders, Sir Walter Bentley. Bentley had served in Brittany since 1342 and famously staged a night-time raid on the French forces besieging Vannes that year.

Jeanne de Belleville

In September 1350, Bentley was appointed Governor or King’s Lieutenant in Brittany. During his tenure he forbade pillage and to help prevent the potential attraction to it, he secured increases to his soldiers’ pay. An active commander, he lifted the sieges of Ploërmel and Fougeres in 1351 and took the war into France, raiding along the Loire valley and later led an outnumbered Anglo-Breton force to a bloody victory in the battle of Mauron where he was severely injured in August 1352.

It was not just the French that Bentley battled against; he and his wife had to deal with the machinations of Ralph of Cahors, the King’s Lieutenant in the adjoining province of Poitou, who had wrested control of de Belleville’s estates from the French and now considered them his. In 1349, the King ordered that the estates be returned to Bentley but after he was replaced as Governor in April 1353 he was instructed to transfer his wife’s estates as part of a treaty with the new Duke of Brittany. This Bentley refused to do and was consequently imprisoned in the Tower of London while the King considered his case; eventually finding in his favour.

The Bentleys enjoyed great estates in Brittany and settled in the castle at Hennebont, west of Vannes. The Duke of Brittany seems to have borne no grudges against this medieval power couple because in January 1357, he granted them the barony of La Roche-Moisan. Sir Walter died in December 1359, followed weeks later by his wife; a rather comfortable end for a pirate whose actions had once earned her the sobriquet ‘Lioness of the Sea’.

Medieval pirates

Throughout the Middle Ages, the sea was widely regarded as an area beyond rules and treaties; a wilderness outside the law. As such, the concept of piracy was vague and ill-defined and became especially opaque when rulers granted official sanction authorising men to raid the shipping of an unfriendly nation or recalcitrant noble.

The Governor of the Sea

Jean de Coatanlem, from the north coast town of Morlaix, is perhaps the most well-known Breton privateer of the late medieval period although his services at sea were licenced in support of the King of France rather than his nation’s sovereign. He seized a number of well laden English and Flemish merchant vessels in the English Channel from 1475 onwards and invested his prize money in new ships. Within a decade, his flotilla included about ten ships of between 150 to 250 tons and a large number of smaller boats from 30 to 80 tons.

There are stories that claim he mustered his forces to save his town when the port was raided by three English pirate ships in 1484 and that after defeating the raiders, he launched a punitive attack on the English port of Bristol, destroying large parts of the city and taking several notable hostages.

Unfortunately, contemporary records are unable to confirm these events as they are first noted in a family deposition to a French tax investigation in 1539, claiming exemption from taxes due to the noble status inherited from a grandfather, Nicolas de Coetanlem. We do know that 1484 was the year that de Coatanlem entered the service of the King of Portugal whom he served with great distinction until his death in Lisbon in 1492; his exploits defending Portuguese shipping against the pirates of the Barbary Coast having earned him the title ‘Governor of the Sea’.

De Coatanlem’s nephew, Nicolas, was one of the Breton ship-owners most frequently employed by King Henry VII of England to transport men, weapons and supplies to his forces supporting Duchess Anne of Brittany in her battles with France in 1489-91. De Coatanlem’s services were rewarded with a licence to import, under Crown protection, goods into England duty free.

de Coatanlem

The 15th century voyages of exploration and discovery, coupled with advances in navigation and cartography, quickly brought about vast changes to the fortunes and outlook of many nations. For the kingdoms of Europe, command of the sea was now no longer a case of protecting borders but of projecting influence and expanding opportunities for profitable trade. The distances and natural hazards involved in transacting such endeavours were great and many men, of all nations, saw opportunities for personal enrichment by helping themselves to the fruits of others.

The nomenclature surrounding such adventurers is rich and varied, particularly when the words thief or robber are all that are really required but a whole range of other descriptors have been used, such as Gentlemen of Fortune, Privateers, Freebooters, Corsairs and Filibusters to describe men, and it was usually men, who attacked and plundered targets with the approval of a state’s authority. Sometimes, that approval was deliberately vague and sometimes was conferred by a minor official completely out of touch with his government’s wishes; but it was nonetheless approval of sorts.

Pirates were essentially outlaws who attacked the shipping and settlements of all nations with no real pretence of serving under any flag but their own and risked the gallows in the event of capture. The term buccaneer was often used to describe both pirates and privateers. Often, the differences between pirates and privateers were, at best very subtle, and, at worst, a matter of subjective interpretation. Distinctions are further clouded by the fact that many men drifted between legitimate privateering and outright piracy and vice versa.

