In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, All Saints’ Day is known as La Toussaint and is widely celebrated as both a religious holiday and a secular Public Holiday. Although All Souls’ Day, more formally known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, falls on the following day, the majority of people here tend to honour their dead relatives on the day before. Thus, Toussaint is the day when families gather together and visit the cemeteries to tend graves, pray and lay flowers (usually chrysanthemums or heather) on the graves of their loved ones. Consequently, the distinction between All Saints’ Day, which is dedicated to those who are in Heaven, and All Souls’ Day when prayers are offered for the dead who have yet to reach Heaven, are blurred.
Having been observed on different days in various places, the precise origin of All Saints’ Day can not be agreed definitively. During the 7th century it was celebrated on 13 May which has caused some to suggest its origins are pagan and hark back to the Roman festival of Lemuria which was held to pacify the dead. In the 8th century, the date was fixed to 1 November and some see this as an attempt by the Church to co-opt the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which marked the shift from summer to winter and celebrated the harvest.
If it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of All Saints, establishing the roots of All Souls’ Day is doubly so. What is known is that around the turn of the 11th century, Odilo, the Benedictine Abbot of Cluny, established 2 November as an especial date for prayers of intercession on behalf of the faithful departed undergoing purification in purgatory; a convention that was steadily embraced and adopted throughout Europe. In addition to putting the Church’s stamp on the importance of honouring the humble dead, this day was significant as it endorsed the link between the living and the dead, in the prayers of the former for the latter.
Of course, the broader practice of celebrating the dead stretches back thousands of years before Odilo and transcends geographic and cultural lines but this conflation of the celebration of All Saints and All Souls allowed plenty of scope for the ancient traditions associated with death and ancestor worship to survive in a Christian world-view as le Jour des Morts (Day of the Dead) or, in Breton, Gouel an Anaon (Festival of the Dead).
At the turn of the 20th century, ethnographers noted a number of traditional beliefs relating to death then prevalent in Brittany. They found that, to some, earthly life was only a passage between an earlier eternal life and a subsequent eternal life. There was a significant absence of separation between the living and the dead, both seen as existing or living in two discrete worlds. In the Breton tradition, the world after earthly death – the Otherworld – is called Anaon and is a word for both the dead and the place where they reside.
The community of the dead were always close. Those buried in the cemetery were thought to live there under the protection of Saint Yves, retaining their earthly personalities, sympathies and aversions for their fellow dead. Earthly feuds and disputes would continue beyond the grave, so, care was taken not to bury two quarrels side-by-side. As for the living; they would help or harass them according to the love or disdain they brought.
In his Book of Brittany written in 1901, the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould noted that: “The graveyard is as truly the centre of the commune as the dolmen was of the prehistoric tribe. The dead who lie there are by no means cut off from the world; the voices of the living reach them in muffled tones; they know that they are not forgotten; they are associated with every event of importance in the family. Nowhere else, and at no period, have people lived in such familiarity with death. The consciousness of the presence of the dead never leaves the people. The evening of a wedding is like a funeral wake. The betrothed meet at the graves of their dead ancestors to seal their vows over the tombs.”
The dead were thought to return to their villages after midnight to see their homes and watch their families but – importantly – not to plead with or to frighten them. Thus, it was customary to let a little fire burn under the ashes overnight, just in case the dead were to visit the hearth of their former home. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, the fire would be kept burning overnight by a large log known as the ‘log of the dead’. The dead were always considered to be cold; a notion that also applied to Hell.
In some areas of Brittany, this veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those feast days when the dead of each parish congregated, namely; Christmas Eve, the eve of Saint John’s Day (Midsummer) and the eve of All Saints’ Day (Hallowe’en). At these times, the dead were thought to wander freely in the land of the living.
Similar notions were recorded by Walter Evans-Wentz in his influential study, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911): “On November Eve the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them (the dead) of milk, pancakes and cider, served on the table covered with a fresh white cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors.”
Such beliefs survived the massive social upheavals of the First World War. Writing in 1919, Ruth Kelly, in her Book Of Hallowe’en noted that in Brittany, on Halloween: “… milk is poured on graves, feasts and candles set out on tables and fires lighted on the hearths to welcome the spirits of departed kinsfolk […] The poor who live on the mountains have only black corn, milk and smoked bacon to offer but it is given freely. Those who can afford it, spread on a white cloth, dishes of clotted milk, pancakes and cups of cider.”
Similarly, the Breton scholar Pierre-Jakez Hélias recounted that during his childhood, some twenty years after Kelley’s book, that: “On the evening of All Saints’ Day, we prepared food (cake, bread, milk, cider), to welcome the neighbours of the cemetery and we left for them in the hearth, a big log.” People would also leave food outside for the pitiful dead without a home to go to.
After Vespers on the eve of All Saints, people would visit the cemeteries to kneel, bare-headed, at the graves of their loved ones to pray and anoint the hollow of the gravestones with holy water or milk (small cup-like holes can be found in many old gravestones) before hurrying home. Interaction with the Anaon was to be avoided at all costs. Once at home, people would go to bed early so that they would not chance to see the dead feasting. However, those who went to bed too early might be awakened by neighbours urging them, in song, to pray for the souls of the dead. Others would fear to go outside at all during Allhallowtide.
Yesterday’s Bretons did not fear death, for it was seen as simply part of the natural order of things and the beginning of a new and better life but they did fear An Ankou – the Breton personification of death. Master of the afterlife, the Ankou is omnipotent. He is always portrayed as a skeletal figure, sometimes draped in a shroud, holding an arrow, spear or very occasionally a scythe whose blade faces outwards; this blade was said to be sharpened on a human thigh bone!
Standing on a cart whose axles creak, the Ankou roams at night, gathering souls to guide towards the Otherworld. He is often spoken of as being accompanied by a screeching owl and attended by one or more assistants. To hear the squeak of the Ankou’s chariot signified that someone close to you would soon die. In coastal areas, the Ankou was believed to steer a black boat. In The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evans-Wentz noted the belief that: “The Ankou, who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths over which they travel in great sacred processions; the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve.”
In some parts of Brittany, the Ankou’s persona was rather fluid – the first or last death of the year would become Ankou. Thus, he would be renewed each year and could be imbued with some of the characteristics of the soul once living – if he had been an evil character in life then, as Ankou, he would search relentlessly for fresh souls to gather. In these traditions, the Ankou is assisted by the second on the list of the deceased of a parish. It is he who guides the Ankou’s skinny black horse by the bridle, opens the gates and loads the dead souls onto the cart. Rather than draped in a shroud, the Ankou of the 19th century was often depicted as dressing contemporaneously while hiding his face under a black felt hat with a wide brim; a style then popularly worn in Brittany.
In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living. It was more than being at ease with the idea of death it was almost a comfortable familiarity with it; death and birth were commonplace, natural happenings. However, by the mid-1980s, anthropologist Ellen Badone discovered that, due to the rapid social and cultural changes in Brittany since the Second World War, the customs and traditions associated with death highlighted just fifty years earlier had all but disappeared.
In her book, The Appointed Hour (1989), Badone notes that she found that repression of the idea of death and marginalisation of the act of dying were increasingly evident here and postulated that this culture change was likely a result of a complex mix of factors. Particularly the shift from an agricultural economy based on shared labour to one of mechanisation and solitary working; the rise of retirement homes and the migration of young Bretons to work in the cities, creating a rarity of multi-generational families; and the growing prestige of science with its opposition to the supernatural.
As the passage of time dims the old traditions, the relentless Ankou warns us against forgetting him. His image, carved deep into timeless granite edifices, continues to adorn countless churches and ossuaries throughout Brittany. These are well worth visiting and, if you do, take time to contemplate his words at the church in La Roche-Maurice: “Remember You, Man, That You Are Dust!”
In yesterday’s Brittany, the miller enjoyed a rather ambivalent reputation in society. His trade brought him into regular contact with a wide range of people across the community; guaranteeing any visitor would leave the mill with all the latest news of any importance. Admired for his hard-work and often his skill at resetting broken or dislocated bones, the miller was also viewed with some suspicion and a once popular saying told that nothing was bolder than a miller’s shirt because every morning it caught a thief.
In the south of Brittany, on the road between the town of Guérande and La Roche-Bernard, lies the restored 15th century mill of Crémeur. Today, the mill no longer grinds but it still retains its long-standing popular nickname of the Devil’s Mill; the site of one the region’s most well-known legends of reputed interactions between the Devil and hard-working Breton peasants.
While the master miller of Crémeur could boast of owning the mill, he could make no claim to providing security for his family because his mill steadfastly refused to grind little more than a few ears of corn; the winds from the south coast blew strongly across his little plateau but the blades of his mill scarcely turned. It was therefore unsurprising that no customers came to grind their grain; forcing the miller and his family to rely on the most meagre of existences.
One autumn day, while the miller lamented his wretched situation to no one in particular, a richly dressed stranger passed along the nearby road and walked over to speak to him, asking the reason for his obvious distress. With a heavy sigh, the miller unburdened himself to the stranger; telling him that the mill was so poorly positioned that even the March winds were not enough to turn its wings. The mill should have been a source of wealth and pride but it contributed so little to the family table that he was now thinking of abandoning it and leave to beg elsewhere for some dirty work to feed his family.
“It is possible that I can help you,” said the traveller. Upon hearing these few words of hope, the miller wondered if it was not the winds of Providence which had sent this stranger to deliver him from his problems; perhaps this was a wealthy man who would, as an act of charity, buy his mill for a good price.
“I see that you have a hill on your land, to the west of your house. I can build a new mill there which will have all the wind it needs and will grind so well that all the people of the country hereabouts will bring you their custom and make you your fortune. All this I can do for you in one night.”
“In just one night but that is impossible,” exclaimed the miller; “only God or the Devil could do such a thing.” In this, the hapless miller was not mistaken because it was the Devil himself who had come to offer him a bargain.
“Of course,” said the Devil carefully, “such an undertaking cannot be done without due consideration. I will require possession of your soul when you die but fear not, for all the years that you have left to live will be free of worry for you and your family.” The miller, a pious man, immediately refused the deal for he could not to accept to condemn his soul to the torments of Hell.
However, a moment of reflection reminded him of his family’s misery and so, he accepted the bargain. “Then it is agreed,” said the Devil; “you grant me your soul in exchange for a mill built entirely on top of that hill and before the rooster crows tomorrow.”
The miller returned home but was so heavily weighted with shame for his diabolical pact that his wife, seeing her husband even more unhappy than usual, asked him what could have happened. Hesitantly, he confessed all that had passed between him and his infernal visitor.
Stunned by his tale, the miller’s wife was, in equal measure, aghast and angry at her husband’s weakness and his wanton betrayal of God and His saints. To safeguard her children from any of the Devil’s mischief, she left with them, in all haste, for the house of her mother, just one league distant. However, the good lady felt herself compelled to return to the mill for she could not willingly abandon her husband to the Devil.
The darkness had descended by the time she reached home but the noise of furious activity nearby confirmed her darkest fears that the Devil was at large; delivering his part of the bargain. Anxious with worry, the miller’s wife prayed throughout the night but stopped a little before dawn in order to prepare three lanterns. She moved quickly and noisily through the yard, waking-up the slumbering pigs as she did so, and set-up her lanterns around the hen-house. At the sight of all these lights, the deceived rooster began to crow with such fervour that the Devil, believing himself at dawn, swiftly deserted his site.
Roused from his torpor, the miller now prepared to face the day. He had walked but a few yards from home when he saw, upon the hill, a mill so beautiful and so large that he felt even more desperate; the Devil had kept his promise. His wife, taking pity on her husband’s despondency, quickly revealed her subterfuge to him and showed him a point, a little below the wings: a single stone was missing! The contract had not been properly fulfilled and so the miller kept his precious soul.
The Devil was so enraged at having been duped that he unleashed a violent storm throughout the peninsula but the miller was alert and placed a small statue of the Virgin in the empty space in the wall. This talisman defeated the demon and helped revive the prosperity of the miller; a man whom Providence had protected by choosing for him a bride of such keen intelligence and piety.
Across the peninsula, in the far west of Brittany, the Devil is also a character that features in several old local legends. Some of whom contain no moral messages to reflect upon but rather the kernels of a story one can easily imagine being told around the fireside at night. One such tale tells that, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, two men had travelled to the Kerharo mill near Cléden to play some hands of cards with the miller while the millstone was grinding their wheat.
As dusk turned to dark, a stranger entered the mill and offered to play a few games of chance with the trio. The offer of another hand was warmly accepted but the men’s good humour struggled a little in the face of the newcomer’s complete dominance; he won every hand convincingly. At one point in the evening, one of the players, having dropped a card, stooped to pick it up. It was then that he saw the stranger’s feet under the low table: they were the feet of a cow! He barely had time to cry out: the devil, for it was he, had already disappeared.
Once, small mills such as those at Crémeur and Kerharo were to be found in almost every Breton commune; these buildings were more than mere economic processing centres and once carried out an important role at the centre of community life. Villagers, most usually only the men, would gather at the local mill, even when they had no real business there, to share the latest news and gossip. Often, the miller’s wife operated a small cafe for their clients and other travellers, heightening its role as a hub of the community.
For centuries, life in rural Brittany remained little touched by the industrial and agricultural changes that swept across Europe and right up to the turn of the last century, most people still practiced a means of farming designed to satisfy just their own needs. People grew what they needed or were conditioned to need only what they could grow; they kept what they could store and bartered or sold what they could, as best they could. Poor communication networks meant that no market other than the local one really mattered.
As road and later rail communications improved towards the end of the 19th century, so, the lifestyle of the Breton country dweller changed, forever, beyond measure. The small-scale cottage industries, such as spinning, weaving and embroidery that had long supplemented the family income were the first to disappear; unable to compete with the industrially manufactured goods now becoming widely available. Domestic enterprises such as making clothes or processing food also began their relentless decline; a process exacerbated by the appearance of the humble sewing machine and industrial canning.
The demand for faster travel eventually brought about the demise of the wheelwrights, carters and the grooms, relay-stations and inns that supported them. Even coopers and blacksmiths soon found their hard-learned skills unable to contest the demands made by new, improved agricultural machinery and their intricate machine made components.
At a time when the majority of rural transactions were conducted by barter, the removal of even one trade from the community pool risked the long-term survival of communities that, for centuries, had been almost completely self-sufficient. Few rural artisans could earn a living from the practice of a single trade and it was not uncommon for the local butcher to also keep a tavern or for the miller to do some bone-setting or barbering on the side. While this might portray a community living close to the bone, it also indicates one that was remarkably independent; a self-supporting society in which everyone could contribute, as only a few trades required specialist but learnable skills.
