Brittany and the French Counter-Revolution

Known simply as le quatorze, 14 July is the national holiday of France; a date chosen to celebrate the Revolution. It was on this day in 1789 that the medieval fortress known as the Bastille Saint-Antoine was surrendered to a mob of about a thousand Parisians. It was not concern for the seven prisoners held there that had attracted the mob’s attention but the large stocks of gunpowder stored at this last remaining symbol of royalist power in central Paris. Although not the opening act of the Revolution, this dramatic action came to symbolize the end of France’s ancien regime and the birth of the republic formally established on 22 September 1792.

During the Revolution, large swathes of Brittany and neighbouring Vendée found themselves embroiled in a bitter civil war between the forces of the new Republic and the counter-revolutionary movement loosely known as the Chouannerie.

At first, attitudes to the Revolution seemed rather ambivalent in Brittany but from the summer of 1789, the new National Assembly passed a series of measures that changed the socio-political and religious landscape of France forever. Feudalism was abolished along with the other traditional privileges held by the nobility, as were the special rights enjoyed by some provinces, such as Brittany. The country’s largest landowner, the Church, saw its economic and political power smashed; its properties were confiscated and monasteries dissolved. While the removal of tithes and dues was initially welcomed, the upheavals caused by the draconian decrees issuing from distant Paris saw pro-Church and anti-Revolutionary riots in the city of Vannes at the start of April 1790.

French Revolution Brittany

Towards the end of April, the government decided to sell-off Church property and in July, under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the Church in France was subordinated to the state; priests being forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the Revolutionary government whose authority now held primacy over the Pope. These measures were not well received in staunchly Catholic Brittany where the majority of priests and bishops refused to become civil servants, subject to the French state. The authorities duly appointed new bishops from among those few priests who had sworn themselves to the government.

In early February 1791, several groups representing a score of parishes around Vannes petitioned the authorities against the rumoured removal of the Bishop of Vannes. To protect the Bishop, some 3,000 peasants armed with clubs and pitchforks marched on the city on 13 February but were routed by a combined force of well-armed National Guards, mounted Dragoons and detachments from Walsh’s Regiment who had last seen action during the American War of Independence.

At the end of June, the government declared its right to deport any ‘refractory’ priests who had refused to swear the oath of allegiance. Thousands of such priests were imprisoned or forced into hiding and, inevitably, there was soon a shortage of clergy and many parishes saw their churches locked but continued to worship clandestinely. Only obedient ‘constitutional’ clergy who had sworn their oath were allowed to carry out any duties but most people refused to attend services celebrated by these priests. In Brittany, they were ridiculed as traitors and cowards and frequently jostled in the streets but they were now public officials and could be protected by the full force of the state.

Brittany French Revolution

By the summer of 1791, resentment towards the policies of the revolutionary government had hardened considerably in Brittany and the first serious steps towards an armed counter-revolution were taken by the Marquis de la Rouërie, former hero of the American War of Independence. His experience as a successful military commander in America marked him out as the strongest candidate to lead a revolt and he received backing from the exiled court of the Comte d’Artois for a Breton Association set on defending the monarchy and re-establishing the privileges of Brittany that had been stripped away in 1789. In an echo of his American service, La Rouërie was authorized to place the Association on a military footing, organizing it and initially funding it in a similar manner to the legion he commanded in America.

With disaffection to the revolutionary government rife in neighbouring Normandy and Vendée, La Rouërie planned a coordinated uprising in the West, enforced by a landing of émigré troops in Saint-Malo, for the start of October 1792. This was designed to create a second-front to coincide with a proposed invasion by Austrian and Prussian armies in the East but the French army’s victory over the Prussians at Valmy on 20 September scuppered any chance of success a Breton rising might have then had.

While La Rouërie’s plans for his 10,000 men had been postponed to the following year, a smuggler known as Jean Chouan (a nickname derived from the owl-call that his men used to recognise each other) was actively organising guerrilla-style attacks against government agents in eastern Brittany. The west of the region had seen a series of major uprisings throughout the summer of 1792 but, with the exception of the 10 September attacks on the garrisons at Lannion and Pontrieux, these had been uncoordinated revolts.

Brittany French Revolution

Emboldened by the retreat of the invading armies, the constitutional monarchy was abolished and replaced by the First Republic on 22 September 1792. The calendar was reset with 1792 becoming ‘year one’ and Louis XVI being executed four months later. One of the key repercussions of this regicide was that it now set the kingdoms of Europe, many of whom were tied by blood to the King of France, against the new republic. To meet this challenge, the government decided to conscript 300,000 men to help defend the nation although Republican leaders, municipal bureaucrats and government officials were all exempt from the military draft and it was even possible for the wealthy to pay for a replacement in order to escape the call of duty.

Unsurprisingly, the potential loss of so many young men needed to work on the farms and fishing boats provoked strong reactions in Brittany and Vendée, particularly following so soon after the loss of their nobles and priests and the mass sale of Church property, whose proceeds had been siphoned away to Paris. Revolutionary rhetoric about the freedom of men sounded hollow to the peasants of the region who rose up in armed rebellion in early March 1793.

On 14 March, the recruiting commissioners and their National Guard escort were killed in the central Brittany town of Pluméliau and the recruitment lists burnt before the assembled crowd. Joined by people from neighbouring parishes, 3,000 anti-Republicans then converged on the town of Pontivy. Negotiations to abandon recruitment failed and the town was assaulted in the early afternoon. Despite early advances by the insurgents, they were repulsed by the town’s garrison and finally dispersed by Republican reinforcements from Guémené and Loudéac. Losses to the Republicans were said to have been 30 dead while their protagonists lost over one hundred dead and a further 53 taken prisoner; a dozen of whom were guillotined a fortnight later to serve as an example to others. Further south, the towns of La Roche-Bernard and Rochefort-en-Terre were taken by the anti-Republicans on 15/16 March.

Brittany French Revolution

In the west of the region, riots in Saint-Pol-de-Léon and several other towns over 18/19 March left three soldiers dead and saw the authorities deploy elements of General Canclaux’s Army of the Coasts of Brest. Faced with cannon fire, backed-up by 1,200 troops, the demonstrators soon dispersed but they did not disappear. Instead, in order to split the Republicans’ lines of communication, they destroyed the bridge at Kerguidu; the local Revolutionary Surveillance Committee being convinced this was a precursor to an attack on the city.  On 23 March, 400 soldiers from the city’s garrison, reinforced by men from the National Guard of Morlaix, set out for Kerguidu where they were ambushed by a thousand rebels. Heavily pressed, the soldiers formed square atop a small hill. After two hours of fighting, their cannon were spent and cartridges low but they were saved by the appearance of Canclaux at the head of a column of a thousand fresh troops. Once again, cannon fire proved decisive and caused the rout of the insurgents who are said to have suffered 250 dead, against half a dozen wounded in the Republican ranks.   

At around the same time, beginning with the capture of Machecoul on 11 March, coordinated attacks on officers of the National Guard were staged across Vendée. As in Brittany, riots erupted in many towns and mobs began to ransack and set alight Revolutionary offices whose officials were often forced to seek refuge in wealthy bourgeois enclaves. Here, a number of anti-Republican forces coalesced to form the Catholic and Royal Army whose total membership fluctuated between 45,000 and 65,000 men; rural peasants and artisans with no military experience, uniforms or even boots. Some possessed hunting rifles but the majority were armed with only pitchforks and scythes.

Despite these limitations, the insurgents inflicted several notable defeats upon the professional soldiers of the Republic, seizing control and holding many key towns for several months. While the uprising in Brittany was effectively suppressed by April, that in the Breton Marches and Vendée gathered increased momentum and the government moved to put down the revolt, Determined to make an example of the rebels, tens of thousands of troops were deployed to augment local forces and the Army of the Coasts of La Rochelle. Its commander, General Beysser, wrote to his predecessor: “A man’s death is soon forgotten but the memory of burning down his house lasts for years.”

French Revolution Brittany

Attitudes towards the peasant army were hardening; official propaganda now referred to the anti-Republicans as common brigands. Local authorities began to organise offensive patrols to scour the countryside in search of suspected rebels; mere suspicion was enough to see men brutally beaten and imprisoned but many were summarily executed. Properties were ransacked and looted, often burnt-down as a means of terrorising the neighbourhood but also to deny the rebels potential safe havens.

General de Salomon of the Army of the Coasts of La Rochelle, bruised from the humiliating defeats at Montreuil-Bellay and Saumur on 8/9 June, announced: “This is a war of brigands and calls for us all to become brigands. We must forget all military regulations; fall upon these criminals and hound them mercilessly. Our infantry must flush them out from the thickets so our cavalry can trample them on the plain.” Clearly and ominously, there would be no clemency shown to the anti-Republicans.

With the notable exception of failing to overcome General Canclaux’s well-organised defence of the Breton port of Nantes at the end of June 1793, the Catholic and Royal Army enjoyed a very successful campaign throughout the summer. However, plans to take the offensive further north into Brittany and Maine seem to have been thwarted by division amongst the Army’s leadership. Planning was also not helped by the tendency of their volunteers to return home to work their farms immediately after the defeat or retreat of the Republican forces confronting them.