The practice of manning and arming private vessels to attack rivals’ ships is an ancient one and continues, in parts of the world, to this day. In Europe, over time, this practice was formalised with the awarding of privateering commissions or ‘letters of marque and reprisal’ that granted named individuals licence to seize the king’s enemies at sea and share the proceeds between the privateers and the Crown. Vessels and cargo seized by the privateers were sold at officially sanctioned auctions, with the Crown typically taking between 10 and 20 per cent of the proceeds and the ship’s captain and his investors receiving the remainder. It could therefore be a highly lucrative enterprise. For the ship-owners and the men who bank-rolled such expeditions, fitting out privateers was an expensive business; the ship had to be supplied with stores of victuals, powder, shot and other equipment. It was also crucial that the captain could be trusted to declare all his plunder and not trade too much on his own account.


The Golden Age of Pirates of the Caribbean

Born into a minor noble family in central Brittany in August 1661, Anne Dieuleveult is one of the very few reputed female pirates. It is not known how she came to end up in the Caribbean; some have suggested that she was taken there from Morlaix by the man she subsequently married, while others believe that she was one of the contingent of Filles de Roi or ‘Daughters of the King’ – mainly impoverished young women who were provided with paid passage to New France in order to marry settlers and increase the population of the colonies. 

Dieuleveult is thought to have arrived on the island of Tortuga, off the northwest coast of Hispaniola, sometime before 1680. This was a settlement that owed its very existence to pirates and privateers who had, time and again, wrested it from Spanish over-lordship over the previous fifty years. From being a hideaway to careen ships, replenish fresh water supplies and hunt for game, the island was now home to a motley assortment of multilingual and multinational pirates, privateers, hunters, planters, traders, indentured servants and African slaves. The island gave birth to the word buccaneer as we now understand it and was an important base for pirates and privateers, being the home of the notorious confederation of buccaneers knows as the Brethren of the Coast. The majority of the island’s buccaneers were men from France, England and the Netherlands but there were also sizeable numbers of escaped slaves in their ranks. Life in 17th century Tortuga was not for the fainthearted; deaths from disease and violence were commonplace and women, particularly those of European descent, were very scarce.

We do not know how Dieuleveult fared in her early years in the colony but she married another Breton, the former buccaneer Pierre Lelong in 1684. Lelong seems to have given up his career in piracy when he and a dozen adventurers settled Cap François (now known as Cap-Haitien), on the north coast of Hispaniola, in 1670, subsequently establishing successful plantations. (His settlement flourished and later became the capital of the colony of Saint Domingue which in the 18th century was the world’s leading producer of sugar cane and an important hub in the slave trade.) In July 1690, just six years into the marriage, Lelong was killed in a brawl and Dieuleveult soon married another buccaneer, Joseph Chérel. The couple survived the capture and plunder of Cap Francois by Spanish forces in January 1691 but Chérel died during a brawl a few years later, leaving Dieuleveult a wealthy widow with two children to raise.

Legend has it that she made quite an impression on the man who would become her next husband, notorious former Dutch pirate, Laurens de Graff. It was said that de Graff insulted Dieuleveult who promptly challenged him to a duel of honour; de Graff unsheathed his sword only to find himself facing a cocked pistol whereupon he remembered his chivalry and declared that he could not fight a woman. He was apparently so impressed that he made an immediate proposal of marriage. We will never know what truth lies in this legend but we do know that the couple married in July 1693.

Laurens de Graff pirate

De Graff was described by no less a judge than Henry Morgan as “a great and mischievous pirate” and seems to have enjoyed a long and lucrative career on the Spanish Main, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. References to his exploits span over two decades: in March 1672 he was one of the leading figures in a pirate raid on Campeche in Mexico, taking the town and a merchant vessel loaded with over 120,000 silver pesos. De Graff was known to often change his flag ship by upgrading to a stronger captured vessel and by 1679 commanded 200 men aboard his 28-gun frigate, Tigre. This he surpassed in 1682 with the bloody capture of the 240-ton Spanish Armada de Barlovento frigate, Princesa, along with the payroll for the Spanish garrisons on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico; over 120,000 silver pesos.

The following year, de Graaf, now in possession of a privateering licence from the Governor of Saint Domingue, joined forces with two other privateers for an attack on the Mexican port of Veracruz; the combined party amounted to five large ships and eight smaller vessels with over 1,300 men. The town fell to the pirates after just thirty minutes and was plundered over the following days. Many of the townsfolk were tortured to reveal their treasures and a sizeable ransom was demanded for the freedom of the town’s 6,000 inhabitants. A few months later, de Graaf led another joint enterprise preying on coastal traffic around the busy Colombian port of Cartagena. The Spanish Governor sent out three heavily armed ships to see off the pirate flotilla but the pirates chose to fight rather than flee and their audacity and superior seamanship saw them prevail in a bloody four hour battle. De Graff now transferred his flag to the newly captured, 40-gun vessel, San Francisco.