The inevitable march of progress seems to have cast its darkest shadow over Brittany’s smiths and millers in the years immediately prior to the First World War. These years witnessed the final dominance of industrial production; a state of affairs cemented during the war years and from which rural communities, bereft of suitable manpower, could never hope to recover.
At the end of the 19th century it was recorded that bread was the staple diet for the peasants of central Brittany. Bread soaked in salt water with a little butter in it, followed by a piece of dry bread, being the most common meal for breakfast and dinner. Lard was a treat reserved for Sundays and meat for only the most important festivals and celebrations. Otherwise, the typical diet consisted of a pottage of buckwheat, millet or corn, chestnuts, cabbage and turnips or potatoes with a little bread made of rye or barley.
So, demand for the miller’s services remained strong but the economies of scale offered by the new, industrial mills posed an overwhelming threat to their survival. Improvements in transportation meant that many large farms increasingly took advantage of the rates offered by the new mills for their grain or its resultant flour. It was at about this time that white bread became increasingly fashionable here, relegating rye bread to the status of mere peasant food. Improvements to agricultural practices, such as the adoption of scythes over billhooks and the introduction of mechanisation into the harvest routine also took their toll. With gleaning steadily becoming uneconomic, the local mills saw another once vibrant part of their customer base disappear forever.
The windmills were the first to fade away here, gradually but inexorably followed by the more populous water mills. Their disappearance has left the Breton countryside peppered with picturesque ruins and restored homes for families now used to supermarket shopping. Sadly, the old mill stones no longer grind corn or wheat but still excite conversations, as quaint rustic features in the gardens of suburban Paris.
From millstones to milestones; this is my two year anniversary with WordPress and also my one hundredth post! I would therefore like to thank all who have taken the time to read any of my ramblings about this little corner of the world over the last two years – your kindness and generous support has been much appreciated by me! Thank you so very much. I wish you all the very best of health and sincere happiness for the future!
Mysterious magical plants can be found scattered throughout the folklore and popular superstitions of Brittany. Noted for their extreme rarity; long and patient efforts were required to locate these mystical growths. A quest that would only have hopes of success if performed by certain select people or on the most propitious days of the year. The diligent seeker could hope to be rewarded with such elusive wonders as good fortune, vigorous health or true love.
Brittany’s magical plants did not boast magnificent colours with pretty blooms and majestic stems. They were mostly anonymous, flowerless grasses and herbs that confused the searcher by their rarity and their changing habits. They were said to be found everywhere and yet nowhere; chimeral spirits that only revealed themselves according to their whims at certain hours of the night. However, some nights were believed more favourable than others and the most auspicious times often varied from region to region. Sometimes, local legends tell that only the enchantments of the sorcerer could discover such special growths.
Along the shorelines of north-eastern Brittany were said to be found bewitched herbs that enjoyed the virtue of curing all diseases. They were once cultivated there secretly by the fairies who employed them to make the ointment which was used in many of their enchantments, although some tales tell that the fairies also ate these herbs. More commonly, fairies were said to feed on Sylvies; a delicate plant whose downy seeds were sensitive enough to disperse at a fairy’s breath but highly toxic to humans and animals. In this region, fairies were renowned as skilled healers whose remedies were believed to contain many compounds from plants that possessed yellow and blue flowers, such as Flax, Garlic, Pimpernel and Witches’ Grass.
The plants of the fairies were reputed to thwart the devious designs of men and to sharpen the keenest blade but those who did not enjoy their benevolence were said to be seized with madness and condemned to wander if they came into contact with such plants. However, the forests had other marvels to discover; in the woods near Lamballe, those who ate a plant which grew only in hollow oaks would gain the ability to become invisible at will and of being instantly transported from one place to another. Such gifts were only granted to those who also held in their hand, sprigs of Mistletoe and Verbena.
One of the most benign of Brittany’s plants was the Sundew; a rare carnivorous plant often known as Morning Dew whose leaves always appear graced with water droplets which, unlike dew, do not dry in the sun. The principle virtues of this plant were said to have been its ability to cure almost all the diseases of animals and humans, while the person who possessed it was believed to exercise an irresistible attraction to the opposite sex. Rubbing one’s body with a Sundew, while walking backwards on Midsummer’s Day, was held to provide one with exceptional strength and made walking tireless. Placed in the stables, the plant protected the animals from fevers and even into the latter half of the 19th century, some here granted to the Sundew, magical and supernatural properties such as that of cutting iron.
The woodpecker has always been very common here in Brittany. Feeding on insects that live in the bark of trees, it is armed for this particular task with a beak suitable for attacking the bark. The habits of this bird seem to have preoccupied the minds of the Bretons of yesterday: how could such a modest creature make such perfect cavities in very hard trees? Clearly, it required recourse to the marvellous and observation of the bird’s habits showed that, in the course of its labours, it often flew down into the meadows. Eager to formulate a conclusion, the Breton peasants thought that the woodpecker would thus sharpen its beak on a special plant; the legend of Woodpecker Grass offered a reasonable explanation.
This plant was said to be extremely small and rare and found in damp meadows and in the trunks of ancient trees. Whoever finds it can use it to sharpen any metal for it defies the best grindstone; a sickle sharpened by it, cuts like a razor. Some local traditions conflated Woodpecker Grass with the rarest and most wonderful of all Brittany’s magical plants, Golden Grass but they are usually portrayed in the region’s folklore as two quite distinct plants.
Sometimes found noted amongst the magical plants of Brittany is the Hazel which does not necessarily present, by itself, anything particular. However, the plant was widely associated with magic and was said to produce the very best wands, especially for those seeking underground springs and seams of silver. Handled properly, hazel wands could also confirm whether one was truly loved by their partner. Additionally, hazel was the only wood said able to handle new honey which was never stirred other than with a stick of this wood.
It was once believed that each hazel bush possessed, within its folds, a branch that turned into pure gold. This branch made a wand that was reputed to equal in power those of the great fairies of old. However, this prize could only be gained if cut between the first and last chimes of the bell announcing the Christmas mass but, lest you be tempted, be aware that whoever tries and fails, was thought lost from this world forever.
The supernatural virtues attributed to certain plants were sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent. Plants that cast a malign shadow were numerous, if one is to believe a once popular saying from the region south of Nantes that claimed “for 700 plants friendly to man, 800 are conjured against him.”
Perhaps the most renowned sinister plant here was that known as Sorcerer’s Herb but details of how the plant was used in witches’ brews or applied as part of a bewitching spell are, unfortunately, obscured to us today. In the far east of the region, two plants seem to have borne the label of Sorcerer’s Herb; these were Ground-ivy and Mugwort and in localities where one was deemed to be Sorcerer’s Grass, the other was not and vice versa. In order to be most effective, the plant needed to be gathered during the night of Midsummer.
When used to dry-up the milk of a rival’s cows, it was thrown over the grazing pastures before sunrise but small packets of these wicked herbs were also placed under the roofs of houses and stables in order to attract misfortune to people and their animals. Similarly, clusters of five or seven hazelnuts, passed under the door of a barn and dragged to the spell caster’s home, were also believed to dry the cows in this barn. The same result could also be assured with an armful of hay instead of hazel clusters or by washing the cows’ udders with an infusion of green peas. To combat such malicious behaviour, small bunches of Tansy were hung from the beams in order to dispel evil spells and to ensure plentiful milk that produced the finest butter. White Wormwood and Houseleek were also said to have been similarly efficacious.
Maintaining the health of one’s herd and livelihood was a constant concern to the Breton farmer. Confronted with setbacks, suspicion quickly fell upon those who might wish to hinder one’s efforts or harm one’s livestock; jealous neighbours, witches and shepherds were all accused of spreading deadly epizootics at will. The magical power of certain plants was called upon in the struggle to neutralise such evil spells; small packets containing the root of Water-hemlock were hung in the stable to protect cattle from foot-and-mouth disease. For the farmer, a branch of Medlar, cut before dawn on the morning of Midsummer, was thought to provide excellent protection against witchcraft.
It was said that some witches and sorcerers, out of boredom or simply sheer malice, sometimes threw a spell upon the cattle at market by mixing the powdered liver of a wolf with their tobacco. In smelling this smoke, the animals recognised their enemy and suddenly went beserk, breaking their ropes in their efforts to flee. To combat the influence of such a spell, an amulet of Greater Periwinkle was slipped around the left horn of the beasts. Bewitched animals were also more widely treated by being adorned with an amulet containing nine cloves of Garlic mixed with a handful of salt.
Other plants seem to have possessed some kind of innate power. The most infamous was the Grass of Oblivion that caused all those who stepped upon it to immediately lose their sense of direction. Another was the Chestnut tree whose harmful shade was said to causes diseases of languor to those who fell asleep under its shade; the Ash also once carried the same reputation. However, the wood of the Beech was hung or laid in front of the house and stable in order to, by its presence, bring-on good fortune and protect against evil over the year ahead.
Field Brome was once the scourge of cereal crops such as Rye and it was thought that only some malign influence could have caused it to seemingly multiply in the field overnight. Likewise, it was believed that the crops had been bewitched when Wild Oats tended to dominate over cultivated oats in the field.
Misfortune was assured if certain plants were not treated appropriately. For instance, it was important that Parsley was sown and not planted at the risk of bringing bad luck and unhappiness upon the household. The planting of the Bay Laurel was also surrounded with danger as it was claimed that whenever it was planted, someone in the house would die before the end of the year. Bay Laurel was therefore commonly planted on the last day of the year and by someone who was not part of the household. In certain parts of the region, people refrained from making any tool handles or pegs from Broom in the belief that only accidents would befall those who used this plant for any utilitarian purpose.
Sometimes, a plant’s danger was only manifest when eaten. For instance, it was recommended to only eat Scallions in the morning because the same plant consumed in the evening, would cause an incurable migraine. Consecutively consuming seven green corms was said to cause one to change sex and it was even claimed that green corms had the power to reconstitute a lost virginity. In the early 20th century, a bizarre variant to this was noted that claimed it would be more certain if one swallowed a mixture of seven crushed corms with seven resin candles.
Of the plants that were believed benevolent to humanity, none enjoyed a greater reputation here than Mistletoe; a growth that seems to have retained strong traces of its ancient reputation as a sacred plant. Picked on the first day of the year, it was said to exert a favourable influence throughout the year, while that gathered on Midsummer was also considered to possess almost the same virtues. This plant was never so beneficial as when it was found growing on an oak tree and was used in a wide variety of folk remedies to treat all manner of ailments but especially epilepsy. Given the scarcity of oak mistletoe, it offered hope that the mistletoe found on Hawthorn also had properties similar to those of oak mistletoe.
The Privet was also once endowed with the power to cure many ailments here. Three branches placed in the fireplace were thought to cure children of thrush. To treat toothache and all complaints of the mouth, a branch, cut before sunrise, placed in the fireplace without the knowledge of the patient, was believed to bring about an effective cure. Stag horn plantain was also said to cure certain diseases by its mere presence.
While Broom was often associated with bad luck, the plant’s dual nature was such that it was also viewed as a precious aid to the harvest; beans and cabbages were seldom sowed without their seedlings being brushed with a branch of broom in the belief that its touch killed all pests such as caterpillars and aphids.
Not all of Brittany’s magical plants owed their position to superstitions long since lost to us, several seem to have accrued their marvellous properties as a result of religious beliefs. Planting a branch of Boxwood in a field on Palm Sunday was said to prevent sorcerers from casting a spell on the future harvest but it was also a symbolic way of asking for God’s blessing on the crops sown there; it was believed granted if the boxwood took root. A branch of boxwood was also placed upon each bee hive on Good Friday in order to ensure a fruitful year ahead.
However, evergreen shrubs, such as Boxwood, were believed to be one of the preferred locations for the souls of the dead here. To plant a branch of it in a field was therefore to involve the spirits of one’s ancestors in the fertility of the land and one’s future well-being. It is therefore likely that these practices were echoes of ancient traditions likely transposed to the Christian festival of Palm Sunday from the pagan celebrations surrounding May Day.
Many people once collected the flowers thrown during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament on the Feast of Corpus Christi in the belief that they would bring protection against storms. Similarly, charcoal from the Midsummer bonfire and the Yule Log were also believed to possess the ability to protect crops or houses against lightning strikes. Preservation against the latter danger was also assured by the presence of a Houseleek plant grown near the roofs of buildings.
These last examples might be vestiges of ancient beliefs now lost to us or could simply be poorly understood religious practices that transformed into popular superstition; the plants being attributed with virtues that they only possessed through their religious association. We will likely never know for sure.
Deified and demonised across the world throughout the ages, the dragon of yore also left its footprints upon the lives, legends and landscapes of Brittany. Indeed, Breton lore once held that the peninsula of Brittany itself was the body of the enormous dragon slain by the archangel Michael; the beast’s backbone formed the Monts d’Arrée and the wild coastline of Finistère, its head.
In the Breton tradition, the dragon only emerges from its subterranean lair to feed its appetite for destruction. It is usually of gigantic size, often with several heads featuring one, or more, horns. Its body is armoured with scales and boasts bat-like wings, strong feline claws and long, sharp teeth. Along with its ability to spit fire, these attributes present it as master of the four fundamental elements and thus the mightiest of adversaries.
The 1st century Roman author, Pliny, tells us that dragons drain the blood of elephants, their greatest enemy, by biting behind the animal’s ear, while the late 1st century Book of Revelation describes the apocalyptic battle between the angel Michael and a “great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns.” Michael and his angels prevailed and “the great dragon was cast out [of Heaven], that old serpent, called the Devil, which deceives the whole world, was cast out onto the earth.”
Isidore, the 7th century scholar and Bishop of Seville, described dragons as “the largest animal on earth. When it comes out of its cave, it disturbs the air. It has a crest, a small mouth and a narrow throat. Its strength is in its tail rather than its teeth; it does harm by beating, not by biting. It has no poison and needs none to kill, because it kills by entangling.” These descriptions remained little changed in the medieval bestiaries. Writing in the 12th century, Hugo de Fouilloy announced that “the greatest of the serpents is the dragon; it deals death by its poisonous breath and by the blow of its tail. This creature is lifted by the strength of its venom into the air as if it were flying and the air is set in motion by it.”