Briany French Revolution

By the end of August, Republican forces in the region had been further reinforced by the Army of Mainz, 15,000 strong, commanded by General Kléber. However, the counter-revolutionaries continued to inflict stinging defeats over the forces ranged against them, notably at the battles of Tiffauges and Montaigu towards the end of September 1793.

At the start of October, the three Republican armies operating in Vendée were merged to form the Army of the West and immediately launched a new offensive, retaking the important rebel town of Cholet on 15 October. Two days later, the rebels launched their counter-attack but an estimated force of up to 40,000 men failed to dislodge 27,000 well-entrenched soldiers who were able to outflank the attackers whose ranks were decimated by grapeshot. An estimated 2,000 Republicans and 8,000 rebels were killed or wounded during this bloody battle; General Kléber wrote that: “the fields and roads bordering Cholet were strewn with corpses.” He also noted the massacre of 400 injured rebels but other sources suggest the figure was actually twice as high.

Routed, the majority of the rebel army crossed the Loire and marched towards Normandy with the aim of capturing a port that would allow them to obtain aid from Great Britain, against whom France had declared war that February. At this stage, it numbered about 30,000 combatants and 30,000 to 60,000 non-combatants including children. As they crossed Brittany, their ranks were augmented by about 8,000 Breton rebels, including future luminaries Jean Chouan and Georges Cadoudal, but after capturing several cities en route, the rebels were ultimately unable to capture the port of Granville on 14 November. Sick of fighting and ravaged by hunger and dysentery, the men pressed their commanders to return southwards, towards home.

Le Mans French Revolution

While the rebel ranks were thinning thanks to disease and wounds, the Republican forces were reinforced with 6,000 men from the Army of the Coasts of Cherbourg and 10,000 men from the Army of the North. Having captured Le Mans on 10 December, the rebels’ chaotic defence saw their positions overwhelmed just two days later. A retreat to Laval ensued but thousands of rebels, mostly non-combatants, remained stuck inside the town and were massacred. According to the government’s Committee of Public Safety, 5,000 Vendéens died in Le Mans, while Republican losses totalled 30 dead but some claim that as many as 15,000 were killed in Le Mans and during the harassed flight to Laval.

Now numbering just 6,000 to 7,000 combatants, with about the same number of non-combatants, the remains of the Royal and Catholic Army took refuge in the Breton town of Savenay on 22 December. The next day, Republican forces attacked and took the town with the loss of only 30 men. The rebels’ losses were estimated at over 3,000 dead and a similar number summarily executed; a few thousand non-combatants were taken to the prisons of Nantes to await their fate.

It was not only in the aftermath of battle that prisoners were shown no mercy. In Nantes, the Committee for Public Safety’s representative, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, oversaw an emptying of the city’s many prisons between November 1793 and February 1794 by means of what he called “vertical deportation.” The Civil Commissioner of Maine-et-Loire, described it thus: “Here we use a whole different way to get rid of this bad brood. We put all these rascals in boats that we sink to the bottom. This is called ‘sending to the water tower.’ In truth, if the brigands have sometimes complained of starving to death, they will not be able to complain that they are being made to die of thirst. About 1,200 have been taken to drink today.”

Brittany French Revolution

There are no precise figures for the number of people killed during these organised drownings but several historians agree a figure of around 4,860 men, women and children. The first drownings targeted refractory priests; 90 of whom were taken out into the middle of the Loire estuary in a specially adapted barge and drowned. Despite the cold water, three priests survived long enough to be rescued by a nearby warship only to be returned to the civil authorities and drowned the following night.

Eye-witness accounts of the drownings indicate that the prisoners were commonly stripped of all clothing and possessions at the quayside; an indignity applied to old blind men as well as breastfeeding mothers and their babies. We will never know why Carrier decided to despatch these enemies of the Revolution in this fashion although cynics have suggested that it was to conserve ammunition after having already executed, by firing squad, about 3,600 people suspected of disloyalty; a further 200 were guillotined.

Much has been made in recent years of the severity with which the new Republic crushed those who opposed it; excesses were often glossed-over by earlier generations of historians. Some even questioned the authenticity of General Westermann’s infamous declaration to the Committee for Public Safety: “Citizens, there is no more Vendée. She has died beneath our sword of freedom, with her women and children. I have buried her in the marshes and woods of Savenay. By your orders, I have crushed her children under the hooves of my horses and massacred her women who will give birth to no more brigands now. There is not a prisoner who could criticise me; I have exterminated all.”

Brittany French Revolution

While the Royal and Catholic Army had been destroyed as a fighting force, elements that did not participate in the march north, following the defeat at Cholet in October, remained active in Vendée where they defiantly held sway over large parts of the countryside. The isle of Noirmoutier finally fell to Republican forces on 3 January 1794 when the rebels negotiated their surrender to General Haxo who promised to spare their lives. The entire garrison of 1,800 men, including the former chief of the Royal and Catholic Army who had been wounded at the battle of Cholet, were executed; unable to stand due to his wounds, Generalissimo d’Elbée was shot slumped in a chair.

The Committee of Public Safety were now convinced that restoring calm to the Vendée could only be achieved by bringing out the innocent citizens, exterminating the rest and repopulating it as soon as possible with Republicans. To this end, the Commander of the Army of the West, General Turreau, and General Haxo systematically crossed the region with tens of thousands of troops organised into mobile columns adopting a scorched earth policy. Their orders were simple, to “eliminate the brigands to the last man” and between January and May some 25,000 to 50,000 people were killed, without any pretence of judicial process, by these “Infernal Columns.” Writing from Nantes, Carrier urged General Haxo “to burn down all the rebel houses, to massacre all the inhabitants and to take away all their subsistence.”

Sadly, these orders were, more often than not, carried out with alacrity and hundreds of villages were set ablaze by troops who displayed a barbarity, in this Age of Enlightenment, not seen in France since the Hundred Years War of the 14th century. Houses and churches were looted and burnt, crops and livestock destroyed. Rape and torture was commonplace, none were spared; old women and children fell to the bayonet but others were crushed under presses, thrown down wells or even into lighted bread ovens. There are accounts of bodies being flayed in order to tan their skin and of women being burned to collect their fat, “a thousand times more pleasant than lard.” Such outrages and the indiscriminate massacring of the population helped keep the anti-revolutionary flame alive in the region.

Brittany French Revolution

Following the rebels’ defeat at Le Mans, Jean Chouan returned to Ille-et-Vilaine; Georges Cadoudal returned home to Morbihan a short time later, after the defeat at Savenay. While the counter-revolutionary movement became popularly known as the Chouan revolt, Chouan himself was killed in action near La Gravelle in July 1794 but his anti-revolutionary spirit did not perish with him. In Morbihan, Cadoudal set about organising companies of insurgents in each parish, commanded by a captain elected by his men. Sometimes acting alone or in concert with others, these groups fought a classic guerrilla war, striking at Republican targets or ambushing military patrols before retreating back into the shadows.

The death of La Rouërie in 1793 had robbed the counter-revolutionary movement in Brittany of a clear leader but eventually Chouan commanders accepted the authority of Joseph de Puisaye who was installed as Commander of the Catholic and Royal Army of Brittany in October 1794. By this time, Morbihan was effectively controlled by the Chouans, believed to number over 15,000 strong; government authority only really existing within sight of its military garrisons and bayonets.

One of the greatest exploits of the Morbihan Chouans was the capture of the arsenal at Pont-de-Buis, south of Brest, on 17 June 1795. Here, some 300 men, alongside 200 reinforcements who had joined during the 130km march across Brittany, seized more gunpowder than they could carry; eight barrels were loaded onto carts but the majority of the precious powder was thrown into the nearby river. The Chouans all returned home, having successfully evaded the pursuing troops.

French Revolution Brittany

The strength of the Chouans in Morbihan was one of the reasons why the region was selected for the landing of an army of Royalist émigrés, some 3,500 strong, under the command of de Puisaye on 27 June 1795. The landings at Quiberon serve as a catastrophic example of the damage unchecked egos can do to undermine a common enterprise. The British warships transporting the émigrés and supplies for 40,000 men arrived off Quiberon on 23 June but rather than disembark immediately to maximise the element of surprise, de Puisaye suddenly found his deputy, the Comte d’Hervilly, claiming authority to command the expedition and urging extreme caution. D’Hervilly also considered the Chouans undisciplined and unreliable; a haughty attitude voiced by other émigré officers. Cadoudal’s Chouans had meanwhile overthrown the garrisons at Auray, Carnac and Landévant thus giving the Royalists control over these key coastal towns. However, the delay in linking the émigré army with the 15,000 Chouans spread along the coast did not help foster a spirit of trust.