In July 1685, de Graaf joined his forces with another veteran pirate and privateer to create a flotilla of ten ships, six sloops and over a dozen smaller craft for a raid on the Mexican port of Campeche. After a protracted battle, including seeing off two Spanish relief columns that arrived five days after the initial assault, the town was taken but the spoils were disappointing. Over the next two months, troops of pirates ravaged the surrounding countryside in search of plunder while a hefty ransom was demanded for the town and its inhabitants but this time the Spanish Governor refused to pay. In their frustration, the pirates set the town ablaze and threatened their hostages. Met with another refusal to accede their demands, the pirates began their executions but de Graaf halted the slaughter before the death toll reached double figures. A strong Spanish squadron was despatched to bring de Graff to justice and after hunting for over six weeks finally tracked him down in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, de Graff managed to outmanoeuvre and outshoot his pursuers in a battle that lasted all day.

Capturing a ship

Having become a French subject in 1685, de Graaf seems to have moved away from outright piracy to mixing privateering with an official position on the Governor of Saint Domingue’s staff and the outbreak of the Nine Years War in May 1689 found him serving at Cap François. This is likely the time that he first met Dieuleveult. In December 1689, de Graff began a five month blockade of the northern cost of Jamaica, capturing many English ships and plundering plantations along that coast. 

At the end of June 1694, de Graff, with the dual role of buccaneer chief and King’s Lieutenant, was appointed Second in Command of a fleet of 22 ships, including naval warships and 3,200 men assigned for the invasion of Jamaica. At the end of the following month, he commanded the landing party of 1,500 men who overran the 250 men defending Carlisle Bay and plundered the area.

In retaliation, a joint Anglo-Spanish force crossed into French Saint Domingue towards the end of May 1695 and quickly brushed aside de Groff’s defenders, capturing Cap Francois and plundering the town and its surrounding plantations. In June, Port-de-Paix was blockaded and the town fell the following month; amongst the captives taken were Dieuleveult and her children. The invaders did not press their advantage and take the colony; international cooperation disintegrated over quarrels about the division of the spoils of war.

De Graff now seems to disappear from the records and is not noted in the massive French invasion force that captured Cartagena in April 1697. Perhaps there were questions about his role in the defence of Cap Francois or the terms of ransom for his wife forbade action against her Spanish captors? Dieuleveult and her children were released in 1698 and returned to Saint Domingue. Upon the death of de Graaf in May 1704, his wife inherited a sizeable estate and successful sugar plantation and died at home in January 1710.

Anne Dieuleveult

There are stories that claim Dieuleveult accompanied de Graaf on his buccaneering raids, fighting by his side and sharing command of his ship. Some elaborations even go so far as to say that she took part in the invasion of Jamaica in 1694 and that she took command of de Graaf’s flagship after he was killed during an attack on a Spanish ship, fiercely leading the crew in an ultimately unsuccessful fight. Alas, these stories are likely fictional; by the time of their marriage, de Graaf was no longer a buccaneer but an officer of the Crown and an independently wealthy one at that.

Duguay-Trouin privateer

Licensing privateers during periods of war was widespread in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, representing a cheap and low-risk way of striking at your enemy. It also carried the benefit of gnawing away at their foreign trade and perhaps forcing them to divert resources into protecting their merchant ships or actively patrolling for privateers.

From Teenage Corsair to Vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy

Born into a wealthy ship-owning family in the major privateer port of Saint-Malo in 1673, René Trouin aka Duguay-Trouin turned his back on the career in the Church that had been marked out for him and took to sea aboard a local privateering vessel at the age of 17. He was obviously a natural sailor and was given his own command the following year and successfully plundered many English cargo ships plying the Channel during the ongoing Nine Years War. 

His skill in naval warfare brought him to the attention of the navy who gave him command of a 36-gun frigate in 1692 but his luck ran out when he was captured by English warships off the Scilly Isles in April 1694. However, the resourceful officer escaped and was home in Saint-Malo by the end of June. The following year and in command of a 48-gun warship he captured an English warship after a two day running battle. A feat he surpassed in 1697 with the capture of a 15-ship Dutch convoy off Bilbao, earning himself a commission as a captain in France’s Royal Navy just as the Nine Years War concluded.

There was precious little peace in Europe at this time and five short years later the conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession broke out. It was during this period that Duguay-Trouin enjoyed his greatest successes; his scattering of a great Portuguese convoy in 1706 and the seizure of hundreds of vessels over the next few years saw him ennobled in 1709.

In September 1711 he led an expedition of 15 ships, a mixture of naval warships and privateers, against Rio de Janeiro. His fleet stormed into Rio’s harbour and after a series of engagements, secured the town nine days later. After looting the city and the 60 cargo ships at anchor within the bay, Duguay-Trouin demanded a large ransom to spare the city’s buildings, eventually receiving 610,000 cruzados. When his fleet, now augmented by two captured Portuguese warships, departs in November, they leave behind a devastated city but the expedition proves a disappointment for his investors, particularly as two of his largest and most heavily laden ships were lost with all hands (over a thousand men) on the journey home. Further promotions followed his return and Duguay-Trouin successively commanded the naval forces at Saint-Malo and Brest, being appointed Lieutenant-General of the Naval Armies in 1728.