To the medieval Christian chroniclers, the dragon, as the greatest of serpents, was synonymous with the Devil: “As it deals death with its poisonous breath and the blow of its tail, so the Devil destroys men’s souls by thought, word and deed. He kills their thoughts by the breath of pride; he poisons their words with malice; he strangles them by the performance of evil deeds, as it were with his tail.”
Similar sentiments were later echoed in the pages of the 13th century Harley Bestiary and it is this image of the dragon that predominated in the literature and legends of Europe down into the modern era. As a symbol of evil, the dragon features as the enemy of noble knights seeking to prove their mettle or to rescue a chaste woman held captive by the beast. As the embodiment of evil, it was the most powerful of foes and thus could only be defeated by an even mightier adversary.
A Breton legend tells that, one day, Saint Michael was called to fight against the Devil who had taken the form of a fearsome dragon. The battle began on Mont Dol in eastern Brittany and was fiercely fought, across the skies, for several days before Saint Michael eventually triumphed atop Mont Tombe, 20km to the east. It was even said by some that Michael did not kill the beast but imprisoned it in a vault deep within the mountain. Those looking for Mont Tombe on a modern map should note that the name changed in the 9th century when the emperor Charlemagne adopted Saint Michael as his patron saint.
There are many old stories here of dragons that once terrorised a region whose inhabitants were only delivered thanks to the intervention of angels, saints or knights. Local toponyms attest that many caves throughout Brittany were once believed to have been the lair of dragons and scattered across the topography of the region are rocks, cliffs and islets whose features bear the indelible imprint of dragons and the struggle to defeat them.
An Iron Age stele in the churchyard of Landouzen chapel in Le Drennec features a deeply scored notch around its circumference. This was said to have been caused by the fierce struggles made by the dragon that had been tied to it by a length of chain by Saint Ursin who had captured the beast to end its terrorising of the countryside. This otherwise obscure saint was then reputed to have drowned the dragon in the neighbouring marsh.
The land surrounding Janzé, in eastern Brittany, was once reputed to have been in thrall to a terrifying dragon that lay waste to the area’s crops; devouring sheep and cows and attacking anyone who foolishly crossed its path. The early 6th century saint, Armel, decided to confront the dragon and was able to defeat it by throwing his stole around its neck; once subdued, Saint Armel cast the dragon into the Seiche River. It was claimed that the grass never again grew on the ground that the dragon tumbled over en route to its watery grave.
However, the townsfolk of Ploërmel, some 70km westwards, also claimed that their district was the site of Saint Armel’s dragon slaying exploits. According to local lore, it was in the vicinity of Ploërmel that the saint volunteered to rescue the people from an enormous green dragon that devoured sheep, cows, foals and even farmers. Having overpowered the beast, Saint Armel bound it with his stole and, now docile as a sheep, flung the dragon into the Yvel River. A scarred rock near the river was said to have been caused by the dragon’s claw during its struggle with the saint and, just as near Janzé, the grass was reputed to have never grown back on the site of their fight. One account tells that the dragon did not die but fell asleep at the bottom of the water where it still lies to this day.
Local legend attests that Pointe de Saint-Marc, on the south coast of Belle-Île, was the scene of another terrible fight with a murderous dragon. It is said that in ancient times, the nearby cave was the refuge of a nine-headed dragon that sowed disaster across the surrounding villages. The inhabitants had no other resort but to pray to Heaven for deliverance; a call answered by Saint Mark who, riding his fearless steed, battled the dragon which he eventually overcame before throwing the defeated beast into the sea. On his return to Heaven, his horse kicked back so violently against the rock that the mark of his iron shoes can still be seen at the entrance to the cave.
Not far from the south coast town of Quimper lies Ergué-Gabéric; another area once noted to have been terrorised by a dragon. According to legend, the beast lived in a cave in the Stangala Gorge and each month demanded that the locals deliver a young woman for him to devour. However, the dragon was eventually killed by a knight, Caznevet de Kerfors, who could not bear the thought of his intended bride being delivered to the rapacious creature. This knight is known to have lived in the 15th century and may have supplanted an earlier but now unknown hero of the tale.
Tradition attests that the 12th century Daoulas Abbey was founded on the site of a much earlier building and the history of Saint Tadec and Saint Judulus, recorded by Albert Le Grand in his monumental Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany (1637), also notes an earlier foundation. His hagiography notes that the lord of Faou attacked a meeting of the abbots of the region who had gathered near his lands; Saint Tadec was killed at prayer and Saint Judulus beheaded as he fled to Landévennec. To avenge the murder of His servants, God sent a dragon to ravage the lands of Faou. The pagan lord was felled by the dragon and it took all the power of Saint Pol, Bishop of Leon, to defeat the beast and heal the murderer. The latter, having become a Christian, in reparation for his crimes, founded the monastery of Daoulas in the very place where he had slain Saint Judulus.
Having conquered the dragon of Faou, Saint Pol had travelled as far as the village that now bears his name, Lampaul, when he was approached by two men who told him of a little dragon, more ferocious than its father, who devastated their neighbourhood, devouring the cattle and the inhabitants. The saint then untied the dragon, which he had trained like a docile dog, and ordered it to fetch his offspring. The beast immediately obeyed and Saint Pol, having led the two dragons into a remote wood, drove a stake into the ground to which he tied them, forbidding them to ever leave this place. The dragons obeyed the saint’s order until they eventually perished for lack of food.
Saint Pol is also said to have rid the north coast island of Batz of a dragon. Local legend says that in the early 6th century Saint Pol was welcomed to stay on the island on condition that he delivered it from a ferocious dragon that terrorised the place, devouring its people and cattle. After a night of prayer, and accompanied by a local warrior, he set off for the dragon’s lair. At the saint’s command, the dragon emerged in a terrible fury but Pol was unmoved and immediately wrapped his stole around the beast’s neck and led him towards the far end of the island. There, he cast the dragon into the sea, at the spot that is now called Trou du Serpent (Dragon’s Hole).
Similarly, a contemporary of Saint Pol, the evangelist Saint Maudez, is said to have expelled the serpents from the island that now bears his name a few kilometres off the north Breton coast. Back on the mainland, the 7th century Saint Thuriau was believed to have freed the country from a ravenous dragon by casting it into the sea at the mouth of the Léger River. While to the east of the region, near the mouth of the Rance, lies another Trou du Serpent, said to have been the den of a dragon that Saint Suliac threw into the water from the top of Mont Garrot in the 7th century.
Returning home from a pilgrimage to Rome, the 6th century Breton saint, Meen, passed through Angers, where his preaching impressed a lady of the city who pleaded with the saint to rid her territory of a monstrous dragon. Saint Meen drove the beast from her lands and was rewarded with a grant of land where he founded a monastery near the Breton border.
In neighbouring Normandy, the crimson tint of the cliffs around Granville were said to have been caused by the blood of the victims that a dragon once devoured there. While a little north along the coast, a spot under the cliff of Flamanville was also reputed to share the same origin but this dragon’s indiscriminate destruction had been appeased by the people who offered it a child to devour each week. Legend tells that following one sacrifice to the beast, the villagers noted the approach of a man, holding a bishop’s crook, standing on a plough wheel which seemed to glide over the waves. This was Saint Germain who confronted the dragon immediately upon landing on the beach. The dragon tried to retreat into its cave but the saint struck it with his staff whereupon the beast writhed in convulsions and froze before becoming encrusted in the rock.
Many of these tales of dragon slaying feature shared motifs, such as driving the beast into the sea rather than immediately killing it and subduing its violent nature with a stole that marked the grace of holy orders and symbolised the bonds of Christ. As the embodiment of evil, the dragon symbolises the pagan beliefs that existed here before the evangelisation when the early saints “found Brittany ravaged by beasts and dragons, most savage, that wreaked havoc everywhere.” Defeating the dragon therefore represented the triumph of the early Celtic saints over the ancient practices and beliefs. Whether those practices involved child sacrifice is still a matter of some debate.
It is therefore unsurprising that dragons feature in the hagiographies of several Breton saints. The dragon is the emblem of the patron saint of Trégor, Tudwal, one of the seven founding saints of Brittany who was said to have defeated a dragon on his arrival in Treguier. Others among this select band of saints include Saint Samson who drove out a dragon from a cave near his hermitage in Cornwall before his arrival in Brittany; Saint Malo who is said to have chased away the dragon that once roamed the area now known as the island of Cézembre (then attached to the mainland); Saint Pol, who defeated the dragons of Faou, Lampaul and Batz; and Saint Brieuc who exorcised a demon that appeared in the form of a dragon and is sometimes represented as treading on a dragon.
In the 6th century, the Rhuys peninsula on Brittany’s south coast was the site of a monastic settlement established by Saint Gildas but it was also a region tormented by a dragon who the locals placated with the offering of a child each week. Hearing that his godson was due to be sacrificed to the beast, the saint resolved to tackle the dragon; described as six hundred feet long with a girth that measured sixty feet, two large wings and teeth as long and sharp as spindles.
Having mounted his white horse, the saint approached the dragon’s den but instead of throwing his godson into the creature’s open jaws, he threw in a ball of wool that had been imbedded with iron hooks. The jaws of the dragon became bound together with the hooks and Saint Gildas dragged it to the headland of the Grand Mont and commanded his horse to leap to the island of Houat, 13km away. The horse leapt with such force that, despite the passage of time, the imprint of its hooves remains visible in the rock today. Realising the saint’s plan, the dragon also leapt for the island but while the saint’s horse safely made the leap from the mainland, the dragon fell short and smashed its head into the Er-Yoc’h islet before falling into the sea.
Very little is known about the obscure 6th century saints, Neventer and Derrien. They are believed to have been two British knights who, returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, promised the local ruler, Count Elorn, to deliver his lands from the dragon that was due to be given his son, Riok, on condition that he agreed to convert to Christianity and raise his son in the new faith. It was said that Elorn’s desperation was because his suzerain had decreed that, in order to contain the dragon’s devastating raids across the country, the lords of the region would, every Wednesday, choose one of their house as a human offering to the beast or else offer-up themselves.
The two saints tracked the dragon to its lair and commanded it to appear in the name of Christ. Hissing and snarling, the dragon emerged from its cave; five fathoms long, it stood as big as a horse. Its eyes threw thunderbolts that killed birds and children, its jaws opened so wide that in one mouthful it devoured a sheep. The saints did not hesitate to advance towards the beast who became docile in their presence and willingly accepted a halter. Thus subdued, they led the dragon to the north coast where they commanded it to throw itself into the sea.
A hagiography composed sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries tells that, in the 5th century, all infants who died without baptism were delivered to the dragon of Grand Rocher, near the north coast town of Plestin, but every year, on Christmas Eve, it demanded human prey of royal blood. The dragon was as cunning as it was terrible and was said to have walked backwards so as to confound any that sought to track it to its lair. It is noted that King Arthur fought this human-headed beast, whose neck was as thick as the necks of seven bulls, for three days but was unable to defeat it with his simple club and shield.
An acquaintance of Arthur, Saint Efflam, asked that he might quell the dragon and, after a night of prayer, he stood before the dragon’s cave and demanded its appearance. Subdued by the prayers of the saint, the dragon vomited much blood before rushing into the sea whose waters consumed it. However, in the 19th century, the people of the surrounding area claimed that the dragon was not dead and that, at certain times of the year, during a wild storm, it could be seen sitting on a rock, beating the water with its tail and shrieking cries that shook the shore.
A later version of the legend tells that Saint Efflam was forced to use a ruse to bring out the dragon but that once he had made the sign of the cross, the dragon could not return to its cave. Subdued by the air of a biniou (Breton bagpipe), the dragon was led to a chasm that opened into the reef known as the Red Rock, which it agreed to enter upon a promise that it could play the biniou. In another rendering, the dragon was chained to the submerged stones of the reef, from where it vomited the blood that stained the rocks red.
However, a Breton ballad set-down from the oral tradition in the 1830s provides yet another account of the defeat of the dragon of Grand Rocher. In this story, invigorated by the water that Saint Efflam had caused to spring forth, King Arthur drove the blade of his sword straight through the mouth of the dragon; the dying beast tumbled into the sea and was lost to the waves.
The earlier notion that the mighty King Arthur had been unable to defeat the dragon that only God’s servant could subdue is also noted in the life of Saint Carantec who is thought to have lived in the 5th century. Before his arrival in Brittany, the saint was travelling through what is now western England when he was called upon by King Arthur to subdue a colossal dragon that was ravaging the region. Carantec was able to pacify the beast by wrapping his stole around its neck and led it like a sheep to the king’s court.
During his time in Brittany, Saint Carantec is reputed to have again faced a dragon that had long menaced the inhabitants of the northern peninsula that now bears his name. It seems that, unusually, this beast refused to meekly submit to the power of the saint; legend tells that the saint took the dragon by its tail and threw it against a rock that split in two under the force of the impact. Carantec then threw the creature to the south wind and it landed in a bottomless pit through which it fell into the fires of Hell.
The dragons of Brittany might have simply been mythical beasts created by some pious scribes to highlight the power marshalled by the sauroctone saints but some could be the Christianised versions of far older tales once told of local heroes that battled against the last of the region’s great saurians. Although the age of dragons has long since passed, in the west of Brittany it was said that if you put a chicken feather and red and black rooster feathers in a bowl of milk, you would get a little eight-legged white lizard. However, nobody dares to do it anymore because this lizard is insatiable and quickly grows into an uncontrollable dragon.
Whether you choose to call it street art or simply common graffiti, the walls of several Breton towns have been enriched by some wonderful examples of the craft in recent years. In an earlier post, I highlighted some works from the north coast Breton city of Saint-Brieuc and this post features many new murals that now adorn that town as well as a few that were painted over. Additionally, some works spotted in the towns of Morlaix and Brest were just too good not to share here too.
Whether you regarded these as fine pieces of urban poetry or just bits of colourful vandalism, I hope that you enjoyed seeing these few daubed walls of Brittany – formerly blank canvasses that now carry the gift of a smile for the passer-by or, at the very least, the potential for one. Surely, that is something to be welcomed by us all!
To talk of the soul is, to many, to touch on the very essence of existence. First century authors noted that the ancient Celts believed in the indestructibility and inevitable transmigration of the human soul and, despite the march of Christian dogma, such beliefs remained in the Breton tradition where there was no significant separation between the living and the dead; both dwelt in discrete worlds that were in perpetual relation with one another. The souls of the dead surrounded the living, wandering the skies and sunken paths of the land as black dogs, petrels, horses or hares.