At this stage, General Hoche, commanding the Army of the Coasts of the Ocean, was in Vannes with only 2,000 troops at his disposal but the Royalists’ inaction and their failure to properly liaise with the Chouans resulted in his being able to march against Auray and Landévant on 5 July with a force of over 13,000 men. Hoche pressed his advantage and tightened the noose around the Quiberon peninsula, while the Chouans defending this neck of land were hampered by thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting; a situation made worse by d’Hervilly’s reluctance to commit his troops to the fray.

On 10 July, the Royalists resolved to break Hoche’s stranglehold; sending 6,000 men, mostly Chouans, to be landed in two columns behind enemy lines so as to attack the besieging forces from the rear. However, the first column dispersed after being overwhelmed at the battle of Pont Aven on 16 July and the second was preparing its attack when a messenger, claiming to represent the Royalists, ordered them to disengage from the south coast and instead head north to support a new landing near Saint-Brieuc. Cadoudal, mindful of the use of Faux Chouans (Republican agitators who posed as Chouans in order to infiltrate their ranks to betray or undermine them), suspected a ruse but was overruled by the émigré officers. The column crossed the breadth of Brittany; taking Josselin, Quintin and Châtelaudren before reaching the coast on 24 July where it discovered no northern landings and heard of the total defeat of the southern ones. Disgusted, the Chouans, once again led by Cadoudal, dispersed and headed for their homes.

French Revolution Brittany

Two thousand more émigré soldiers were landed at Quiberon on 15 July under the command of the 24 year old Marquis de Sombreuil, but their offensive the next day was heavily defeated with d’Hervilly himself now added to the Royalist death toll of over 1,500. Hoche launched a major assault on 20 July which was greatly assisted by the desertion of former Republican prisoners of war who had been serving with the Royalists. To limit the extent of the Royalist defeat, de Puisaye now ordered his men to re-embark and 2,225 émigré and Chouan troops, along with 890 civilians were hurriedly taken off the beaches; a scene de Sombreuil described as “cowardly and deceitful.”

The following day, de Sombreuil sued for terms and agreed to surrender against a promise that his men would be spared and treated as honourable prisoners of war. Some 6,300 émigré and Chouan troops were captured; most of the Chouans were eventually released against ransom, along with about 5,000 civilians but the émigrés were imprisoned in conditions that saw 400 quickly perish. The Marquis de Sombreuil and almost 750 of his companions were subsequently shot by firing squads.

Despite this major setback, the chouannerie did not wither away. Cadoudal quickly rebuilt his forces but his relationship with de Puisaye was seriously fractured, causing the formation of two distinct forces; the Catholic and Royal Army of Morbihan led by Cadoudal and the Catholic and Royal Army of Rennes and Fougères led by de Puisaye whose influence also extended into neighbouring Maine and Normandy. Both armies continued to successfully attack and harass the troops and institutions of the Republic but did not maximise their impact by working together.

Brittany in French Revolution

Having been given total command over all Republican forces in the west in December 1795, General Hoche changed tactics; punitive mobile columns scoured the countryside in pursuit of rebels while amnesties were offered to those willing to give up their arms. Resistance in Vendée effectively crumbled after the capture and execution of key rebel leaders in March 1796. With the pacification of the Breton Marches, the Chouans in Brittany, tired of years living in hiding, begin to discuss the possibility of peace. Cadoual eventually agreed to submit on 22 June but de Puisaye refused and went into exile.

However, open rebellion against the Republic broke out again just three years later when the region’s anti-Republicans, including Cadoudal, agreed to launch a new uprising on 15 September 1799.  Cadoudal was quickly able to muster 18,000 men while 26,000 were raised in neighbouring Départments; although the Chouans managed to briefly capture several key cities such as Le Mans, Nantes, Sarzeau and Saint-Brieuc in October, they were repulsed at Vannes and Vire.

In 24 January 1800, at Loc’h bridge near Grand-Champ, 8,000 Chouans fought against 4,000 Republican troops who had taken the town to plunder the reserves of grain and food stored there. After a battle lasting several hours, the Republicans managed to withdraw in good order but the reported casualty figures vary so widely between protagonists as to be unhelpful; it was clearly a Chouan victory but not the decisive victory that they perhaps should have gained. This was the last major action of the chouannerie.

Georges Cadoudal
Georges Cadoudal

The coup d’état of 9 November 1799 that brought Napoléon Bonaparte to power carried significant changes in its wake. Bonaparte introduced a policy of pacification that offered religious freedom and the suspension of the military draft in exchange for the immediate submission of the Chouans; overtures that were reinforced by the presence of the highly effective General Brune and 30,000 experienced troops. Peace overtures with the Chouan leadership began to bear fruit, some commanders submitted to the new Consulate in December but it was not until 14 February 1800 that Cadoudal and his Chouans agreed to set aside their arms. Their surrender effectively brought the organised chouannerie to an end although isolated acts of rebellion would still be noted until the restoration in 1814.

As you might expect, two of the key figures involved in the counter-Revolution and its suppression suffered very different fates. Georges Cadoudal did not live long enough to see the restoration of the Bourbons; he was beheaded in Paris on 24 June 1804 and so lived just long enough to see Bonaparte assume the throne of France for himself. General Turreau, whose ruthless Infernal Columns forever altered the landscape of western France, served as Ambassador to the USA for eight years and was granted a hero’s place on the Arc de Triomphe. The careers and principles of these men were very different but both died convinced that they were true patriots of France.

Brittany’s Street Art

There is probably an interesting conversation to be had regarding the nature of graffiti and public art and another on whether graffiti can still serve as a rebellious expression when it is found on sites approved by the municipal authorities. Does graffiti need to be illegal or subversive to properly wear its tag or is safe street art equally as credible or valid?

This weekend, the capital of my Breton Département of Côtes d’Armor, Saint Brieuc, is hosting the fourth edition of a now popular street art festival. This year, the walls of seventeen buildings across this north coast city are being painted by graffiti artists from across France. Unfortunately, the covid-related travel restrictions have limited the international nature of this year’s festival but previous editions have featured artists from neighbouring Belgium, Germany, Italy and the UK as well as from further afield, such as Peru and Kyrgyzstan.

The images that follow are predominantly works painted in Saint Brieuc as part of the earlier festivals of street art but the header and footer images are from Rostrenen, a sleepy small town near the southern boundary of the Côtes d’Armor.

Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
The photo does not do this one justice!
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany
Street Art Brittany

As you would imagine, selecting the sites to be painted in a modern port city with a historic medieval core surrounded by streets full of imposing early-19th century buildings, is no easy task. This year, having secured agreements with the buildings’ owners and the local authority, officials from Bâtiments de France, the government body responsible for town planning and preserving the nation’s built heritage, threw a rather large spanner in the works when they refused to sanction 18 of the 27 sites submitted to them.

This year, it has therefore been necessary to recycle some sites used during earlier years; inevitably losing the works painted there. Many of the murals painted for previous festivals were always destined to remain no longer than the last of the summer visitors but several frescoes are still adorning the walls of the city today; fading gracefully before the relentless power of the elements.

After this weekend, there should be some 55 officially graffitied facades across the city, as well as a few unapproved ones; the officially sanctioned ones are not tucked away down obscure side streets but are found on the main thoroughfares. If you do decide to hunt them all down, your arty ambling across town can now be directed with the aid of a downloadable phone app!

Street Art Brittany

If I am able to get some decent shots of this year’s murals, then a follow-up post may be in order!

The Rare, the Rude and the Unusual

Travellers who visited Brittany in the 19th and early 20th centuries were often struck by the marked and widespread Christian piety that was such a feature of daily life here. Writing as late as 1917, the author Lewis Spence noted: “Nowhere else, will one find such great masses of people so completely lost in religious fervour during the usual Church services and the grander and more impressive festivals so solemnly observed.”

I have touched on the development of the Christian faith and religious practices in Brittany before and do not propose delving into it again here. However, the inextricable blend of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs and practices that existed here for centuries saw a quite distinct, if not unorthodox, approach to worship emerge. Aside from the localised nature of the saints venerated, this distinctiveness can be noted in the siting of churches, their architecture and the iconography found therein.