Surcouf corsair
Robert Surcouf

King of the Corsairs

Like Duguay-Trouin, Robert Surcouf was also born into a ship-owning family in Saint-Malo who hoped that he would enjoy a life in the Church but young Surcouf had other ideas and ran away to sea. At 16, he enlisted aboard a slave ship that plied the routes between the Horn of Africa, Pondicherry, Mauritius and Madagascar; surviving a shipwreck in the Mozambique Channel in 1790 in which 400 slaves, chained below decks, perished. Despite the 1792 ban on slave trading, Surcouf continued his ghastly activities until 1795 when he took command of a privateer in Mauritius, capturing five British merchant vessels over the course of the year even though he had been refused a letter of marque by the Governor of Mauritius.

After a brief sojourn in France, in February 1798, Surcouf left Nantes in command of a 14-gun privateer and an official letter of marque. After re-supplying in Mauritius, he set out to hunt on the busy trade routes of the Indian Ocean, capturing some 17 British, Dutch, Portuguese and American merchant vessels before returning to Mauritius in February 1800. He set out again in April and, over the course of a year, captured a further 8 British, American and Portuguese merchant ships. Surcouf returned to France in April 1801 where his exploits were much acclaimed; in May 1802, he was awarded the Legion of Honour upon the founding of the Order.

In March 1807, he once again set out from Brittany in pursuit of prey and prizes in the Indian Ocean, capturing 13, predominantly British, merchant vessels during this, his final cruise. In July 1808, his ship was requisitioned into naval service and he was forced to purchase a damaged de-commissioned naval frigate for the journey home to Saint-Malo. He arrived safely, along with an estimated haul of 8 million francs, in February 1809 but his ship sank at harbour the day after he arrived. Surcouf never put to sea again but used his considerable fortune to expand the family business, outfitting almost a dozen privateers and, after 1815, a score of merchantmen. He died peacefully at home in 1827.


For over three centuries we have been entertained by the adventures of fictional and fictionalised pirates and privateers from John Silver to Jack Sparrow but the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero would not have welcomed such romanticism; to him “a pirate is not included in the list of lawful enemies but is the common enemy of all; among pirates and other men there ought be neither mutual faith nor binding oath“.

Plague and Pestilence in Brittany

Unprecedented is a word that we have all heard many times since the scale of the current coronavirus disease pandemic became apparent. The authorities and the media talk of an “exceptional situation” a “unique threat” that is “unheard of in our country”. However, throughout our recorded history, contagions, epidemics and pandemics have been a regular feature of all human societies and often a source of instability and catalyst for change therein. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of the magnitude of some earlier disease events and the resilience of societies when confronted with biological catastrophe.

Pandemics, such as the one we are currently enduring, have always been part of humanity’s lot; it is simply that it has, mercifully, been some time since we last experienced such a deadly outbreak. Perhaps the most infamous pandemic event and one that still holds a place in the popular imagination is the Black Death of the Middle Ages; a pandemic of bubonic plague that swept across the Near East, North Africa and Europe between 1347 and 1352. This was the first of a number of recurring plague epidemics between the 14th and 18th centuries known as the Second Plague Pandemic; the First Plague Pandemic having occurred in the 6th through to the 8th centuries.

Bubonic plague is a devastating disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulates among wild rodents. Plague among humans arises when rodents, such as black rats, become infected. Once infected, it can take up to a fortnight before plague has stricken off an entire infected rat colony, making it difficult for the large number of fleas gathered on the remaining dying rats to find new hosts. After three days without blood, the hungry fleas turn to whatever hosts they can find and the infection is transmitted after a flea that has fed from an infected rat then bites a human.

Bubonic plague

From the bite site, the contagion spreads through the bloodstream to the lymph nodes, where the bacteria replicate, causing the nodes to swell to form buboes or painful tumours as big as an egg in the armpits, groin, neck or thighs. Victims initially manifested symptoms similar to influenza but the appearance of these buboes, which often suppurated and haemorrhaged, would typically have been quickly followed by gastro-intestinal problems, continuous vomiting of blood, gangrene of the extremities and the severe pain brought on by necrosis. The plague delivered a truly terrible way to die; delirium and death finally overtaking the victim within another three to five days. Estimates vary as to the mortality rates of those that caught the plague in the Middle Ages but even a figure of 75 per cent might be an understatement.

The plague was a very virulent and fast moving disease; from the introduction of plague contagion among rats in a human community, it could take just over three weeks before the first human death. The infected fleas travelled great distances, relatively swiftly, on rats aboard ships that plied the trade routes of the Mediterranean littoral and northern Europe. Once ashore, the fleas could find a host travelling inland and so the disease quickly spread exponentially. Even once the initial host had died, the fleas could live for up to a year, transmitting the disease from one generation of fleas to the next and laying up to fifty eggs per day, every day. Additionally, plague bacteria can sometimes spread to the lungs and cause a variant of plague (pneumonic plague) that is spread by infected droplets inhaled from the cough and sneezes of victims.