The Bretons once counted kinship over nine generations and it was said that the dead did not immediately reach the afterlife but stayed in the vicinity of the living for those nine generations. The souls of the damned were thought lost forever, confined to Hell for eternity although a soul might fleetingly return to the land of the living to reproach a loved one or to claim the fulfilment of a vow or even honour one. Similarly, those who had secured a place in Heaven stayed there, rarely visiting the corporeal world. Although, it was traditionally believed that the dead were doomed to return to the land of the living three times.
Those people who died of violent death were thought forced to remain between life and death until the time that they would have naturally lived had elapsed. Those trapped between Heaven and Hell were believed to roam the land at will; the hedgerows and seashores were heavy with wandering souls awaiting divine judgement. It was said that there were as many grains of sand on the seashore as there were wandering souls and that their numbers were mightier than the drops of rain in a downpour.
A curious expansion of this state of being, which is no longer life but not yet death, features in a legend noted near Lannion that tells of a drowned girl who, thanks to the protection of the Virgin, continued to live for six years in a kind of limbo. She was nourished by the bread her mother gave to the poor and dressed in the old clothes that she distributed as alms. Her husband was not quite a widower and did not become so until the passing of these six years.
Traditionally, it was considered most imprudent to sweep the floor or to throw out any dust until the body of the deceased had left the house; otherwise, one risked throwing out, at the same time, the newly departed soul. Pitchers of liquids, such as water or cider, were covered for fear that the unsteady soul might drown in them but milk was considered to offer no risk. Indeed, it was said that the soul thirsted for it and imbibed plentifully in order to draw new strength from it.
Similarly, it was also popularly advised not to sweep the house after sunset because this again risked sweeping away the souls of the dead who, at that hour, were said to return to their former homes. Such piteous souls were welcome visitors and it was thought only proper to leave a little fire smouldering in the grate in case the dead returned to the hearth of their former home and people took care to remove the tripod from the fireplace overnight, lest the dead sat on it and burned themselves.
Many legends tell of souls that congregated in certain places to await their deliverance. In the far west, the waters of the Baie des Trépassés were believed to teem with the souls of dead mariners. Those who had drowned without the stain of sin were thought carried by the sea to a cave near Morgat. Here, their souls stayed for eight days before leaving for the afterlife. On the north coast, those who lived around the mouth of the Couesnon River claimed that on All Souls’ Day a white fog rose at nightfall. This was said to have been formed by the souls in purgatory which, being innumerable, created a fog that spread over the entire Baie du Mont Saint-Michel. In the morning those who walked along the shore heard a whisper on the wind: “In a year! In a year!” – the voices of souls bidding their farewells until the next feast of the dead.
The souls in purgatory were often believed heard wailing on the crests of mountains at night and it was also on these high places that old maids were said condemned to do their penance. It was held that those women who, having found a marriage, had refused to wed, were cursed after death to grow their fingernails to scratch the earth and dig for themselves a second tomb. However, around Châteaubriant, it was believed that spinsters were transformed into owls after death; condemned to wail in woe at night.
In western Brittany, priests were believed to have had the power to see the soul separate from the body and some even knew the fate of the deceased in the afterlife. When the priest threw the first handful of earth onto the coffin, he was thought able to see the fate of the deceased soul but was forbidden from divulging this secret, under penalty of taking the place of the departed. Priests were also thought able to discover the fate of souls by consulting the Agrippa; a mysterious living book, the size of a man that was said to have been written by the Devil himself. Using the book to evoke the demons of Hell, the priest consulted each in turn to ascertain whether the soul of his recently buried parishioner was damned or saved.
In Breton tradition, the road to Heaven was rough and covered with brambles and thorns. The weary traveller was served by ninety-nine wayside inns where each had to stop at least once but those who had no money to pay for their stay were forced to turn back and take the road to Hell. The inn located at the road’s halfway point was called Bitêklê and it was here, every Saturday evening, that God came to collect those travellers who were still sober. Three rows of clouds were said to be traversed before finally arriving in Heaven; the first was black, the second grey and the last pristine white. According to some, the 3rd century evangelist Saint Mathurin was responsible for leading the souls, who had completed their penance, to Heaven. In some Breton tales, Saint Michael, not Saint Peter, kept the gates of Paradise; it was he that weighed souls to see if they could be received there.
Conversely, the road to Hell was said to be wide, well paved and bordered with beautiful flowers; inviting the traveller to take it. Along the way, there were ninety-nine inns where one had to spend a hundred years. Good food and drink were served as desired and the taste became sweeter and better as you approached the gates of Hell. If the traveller arrived at the last inn without being drunk and had been able to resist the many temptations of the road, they were free to turn back and the Devil had no power over them. However, if they had succumbed during their journey, the last inn would serve only a toxic draught mixed from the rancid bloods of a snake and toad; their soul forever owned by the Devil.
About a dozen kilometres east of the northern town of Lamballe, a field in Landebia contained a pit so deep that any stones thrown into it were never heard to strike the bottom. Only unexplained noises and sometimes vapours escaped the deep hole which was believed by the locals to be an entrance to Hell. Some 120km west, the forlorn Yeun Elez bog in the heart of the Monts d’Arrée was also said to have been one of the gateways to Hell, while 25km east, the Menhir de Thiemblaye near Saint-Samson was held to cover another portal to Hell.
For the Bretons, Hell was located in the bowels of the Earth, always at a great distance from its surface; in the 18th century, it was said that it was to be found in the centre of the planet, some 1,250 leagues below the surface. Extraordinary beings were thought to live there in close proximity to the deepest domains of the korrigans. According to a belief noted in the 19th century, the interior of the Earth was riddled with tunnels where enormous rats lived; even a man on horseback could easily pass through their runs. Eventually, these rats will have bred so much that they will eat away the earth; a great chasm will open and we will all be swallowed by the void.
Some accounts from eastern Brittany speak of the journey made by the souls of the dead to reach their ultimate destination by way of “the sea beneath us.” This notion may have more to do with the old belief that Brittany sat atop a vast subterranean ocean rather than any connection with the crossing of the River Styx of Greek mythology. Possibly the idea was once related to the beliefs, noted in the west of the region, surrounding boats of the dead that ferried souls to mysterious faraway lands.
Usually only the priest celebrating the funeral was considered able to see the separation of the soul but it was a gift that others, such as powerful witches, were also said to have possessed. Sometimes the soul was thought to escape, not at the instant of death, but at the moment when the body was interred and it was claimed that the person who could set their foot upon that of the priest at the moment when he threw a handful of earth upon the coffin would see the soul of the deceased soar into the air.
There are many Breton stories in which the soul escapes from the body to take on the form of a bird, such as a crow, an owl or a petrel. Most popularly it was in the form of a lark that the soul, freed from the bonds of the flesh, ascended to Heaven to receive its judgement; the soul of the just entered without difficulty, while that of the outcast fell into the pit of Hell. Around the northern town of Tréguier, it was believed that, at the time of the giant first men of Brittany, the lark was responsible for opening the door of Heaven to the souls of the dead; the bird was said to have made two trips each day, in the morning for those who died at night and in the evening, for those who died during the day. Unfortunately, when Christ ascended to Heaven, He no longer wanted the lark due to its frequent blasphemies and so replaced it with Saint Peter.
The belief that the soul separated from the body and moved away from it in animal form was once quite widespread here. In a legend collected in central Brittany at the turn of the last century, a white mouse was stymied by the edge of a river but was able to cross thanks to the aid of a kindly man who bent willow branches so as to create a bridge for the creature. The passer-by noticed the mouse disappear into the mouth of a sleeping man, who having been awakened, related that he had dreamt that when he was about to drown in the river, someone threw him a branch that saved his life.
A tale from the north of Brittany also tells of a man whose soul appeared in the guise of a white mouse. On the death of his master, a servant saw such a creature escape his lips as he died. The mouse accompanied the servant to collect the funeral cross from the church, then bade farewell to the ploughing instruments by walking on each in turn. Having allowed itself to be shut inside the coffin with the dead body, the mouse re-emerged immediately after the coffin had been sprinkled with holy water and led the servant to a withered tree where it slipped through a crack in the bark. In that instant, the servant saw the face of his dead master fleetingly appear in the tree.
In another legend from the same region, the soul took the form of a gnat that emerged from the mouth of the dying person and flew around the room before returning to rest on the dead body. Like the mouse, it allowed itself to be sealed inside the coffin but quickly escaped to go and rest on a gorse bush where it was compelled to remain for five hundred years in expiation of its earthly sins.
In these two latter tales we can see examples of the once popular tradition that the soul departed the body at the moment of death to receive God’s judgement. As soon as that judgement was delivered, the soul returned to the body from which it had separated and was said to remain there for the duration of the burial. It is worth noting that the soul did not however re-enter its former host.
In the far east of the region, bats and butterflies were often believed to be hosts for the souls of the dead but it was also said to appear in the form of a large white flower, whose beauty increased as one approached it. The souls of those who had lived a wicked life were sometimes said to have been trapped in a pile of stones, while the souls of girls who had been deceived by their lovers were believed, after death, to haunt them as hares.
Others were condemned to undertake their penance in the form of a cow or that of a bull. The souls of the rich stayed in barren fields where only thorns and a few thin reeds grew while the souls of the poor enjoyed abundant grazing in rich pastures. They were separated from each other by a low dry-stone wall and the sight of the poor so well-treated added to the bitterness of the rich, just as the misery of the latter increased the joy of the former. Around the southern town of Quimperle, the notaries and lawyers who had not been fair in their accounts wandered, after death, in the form of old nags.
The souls of those who had formerly cut short their prayers were believed to wander the abandoned paths, murmuring Pater Noster prayers but when the last sentence was reached, they stopped, unable to find the words that end the prayer. Their soul would not be delivered until the day when some living person kindly completed their prayer. Some souls were said condemned to do penance until an acorn, picked up on the day of their death, had become an oak fit for some purpose. Other souls were condemned to gather enough sods of peat to provide sufficient fuel for three years or to cut gorse for a certain number of years to feed the fire in purgatory.
Some that had lived bad lives, such as thieves, were doomed to wander until the wrongs they had done in life had been righted. They stayed close to their old haunts, spitefully taking revenge for their distress by bringing trouble to the living. It was therefore not unusual for the spirits to be exorcised to reduce them to silence and calm; typically into the body of an animal, usually a black dog. Those souls most popularly believed to have required exorcism were not the murderers and drunkards destined for Hell but cheats and swindlers, particularly those whose wealth had been ill-gotten and guardians who had cheated their charges of their inheritance.
The bare circles without vegetation found in the field were said to mark the place where the souls of the wicked had been confined by an exorcist. It was claimed that these souls could, for one hour each day, torment the living and harm anyone who set foot there. Unfortunately, the time in question altered every day and so farmers never let their animals graze around them.
Uncultivated land and evergreen shrubs, such as boxwood and laurel, were considered the preferred abode of the souls of the dead but the hawthorn tree and gorse bushes, with nine souls resting on the tip of each thorn, were also noted domains. Many travellers therefore took pains to cough or shout to advertise their presence before crossing an expanse of heath thus allowing the souls in purgatory thought to reside there, time to move away undisturbed.
Sometimes, people whose animals fell sick were convinced that it was due to the influence of the tormented soul of a deceased relative and that it was necessary to pay for nine consecutive masses to placate them. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the clergy themselves often encouraged such beliefs and persuaded their parishioners that offering a novena was the only way to appease the dead and thus heal their sick animal.
In western Brittany, the toad was despised and frequently impaled on a stick to suffer under the sun but it was said that if the toad did not die it would search for you and suffocate you in your sleep and if you had died before the toad found you; it would throw poison onto your grave. However, a contrary belief was also noted in the same region, around the town of Quimper. This held that one should never kill a toad because within its body lay the soul of an ancestor who had been assigned there by God to atone for their sins; when toads came to annoy people, it was simply because they were pleading for masses to be said for their salvation.
It was once believed that children who died without baptism roamed the air as birds until the Day of Judgement when they would receive salvation and fly directly to Heaven. However, in eastern Brittany, the souls of such children were also said to appear near rivers and lakes, pleading to passers-by for the grace of baptism. A variant of these traditions was noted around Dinan where the souls of children gathered on the edge of a pond whose surface they beat in an attempt to splash water onto their heads in order to be baptised. Sadly, their little feet are unsteady and they can never balance long enough to succeed.
In eastern Brittany, the leaves of the aspen tree were said to be home to the souls of children. Those that were coloured white underneath were believed to indicate that treasure was buried at the foot of these trees but the exact place to dig was only revealed at midnight, on a Friday, by a ray of moonlight which illuminated it for only one second.
Another tradition from the same region held that if you caught a ladybird, you had to release it quickly as it was thought to then fly directly to Heaven, where it transformed into an angel that would hold a place in Heaven for the one who had spared its life. This would always have been the best course of action as it was said in the same region that those who killed or even trapped a ladybird were liable to die on the following day.
In several Breton legends, the souls of the dead are trapped in other forms; one story tells of two old oak trees endlessly battling each other, said to have been the souls of a married couple who had continuously fought whilst alive and condemned to suffer this torment until a man had been crushed between them. Another tale tells of two boulders that constantly collide with such fierceness that sparks and stone splinters fly; the souls of two brothers who had relentlessly fought each other while they lived.
Sometimes, it was not just a person’s soul that was considered to live on, wandering in pain upon moor and heath; the corpse too retained a vitality in the grave. If one was foolhardy or stupid enough to enter an ossuary at night, it was not the souls of the dead who would strike you with a mortal blow but the bones themselves which launch at you and tear you apart. Thus not only was the separation between the living and the dead thin, so too was the dual existence enjoyed by the deceased after death.
According to Breton tradition, it was within everyone’s grasp to know whether a soul was damned or not. If the flowers placed on the bed where a dead person lies wither as soon as they are placed there, it is because the soul is damned; if they fade only after a few moments, it is because the soul is in purgatory. Alternatively, it was said to be enough to go, immediately after the burial, to a high place nearest the cemetery. From this vantage point, the name of the recently departed was shouted three times, in three different directions. If the echo prolonged the sound only once, it was because the soul of the deceased was not damned.
The lives of those who inhabited the rural Brittany of yesteryear were guided by the seasons and their precious hours of daylight. For them, the unpredictable year was punctuated by the key dates of the agrarian and liturgical calendar. With harvest well underway here in today’s Brittany, a look at some of the old rituals, beliefs and superstitions once associated with the agricultural cycle here might be timely.