Many of the region’s churches were built near, or even atop, ancient devotional sites such as megaliths or fresh-water springs and it is not unusual to encounter ancient steles that have long been re-sited inside churchyards or against churches. However, one of the most striking and original features of Brittany’s religious heritage is the Parish Close, an ecclesiastical architectural ensemble unique to Brittany. Dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, these Closes usually consist of a walled circular enclosure, a monumental gateway styled as a triumphal arch, an impressive discrete ossuary, an ornate calvary and often a separate Sacristy.

calvary Plougonven - Brittany churches
The calvary at Plougonven

While the monumental calvaries usually contain scenes from the life and Passion of Christ, the calvary at Guimiliau is said to portray a local teenager being dragged into the jaws of Hell. Local legend tells that this is Katell Gollet, a 16 year old girl whose beauty was matched only by her depravity; she spent all her days dancing and carousing much to the consternation of her guardian. Uncontrollable, she eventually agreed to marry but only to the man who could dance with her for twelve hours in a row. Many men tried but most fell dead from fatigue until, having invoked the powers of Hell for new musicians able to keep up with her, the Devil himself joined young Katell and danced with her in an infernal jig across the threshold of Hell.

calvary Guimiliau - Brittany churches
Katell Gollet on the calvary at Guimiliau

The churches that became the centrepiece of these Closes almost always display a deep, elaborately sculpted porch with tympanum containing statues of the Apostles crafted in painted stone or wood. Outside, the buildings boasted tall granite bell towers with lanterns and soaring spires, staircase towers and ornate pinnacles; sometimes many being grouped together at varying heights to deliver maximum visual impact. Recesses housed brightly painted statues of saints but nowadays most are missing and, of those that survive, only tantalising traces of their polychrome remain.

porch Kergrist-Moëlou Brittany churches
The porch at Kergrist-Moëlou

The interior of these churches were ornately decorated with highly crafted carved beams, Glory Beams, pulpits, baptismal fonts and altarpieces which were all richly painted and set under vaulted ceilings highlighted in dazzling shades of blue or green. Sadly, the devastation wrought by the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century and the Revolution and Counter-Revolution at the end of the 18th century saw the destruction and loss of much of Brittany’s priceless religious heritage. However, a great deal of what has survived to this day is truly remarkable.

Decorated beams Lampaul Guimiliau
Decorated beams in Lampaul Guimiliau

Although there were a hundred and ten Rood Screens noted in Brittany in the 17th century, less than a score are now extant and only a dozen in their complete state; wonderful displays of polychrome wood with painted panels, sculptured figures and ornamental carvings on multiple levels. Designed to separate the choir from the nave and thus keep the altar out of sight of the congregation, the screens were gradually removed from churches following the Council of Trent in 1563 as part of a move to demystify the rites of the Eucharist and allow the congregation to more easily follow the service. Although the number of survivors in Brittany is small, they represent the largest concentration in France.

Rood Screen - Brittany churches
The Rood Screen at Priziac

Other interesting survivors from earlier times are the Chime Wheels which were once quite common throughout France during the Middle Ages. Some fifteen bells were noted in Brittany in 1909 but only seven now remain, mostly located in the centre of the region. These small bells, each delivering a different note and ranging in number from six to 24, are attached at regular intervals to the rim of a wall-mounted wooden wheel varying in size between 0.6m and 1.75m and activated by a pull-cord or a crank. Officially, the bells were said to have been used as a sacring bell during mass or rung during periods when bells were prohibited or to celebrate special events such as baptisms and weddings.

However, the wheels seem to have been more popularly known as Rod ar Fortun in Breton: the Wheel of Fortune and it was this reputation that famously caused the rector of Berhet to destroy the church’s wheel in the mid-19th century. One pilgrim having noted that: “we paid two sous each time … depending on where the wheel stopped, the omen was favourable or not,” while the wheel at Quéven was said to indicate that fortune would be favourable if it ran continuously but the opposite was held true if it stopped suddenly. Such irreligious attention saw the wheel removed in 1944; much to the consternation of the local parishioners.

Chime Wheel Confort Meilars - Brittany churches
The Chime Wheel at Confort-Meilars

The wheels were also believed to possess therapeutic and healing properties. Children with speech impediments or hearing difficulties were often taken to spin the bells of the Confort-Meilars wheel above their heads, in order to be cured by its sound; a practice still popularly noted in the late-1920s.

Another unusual relic of past times are the Lanterns of the Dead, over half a dozen of which are noted in Brittany; ranging in date from the 12th to 17th centuries and from simple granite columns of about a metre high to more elaborate structures standing some seven metres tall. These edifices were used to house a lamp that was lit to herald the death of a parishioner thus perpetuating the ancient rite of light whose function was to guide the soul of the departed. Unsurprisingly, the lanterns were also traditionally lit on All Saints’ Day.

Lantern of the Dead - Brittany churches
The Lantern of the Dead at Guegon

Representations of the Danse Macabre or Dance of Death were first recorded in Paris in 1424 and slowly spread throughout Europe over the next two hundred years. Three examples were noted in the churches of Brittany, two of which are still extant today; sadly, the fresco that once adorned the wall of the church in Josselin is known to have succumbed to the ravages of time at the end of the 19th century. The fresco in the church of Kernascléden dates from the mid-15th century, while the one found in the chapel of Kermaria, near Plouha, is a little later, having been painted between 1485 and 1500.

Danse Macabre - Brittany churches
Dance of Death in Kermaria, Plouha

In the Kernascléden fresco, the Duke of Brittany precedes the King of France in the procession, which is not the case in Kermaria, painted at a time when French influence in Brittany had markedly increased and just over a generation before its controversial annexation by the French crown. Today, of the seven surviving Danse Macabre frescos in France, two are to be found in Brittany.

Ankou La Martyre - Brittany churches
Ankou in the font of the South porch at La Martyre

Some of the iconography found in the churches of Brittany is surprisingly inconsistent with approved Church dogma. Representations of the personification of death, the Ankou, are found adorning the inside and outside of several churches but he is not the character of death sometimes seen in churches elsewhere. The Ankou was believed to announce death and even forewarn people of it, often long before gathering their souls; an important figure that underlined the role of fear in a religion centred on death and the afterlife that was promoted here for so long. Another reminder of the inevitability of death is found in the church in Magoar which contains a tall long-cased clock whose, single-dial, face warns that: “The last hour is hidden.”

Death clock Magoar - Brittany churches

The cult of the Virgin as Mother of God grew significantly in Western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries; being revered as the Queen of Heaven, personification of the Church and Bride of Christ. In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, many towns and villages placed themselves under the Virgin’s protection and churches dedicated to Notre-Dame or Our Lady abound, often bearing quite specific markers, such as Notre-Dame du Bon Voyage (of the good journey), Notre-Dame du Roncier (of the bramble) and Notre-Dame de la Fosse (of the pit). At times, such distinct local identities were noted to have caused a challenge to the local priest when some of his parishioners were convinced that their church alone held the image of the real Virgin; those found in neighbouring towns were regarded as imposters – at best, a sister or cousin of the Virgin.

Representations of the Virgin are commonly found in every Catholic church in Brittany but less common are those portraying the Virgin breast-feeding Christ. That said, there are many examples throughout Brittany particularly in the west of the region. Such statues, carved in wood and stone, seem to mainly date from the 16th and 17th centuries and share certain characteristics; around 1.65m in height, the Virgin’s hair held in place by a wide band, wearing an unfastened top-garment that displays only the right breast although the statue in Tréguron reveals both and is the only one that shows her seated and one of only two (the other is at Kerlaz) that portrays her ample lactation.

Breast-feeding Virgin of Tréguron - Brittany churches
The breast-feeding Virgin of Tréguron

The church in Lanrivain contains a rather charming carved wooden statue depicting a reclining Virgin breast-feeding. Images of reclining Virgins are quite rare in Western Europe but there are ten others, dating from between the 15th and 17th centuries, to discover across Brittany.

Unsurprisingly, the sites of these “Virgins of the Milk” were once popularly visited by expectant mothers or those women experiencing difficulties expressing milk. Although skirting the limits of Catholic dogma, it is clear that such images were not retired even after the promulgations of the Council of Trent in December 1563 which expressly forbade any “image which recalls an erroneous dogma and which can lead the simple astray.” Only images that avoided all impurity and did not generate any provocative attractions were then permitted within the church precepts but such proscriptions clearly had little effect on popular devotion. Many troublesome statues were modified or quietly buried, others were put into closed niches and some were draped with a modesty veil; a practice still noted in two locations here in the late 1960s.

Another fairly unusual feature of some of the 16th and 17th century statues of the Virgin carved in Brittany are the depictions of her trampling evil underfoot, such evil commonly being represented as a horned demon, part woman-part serpent or fish, baring her chest and holding an apple while prostrate upon the ground. Over fifty examples have been noted, predominantly in the western half of the region, and such demons are also found in a dozen of the surviving ‘Trees of Jesse’ carved here during the same period.

Virgin Mary and demons - Brittany churches
The Virgin suppressing the demon of Brennilis

To ensure his churches were operating consistent to the decrees of the Council of Trent, the Bishop of Quimper relayed a fairly strong message in his synod statutes, instructing his clergy: “Images which have something mutilated, profane and indecent; that represent stories contrary to the truth of Scripture, or ecclesiastical traditions, must be carefully removed, without scandal, and hidden underground in the cemetery.”

Rumengol church
The church at Rumengol

Less than 250 years later, in the wake of the Revolution and the rather puritanical inclinations of early 19th century France, many more statues and carvings of questionable morality were disfigured or destroyed. However, many figures rich in sexual symbolism and suggestion seem to have survived these culls and remain in plain view today.

Brasparts church Brittany
The church at Brasparts

Some of these images could, generously, be said designed to edify the faithful and encourage them to denounce lust and other sins; others less so.