The plague first reached France, via the southern port of Marseilles, towards the end of September 1347 and quickly spread from this important commercial hub; northwards up the Rhône valley to Lyons and westwards along the coast to Spain. Ships from Bordeaux likely carried infected rats to Normandy where the plague arrived in April 1348 before reaching Brittany towards the end of that year.

At the time of the arrival of the Black Death in Europe, it is believed that some 90 per cent of the continent’s population were rural dwellers, powerless to act in the face of the deadly onslaught of the plague. Accounts regarding the impact of the Black Death in Brittany are very scarce as its arrival coincided with the Breton War of Succession (1341–1364) but historians have discovered a remarkable consistency in mortality levels across Europe during the plague years. Recent estimates suggest that between 50 to 60 per cent of the population of Europe died as a result of the Black Death – a staggering 50 million people. After centuries of land clearance and population growth, hundreds of villages suddenly became virtual ghost towns and were abandoned to be reclaimed by nature.

The Black Death

The plague seems to have gradually diminished after 1353, spreading east of the Volga river and towards the Caspian Sea where it likely originated seven years earlier. However, the plague did not extinguish itself completely, the causal bacteria continued to leap across to humans and strike the people of Europe and beyond once or twice a generation for centuries. Few of the later outbreaks in this Second Plague Pandemic were as devastating as the Black Death but nonetheless are thought to have killed between ten to twenty per cent of the population with each deadly revisit.

The plague (vossen in Breton) returned to Brittany in 1404 and every decade of that century saw periodic outbreaks across the country with over a hundred outbreaks recorded between the years 1478-84 alone. In 1485, the last undisputed ruler of independent Brittany, Duke François II, created the post of Médecin des Épidémies (Doctor of Epidemics) based on the earlier models of specialist doctors created by the Pope and the King of France; the disease was still poorly understood and the medical establishment of the day struggled hard with how best to prevent its arrival and spread in their communities.

In time, the people became accustomed to living with the menace of the plague; it was now the new reality, the new norm. Prayers were widely offered to the 3rd century martyr Saint Sebastian who was held to possess the power to intercede to protect people from plague and special processions seeking his favour are recorded in several Breton towns particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries. The 14th century Saint Roch was also popularly prayed to here in times of plague.

Periodic epidemics of the plague remained a constant feature of life in Brittany throughout the 16th century; in 1501-02 over 4000 people fell mortal victims in the city of Nantes alone and there were further outbreaks recorded in 1514-19, 1522-23, 1529-30, 1563-65 and 1567-70. In 1582-84, the plague made a deadly appearance in both the northern and southern parts of the region with the areas around the towns of Dinan, Dol-de-Bretagne, Nantes, Rennes and Saint-Malo being particularly hard hit. Towards the end of 1583, the authorities closed the busy port of Saint-Malo to shipping and banned foreigners from the city.

Medieval plague

At the same time, in the southern city of Nantes, the authorities ordered, under penalty of a fine, that inhabitants clear the pavement outside their dwellings daily. The city authorities also ordered the establishment of new latrines and a more systematic clearing of the old cess pits. Other public heath ordnances were also issued: regular fires were lit at crossroads to purify the air; plague-stricken houses would be cleaned; the sick were instructed to always carry a white stick to mark their presence and their clothes marked, front and back, with a white cross. Doctors and surgeons were also required to carry a white stick warning of their presence while out in the streets visiting the sick. Initially, the sick were taken to the lazarette or quarantine station, established outside the city walls during the previous epidemic in 1569, but this became too over-crowded even by 16th century standards. The white cross was also used in the city of Saint-Malo in 1584 and was daubed on the doors of contaminated houses as a sign prohibiting anyone from leaving or entering in order to limit the contagion.

The plague continued to spread through Brittany in the early 17th century; in June 1598, the north coast town of Morlaix was struck; in July and August over 300 people died in the central Brittany town of Pontivy. In September 1598 the people of the city of Saint-Brieuc were prohibited from trading with the nearby (just 7 miles/10km) town of Châtelaudren in an effort to stop the disease reaching their city. However, the city’s attempts at self-isolation ultimately failed and the city was ravaged in 1601-02, as was Lannion. At the time, many people thought that the plague was caused and spread by a miasma or bad air thus many people left their homes once the plague struck their city. Such a movement of people, of course, accelerated the spread of the disease and with the benefit of hindsight we should not be surprised to note the plague’s return in less than five years.