It was important on the last day of April to put a little salt in the four corners of the pastures in order to protect the cattle from evil spells. Likewise, on Palm Sunday, it was necessary to place blessed branches in the sown field in order to prevent witches from casting a spell on the future harvest. To ensure a good crop of apples in the following year, the fruit trees were surrounded with straw on Christmas Eve. While those wishing to ensure success in rearing poultry believed that it was assured if they danced on the farm’s dunghill on Shrove Tuesday. Sheep shorn during the octave of Corpus Christi (a movable feast observed sixty days after Easter whose octave was suppressed by Pope Pius XII in 1955) were believed to die within the year, while the rain that fell during those days was said to kill caterpillars. The rain that fell on May Day was believed especially harmful to the bounty of fruit trees but the appearance of swarms of flies were thought to presage an abundant crop.
Many prohibitions and prescriptions were also linked to the feast days of particular saints. For instance, weak wheat was guaranteed if it was sown on Saint Léger’s Day (2 October) but that sown on the day of Saint Francis (4 October) would grow strong and full. The feast days of Saint Joseph (19 March) and Saint Benedict (21 March) were considered most propitious for sowing parsnips and flax. Various traditions surrounding Saint Peter were known; it was recommended to plant garlic on 15 April, knot it on 29 June and to pluck it on 1 August. While some parishes rang their bells to drive away the witches that were thought to run during the night of the feast of Saint Agatha (5 February), the day was a most auspicious one for sowing leeks. All Saints’ Day (1 November) was regarded as a good day to sow wheat and to gather the final fruits although all the fruits were thought ripe by the feast of Saint Matthew (21 September).
Other favourable days for sowing can be seen in some proverbs that have long fallen out of use but were recorded here between the two World Wars: When the water drips from the horns of the ox, it is time to sow the wheat; When the moon rises before dark, sow your parsnips the next day; When the frog sings in the middle of the day, it is time to sow the barley. Leap years were not forgotten and seem to have been held as an opportunity for crop rotation: On the leap year, the fine man abandons oats and sows flax; Whoever is thin, the following year, abandon flax and sow oats. Alas, only misfortune was said to ensue from work done on a Friday; important tasks such as sowing or ploughing were therefore avoided on that day.
The protection of valuable crops was a constant concern to the rural peasants of Brittany; superstitious ritual and religion were both called upon – together and apart – to support their endless efforts in the fields. Even up until the First World War, people would travel from far afield to buy the ashes of Motreff’s midsummer bonfire whose miraculous properties were said to help corn grow. Some farmers turned three turns around their plough, holding bread, oats and a lighted candle in their hands, before beginning to plough, so that their work would be fruitful. Others, before starting their labours, walked in prayer three times around the parish church to gain the same result.
Perhaps more important than the ox that was used to pull it, the plough itself once held a revered place in the mind of the Breton farmer; it represented an integral part of the fabric of rural life. As the families of a commune were counted by their hearths, so the farms of a district were counted by ploughs. It was also once traditional here to measure areas of arable land by ploughs or ploughing days. Indeed, the use of the term acre as a historical unit of measurement in north-west France and Great Britain is believed to have derived from the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plough in a day.
In Brittany, the early Christian saints could have been said to have lived under the maxim of the cross and the plough; labour and prayer, and many legends associate them with ploughing or preaching to ploughmen. Interestingly, even into the middle of the 8th century, the pagan practice of drawing a furrow around a settlement with a plough, in order to ward off evil spirits, was still prevalent enough in this region to have been proscribed by Charlemagne.
The esteem which our ancestors held for the plough can be glimpsed from the importance once attached to defending its ownership; in medieval Brittany, the theft of a plough was considered a most serious crime and it was an offence specifically highlighted in several old penal codes. Additionally, the plough was sometimes called upon as an arbiter of justice in the Ordeal By Fire. Here, six or nine ploughshares were laid across a fire pit until red-hot and arranged on the ground at equal intervals over a set distance, usually about three metres. In order to prove their innocence, the accused had to walk barefoot over the glowing iron without being injured but, typically, the wounds were bandaged and examined by a priest after three days. If the wounds showed signs of healing, the accused was innocent but condemned if found festering. Thankfully, the practice dropped out of favour towards the end of the 13th century.
It was considered a sign of bad luck to step over a plough in a field and to avert any possible misfortune it was necessary to immediately retrace one’s step backwards over the plough. However, forgetting to sow all of the furrows in a field was perhaps regarded as a worse omen. It was thought that if the unseeded furrow was the longest in the field, death would strike the head of the family; if the furrow was the second longest, the mistress of the house would be claimed; if it was short, one of the children would be taken; if it was unremarkable then one of the farmhands would die.
Other superstitions once surrounded the ox used to pull the plough here. For instance, when a family bought an ox or a cow, it was traditional to keep the rope that had been around the animal’s neck when bought, tied for the first three days at its new home. It was also recommended to feed the animal a little salt with the left hand. Such practices were said to make the animal forget its former pasture. However, when selling an ox or other animal, the seller typically gave the buyer some coins, to bring them good fortune. Even the yoke of an ox was considered special as it was believed a sacrilege to burn the parts of a broken yoke on account of the ox having been sanctified by its presence at the birth of Christ.
Sowing also had its share of superstitions weaved around it. The best and most beautiful wheat was believed assured if the seed had first been stored in the cloth on which the Christmas meal had been served. However, in eastern Brittany, it was said if a farmer looked at the wheat growing in the fields before the first Sunday in March, it would be liable not to grow any further. Wheat was said to grow the most during three nights between the feasts of Saint John (24 June) and Saint Peter (29 June) but to monitor the field during this time was not recommended, for it risked ruining the crop. Before sowing flax, it was advised to send one’s wife to the field on her knees; if she returned with swollen knees, the flax was forecast to make the finest linen. Another curious belief held that one needed to refrain from eating toasted bread after they had sown wheat or they risked reaping a bad harvest.
The end of the main period of spring sowing was marked by the feast of Saint Mark (25 April) and by the three days of prayer preceding the moveable Feast of the Ascension, known as Rogation days. These were focused on imploring for God’s blessing on the crops and the forthcoming harvest. It was customary for the local priest to lead his congregation through the fields of the parish, blessing the sown fields in hopes of a bountiful yield. The Rogation processions here usually started early morning and each day followed the direction of the cardinal points, starting from the church and ending at some wayside calvary or sacred fountain.
The octave of the feast of Pentecost (fifty days after Easter) was another sacred time when the farmers of Brittany believed that the forces of nature were acutely powerful and when the planted fields should not be disturbed by any agricultural work, under penalty of bringing misfortune upon the crop. The power of nature’s influence was profound; sowing was avoided during the period of a waning moon which was considered especially malignant to the health of crops, as was the east wind. However, good harvests were assured if they had been sown during a waxing moon or with a northeast wind.
The fragile boundary between the success or failure of a crop gave rise to a number of curious rituals designed to protect the fields and their precious charge. Many gateways to fields were honoured on May Day with a branch of budding beech in order to ensure a good harvest. In western Brittany, they placed a toad in a jug in the field in the expectation that it would keep mice away. Similarly, it was once customary to place a frog in a new earthen pot and bury it in the middle of a field in the belief that it would prevent birds from eating what was sown there. Such magical practices were noted into the 20th century when witches’ enchantments were often placed in earthenware vases concealed in the ground at the entrance to the fields they had cursed.
Sometimes, the appearance of natural phenomena such as unseasonal weather or crop blight was blamed on the malign influence of the witch. In times past, Breton witches boasted of stopping spring water, diverting the course of rivers, of causing rain to fall only where they wanted and of making fertile land barren. This last curse was often practiced by means of a large stone which was placed in the target field; its presence indicated that the area was cursed and that any who dared to cultivate it were, in their turn, doomed.
Witches were also attributed the power of transferring the harvest from one field to another; a sinister ability that found its way into several legends. Perhaps the most evocative of which told that when witches wanted to appropriate the produce of a field, they ploughed it with a team of toads. Sometimes, the Devil himself was said to drive their plough, the ropes of which were made from quackgrass, the ploughshare fashioned from the horn of a castrated ox. This singular ploughing complete, all the produce of the field passed to the witch and the poor farmer was left with nothing but thorns and thistles.
When flax grew inconsistently on the same piece of land, some people confidently asserted that the field, seemingly without division, belonged to two distinct masters, even if the boundary stone could not be seen. The reason one farmer’s efforts were favoured over his neighbour was ascribed to his having invoked the influence of Saint Genevieve in a rather lengthy but particularly mean-spirited and self-righteous prayer. To produce its effect, this prayer was recited when the last handful of linseed was sown and the sign of the cross scored on the last furrow. Another flax-related practice noted here was the custom of singing whilst harvesting it; said to prevent the spinners falling asleep while spinning it.
Harvest was once marked by certain traditional rites which effectively disappeared here in the middle of the last century. In many areas, before leaving for the first gathering, the family and neighbours who were to assist with the labour assembled at daybreak in the farmyard and the head of the household would recite a short prayer to ask for God’s blessing on the tools and the work that was about to require them. Before harvesting a field, everyone recited the Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers and a De Profundis for all those who had worked the field in the past. Any man, the head of the family or a labourer, could ceremoniously cut the first sheaf but never a woman. The position of lead reaper was usually given to the strongest son but the role was mostly surrendered, out of familial deference, to the head of the family.
When the field had been cleared, one of the workers, usually the eldest man present, recited: “Doue bardon an anaon” (May God forgive the dead), to which the others responded “Amen”. It is worth noting that a small area of each field was never cultivated or cleared; it was believed to be a home for the dead undertaking their penance. On the party’s return to the farmyard at sunset, the head of the household again led a short prayer that again included Pater Noster, Ave Maria and De Profundis. Traditionally, when the last sheaf was tied, a cross made of strands of straw was placed upon it.
As soon as the wheat was reaped, it was threshed. The last cart from the field was usually abundantly garlanded as was the ox or horse pulling it. The children of the neighbourhood, carrying bouquets of flowers, were perched on the load, often ringing little bells while the adults sang during the journey back to the farm. The following days were then devoted to threshing; a process done outside and led by the head of the household. When the last ears had been threshed, the eldest man present would again implore for God’s forgiveness of the dead. The grand communal meal to celebrate the end of threshing was also concluded with a prayer for the dead, before the rest of the night was given over to music and dancing. Saint Michael’s Day (29 September) was considered the close of harvest and it was also the date when rental leases ended.
Perhaps the largest number of crop-related superstitions here once surrounded wheat and it’s most popular by-product, bread. If, when removed from the oven, a loaf of bread was found to have torn during baking, it announced a wedding was near. If the bread had completely split and separated into two or three pieces, only misfortune could follow; the death of a loved one was imminent. Pieces of bread were also the divinatory medium used when consulting several oracular fountains here that were visited to answer questions of marriage, fidelity or even death. Similar rituals involving bread also took place in less sacred settings. For instance, in the west of Brittany it was customary at New Year to butter as many pieces of bread as there were members of the household. The head of the family would then name each person and toss the bread into the air; whoever’s bread landed on the buttered side was said to die within the year.
Another New Year’s custom thought to allow one to learn the secrets of the forthcoming year called for the curious to stare into a cold bread oven and listen carefully to the noises they heard. More prosaically, if a knife that had been inserted for a few hours into a fresh loaf on New Year’s Eve was withdrawn and found to have crumbs attached to it, a rainy year ahead was forecast but a year of famine could be expected if the withdrawn blade was wet.
The prophetic qualities of bread were also noted in the practice of collecting, without being seen, the pieces of bread left by the guests of a wedding dinner; the person whose morsel first sprouted mould was thought the first to die. The behaviour of five balls of fresh bread thrown upon a table was also said to provide a sure answer to any question posed; it was held to be an affirmative response only if they fell in the shape of a cross. Dumplings and wheat grains were also said to have been equally effective.
Other days were considered propitious in harnessing the supernatural power of wheat. If a pyramid of flour created on the night of Saint Andrew (30 November) had collapsed by the morning, death was near. Similarly, if a group of people prepared balls of dough on the night of Saint Hervé (17 June) and left them outside all night, in the morning, the dumpling without any cracks was said to belong to one who had not long left to live.
It was believed to invite misfortune if a loaf of bread was placed upside down on the table, for it had not been earned by lying on one’s back. Children were told that if the bread that they took from their mother broke in their hands, it was because they had neglected their prayers; if the knife used to cut the bread did not cut straight, it was because they had lied. However, a more sinister superstition said that if the bread on the table was completely consumed by a house fire, the family’s home would soon be destroyed by a new, more powerful, conflagration.
Bread, as well as bran and straw, was also the medium once said to have been most effective in locating the bodies of those who had drowned. A loaf, containing either a lighted candle or bearing the name of the missing person, was placed on the water and abandoned to the current. Its movements were carefully watched for the body of the drowned was thought to lie very close to where the floating loaf stopped. Curiously, in the mid-19th century, in some of the communes surrounding the town of Dinan, it was noted that pieces of blessed bread were often placed in the coffin of the deceased.
Grains of wheat were once used, with much mystic ritual, in two areas of most concern to the average Breton peasant; to foretell the future and to expel evil spirits thought to cause bad health. The magical quality of this marvellous seed can also be noted in two practices separated by a thousand years. In the late-19th century, a pig’s bladder stuffed with straw and nine grains of wheat was hung at home to protect the family against the malice of the korrigans, while in the mid-8th century, the grains were burned where a man had died, to help guarantee the health of the living.
Straw was also not without its peculiarities here. If after having swept the house thoroughly, a straw was found on the floor, it was a sure sign of impending visitors. If one encountered two pieces of straw shaped in the form of a cross, it was seen as an invitation to retrace one’s steps; if the omen was ignored, they could expect another cross would soon stand over their grave. If a bale of straw fell from the attic for no good reason, it was because the ghosts of the dead had been lying upon it. If a hen, after getting entangled in straw, had a piece of it stuck to its tail, it was a sign of impending mourning for the household; if the straw bore a spur, it was the death of a young man that was announced.
One popular use for straw, noted here in the early-19th century, was to aid in the identification of a thief. Each suspect in the household was presented with straw pieces of the same length which were then re-examined some twenty minutes later; that held by the guilty party was thought sure to have lengthened. A more serious application of the straw can perhaps be seen in the text of the 12th century French tale, Roman de Renart, which shows that the gift and acceptance of straw symbolised a bargain had been struck. The ritual of picking up and proffering the straw was a token of free-will publicly declared. Likewise, a bargain was cancelled by breaking a straw; it symbolically broke the agreement. The practice was noted in feudal Normandy, where to break a straw, was to signify a repudiation of service between lord and vassal. While I have yet to encounter any written evidence that the same practice prevailed here, it is more than likely. One curious practice that was noted this side of the border was a declaration of war made by casting a handful of gathered and lit straw to the winds.