Quimper cathedral
Detail from Quimper Cathedral
Tremalo Chapel Pont Aven Brittany
Tremalo Chapel in Pont Aven
masturbating in St John the Baptist church Le Croisty
St John the Baptist church in Le Croisty

This scene from Notre-Dame de Crénénan near Ploërdut of the lady with the distaff has been interpreted to suggest that the distaff symbolizes sex and fertility. Thus armed, the lady catches the tail of the fox – a once popular epithet applied to those predatory men who chased younger women – that has stolen her sausage.

Crenenan church Brittany

In the church in Landerneau, the lady seated on the ground holds her distaff in her right hand and the pig’s tail in her left, while a man braces himself behind her pulling the braids out of her hair. This is thought to represent lust and gluttony but is the piercing of the barrel also symbolic?

Landerneau church Brittany

This, on a beam in the church at Lanvénégen, is possibly a development of the once popular Medieval story of Renart the fox preaching to the chickens?

Renart and the chickens

I can offer no reasonable suggestion as to the reasoning behind this, from the church in Graces, but similar images have been noted in 16th century manuscripts.

Graces church Brittany

Other carved contortions seem to require no comment at all.

Chapel of the Trinity Plumergat
From the Chapel of the Trinity in Plumergat
Ceiling boss Bodilis church
Ceiling boss from the church in Bodilis
Ceiling boss Chatelaudren church
Ceiling boss from the church in Chatelaudren
Ceiling boss La Roche Maurice
Ceiling boss from the church in La Roche Maurice

What these images lack in artistic refinement, they surely make up for in imaginative power and cause one to wonder; if these were thought appropriate enough to survive the various moral culls of the last five hundred years, what might have been destroyed?

The Seven Sacred Plants of Midsummer

In Brittany, the arrival of midsummer was traditionally celebrated by the lighting of massive communal bonfires and their attendant rituals; ancient practices that, despite the best efforts of the Church to suppress them, continued here well into living memory.

It is important to note that in establishing its liturgical calendar, the early Church took care to divert the popular feelings associated with the major pagan festivals by supplanting these with Christian ones. Thus assigning the Feast of Saint John to the twenty-fourth of June was likely a deliberate attempt to displace the Midsummer festivals so popularly rooted in European culture.

As a major celebration of the power of the natural world, we should not be surprised that native plants once played a key role in many of the rites associated with the celebration of Midsummer in Brittany. Sadly, the original names of the most important ceremonial plants have now been lost to us; they having long been dispossessed by designations such as Saint John’s Plant, the Grass of Saint John or Saint John’s Wort and the Herbs of Saint John. In some parts of France, Saint John’s Plant was another name given to Saint John’s Wort but in Brittany it was a term applied to Stonecrop.


Bunches of Saint John’s Plant were used in the ceremonial processions around the Midsummer bonfires; young women, alternating with young men carrying burning torches, would carry it while they circled the communal pyre. After nine circuits had been completed three times, the women held out their branches towards the centre of the fire while the men used their flaming torches to describe a series of three circles above their heads. While the men took their burning brands into the surrounding fields, the women passed their branches through the fire and circulated amongst the crowd as the smoke from the smouldering plant was believed to fortify one’s eyesight over the year ahead. Likewise, Garlic, roasted in the Midsummer fire, was prized as it was believed to be a powerful medicine against fevers.

The Stonecrop branches that had been used by the dancing women were usually retained by them as a charm against illness over the year ahead. They were taken home and often hung from the ceiling beams; if they continued to grow, it was taken as a sign of good luck but if they withered, as an omen of a death in the household within the year. In the local folk medicine, Stonecrop was commonly used as a purgative and also in the treatment of burns.

In the Breton tradition, the Herbs of Saint John were more popularly known as the Seven Sacred Herbs of Saint John; a collection of plants that included Daisy, Ground-Ivy, Houseleek, Mugwort, Sage, Saint John’s Wort and Yarrow. To harness the innate power of these plants, it was believed necessary to harvest them at the most auspicious time – the summer solstice, when the benevolent force of nature was thought at its most powerful; an energy that was said to be transmitted to the plants themselves.

Gathering Midsummer plants

In time, the morning of St. John’s Day replaced actual Midsummer in popular devotion but it was still believed necessary to only gather the plants with the left hand whilst walking backwards, barefoot through the dew in a state of grace and on an empty stomach; such proscriptions were said to help ensure that the hand did not take too much of nature’s bounty.

This ritual bears remarkable similarities to those noted by Pliny when discussing, in his Natural History written in the late 1st century, the remedies derived from the forests by the ancient druids: “Care is taken to gather it without the use of iron, the right hand being passed for the purpose through the left sleeve of the tunic, as though the gatherer were stealing it. The clothing must be white, the feet bare and washed clean, and a sacrifice of bread and wine must be made before gathering it: it is carried in a new cloth.” Like other European traditions surrounding the picking of special plants, yesterday’s Bretons seem to have absorbed some elements of these early rituals for their own plants.

The Dog Daisy or Marguerite was often known as the sun’s flower in Brittany and was once employed against a wide range of ailments. Dried and crushed, the plant’s flower was applied directly to wounds as a treatment but the same compound was infused in cold water when the resultant liquid was used as an eye bath to relieve conjunctivitis. A decoction of the plant, boiled in red wine, was drunk before bedtime in order to reduce a fever but a decoction boiled in water was believed to deliver calming, anti-spasmodic benefits and to aid digestion.

Dog Daisy
Dog Daisy

The plant’s leaves and roots were crushed and macerated in white wine overnight before the compound was applied as a poultice to treat sebaceous cysts although some healers recommended regularly bathing the cyst with this liquid instead. Other healers here thought the ailment was best treated by the application of a hot plaster composed of the plant’s leaves previously boiled in vinegar. When boiled with Walnut leaves, an infusion of the plant’s petals was said to be a useful means of purifying the blood if drunk regularly. Preparations made from the plant were also said to be effective in treating rheumatism.

Ground-Ivy, sometimes also known here as Saint John’s Belt, was a plant more commonly employed in the fight against bronchial disorders at which some healers swore that it was without equal. A length of the plant was crushed and boiled in water which was then left to infuse for a further third of an hour and usually sweetened with a little honey. A few bowls of this concoction was taken three times a day before meals as an effective treatment. When boiled in milk and drunk before going to bed, the plant was believed to alleviate coughs and asthma. A compound of crushed leaves and lard was applied as an ointment to treat burns, while an amulet containing the same mixture was often given to children to wear in the belief that it protected them against night terrors.


In Brittany, Houseleek was once attributed marvellous qualities; Breton households traditionally cultivated one or two plants on the lower parts of their roof to preserve their homes against lightning strikes and to warn against the approach of a witch as the plant was said to immediately wither whenever a witch entered the house. Folk healers most popularly applied the plant’s juice directly into the ear to treat infection and severe earaches but the fleshy leaves were also peeled and applied directly to cuts and burns and even crushed to form a poultice used in the treatment of corns and eczema.

Mugwort is another plant that was sometimes known as Saint John’s Plant and was popularly regarded as a magical herb in the late Middle Ages; it was believed that, if gathered on the eve of Saint John’s Day, the plant provided protection against disease, evil spirits, poisons and all misfortunes arising from fire and water. In the region’s traditional healing remedies, the plant’s flowering stems were used to treat menstrual difficulties and to strengthen the digestive system. Some healers advocated its consumption, before breakfast, after it had been macerated in white wine for eight days while others recommended that it be infused in water for thirty minutes and taken as a decoction three times a day between meals.


The herb Sage is another plant whose effectiveness has been attested to since the days of Ancient Rome. In Brittany, its use was recommended in all manner of treatments for curing various ailments in animals and humans, even rabies. Infusions prepared from the plant’s leaves were taken to aid menstruation and to treat abdominal bloating and diarrhoea; used as a mouthwash, the same concoction was used to combat toothache and bleeding gums. Applied topically, the plant was used as a remedy against skin irritations and minor injuries.

Another plant whose medicinal value has been noted since antiquity, Saint John’s Wort, also known as Saint John’s Beard, was once the key ingredient in a variety of treatments and natural remedies here. The plant’s flowers and leaves produced an effective emollient and skin balm with anti-inflammatory qualities. One popular remedy derived from the plant called for its leaves to be macerated in vegetable oil and exposed to sunlight for three weeks; the resultant oily mixture was then filtered through a cloth and applied directly, as an ointment, in the treatment of burns. The same blend was also massaged into the body to alleviate rheumatic pain and to treat wounds and sores.


Preparations from the plant were also taken in the belief that it purified the blood. Since the Middle Ages, the plant has possessed a reputation as a mood elevator or anti-depressant and modern scientific research would tend to support such beliefs. Alongside its ability to chase away melancholia, Saint John’s Wort was also considered a plant capable of warding off evil spirits. Likewise, Chicory, picked by the root on the morning of Midsummer was said to thwart the evil spells that might be cast against you.