The south of the region was also hit by small localised outbreaks of the plague in the same year; the town of Quimper, still recovering from the loss of 1,700 people to an epidemic in 1594, was struck again in 1598 when about a third of the population were thought to have perished.  There followed a relative respite for some twenty years before the plague re-appeared with an increased intensity.

the plague doctor
17th century Plague Doctor

In 1622, the Parlement of Brittany imposed a state of quarantine on Saint-Malo and three weeks of isolation were imposed on all people suspected of contracting the plague; it also ordered a ban on children from Saint-Malo, Saint-Brieuc, Dinan and Dol from entering the Breton capital Rennes (itself ravaged by plague from 1624 to 1632). An outbreak of plague in the south coast town of Port Louis in 1623 resulted in the nearby and more populous town of Auray imposing a state of quarantine; fishermen were banned from visiting or trading and people arriving by land were firstly held in isolation for three weeks. The authorities ordered the destruction of all stray animals; pigs and pigeons being specifically subject to strict confinement (previously pigs had been free to roam the streets foraging for scraps). Citizens were also ordered to keep the pavement outside their dwellings clean with harsh punishments for the lackadaisical.

Despite these efforts, records show that the plague struck two of the communes surrounding the town in 1630 before later breaking into the town and striking into all surrounding communes. As in other towns hit by the plague, large bonfires were regularly lit in the streets in an attempt to purify the air. This was also done in nearby Vannes where, in the same year, the authorities levied a small tax to pay for the removal of the city’s rubbish and transport it to offshore mudflats. In Auray, a lazarette was established outside the town and a rudimentary medical service organised by the local Capuchin community. Records indicate that the sanitary cordon around Auray was still in force in 1633.

Further along the east coast, the people of the city of Vannes also suffered significantly during the plague epidemics of this time, particularly in 1625, 1634 and 1638. To the west, the town of Quimper recorded scores of deaths in 1639; while, still further along the east coast, Nantes was hard hit by the disease in 1625-26 and 1631 and by this time, plague victims were no longer allowed to be buried within the precincts of the city.

One of the last appearances of the plague in Brittany was in Pontivy in 1696. Attesting to the importance of river traffic at the time, it is possible to track the spread of the disease down the course of the river Blavet to its mouth at Hennebont. Here in the summer of 1699, the plague claimed half a dozen people every day. With no medical solution to halt the spread of the disease, the townsfolk sought divine intervention and prayed to the Virgin to end the epidemic; committing to create a silver statue and undertake an annual procession in her honour (they had similarly promised to build a chapel in honour of Saint Roch during the epidemic of the early 1630s but this was never realised!). It has been noted that instances of the disease in the town decreased rapidly after the town’s wish was announced, disappearing entirely by September 1700. To honour their pledge, the people or Hennebont commissioned the statue and inaugurated the public procession of thanks. Unfortunately, the statue was melted-down during the Revolution but it is today possible to see a substitute statue and even participate in the procession held on the last Sunday in September.  

The Wish of Hennebont
Henri-François Mulard : The Wish of Hennebont

The plague of Marseilles in 1720-1721, which resulted in some 87,000 deaths, is considered to be the last major plague outbreak in Western Europe but cases are still regularly reported in other parts of the world even today. The impact of almost four hundred years of intermittent but deadly plague outbreaks changed Europe forever; demographically, politically and economically. Equally profound were the changed mentalities brought about by the plague and other infectious diseases; governments and the governed appreciated the importance of public health and hygiene programmes, particularly effective sanitary measures.  

While the plague and its dreadful death toll might have been consigned to history, other diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, measles and influenza, were responsible for extraordinary devastation in Brittany. In the 18th and 19th centuries, increases in population density, transport infrastructure and mercantile links were all key factors in giving diseases spread by cross-infection between humans powers of spread far greater than those seen in previous centuries.

The first of several deadly outbreaks of cholera that ravaged Brittany in the 19th century was part of a worldwide pandemic that was believed to have started in India in 1826. The seemingly relentless march of this disease westwards saw the French government impose border controls in August 1831 to stop infected people from entering the country. However, the disease reached Paris in March 1832 and the speed which the disease overtook its victims, some dying within a matter of hours, caused widespread panic; some believed that government agents were poisoning the drinking fountains and wells.

Dead lying in streets

It seems that the disease first manifested itself in Brittany in early May 1832, carried by a master mariner from Toulon who disembarked at Nantes before falling ill near Vannes. Victims of cholera can start to display symptoms between one to five days after infection, so, it is impossible to know how many fellow travellers this diseased sailor infected on his two day journey to Quimper. Suffering from severe vomiting and diarrhoea, the patient was taken openly through the busy streets from his lodgings to the town’s hospice where he died. He was buried the next day and a little of his blood was diluted in water and given to birds to drink to see if they were affected by it. While the birds showed no negative reactions to the bloody concoction, two members of the nursing staff were already displaying symptoms; the first of more than 200 cholera fatalities in Quimper that summer.