The folk medicine of Brittany also utilised straw in its healing treatments. Following the belief that disease could be transferred from the patient into another being or even inanimate object, people would sometimes bind themselves to a tree with a tie of straw in hopes of passing their fever. However, it was more typical for the patient to visit a tree before breakfast and bind a tie of straw that had been in contact with the disease onto the tree, at the height of the sick part of their body. The sickness was said to ease as the straw tie rotted but only if a certain charm had also been uttered and the bark of the tree bitten. It was also essential that no part of the ceremony had been witnessed by another. Children were warned against removing these straw girdles for fear that they might contract the disease themselves. Interestingly, in southern Brittany, the belief that a tree whose trunk was tied with a straw rope would bear better fruit was also noted in the 19th century.
It was once a widely accepted belief here that God had created certain plants for the benefit of humanity, particularly rye, wheat, oats and carrots. Other plants were traditionally ascribed to the Devil, namely buckwheat, dodder, quackgrass and ryegrass. In parts of Brittany, farmers’ harvesting buckwheat would often leave a few sheaves uncut in the field or else throw several handfuls into the ditches bordering the fields where it had grown; this was the Devil’s share. However, this practice is likely one of great antiquity that was, at one time, given a Christianised gloss.
In all likelihood, the offering was originally addressed to the spirits of the dead believed to reside there. We can witness this in the tradition of planting an evergreen shrub, such as boxwood or laurel, in a field dedicated to growing crops. These plants were believed to be one of the preferred abodes for the souls of the dead; to plant a branch of it was therefore to involve the beneficial influence of the spirits of one’s ancestors in the fertility of the land. In Brittany, the dead were never far removed from the living.
In the west of Brittany, when the mysterious glow of a burning torch seemed to dance on the moor at night, it was said that it was the phantom of the Ligueur, the brigand La Fontenelle who, during the Wars of Religion, ravaged the land, indiscriminately massacring thousands of innocents and leaving intolerable misery in his wake. In some parishes wasted by him, where the population had numbered a thousand adults, he reduced it to a dozen.
For almost the last forty years of the 16th century, France was embroiled in a series of bloody wars of religion that pitted the Roman Catholic majority against their Protestant neighbours. The eight wars witnessed many ebbs and flows as religious freedoms were granted and then crushed while powerful families vied for dominance. Sadly, this time was marked by the most brutal atrocities; slaughter was almost commonplace. The spate of killings now known as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 saw the murder of key Protestant leaders and a five-day killing spree that left 4,000 dead and claimed an additional 10,000 victims by that autumn alone. Although some estimate the death toll that summer was three times as high.
Even by the standards of the time, which tolerated the killing of resistant civilians, the level of barbarity shown was extreme, especially considering this was not an official war. The forces of the king and those organised under the banner of the Catholic League were but two of many protagonists; a great deal of slaughter was wrought by civilian mobs, sometimes organized into local religious associations whose activities were directed by local notables such as militia leaders or magistrates.
It is worth noting that of the almost sixty massacres recorded between 1559 and 1571 in Jean Crespin’s History of the Martyrs (1619) none occurred in Brittany where Protestants were a tiny minority and its Catholic governor, the Duke of Etampes, pursued a policy of moderation that generally prevented outbreaks of sectarian violence.
Across France, many people, peasants and nobles alike, took advantage of the breakdown in law and order to settle old scores or to simply rob and kill with impunity. The people took it upon themselves to reinstate burning at the stake; a punishment no longer applied by the state. The practice of disfiguring the bodies of the dead seems to have been quite widespread. In Orange, in 1562, women’s bodies were exposed naked “with ox horns, stones or wooden stakes inserted into the unmentionable places of their bodies.” The corpses were further dehumanized by being covered in filth and excrement and dragged through the streets like animals to press home that these heretics were separate from Divine creation. Acts of depravity such as tearing out the eyes or cutting off the nose and lips were justified as merciful acts designed to prepare the victims for the torments of Hell.
In 1584, after a few years of uneasy truce, the Protestant leader Henri of Navarre became heir to the French throne. To oppose his candidature, many Catholic nobles, with the full support of the Church, formed a group known as the Catholic League who immediately pressed King Henri III into refuting the political status of Protestants and giving them an ultimatum of six months to choose between abjuration or exile.
While large numbers of Protestants did leave France, many stayed; taking comfort from the fact that Henri of Navarre remained in control of the southern provinces. The Catholic League’s dissatisfaction with Henri III’s failure to drive the Protestants out of France saw them push for his deposition; a state of affairs that saw the Catholic King Henri III align himself with his Protestant cousin, Henri of Navarre, against the League at the end of 1588. The situation swiftly spiralled into war with the League gaining support from Spain and the Royalists backing from England.
The assassination of the leader of the League on 23 December 1588 saw the northern provinces held by them rise up against Henri III who was, in turn, assassinated on 1 August 1589. Thus, Henri of Navarre became King Henri IV but his power did not extend into the north and east of the country; the king therefore had to conquer his new kingdom.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Mercoeur, whom Henry III, his brother-in-law, had made governor of Brittany in 1582, was manoeuvring to carve out an independent domain in this staunchly Catholic province that had only been annexed by the French crown less than fifty years earlier. Appointing himself leader of the Catholic League of Brittany, he invoked the hereditary rights of his wife, the Duchess of Penthièvre, a descendant of the dukes of Brittany and heiress of the Blois claim to the duchy. Establishing a government at Nantes, he allied himself with the king of Spain, who sent thousands of troops to his aid. However, the city of Rennes, home to the Parliament of Brittany, remained loyal to the crown and a new governor, the Prince of Dombes, was appointed by the king.
The bloody year marked by the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre also saw the birth of Guy Éder de la Haye de Beaumanoir, Baron de La Fontenelle; a name forever tainted with the blood of innocents and synonymous with slaughter. Born into a noble Breton family near Saint-Nicolas du Pelem in 1572, he spent his childhood at the family estate outside the nearby town of Quintin. As the second son, he might have been expected to pursue a career in the Church or military and, in 1587, he was sent to study in Paris but within two years he sold his books in order to purchase a dagger and sword. However, his intention to join the Catholic forces of the Duke of Mayenne in Orleans was thwarted when he was robbed en route and this humiliation seems to have spurred his return home to Brittany.
La Fontenelle now placed himself in the service of the Duke of Mercoeur and gradually gathered around him a troop of men that would eventually grow to some 400 riders and sometimes as many as 2,000 men-at-arms: “a collection of adventurers, men of sackcloth and rope, from all countries and ready for any task, on the sole condition of sharing the plunder.” Joséphine Baudry in La Fontenelle, the League and Brigandage in Lower Brittany (1920) talks of “bands of men marching without discipline, under the orders of their captains who waged war on their own account. These independent leaders rallied to their party headquarters only in important circumstances, when it was necessary to besiege a town or obtain a position, with a view to advantageous expedition, prohibited on their own initiative.”
In 1590, he sacked the castle of Kersaliou in Pommerit-Jaudy, which he made his headquarters and from where he launched several raids across the northern diocese of Tréguier. His subsequent capture of the castle of Pludual helped consolidate his northern powerbase and marked the beginning of his reign of terror. A contemporary account noted that his troop: “exercised all the cruelties that rope, iron and fire were able to administer to them to ransom the peasant labourers and innocent merchants of the country, and after having miserably tormented and embarrassed them in order to extort their money; looted, burned their houses and any furniture that they could not take away. Finally, he took the cattle, even the pigs and not content with so many outrages, raped women and girls, regardless of age.”
Emboldened, La Fontenelle began raiding settlements further south, sacking the League-held town of Châteauneuf-du-Faou. The deputies of the town declared that “he had plundered, ravaged and killed our people with great violence, with many other insolent cruelties committed by him and his men, which our greatest enemies would not have wanted to commit.” Hearing that the townsfolk were going to file complaints against him at the Assembly of States of the League in Vannes, La Fontenelle stormed into the meeting of Deputies on 20 March 1592, threatening to cut the throats of any who might dare speak against him.
Mercoeur had him arrested but quickly released him on condition that he would bring his men to help relieve the League stronghold of Craon, besieged by the Prince of Dombes. Mercoeur with La Fontenelle and their Spanish allies successfully lifted the siege, the besiegers were routed and, unable to hire any cart animals, were forced to abandon their supplies, ammunition and artillery. However, it was after this event that many in the French camp started to worry that the Spaniards were behaving like conquerors, refusing to recognize any authority other than their own king.
Later that year, under the command of Mercoeur, La Fontenelle participated in the sacking of the north coast city of Tréguier and the capture of the powerful castle of Coatfrec in Ploubezre but his efforts to take the town of Guingamp were repulsed. His lair at Coatfrec was itself successfully besieged by the king’s forces during the following spring. Having surrendered the castle, La Fontenelle’s life was spared on condition that he accepted banishment from Brittany; terms he accepted but had no intention of honouring.
Instead, in May 1593, he relocated 50km south to the town of Carhaix and established his new garrison in the Church of Saint-Trémeur whose high tower provided him with a commanding observatory. Although it cannot be seen from Carhaix, La Fontenelle now fixed his gaze upon Granec castle, one of the newest and richest in Brittany, just 13km to the west. The castle was owned by a prominent supporter of the League and La Fontenelle knew that he was not strong enough to take it by force and so he adopted a subterfuge; he had some of his men pretend to be reinforcements sent from the governor of Morlaix to aid in the castle’s defence. The ruse worked; the drawbridge was opened and the castle gained without a shot being fired in early July.
In support of their deposed lord, the peasants of the surrounding parishes took advantage of La Fontenelle’s absence raiding Morlaix and laid siege to the castle. However, a little before dawn on the eighth day, La Fontenelle and about sixty riders descended upon the poorly constructed and guarded entrenchments; a massacre ensued, Canon Jean Moreau in his Memoirs of the Wars of the League in Brittany (1836) tells that he “made a carnage of seven to eight hundred and more, not ceasing to pursue them and killing for more than an hour.” Not content with such butchery, La Fontenelle determined to insult the dead by denying them the grace of a Christian burial.
According to Moreau: “The cruelty of this barbarian was so great that he did not allow the relatives of the slain to come and collect their bodies and recognize their dead. He had them guarded at night to prevent anyone from performing the last rites so that they remained corrupt on the face of the earth. One day, walking in the castle’s corridors, the visiting lord of Pratmaria asked La Fontenelle: How can you stand the stench of those rotten corpses? He replied that the smell of dead enemies was so sweet! It was a great pity to see these poor people thus massacred, who rotted and were eaten by dogs and wolves because if any relatives came at night to take away the body of a loved one, they were themselves killed on the spot.”
With his troop now counting almost a thousand men, La Fontenelle strengthened Granec’s defences with bigger embankments of compacted earth, rocks and tree trunks. From this lair, he devastated large swathes of western Brittany. Any pretence of a religious mission was now gone; he had become Ar Bleiz, the wolf, renowned and feared across the land for his cunning and cruelty.
Having taken the castle at Corlay at the end of 1593, the towns of Chateaulin, Landerneau, Le Faou, Locronan, Morlaix, Quintin and the outskirts of Quimper all felt the rage of his raids; even the Abbey of Langonnet was plundered. Tired of his excesses, the Duke of Mercoeur captured and destroyed Granec castle in 1594 but La Fontenelle simply shifted his base of operations permanently to Corlay and it was here, in June of that year, that he was injured when part of the first floor collapsed; he broke a leg and retained a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. In early 1595, Corlay was besieged by the king’s forces, La Fontenelle had hoped to hold out until the arrival of a Spanish relief force but he capitulated after a month and was able to make his way 40km south to Priziac where he promptly plundered two of the neighbourhood’s castles.
In his quest for a stronger base, La Fontenelle set his sights on Île Tristan, a small island located under 500m off the west coast port of Douarnenez which is only accessible at low-tide. He attacked on 15 May 1595 and captured the island’s governor as well as a number of wealthy merchants that he subsequently released against high ransoms. After having sacked and looted Douarnenez, he made those inhabitants, still living, demolish the houses of the town to use the stone to fortify the island and its garrison of over 700 men.
Exasperated by the ravages of La Fontenelle, the people of the neighbouring parishes appealed to the local lord for aid and he duly gathered together a force of almost 2,000 men, mostly farmhands and labourers with no military experience. Sadly, the result was predictable; La Fontenelle, accompanied by 400 horsemen, immediately rode out to confront this peasant army, killing approximately 1,500 of them and capturing the Count of Granec, who he released against a considerable ransom.
La Fontenelle now turned his attentions to the prosperous south coast town of Penmarc’h. This was then a thriving place, described as “the richest borough of Brittany,” able to muster 2,500 arquebusiers and one that was proactive in preparing to face La Fontenelle’s designs. The townsfolk had prepared two defensive bastions; one in the church of Tréoultré, the other in a building in Kerity, both surrounded with entrenchments and palisades. In a gesture of incredible naivety, the town allowed La Fontenelle to enter under a flag of friendship. Having made careful note of the town’s inner defences, he returned and swiftly sacked the city, massacring more than 3,000 inhabitants, although one contemporary put the figure closer to 5,000. All accounts agree that the most vicious slaughter took place inside the church.
The then governor of Brest noted that, having seized Penmarc’h: “La Fontenelle had dishonoured all the women and girls, from the age of seventeen, whom he had killed, in torment. Also, more than 5,000 peasants and that he had set fire to more than 2,000 houses, looted and carried away all the furniture, of whatever kind.” To carry away this immense booty, La Fontenelle seized the boats moored in the harbour; some 300 vessels of all sizes were loaded with the town’s wealth and transported around the coast to Île Tristan. The best of these vessels subsequently constituted his maritime force and allowed him to scourge the sea as effectively as he did the land.
In September 1595, the inhabitants of Pont-Croix, an important regional centre, learned that La Fontenelle had cast his designs upon them. With no town walls to defend, the people decided to fortify the strongest building in the town, the church, to which most retreated. Unfortunately, their makeshift barricades and trenches were swiftly overcome by the brigands who turned their full attention to the church which eventually fell to them a few hours later. The people who had taken refuge inside the church did not have enough ammunition to keep so many attackers at bay and so, under the leadership of a Captain Villerouault, withdrew into the tower.