The virtues of Yarrow have been noted since ancient times when it was said to help heal wounds. In the traditional medicine of Brittany, the plant enjoyed a reputation for possessing a multitude of healing properties; preparations from the plant were used to stimulate the appetite, cure digestive difficulties and relieve menstrual pain. An infusion of the plant’s flowers, taken three times a day before meals, was believed to attack intestinal parasites. A decoction of the plant in hot water was taken as a remedy against colds, fatigue, stomach aches and even varicose veins and haemorrhoids. However, some healers advised treating the latter problem with a plaster that had been soaked in the same decoction; this was also the procedure used to treat sore and chapped breasts. One recipe to ease toothache called for a little of the plant’s leaf to be crushed and inserted into the ear nearest to the afflicted tooth in order to gain relief from the pain. The plant’s extracts remain in popular use in herbal medicine in France today.


Typically, all these plants were dried and carefully stored to help cope with the everyday ailments anticipated over the course of the year ahead.  Sometimes, they were mounted in bouquets or wreaths and placed to bring on good luck or to ward off the evil spells. When combined appropriately, this combination of herbs was believed able to counteract most fevers and be powerful enough to repel witchcraft. In the 16th century, bathing in water in which a hot decoction of these herbs had been mixed was believed to aid female fertility.

Midsummer’s Day was also believed to be the most auspicious occasion for gathering the plants that made the strongest love potion, namely: Marjoram, Myrtle, Thyme and Verbena. The dried leaves were ground to a fine powder and taken as a snuff. However, if a woman wanted her partner to love her dearly, it was recommended that she put a Walnut leaf, picked on the eve of Midsummer, in her left shoe while the Nones bell was ringing. An equally bizarre ritual was advised for those whose love was unrequited; it was thought necessary to collect some Elecampane before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day. Once dried, the plant’s crushed leaves were mixed with ambergris and worn in an amulet around the neck for nine days. All that then remained was to somehow get the object of one’s desire to eat, without being aware of doing so, a little of this concoction three times.

Saint John's Wort
Saint John’s Wort

Additionally, Midsummer was also a time very closely associated with some of Brittany’s magical plants, many of whom were also reputed to carry harvesting rituals similar to those reserved for the Seven Sacred Herbs of Saint John. Gathering these plants on the night before or on the morning or evening of Midsummer was believed to protect their magical virtues.

The fern or, more properly, the spores of the Eagle Fern collected on the eve of Midsummer were held to be effective in helping one find hidden treasures and to read the secrets hidden in people’s hearts. It was said to ensure victory in a struggle but also to grant invisibility to whomever held it in their mouth. Belief in the supernatural power of the fern, particularly its ability to resist all magic spells, was widespread enough in Europe for the practice of collecting ferns during Midsummer to have still been proscribed by Church Synods into the early 17th century.


Sometimes said to emerge spontaneously on Midsummer’s night, the Grass of Oblivion was thought to make it possible to understand the language of animals and to find lost items. It was also believed able to allow one to thwart the malice of witches but whoever unknowingly stepped on it, immediately lost their way and at risk of finding themselves at the mercy of the mischief of the korrigans.

Panicaut gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Eve was believed to be cure sick animals, while the health of cows was thought preserved over the year ahead if their hooves were rubbed with a paste made of the ground Herbs of Saint John gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Day. Similarly, to protect against witchcraft over the year ahead, it was necessary to assemble, at dawn, all one’s sheep at a crossroads on Midsummer’s Eve and smoke them with the Herbs of Saint John picked on the previous Midsummer.

Such fires, lit at crossroads, were said to prevent witches passing there during the night and some have suggested that the ancient fire festivals of Europe, such as the bonfires of Midsummer, were, in fact, rites aimed at cleansing the land of curses and the malevolence of witchcraft in an attempt to ensure a fruitful harvest and healthy livestock over the year ahead; once such key concerns for our ancestors.

The Mermaids of Brittany

The bestiaries of the Middle Ages included fantastic beasts such as unicorns, mermaids and dragons but popular belief in such creatures did not entirely die away after the Age of Enlightenment. Along Brittany’s wild coastline, stories of sailors and seashore gatherers encountering mermaids remained commonplace well into the 19th century.

In May 1636, the Duke de Retz, Marquis of Belle-Île, reported the presence of a merman seen seated on a rock near the Pointe des Poulains on his island’s north coast; the creature’s “body appeared to be the size of a barrel of wine, covered to the shoulders with hair, very big and rather white. His beard was similar and went to his stomach. His eyes were very big and rough.” Credible witnesses claimed “they could not see whether the legs and feet were of a man or of a fish tail, although some assure the latter,” and that “the arms and hands were very well proportioned, for the hands which he had were extraordinarily large and white on the inside and the arms a little short.”

The following day, boats were sent out to try and capture the creature; it broke the pursuers’ nets without any difficulty and even overturned one of their vessels. Eventually caught in a net, the merman managed to escape and for the next fortnight showed himself in inaccessible places around the island’s north coast. It was shot by an arquebus but no one was sure whether the creature was wounded as it plunged under the waves and was never seen again.

mermaid of Belle Ile

The poet Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant, who was then staying on the island, also related this episode but described a creature with green eyes, azure hair and a body covered in scales. Having added further poetical flourishes such as a mother-of-pearl horn, coral plumes, pearl scarf and amber perfume, Saint-Amant’s account sadly owes more to his imagination than anything seen by genuine witnesses.

The same summer that the creature was sighted off Belle-Île, fishermen and merchants travelling from there to the south coast city of Vannes, on the Breton mainland, reported something similar on rocks near the Chaussée du Béniguet: “he had no beard and very long hair, and assuredly, instead of legs, he had two fish tails shaped like a salmon.”

Off Brittany’s west coast in 1725, the thirty-two man crew of a ship from Brest reported that for two hours their vessel was taunted by a merman some eight feet long, who possessed human ears, black hair and webbed hands and feet. However, the sighting might have carried more weight if the creature was not also said to have been overly enamoured by the ship’s figurehead of a shapely woman.

Mermaids 18th century illustrations

In June 1761, a respected physician announced the beaching of a mermaid on the shore of the Île de Noirmoutier just six miles off the south coast of Brittany. He recounted that two local girls had been collecting shellfish when one came across an “animal in human form” lying in a small cave. The November 1761 edition of Mercure de France noted that: “As soon as it saw her, it stood straight and leaned on both hands. She called her companion, who being armed with a dart, pushed it into the heart of the beast, which made a moan similar to that of a person. Both girls cut off its hands, which had well-formed fingers and nails with fins between the fingers. The island’s doctor was called and he reported that this sea monster was the size of the biggest man we can imagine; that its skin was white, of a colour like the flesh of a drowned man; it had a very well formed female breast, a flattened nose, a large mouth whose chin was adorned with a species of beard formed of delicate scales and that it had similar scattered clumps all over. Its tail was that of a fish and at the end there were a kind of feet.”

A few years later, in January 1763 a naval officer from Brest reported a stranded merman near the west coast town of Le Conquet and in the following year a naval doctor from the same port described two “sea monsters” discovered stranded near Brest which he described as the “devil of the sea.”

Writing of his tour of the province in the mid-1790s, Jacques Cambry in his Voyage dans le Finistère (1799) noted: “There are few sailors on this coast who do not say they have heard the wail, the cry of the mermaid.” He also recounts a tale of the mermaid of the Pointe du Raz that an ill-advised fisherman from Douarnenez tried to capture. Seeing him approach with nets, she rushed into the sea and immediately invoked a terrible storm that threw twenty broken boats ashore.

Mermaid Brittany

The rocks lying off the Pointe du Van on Brittany’s Atlantic coast were said to be a preferred haunt for mermaids as late as the end of the 19th century. The Breton ethnographer Hyacinthe Le Carguet reported the first-hand testimony given to him by a fisherman in 1886: from the cliffs of Kerbesquerrien, he had seen with his own eyes a mermaid frolic not far from shore, disappear and then reappear again. She let her long hair float on her back and from time to time uttered a veiled call as a song. He assured Le Carguet that he had been able to observe the creature for a long time over two days before it disappeared, heading north towards the Basse-Jaune reef.

Le Carguet tried to convince the fisherman of another explanation for the phenomenon; the maritime authorities had recently reported that a buoy topped with a foghorn had broken its chain and carried by the current, must have drifted into the bay before being caught by the ebb. The mermaid’s song was the muffled sound of the foghorn and a mass of entangled seaweed, her hair. Unfortunately, Le Carguet’s scepticism displeased his interlocutor, who, like many at the time, believed in the existence of mermaids.

Other witnesses, whose sincerity cannot be doubted, also claimed to have seen mermaids, most often in the classic pose of sitting on a rock, combing their golden hair. One account collected in the 1950s recounts how, in his youth in 1890, the Dean of Goulien was in a rowing boat, sea-fishing with friends when deteriorating weather forced them to return to port. As they were doing so, a mermaid approached and swam around their boat. The young men first tried to catch it but succeeded only in antagonising the creature who then became threatening, diving several times under the boat as if to capsize it. The fishermen tried to strike her with their oars and the waves picked-up markedly thus making it impossible to access the cove that served as their harbour.