Cholera is essentially a bacterial disease that causes an infection of the small intestine which swiftly leads to fairly brutal diarrhoea (sometimes as much as 10-20 litres or 3-5 gallons per day) and vomiting, resulting in severe dehydration and low blood pressure in the victims. Such acute dehydration shrivels the skin, sinks the eyes and usually turns the skin a shade of blue; the disease is therefore sometimes known as the Blue Death.

The disease is spread mostly by water and food that has been contaminated with human feces containing the bacteria. At the time, people were at a loss to understand the disease as one side of a street could be hit, while the other was spared and it would be another twenty three years before the English doctor, John Snow, identified waterborne microbes as the culprit (it seems he did know something after all).

Some contemporary doctors believed cholera to be a contagion, others thought it was due to a miasma; one doctor in Quimper even advised the town in the grip of the epidemic that the disease was not contagious. While the medical establishment strived to understand the disease, two main but contradictory treatments were espoused; one held that cholera overstimulated the body and prescribed cold drinks, blood-letting and opium-laced enemas; the other advocated hot drinks, hot baths infused with vinegar and camphorated alcohol to stimulate the system. Amidst this confusion, charlatans profited by selling miraculous but entirely bogus remedies to the desperate people with little enough to spare.

Cholera epidemics

Unlike childhood diseases such as smallpox or measles or influenza which was mainly only fatal to the elderly, cholera killed as many healthy young adults as any other age group; it is estimated that over 100,000 people died of cholera in France in 1832-34 – a shocking mortality rate of between 25 to 50 per cent – and over 5000 in Brittany alone. In many towns it was noted that there were often more female than male fatalities, for example, in Morlaix women represented 65 per cent of cholera deaths. Some believe that this is likely a reflection of the fact that it was women who traditionally collected the family’s water from the communal fountain or well and a prospective source of contagion.

Poor hygienic conditions, lack of adequate sanitation, untended rubbish heaps and poorly sited wells were, in the opinion of many visitors, common features of most Breton cities at the time; all factors which contribute significantly to the spread of cholera. All diseases spread by cross-infection between people gain increasing powers of spread with increasing population density and thus cause the highest mortality rates in urban centres compared to the countryside.

There were further major outbreaks of cholera in France in 1848-50 and again in 1853-54; two epidemics that resulted in some 300,000 deaths across the country. In the latter epidemic, eastern Brittany was particularly badly affected early although it seems that the disease ravaged the region on two fronts; from the east and also from the northern port of Morlaix where it spread to other coastal cities. The epidemic reached Brest towards the end of 1854 and many people claimed to have seen the source of the disease, ‘the Red Woman’, sowing the plague in the valleys; harking back to the superstitions of previous centuries regarding the semeurs de peste (plague sowers) who spread the contagion by witchcraft. At the time, knowledge of the nature of epidemic diseases was scant and most Bretons considered the plague and diseases such as cholera as divine punishment for their sins; and responded with prayer, coupled with either penitential acts to redeem God’s favour or with stoic fatalism to accept God’s will.

Praying for deliverance from disease

The region was again badly hit during an epidemic in 1865 (over 2,500 deaths) and only marginally less so by the epidemics of 1873, 1885-86 and 1893. In the fifty years covering these cholera epidemics, progresses in public health and hygiene programmes, improvements to urban planning and sanitation, coupled with advances in medical understanding and technology, greatly increased our ability to organise efficient countermeasures against epidemics.

Tackling the human cost of such diseases was more problematical, as noted in 1866 by Jean-Baptiste Fonssagrives, Professor at the School of Naval Medicine in Brest: “Among all the chronic diseases that eat away at the social body, misery is certainly one of the most hideous, the most inveterate, perhaps even the least curable”.

At the beginning of the 19th century smallpox was a major global endemic disease, responsible for the deaths of between 50,000 to 80,000 people in France each year. During 1773–74, Brittany experienced a particularly deadly smallpox epidemic which helped highlight the importance of inoculation; then a relatively novel practice and pursued with some vigour in Brittany by an Englishman, Simeon Worlock, who had been summoned from Nantes to work in Brest after the death of some 600 children in that port.

Innoculation against smallpox

It is therefore not surprising that France was one of the first nations to fully exploit Jenner’s pioneering work on vaccination; teams of doctors spent decades crossing the country inoculating those willing to receive the vaccine, often struggling against public trepidation and hostility.  The vaccination programme quickly succeeded in reducing cases of smallpox across France but this highly infectious disease was particularly virulent in Brittany in 1871, resulting in about 20,000 deaths. The last outbreak in Brittany was centred on the cities of Brest and Vannes in 1955 and involved almost a hundred cases, of whom 20 patients died.

It is a little difficult to neatly define dysentery epidemics as the disease is of great antiquity and was an ever present feature of daily life. The disease is usually the result of a bacterial infection which works its way through the bloodstream to the gut, manifesting itself in abdominal pain, sickness and bloody diarrhoea (up to over one litre or a quart of fluid per hour), leading to extreme dehydration, anaemia and often the poisoning of vital organs by bacterial toxins. Like cholera, the bacteria that causes dysentery is most commonly spread by dirty water or foodstuffs having been contaminated with human waste; it is contagious and can be rapidly transmitted from person to person.