Seeing wave after wave of his attacks repulsed, La Fontenelle decided to burn out the defenders but neither fire nor smoke softened their resolve. Finally, he swore a solemn oath that their lives would be spared if they would but quit the tower and abandon the town’s spoils, collected there, to his men. The defenders accepted his terms but as the last regained the floor of the church, La Fontenelle immediately ordered that they “should be hanged instantly but before executing the command he wanted his cruel infidelity to be accompanied by an act without comparison, more villainous and reproachful than the preceding ones. That is he made his soldiers violate publicly and in in the middle of the street, in front of Villerouault her husband, the Lady of Kerbullic.”
It is said that some 3,000 people were killed in the town and its surrounding fields that afternoon but the atrocities committed by La Fontenelle after the massacre of Pont-Croix almost defy description. Canon Moreau noted: “This infamous violence in the person of a bridesmaid thus perpetrated, the husband was hanged and a few others. The rest of those who fell into his hands were either killed or taken prisoner to Île Tristan where their condition was much worse than if they had been killed like the others. Some died miserably in foul dungeons and latrines, and after an infinite number of tortures that were done to them each day, sometimes making them sit on a bare tripod which burned them to the bones, sometimes, in the heart of winter and in the greatest cold, putting them naked inside pipes full of frozen water.
And those who had some means of paying the ransom he demanded, yet being outside, could hardly live for the great torments they had endured. Very few escaped from it that they did not die in prison if they remained there three or four days, for they were so pressed in numbers that they could not stir and had nothing else to do but rest on their excrement, where they very often soaked to the knees, and had no other burial after death than the belly of the fish; for as soon as they were dead, their fellow prisoners were ordered to throw them into the sea, if better not to let the bodies rot among them.”
Sometime in 1595, La Fontenelle called upon the Lord of Mézarnou at his castle in Plounéventer and it is said that this visit ended rather unconventionally with the abduction of his ten year old step-daughter, a very wealthy heiress named Marie Le Chevoir de Coadezlan.
In October 1595, La Fontenelle made plans to take the south coast city of Quimper but was captured by the king’s forces. Thinking the absence of their talismanic leader might weaken the resolve of his men, the king’s forces besieged Île Tristan but faced with determined resistance, the siege was abandoned after only six weeks. Released for ransom at the end of April 1596, La Fontenelle returned to his island fortress, married his captive heiress upon her eleventh birthday and resumed his plundering activities.
On 16 May, the day of the May Fair, the festivities in the north coast town of Lannion were shattered by the appearance of La Fontenelle and seventy armed riders who “caused great damage and ruined so much of the town.” This once fine city was sacked four times during the Wars of Religion: in 1590 by the Duke of Mercoeur, by La Fontenelle in 1593 and 1596, finally in 1598 by the king’s troops.
It seems that the brigand’s desire for blood and plunder was matched only by his ambition, for in 1597, he attempted to take the port of Brest with seven warships and tried to capture Quimper twice; his second assault, a land and amphibious operation, might even have succeeded had his men kept their nerve. By the time that the blood had dried on his sacking of the town of Ploumilliau at the end of October 1597, the broader political situation had changed markedly in Brittany.
Following the recapture of Amiens from Spanish forces at the end of September 1597, King Henri IV, now a confirmed Roman Catholic, turned to the situation in Brittany and led his army against Mercoeur in early 1598. With Spanish support effectively ended, Mercoeur made his submission before the king on 20 March 1598, the last leader of the League to do so. With peace assured, the king triumphantly entered Nantes where, on 30 April 1598, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing Protestants limited civil tolerance of worship.
One of the clauses of the Edict ordered “that the memory of everything which has occurred between one side and the other shall remain extinguished and suppressed as though they had never happened.” For La Fontenelle, the peace concluded between Mercoeur and the king could not have been more generous; he and his men were absolved of their crimes, his debts were cancelled and he received a cash reward in recognition of his service as well as the post of Governor of Île Tristan. However, the fort on the island was dismantled by order of the king in 1599 and La Fontenelle returned to the family estates near Quintin with his child bride.
His quiet life as a country squire was interrupted by accusations of having participated in the Duke of Biron’s intrigue with the Spanish and of having conspired to sell Île Tristan to them. Captured on Île Bréhat, he was imprisoned in Paris but subsequently pardoned by King Henri IV. No sooner was the ink dry on his release papers than the family of Villerouault filed a complaint for the murders in Pont-Croix. The Parliament of Paris was persuaded to look again at his dealings with the Spanish but short of convincing evidence, invoked his former crimes.
He was re-arrested on 10 September, beside the abduction of Marie Le Chevoir, he was charged with ordering the public rape of Villerouault’s wife, in the presence of her husband and the latter’s subsequent hanging before the eyes of his wife. Evidence was also heard that he had caused two prisoners to die; one being starved to death and the other being force-fed, just to test which would be the first to die. He was convicted of the crime of lèse-majesté and “for conspiracies, betrayals and enterprises against the King, his State and the public good”.
On 27 September 1602, after having been applied to the torture of the preliminary question, to have any accomplices denounced prior to execution, La Fontenelle was broken upon the wheel in the Place de Grève in Paris, where he is reported to have languished for about ninety minutes. The executioner then cut off his head which was brought back to Brittany and exhibited on the Porte Toussaint in Rennes until it was stolen by unknown friends on 8 November. His foul memory, fuelled by his horrific exploits, would long survive in the popular imagination and legends of Brittany.
A terrifying cacophony of noise crashes across the night sky; demonic howls hang on the wind and blast through the dark forest; deep thunder rumbles across the moorland and lightening streaks across the bruised purple sky. Children cower and hide in fear, while their parents hurriedly murmur a quiet prayer; it is the passing of the dreaded Fantastic Hunt.
In Brittany, several superstitions once attributed marvellous origins to the strange noises heard on the wind during the dead of night. Such noises, reverberated, amplified and distorted by fear or lack of understanding, were believed by some to have been produced by supernatural hunts from the Otherworld or armies of the dead in the throes of some great battle that traversed the night sky.
Belief in such Fantastic or Wild Hunts was fairly widespread throughout western Europe during the Middle Ages; these chases usually took place in the sky but in some areas, locals believed that the ancient forests were the eternal hunting grounds of choice. In some traditions here, the hunt was led by the Devil, driving his demons and hell hounds across the night sky in pursuit of their prey but other hunt leaders were also known.
In eastern Brittany and along the border with Normandy, the most renowned hunt leader was a mysterious character known as Hellequin. Folklorists continue to debate the nature and origins of this character but many regard it as a development of the legend of Herla, a legendary king of the ancient Britons who struck a bad deal with a dwarf king. According to a 12th century account, a dwarf king with an enormous head, long red beard and hairy body that degenerated into goat’s feet invited himself to Herla’s wedding and, in exchange, proffered an invitation to attend his own the following year.
A year later, Herla and his retinue were led to the underground domain of the dwarf where they enjoyed three days of feasting and, at parting, received generous gifts of horses, dogs and hawks. In bidding farewell, the dwarf king gave Herla a final gift; a small bloodhound, to be carried in arms, strictly forbidding any of Herla’s company to dismount before the dog should leap from its bearer. Returning to daylight and his own lands, Herla asked a passing shepherd for news of his queen but the man could barely understand him for he was a Saxon and they had driven out the natives over two hundred years before.
King Herla could scarcely believe so much time had passed and some of his men dismounted in wonder, only to be immediately turned to dust. Recalling the words of the dwarf king, Herla instructed his men not to touch the earth before the dog did but the dog never descended. King and company were thus condemned to eternal wandering, making mad marches without stay or rest.
In the same region, some Fantastic Hunts were said to be accompanied by the spirits of priests and nuns who, having loved each other whilst alive, had died without having atoned for their sin and were condemned to run for eternity, pursued through the air by troops of demons and the damned. Other traditions claimed that the hunts marked the passage of demons carrying through the air the bodies of the damned, or that the hunt was crossing the sky in search of those about to die.
It was believed that the characters who participated in the Fantastic Hunts did so to expiate sacrilegious acts or, more rarely, to atone for their cruel behaviour in life. The infernal hunters were most often said to be those men who, in life, had indulged their love of hunting to the extent of violating the laws of the Church to satisfy their passion during a day consecrated to the Lord. They were punished where they had sinned and were condemned to relentlessly pursue, until the Day of Judgement, a prey that, according to some accounts, they would never catch. However, several of these hunts were said not to pursue imaginary game; some tales tell of men misfortunate enough to ask for a share of the prize only to be thrown severed limbs or bodies torn from the grave.
The contours of the character of Hellequin were, perhaps deliberately, poorly defined but he was predominantly presented as the leader of a fierce retinue; a feudal lord at the head of his troop of hunters. Hellequin presents an appropriately shadowy figure for a shadowy theme that draws heavily on the motif of the eternal wanderer that fired the medieval imagination. The infernal interpretation of the Fantastic Hunt was accentuated quite markedly in the 13th century by clerics trying to recover the popular oral traditions and overlay them with Christian moralising. Thus, around 1250, Vincent de Beauvais affirmed that the participants in Hellequin’s Hunt expiated their sins during their night rides and it was this theme that ultimately dominated all others.
Over time, literature presented Hellequin as a demon of the mysteries, eventually morphing him into the character of the trickster, Harlequin. Given its vagueness, the character of Hellequin readily merged with those of other hunt leaders; some were known in only a relatively small corner of Brittany but others, like King Arthur, were renowned across the Celtic lands.
King Arthur’s representation as the eternal hunter here is as vague and fluctuating as that of Hellequin but his presence leading the Fantastic Hunt has been attested as early as the first mentions of Hellequin. According to the 12th century writings of Gervais of Tilbury; “the foresters of Britain and Brittany say that they often see, on certain days in the first part of the night, when the full moon shines, a company of knights who hunt amidst the clamour of dogs and horns. To those who question them, they answer that they are from Arthur’s court.”
There are several legends that try to explain why the beloved King Arthur leads the Fantastic Hunt. One tells that he was attending mass one Sunday when he heard the sound of a hunt and his pack of dogs barking furiously nearby. Listening only to his passion for hunting and without waiting for the divine service to conclude, the king left the church to take part in the hunt. As punishment for his sacrilege, God condemned him to hunt, without rest or satisfaction, until the Day of Judgement.
A similar tale says that Arthur was celebrating mass on Easter Day when at the moment of the consecration he heard the fury of his dogs who had thrown a boar. He immediately left the church but was still upon the threshold when a sudden whirlwind carried him into the air, along with his pack of hounds and all his retinue. Since that time, he has been hunting in the air, destined to catch no game; cursed to lead an unfinished hunt until Judgement Day.
In some parts of the region, Arthur’s damnation is due to the fact that, one day, whilst hunting, he encountered a priest who carried blessed viaticum. Too focused on the hunt, the king failed to stop and show due respect to the holy Host. Other variants to the legend are known which say Arthur had the temerity to push a priest aside or that he blasphemed while hunting a hare and that it was a marvellous white stag that he was cursed to pursue but never to catch.
Some believed that Arthur’s Hunt only passed as the major Church festivals, especially Easter, approached. Others, that the sounds of his hunt were actually made by wild cats on their way to attend a Sabbath. The diabolical association with Arthur’s Hunt was also noted around Saint-Malo where it was said that the hunt claimed the lives of all the people and domestic animals that were in its path; only wild beasts were safe from its clutches.
In all the legends surrounding Arthur’s Hunt, it is always some act of religious sacrilege which caused his damnation. His more famous roles as king and warrior have no bearing on his fate; the figure of the Arthur the hunter takes precedence. Driving home the message that, with its violence and fury, the thrill of the hunt debased man by returning him to a lower, wilder version of himself and if such lapses could happen to a man as great as Arthur then all men were vulnerable to the eternal tortures of Hell.
Arthur was not the only king to be found leading Fantastic Hunts in Brittany. In the south-east of the region, a king named David was said to haunt the forest of Retz, leading King David’s Hunt. Local legend tells that David was doubly cursed; not only did he hunt every Sunday during high mass but he was also hard on his tenants whose entreaties and complaints he ignored. Since the day he and his entire revenue drowned whilst in pursuit of a deer, the king and his party was said to return at night to resume their fruitless chase.
There are examples of other, very localised, traditions surrounding the characters who once led Fantastic Hunts here. South of Janzé, the forest of Teillay was held to be the scene of a Fantastic Hunt led by the ghost of the Lord of Coetenfao; a Huguenot nobleman renowned for his cruel nature and dissolute lifestyle. Said to have terrorised the peasants of Brittany while he lived, his damned soul continued to spread fear with the infernal hunts he had been condemned to lead as punishment for his sins. The spectral lord was reported on foot, on horseback and even riding a carriage, driving on his baying hounds and often passing them like lightning. Sometimes, only the cry of his voice or the sounds of his horse were heard.
Just 35km south, the forest of Gâvre was, in the early 19th century, reputedly the home of a flaming-eyed giant known as the Mau Piqueur who was typically reported to have held an enormous black dog on a chain that appeared to be searching for a scent to follow. The giant’s appearance was said to herald the approach of the great hunt of the reprobates and was taken as a very bad omen, for whoever encountered the hunt was thought certain to die.
A little over the border in neighbouring Normandy, tradition attests to a Fantastic Hunt in which it was the victim rather than the villain who suffered the torment of damnation: the ghost of another protestant noble, the Baron of Hertré, was said to hunt in the forest of Perseigne at night, accompanied by the cries of his huntsmen and the barking of their dogs. The hunt was said to have always headed towards but never reached, the village of La Fresnaye; the site of his murder.
Anyone finding themselves in the path of the Fantastic Hunt risked serious danger; that of being reduced to prey, being taken or even slain. Certain rituals were believed to protect those unfortunate enough to find themselves outside during the passage of the hunt. It was thought that the hunt could not enter a circle drawn by a human hand and so, to be preserved from its evil, it was recommended to draw a circle around yourself with a stick or some other object. Cutting the air around you with any object made of plain iron was said to be the best way to protect oneself from the dangers posed by the Fantastic Hunts of the forest.