The mermaid followed the boat for more than an hour as the men struggled against the waves to bring their vessel into another anchorage. “I saw it well, she had a fishtail and her upper body was like that of a woman; a beautiful woman with red cheeks and black hair that floated on the water,” described the Dean who was unable to report on the creature’s chest and hands because they remained constantly submerged.

Mermaid Byrne Jones

This account corresponds to the well-established belief once widely held by the fishermen of western Brittany, that before a storm, mermaids were often sighted; foreshadowing a drowning. It is, of course, likely that the creature the men encountered was a seal but the power of the imagination, coupled with popular tradition, evoked in them the image that custom dictated they should see: a mermaid. The authentic flavour of the story comes from their efforts to reconcile the reality that was before their eyes with the ready-made image conjured by the tales they had grown-up with. 

In Breton folklore, mermaids (sirènes in French) are usually portrayed as small, mischievous creatures well-versed in the dark arts of magic and evil spells. Like the sirens of antiquity, their songs were said to possess the power to bewitch any man that heard them and they are often depicted taunting young fishermen with their amorous solicitations. These traits appear little changed from the many descriptions noted in the bestiaries of medieval Europe where mermaids symbolised lustful, faithless women.

Richard de Fournival’s mid-13th century Bestiary of Love noted: “There are three types of mermaids, two of which are half-woman, half-fish and the third is half-woman and half-bird. All are musicians: one plays the horn, another, the harp, and the last sings with a female voice. The mermaid’s melody is so pleasant that there is no man who can hear it, no matter how distant, without being compelled to come to her but when he draws near, he falls asleep and when the mermaid finds him, she kills him.”

Mermaids medieval bestiary

Writing at about the same time, Dante’s guardian and tutor, the philosopher Brunetto Latini, claimed they were “harlots who deceived travellers and reduced them to poverty. If history says that they had wings and claws, it is to symbolize love, which flies and strikes; and if they dwelt in the water, it is because lust is born from the wet.”

Clearly, physical descriptions of mermaids have varied over time; the one depicted in the 12th century Cambridge bestiary possesses a fish’s tail, the talons of an eagle and a skirt of bird feathers and fish scales. However, the 7th century Liber Monstrorum or Book of Monsters, says that “from the head to the navel they have a maiden’s body and are most like the human form but they have the scaly tails of a fish which they always hide in the sea.” This image of the mermaid is the one most commonly found in Breton lore into the 19th century when “the sailors of Trégor assure that they have seen it sometimes and more often heard it: it has the head and breast of a woman, the rest of the body is a fish.”

Cambridge bestiary - mermaid
© Cambridge University Library (MS Ii.4.26)

Just as described in the seventh century, Brittany’s mermaids were believed to use their beauty and enchanting songs to lure hapless men to their destruction and damnation. Calling out to the men aboard the vessels at sea, the mermaids were said to sing so marvellously that no mortal could resist the temptation to join them in their undersea domain; inevitably resulting in shipwrecks and the deaths of sailors. Their beauty and fatal sensuality personified not so much the wantonness of women but the allure and dangers of the sea itself.

In Breton lore, mermaids were rarely encountered in the open sea; they were believed to prefer staying close to the coast, particularly near the mouths of rivers or the entrance to grottos. Breton sailors claimed that the appearance of a mermaid always announced bad weather. In western Brittany, it was believed that it was enough to see a mermaid, or even to accidentally touch one, to start a fierce storm. On the coast of Finistère, mermaids were often known by the name of Mac’harit an gwall amzer or Margaret Foul Weather; their voice was said to possess the power to make the sea rage or to reduce the wind to dead calm. An old proverb warned that: “When Mac’harit starts to sing, the sailor starts to cry.”

Legends from the south east of the region tell of mermaids’ warning men not to touch their hair; to do so would risk calamity and death, while other legends equated the mermaid’s touch with certain death. As a creature that had rejected God’s word, the touch of a mermaid was sometimes thought enough to condemn a man to suffer the saddest fate faced by a Christian; condemned never to rest in the troughs of the waves and with the mark of baptism forever effaced from his forehead. Never would the unfortunate know the joy of resting in holy ground; never would he have a grave where his loved ones might come to pray for his salvation.

Mermaid Brittany

Mermaids here were also widely believed to have the power to take their victims to the depths of their underwater lair by a single touch; even the slightest touch of a part of her body was thought enough to force a man to rush irresistibly into the sea. It was this magical ability that explained how the mermaid of the Pointe de la Latte was able to abduct a large number of young men: as soon as she had managed to touch only one of them with the tip of her finger, they could not avoid following her into the depths.

An 11th century account of the life of Saint Tudual tells of religious students walking along the banks of the Tréguier River, when the last of their group, who was remarkably beautiful, stopped talking mid-sentence. When his companions turned around, they could see no trace of him. Having searched in vain, they invoked Saint Tudual and a moment later the young man emerged from the water, his right foot tangled in a silk belt.

Once calmed, he explained: “Mermaids seized me and dragged me under the waves of the ocean. Although taken by them far away, I still heard your voices. Then before me, a venerable figure, dressed in priestly garb, appeared. With a mighty arm he tore me from them and through the mighty waves he brought me back to the shore. When they saw him, the mermaids fled but one of them forgot to unfasten the belt she had wrapped around me; it is here as proof of my abduction.”

Mermaid Brittany

It was said that an inaccessible sea cave on Brittany’s west coast, near Crozon, was once home to a group of mermaids. One evening, a local lord was travelling home along the cliff-top path above this cave when he came across a baby girl, seemingly abandoned in a basket. He took her home and he and his wife raised the child as though she had been their own. However, the girl was a mermaid and often, at night, disappeared from the crib where she had been laid, without anyone knowing what had become of her.

When she reached her teenage years, the people of the castle often heard, at dusk, the sound of a horse in the courtyard; it was a folgoat or water horse calling the young mermaid who seemed to answer its cries with a dazzling light before disappearing, sometimes for weeks on end. Those who had raised her tried in vain to hold her heart to theirs but one day she left and did not come back. According to legend, she still lives in the cave at Crozon; home to the last mermaid.

On Brittany’s north coast, the mermaid of La Fresnaye was said to have preferred spending her time in the little cove watered on each side by the two rivers that flow into the sea there. It was in that spot that, on the rising tide, one could see her gliding on the waves and hear her soft voice floating over the water; wherever she passed, the sea shone like sunshine. One day, having fallen asleep, rocked by the waves, the mermaid was floating a short distance from shore when she was captured by a clog-maker. She was the size of an eight year old girl; on her head floated golden hair and her polished white body resembled that of a woman but instead of feet she had fins and a fishtail. Ignoring her pleas to be returned to the water, the clog-maker took his prize home to his wife who was minded to eat the poor creature.

mermaid of La Fresnaye

After reminding the clog-maker’s wife of the instant death that befell anyone who desecrated the flesh of a mermaid, she again pleaded to be put back in the ocean and offered to grant the family their hearts’ desire, for she possessed the power of the fairies. The clog-maker and his wife eventually carried the mermaid back to the sea and soon their wish for food, good clothes and gold was granted. After a year, the gold had all been spent and the clog-maker once again asked the mermaid for a full purse, which she duly granted before forever leaving Brittany for India. Another legend tells that a once stranded mermaid gave a flute to a fisherman as a reward for returning her to the sea; whenever he played this magical instrument, the mermaid would appear and deliver whatever aid she could.

Another tale tells that two women of Ouessant were collecting shellfish when they encountered a mermaid drying her treasures in the sun, spread out on two beautiful white cloths. The curious girls reached her without being seen and the mermaid, surprised to see that the girls were gentle, gave them each a gift wrapped in her fine cloth, on condition that they did not to look at them until they had returned home. One of the girls, too impatient to discover what she believed to be some marvellous treasure, unwrapped her cloth and found only horse dung. The other girl went home and opened her gift before her parents, to discover fine pearls, precious stones, gold and rich fabrics. The family became fabulously wealthy and it is said their descendants still live on the island in comfort today, thanks to the mermaid’s treasure.

Some Breton tales tell that mermaids are grateful to mortals who return any stranded beauties to the sea, offering favour and fortune to those who have shown them consideration and kindness. The mermaid saved by the mother of the Breton hero Rannou had given her, for her son, a conch shell filled with a magical potion; thanks to her gift, Rannou became the strongest of all men. However, in the folklore of western Brittany, such benevolent mermaids are exceptional; most tales represent them as treacherous, evil or cruel creatures.

Brittany and mermaids

On the Île de Groix, the cliff chasm known as Trou de l’Enfer was said to be home to a fierce merman; a thickly furred beast with the head of a man displaying disjointed teeth and fingers of abalone shells. This merman was reputedly the instigator of shipwrecks because his voice allowed him to imitate those of boat captains and give fatal counter-orders to their crews. Thankfully, it was said to be active only between November and March. Further along the coast, the jagged cliffs of Pen Men concealed the lair of a vicious mermaid who crushed children to death against the rocks for her amusement.