The spread of dysentery was facilitated by the rather basic living conditions of the Breton countryside; people and animals typically shared overcrowded dwellings, folks shared boxed beds while the farmyard was rich in dung-heaps and cess pits. In the towns and cities, the health situation was no better; open sewers, streets cluttered with rubbish and foodstuffs’ markets held on busy public roads. All these elements played a part in the rapid transmission of the contagion especially amongst bodies that were generally undernourished.  Although, at the time, it was believed that the disease, like so many others, was caused by lethal miasmas and the main medical treatments, for those that could afford them, were purges, emetics and blood-letting. Those that could not afford the medical professionals trusted to the recuperative power of a few bunches of elderberry.

Dystentry outbreaks in France

It is no exaggeration to say that epidemic dysentery was one of the worst blights to affect Europe and the wider world throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. There were major outbreaks in Brittany in 1639, 1676 and 1719. The disease was widespread in Brittany between 1738 and 1740, the epidemic of the latter year was especially fatal amongst children but there was an even deadlier outbreak in 1741 which claimed well over 30,000 lives; in some Breton towns, the mortality rate was over 45 per cent. There were smaller outbreaks in 1749, 1765 and 1777 but in 1779 Brittany and other parts of western France were ravaged by an outbreak that took some 175,000 lives with about 50,000 dead in Brittany alone.

The disease continued to take its heavy toll throughout the 19th century with the last notable outbreak recorded in 1900. Scientists have identified more than 330 strains of the bacteria that cause dysentery but it is worth noting that 99 per cent of strains have now developed a resistance to antibiotics and while dysentery may sound to many of us a disease of the past, it remains a major killer in some parts of the world.

Typhus and typhoid fevers were other diseases that ravished the Brittany of yesteryear. The former is a louse-borne disease that thrives on a host’s poor personal hygiene and can survive on its host for some time. A particularly pernicious outbreak of both diseases spread across Brittany in the years 1741-42 and caused an estimated 40,000 deaths; other major epidemics occurred in 1757 and 1779. In 1793-94 an epidemic of typhus in Nantes is estimated to have resulted in the death of 10,000 people.

Typhus outbreaks in France

Many have described typhoid fever as endemic in Brittany by the mid-19th century but focused improvements in public health and basic hygiene, particularly relating to the supply of clean, uncontaminated water and the evacuation of wastewater meant the death tolls from the epidemics of 1874 and 1892-93 were less severe than those seen in earlier years. The western part of Brittany was particularly affected due to the disease spreading on account of the fairly itinerant habits of agricultural labourers and mariners and the migrations of people from the countryside to the towns. As an example of how significant such urban movements were, between 1856 and 1911 the population of the arrondissement (administrative region) of Quimper swelled from 81,000 to 204,000.

Outbreaks of influenza have always left heavy death tolls, particularly amongst the elderly and poorer sections of society but the virulent virus behind the influenza pandemic of 1918-20 caused the most severe pandemic in recent history. This contagious viral infection attacked the respiratory system and was inexplicably most deadly for young adults; it has been suggested that this might be because older people had built-up a degree of immunity as a result of the earlier flu pandemic of 1889-90. Pneumonia or other respiratory complications brought-on by influenza were often the main causes of death. Estimates vary as to the number of deaths caused by the disease but it is believed to have infected a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people; over 240,000 in France alone.

Despite significant advances in medical treatment and care, influenza remains a public health issue today with annual seasonal outbreaks affecting between 2-8 million people in France every year, with influenza-related deaths estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 per year.

Spanish Flu

It is important to view the epidemics and pandemics noted above within the context of their time; these diseases took root and spread thanks to the circumstances then existing. Generally poor living conditions and hygiene; undernourished bodies less able to fight infection; low degree of medical knowledge surrounding the nature of bacteria and the transmission of diseases – all conspired to make it an insurmountable task to moderate the impact of a virulent epidemic disease, despite the best efforts of the medical establishment of the time.

Improvements in living standards, town planning, public health, hygiene and sanitation, coupled with massive advances in medical knowledge and technology have helped to greatly reduce the worst ravages of epidemic mortality that were once an accepted part of our ancestors’ lives. Even as late as 1950, the majority of deaths in Europe were due to infectious diseases. Since then, life expectancy has soared and diseases such as polio, diptheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, whooping cough, smallpox, measles, mumps and rubella have been virtually wiped out. Yet, despite the massive leaps in medicine, infectious diseases have been controlled rather than conquered; they remain a threat that can never be truly extinguished.

It is too early to see where the current coronavirus disease pandemic will sit amongst the long history of pandemics but it is clear that the social and economic impact will be profound.

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