In Brittany, there is little surviving evidence to suggest that the notion of the Fantastic Hunt merged with a similar tradition noted elsewhere in Europe; that of the army of the dead. This manifestation is related to the theme of the eternal battle and the belief that those who fell in battle were not fully dead and so, returned at night to continue their combat. While both concepts share some common characteristics, such as being composed of the ghosts of the damned, condemned for eternity. The army of the dead presented a warlike phenomenon, generally a battle or a movement of troops on land or across the sky. Several examples of such ghostly battles, ranging from those first fought during the Hundred Years War to the Revolution, were noted across Brittany but all remained firmly aground.
The Bretons once believed that death roamed at night, gathering souls to guide towards the Otherworld that were collected and transported on a cart with creaking axles. Belief in the Kar ann Ankou or Death’s Chariot was quite widespread even into the late 19th century but interestingly, isolated pockets in both the east and west of the region held the belief that this chariot was not confined to the land but could fly into the air and cross the night sky where it was sometimes said to have been drawn by birds, swift as the wind.
Another old belief here held that children who died without baptism roamed the air as birds. Forever wailing plaintive cries, they were doomed to roam the skies until the Day of Judgement when they would fly directly to Heaven. However, another legend tells that the souls of unbaptized infants were drawn into the air by packs of dogs who, driven by the Devil, chased them across the night sky. It is worth noting that belief in the transmigration of the soul was noted in the Celts of antiquity and many legends from across the Celtic world feature human characters reborn as birds after death.
Perhaps the notion of fantastic hunts once formed part of the wider tradition of death’s chariot and other legends of night flights and soul hunters here; all vestiges of ancient beliefs that the Church was able to re-paint with a Christian veneer but never completely supplant.
By fighting against the confused beliefs related to Fantastic Hunts and applying Christian motifs to them, the Church likely helped unify them and give them a form and consistency that they probably did not originally possess; that of the cursed hunter. If the popular folklore of the time spoke of great kings such as Hellequin or Arthur who had passed to become kings of the dead, the clerics sought to ensure that people grasped that glory was only found through salvation and the two kings of yore were now simply desperate souls trapped in Purgatory.
The nocturnal aspect of these hunts struck a chord in the popular imagination because if the land was invisible under its cloak of darkness, it was not necessarily silent. With no mountains to speak of, any noise here carried on the wind for miles; strange sounds became suspicious even fearful. Moreover, it was accepted that the night was reserved for the dead and the ghosts of the damned. The Fantastic Hunt therefore became a frightening image designed to remind people to resist sin in order to evade Hell and its demons.
One cursed hunter that became popularly known across Brittany might easily have stepped directly from the Sunday sermon into the popular imagination; the 8th century saint, Hubert. A nobleman who was said to have devoted his life to hunting but who renounced the chase in order to consecrate himself to the service of God after having encountered a white stag, carrying a luminous cross between its antlers, while hunting on Good Friday. In renouncing the hunt, Saint Hubert’s behaviour was evoked to encourage people to act with discernment and to temper their passion for hunting.
Although the story of Saint Hubert is strongly influenced by the earlier legend of the 2nd century Saint Eustace and his miraculous stag, its popularity in the 15th century saw Hubert supplant Eustace as the patron saint of hunters. This was likely also the time when the contrite hunter was named as leader of a Fantastic Hunt which he was condemned to ride with until the Day of Judgment, for having once been too devoted to hunting in his life. The idea clearly took hold because Pierre Mathieu’s History of France and Memorable Events (1605) mentions only Saint Hubert’s Hunt in his discussion of marvels such as Fantastic Hunts.
In addition to hunting, Saint Hubert was, for centuries, popularly invoked to protect against or cure rabies. While rabies may have claimed fewer victims than other diseases such as typhoid or dysentery, its scourge was highly feared and held a special place in the popular imagination, not least because it revealed in the mildest person, the savage beast within. Disease could be said to share many of the characteristics of hunting: it erupts, carries away those it encounters and spreads before disappearing to suddenly reappear elsewhere. Disease and death were the supreme predators, so, little wonder the Bretons of yesteryear saw themselves as defenceless prey in the face of so many unrelenting hunters.
Even into the 1880s, Breton peasants attested that they heard the sounds of a Fantastic Hunt approaching in full fury; the cries of exhausted horses, the noise of furious galloping, the calls and blasphemies shouted by the huntsmen over the excited din of blaring horns. Like their parents before them, they had themselves seen, in the dim light of night, the aerial forms of phantom dogs followed by hunters on their horses arcing over the indistinct ground. The notion of the night hunt was clearly a theme too long-rooted to have been easily eradicated and the wide number known, illustrate just how popular such notions still remained here into the 19th century.
For over two centuries, a remarkable phenomenon was once noted in central Brittany; a seemingly spontaneous outbreak of barking women that disappeared as suddenly as it had first appeared. The reasons for these strange behaviours have, at times, been attributed to causes ranging from demonic possession to sexual frustration.
Records indicate that during the popular Pardon of Notre-Dame-du-Roncier (Our Lady of the Bramble) in the small town of Josselin on 25 May 1728, two young girls and their brother were healed of an illness described as “strange and unknown to the witnesses of the time, a frightening illness in its manifestation. They would fall to the ground as though they were unconscious with their mouths open and screaming in the manner of barking dogs, which sometimes lasted for over two hours and fell upon them more than eight to ten times each day and night.” After having been brought before the altar of the Virgin, the children drank the water of the nearby fountain devoted to her and the “extraordinary and unknown evil” vanished as inexplicably as it had emerged.
Since then, on the day of the Pardon, at Pentecost, local women were brought to the church in Josselin, barking like dogs and suffering great agony, to invoke the aid of the Virgin and be miraculously cured of their strange malady. By the middle of the 19th century, the Pardon had become popularly known as ‘The Pardon of the Barkers’.
One 19th century witness described the phenomena thus: “We designate by the name of barking women, unfortunates who, under the influence of a certain nervous agitation, utter hoarse cries similar to the growl of the dog. Little by little the voice becomes clearer and spreads in sonorous calls, precipitous, shrill like the notes of the bugle; it becomes a real bark, the tone of which gradually rises with the progression of the crisis. After the period of paroxysm, the intonation decreases and is exhaled in a plaintive howl recalling that of a dog in distress; thus the human creature has, like the beast, the complete range; it growls, barks and howls.”
A legend helped to explain the history behind these barking women. It tells that, a long time ago, in a nearby parish, a group of women were washing their clothes at a fountain, when a poor dishevelled beggar shuffled past, asking for alms. Unfortunately for this old woman, the washerwomen were hard of heart and too preoccupied for any thoughts of charity; they dismissed the sad beggar rudely and sent their dogs to drive her away.
As the dogs rushed forward, the old woman’s spine suddenly straightened and her wrinkles fell away as her rags transformed into the finest linen, accented with gold thread and fine jewels. Standing in utter radiance and glory, the woman addressed them thus: “Heartless women, I am the Blessed Virgin Mary. You have been merciless to the unfortunate and for this I condemn you and your daughters to bark like the dogs you threw upon me.”
It is said that, moved by the heartfelt despair of the washerwomen, the Virgin relented; allowing them to obtain forgiveness on the day of Pentecost provided they were not in a state of sin and made a pilgrimage to the Pardon of the church dedicated to her in nearby Josselin. This favour would be extended to their descendants but only after they had suffered a year in a state of atonement.
The Notre-Dame-du-Roncier church in Josselin was reputedly built on the site where a statue of the Virgin Mary was discovered in the early 9th century. This wooden statue was found by the blind daughter of a poor peasant working in the fields who told her father of a light she could see in a bush. Cutting away the brambles, the man uncovered a statue which he revealed to his daughter who immediately gained her sight.
The pair took this miraculous effigy home and were heartbroken to find it missing on the following morning; the statue was later found to have returned to the bramble bush. The statue was promptly recovered and returned to the peasant’s home but it again vanished in the night only to be found the following day amidst the brambles. In honour of these miracles, the locals decided to build a devotional chapel which, over time, was re-built and expanded to the grand church we see today. Unfortunately, the statue itself was destroyed during the Revolution but some fragments were saved that were subsequently housed in a small reliquary.
It was this glass-sided reliquary, placed near the high altar, which the barking women were brought, willingly or by force, to venerate with a kiss; a sacred act of devotion that was believed to cure them of the evil which possessed them. However, one account from 1882 claimed that the barkers were made to kiss the feet of the Virgin’s statue – possibly the new statue crowned in 1868. Another central part of the ritual took place at the nearby fountain where the women washed their hands and face and drank its water from a wooden bowl. Those who were too weak or too wild to attend the fountain were able to buy a handkerchief soaked in its water from enterprising beggars. Only after having drunk the water of the sacred fountain were the women freed by their escorts.
As you might imagine, the spectacle of howling and barking women being forcibly dragged through the streets, struggling violently against the grips of their burly male escorts, attracted a considerable crowd of, not necessarily pious, spectators who typically lined the route from the church to the fountain. Many eye-witness accounts remain from the 19th century; some are quite sensationalist while others adopt a rather mocking tone. The more balanced one that I have chosen was written by the Breton author Hervé de Kernouab in 1888, recounting the Pardon he had attended some thirty years earlier.
“It is six o’clock in the morning. The faithful flock to the first mass. Suddenly the air echoed with cries of distress. It is a barker being brought. Held by two men with long hair and wide breeches, she struggles energetically on the path. Her face is wet with sweat, her voice a dull growl. The journey to reach the relic is long. She takes advantage of this and redoubles her efforts to be free. Pushed brutally, she falls to the ground; they pick her up and the ordeal begins again. Exasperated by the suffering, she drools and makes desperate calls qualified as barking. Her guides remain impassive but do not let go of their prey. They cling to the unfortunate woman whose clothes are all torn. The church is near. With a supreme impulse they drag her to the threshold of the square.
There is a last fight; they have to climb the high granite steps. The body thrown back, suspended in the air, she still challenges her guides, who have great difficulty in restraining her and preventing her from falling but victory is theirs. Tamed, annihilated, livid; she sinks. Her face is stained with dirt and great tears flow from her dead eyes. She is pitiful. Thrown against the reliquary, she kisses it, unconscious, screaming in a weakly plaintive manner and her voice, broken by the struggle, exhales in a last hiccup. Here, she is calmed down, this is called healing.
In fact, she stops barking. Exhausted by the crisis she no longer has the strength to stand and so we sit her on a chair. In this position she is curious to observe: no awareness of her being; lying rather than seated, her arms hang inert, perpendicular to the body, motionless. Her face, deadly pale, is drenched in sweat; her eyes close under the influence of an irresistible force, her mouth, half-closed, lets out intermittent hiccups. She looks like she is sleeping, subject to a dream.
Striking is the contrast of her calm face and messy clothes. In her struggle with the peasants her tulle headdress came undone; the raw-coloured shawl, which sheltered her breast, crossed in front, was untied revealing her shirt under which the breast shakes with a jerky palpitation. This takes place during mass, which is in no way interrupted despite this disorder. The celebrants continue to pray and it ends in absolute peace. That one finished, another one starts again and so on.”
By all accounts, the natives of Josselin, long-used to the spectacle, appeared quite indifferent to the commotion caused by the barking women; an attitude that visiting spectators found striking in the face of such suffering. So much so that some visitors suspected that the maniacal barking women and their stoic escorts were more an empty hoax rather than a poignant reality.
In his 1855 work, Pèlerinages de Bretagne, Hippolyte Violeau recalls his visit to Josselin: “Suddenly, there was movement around me and up went the cry: ‘Make way, make way for the barkers’. Men were dragging and carrying with difficulty, several women; pale, their mouths foaming, their eyes half closed, struggling like demoniacs and uttering hoarse cries not unlike the barking of a dog.” Interestingly, he noted the local belief that there were several families of barkers living around Josselin; descendants of the washerwomen of legend, who suffered from hereditary convulsions, not understood by science, which reappeared each year around the time of Pentecost.
The precise malady that affected the barking women of Josselin remains unknown to this day. Locals seem to have taken a rather fatalistic approach and regarded the women as those marked by the words of the Virgin, destined to fulfil the ancient curse imposed upon their ancestors. For some, the continued belief in witchcraft and the practice of healing magic in the Breton countryside convinced them that these women were the victims of demonic possession.
This was a notion considered by many seriously-minded 19th century commentators who were keen to see, in Josselin, a modern example of mass possession or demonopathy while others argued that the roots of these phenomena lay not in the bowels of Hell but in the depths of mental illness or mass hysteria. Others attributed the cause to some sort of mass delusion brought about by the powers of suggestion or religious fervour.
De Kernouab believed that the women he witnessed were probably epileptics and thought that their over-excited state caused tensions in the muscles of the throat that progressively increased due to stress and subsequently subsided with fatigue. He also noted that the women were remarkably similar; they were all around forty years of age and all “had a heavy demeanour, their features downcast, almost withered.”
He thought that these women were likely well-known in their communities and aware of their illness, the legend and its associated custom; they therefore awaited the inevitable knock on the door on the morning of Pentecost. If so, the apprehension of being forcibly taken would, understandably, increase their anxiety and agitate their nervous system. Little wonder therefore that when their stony-faced escorts arrived, the women’s nerves were at fever-pitch and a hysterical crisis erupted. The widespread belief in the legend of the washerwomen accounted for why the women’s loved ones allowed them to be abducted and forcibly cured; they had accepted their fate.
Fascination in the barking women of Josselin has diminished little over the years and new theories to explain their behaviour have emerged. One writer is convinced that the women were feminists rebelling against the Church and the belief in the power of the Virgin. Another, that they were resisting the ideal of chaste femininity propounded by the Church and community at large; their refusal to be submissive and their yearning for sexual freedom required correction. There is even a school of thought that says the women were gripped by some ancient folk memory of the conquest of Brittany by Conan Mériadoc, the semi-legendary 4th century king of Brittany who, they claim, had his men remove the tongues of young native girls so that their children could not speak their Gallic mother tongue.
Many people were and remain convinced of the divine healing power of the Virgin but some have suggested that the collapse of the barking women’s resistance and the end of their convulsions could also be explained by the fact that kissing the reliquary was the moment of maximum intensity. The paroxysm ceased because that key moment had passed and the patient collapsed through the complete exhaustion of their mental and physical strength; and likely out of sheer relief.
We cannot be certain how many barking women were taken to Notre-Dame-du-Roncier over the years, some Pardons witnessed dozens of women dragged, kicking, biting and screaming to the church. Nor do we know how far some of the women were brought or how many of them received only a temporary cure and were thus dragged back to suffer their fate again the following year. However, we do know that the last recorded barker to be healed was cured during the Pentecost festival of 1953 although who knows how many anonymous rites have been performed there since then.