In The Mermaid’s Blood (1897), the Breton author Anatole Le Braz tells of a young man’s trip to the Île d’Ouessant to collect the legends of the island. Whilst there, he meets the beautiful and charismatic Marie-Ange and hears tales of the twelve virgins; a colony of mermaids as beautiful as angels but as perverse as demons, who once lived in one of the island’s coves. A local fisherman had caught one in his nets and the unlikely couple fell in love and even married. The mermaid made her husband a commander of the sea and the winds and waves obeyed him, bringing him fish and wrecks aplenty. Alas, the other mermaids, jealous of their sister’s happiness, cursed her and all her descendants. Since then, each girl born of the mermaid’s bloodline would be the most beautiful of her generation but would be cursed to lose her husband to the sea which would never return his body for a Christian burial.

When the folklorist François-Marie Luzel visited the isles of Ouessant and Molène in 1873, he found that the oral tradition of the islands had preserved the memories of mermaids who had once frequented their shores. Interestingly, the people of Ouessant believed that a distinct tribe of merfolk lived, until relatively recently, just a short distance from their island. These creatures were held to have been more benevolent towards humanity than other mermaids and counted both males and females amongst their numbers; the mermen were called morgans, the mermaids morganes – Breton for sea-born. They were frequently to be seen frolicking amongst the seaweeds near the shore or drying beautiful treasures under the afternoon sun. Such marvels could be seen provided only that the onlooker did not move their eyelids, for everything vanished at the first blink of an eye. Sadly, it was said that the increase in the number of strangers visiting the island since the advent of the steam ferry from the mainland, exposed the merfolk to the malice of humanity and since then, they were rarely seen.

Mermaid family

The ocean depths around Ouessant were thus home to the morgans; a tribe of merfolk of great beauty. Only Mona Kerbili, a young girl of the island, could equal their beauty and grace. One day, the King of the Morgans, dazzled by her beauty, seized the girl and carried her to the bottom of the ocean. In his brilliant palace, surrounded by magnificent riches, Mona’s beauty shone brightest and the old king fell desperately in love with her.

Unfortunately, the king’s son was also captivated by Mona and begged his father to give her to him in marriage but the king forbade such an alliance and instead forced his son to marry a morganes, daughter of one of his counsellors. While the folk of the palace attended the wedding ceremony, Mona was ordered to stay in the kitchens and prepare the wedding feast but she had been given only empty pots and a promise of death if an excellent meal did not await the party’s return. Having been made aware of Mona’s plight, the groom returned to the palace on some pretext and recited a charm as he touched the cooking pots that soon produced a marvellous meal. The banquet was well liked by all but the king realised that Mona had received aid from some quarter and resolved to be rid of this daughter of the soil.

When the newlyweds eventually retired to their bridal chamber that night, the king ordered Mona to accompany them and to stay near the door, holding a lighted candle in her hand; the death of the light would signal her own. The king stood in an adjoining room and from time to time asked: “Has the candle burnt down to your hand?”

“Not yet,” answered Mona. The king repeated the question several times until, when the candle was almost entirely consumed, the prince said to his new bride: “Take, for a moment, the candle from Mona’s hands and hold it, while she lights us a fire.”


Completely oblivious to her father-in-law’s intentions, the newlywed duly took the candle just as the king again asked: “Has the candle burnt to your hand?”

“Answer yes,” demanded the young prince of his wife, who willing did so. Hearing this, the king burst into the room and threw himself upon the girl holding the dying light and with one mighty blow from his sword, separated her head from her body.

The following morning, the prince told his father that he was now a widower and begged permission to marry Mona. When the king’s anger had abated, he reluctantly consented to the marriage of his son with the daughter of the soil. The wedding duly took place and the young couple lived in happiness in the palace under the waves. The prince treated his wife with kindness and consideration but Mona missed her Breton hearth and begged her husband’s permission to return to the land to visit her family but the prince was reluctant to allow Mona to leave as he was afraid that she would not return to him.

However, seeing his wife grow sadder each day, he eventually relented and promised to lead her back to her father’s house. The prince spoke a magical incantation and immediately a beautiful crystal bridge appeared; a glass arch that led from the bottom of the sea to the land above. Mona’s husband advised her to return at sunset and to take pains to not to let any man kiss or even touch her hand. In the excitement surrounding her return, Mona forgot this one recommendation and the wind soon chased away all memory of everything that had happened since her departure for the land of the morgans. At night, she often heard cries on the wind and during one stormy night, she distinctly recognized the voice of her husband, reproaching her for having abandoned him. Mona instantly remembered everything and found her husband behind the door of her father’s house. She threw herself into his arms and has not been seen by human eyes since that moment.

Mermaids Breton art deco

The tale of Mona and the King of the Morgans presents an image of an alternate world existing on the sea-bed and other tales tells that beneath the waves there lies an enchanted world containing well-tended fields where strange plants grow and long avenues lead to beautiful castles made of mother-of-pearl and crystal; it is so pleasant a place that mortal visitors find that years pass there no longer than days.

Such is the domain where mermaids held their victims; those men that had attracted their fancy or even those who had been shipwrecked at sea. Some tales tell that these men married the mermaid who had kidnapped them and that, apart from the freedom to return to land, they had everything they could wish for; living a long, happy, pampered life at the bottom of the ocean, losing all memory of their earlier lives. Typically, it was men who were held in this enchanted realm because it was believed inhabited only by mermaids; the notable exception to this tradition being the merfolk off Ouessant.

A legend collected on Île Molène, talks of mermaids as eternally young seducers driven to despair by their insatiable passion. Living in rich palaces on the sea-bed, by day they display the splendour of their unveiled beauty while slumbering amid the coolness of grottos. By night, they allow themselves to be lulled by the waves breaking over the rocks. At their touch, sea-foam crystallizes into gems as dazzling as that of her body. By moonlight, they caress their hair with a comb of fine gold and sing a plaintive song whose charm is irresistible. The sailor who listens to it feels himself drawn toward the mermaid, without power to break the charm that pulls him to his doom; his craft is broken upon the reefs: the man is in the sea and the mermaid shrieks in pure joy.

Dahud first Breton mermaid

In some Breton legends, the first mermaid was Dahud, the damned daughter of King Gradlon who ruled the city of Is which Dahud had surrendered to the Devil, causing its destruction by the sea. Since that time, the fishermen of Douarnenez Bay often reported seeing, in times of rough weather, the cursed princess sitting on the rocks, exciting the storm. A Breton ballad collected from the oral tradition in the 1830s ends with some verses depicting Dahud as a mermaid: “Did you see, fisherman, the mermaid combing her golden hair by the shore, when the sun shone bright? I saw the white girl from the sea, I even heard her sing, her song was as sad as the waves.”

Dahud’s transformation into a mermaid is sometimes attributed to God as a punishment or to the Devil as a reward, while another version tells how Saint Guénolé took pity on her as she fell from her father’s horse while escaping the waves, saying: “You will live as one of the merfolk, living in the sunken palace of Ker-Is for eternity.” This accords with another tale which says that Ker-Is was not destroyed by the sea, only submerged and that it is now populated entirely by merfolk.

In addition to merfolk, other legends of fantastic fish are found in the folklore of Brittany where it was said that the lumpfish was once a fisherman. A tale tells that one evening, a fisherman was walking along the seashore at nightfall when he heard a voice announcing that the Fairy Queen’s feast would take place on the following day and that any man who set his nets that day would be punished. The fisherman ignored the warning and when he touched his nets, a voice cried out and cursed him to forever assume the form of a fish.


The northern coasts of Brittany were once the playground of the Nicole; mischievous nymphs believed to tangle or tear fishermen’s nets and loosen the anchor cables of the men who worked the bays of Saint-Brieuc and Saint-Malo. It was said that these creatures often waited until the fishermen were about to draw-in their nets before leaping all around them, freeing the fish. They were also blamed for entangling the boats or even moving them whilst the sailors were asleep. Nicole most often displayed itself in the form of a large fish that sometimes appeared above the waves to laugh at the struggles of the fishermen. Some legends say that its name derived from a naval officer who, at one time, commanded a company of conscripted fishermen whom he treated harshly. His brutal reputation had long lingered in these coastal communities who said the troublesome spirit was none other than Nicole, transformed into a fish, who still amused himself by tormenting them.

For others, the Nicole was a lost soul, a former fisherman who had always been too hard on his fellows and who continued to torment them after his death; still others regarded it as the Devil himself. It was in this capacity that he was exorcised by the rector of Saint-Jacut, although some say it was the priest of Saint-Cast, who mounted its back only letting go after having made it sign a pact promising not to torment his parishioners any longer.

Similar to other supernatural beings such as the korrigans and fairies, mermaids once held an important place in the popular Breton imagination; mysterious, magical beings who willingly abandoned their parallel world for regular incursions into the daily lives of our ancestors. Little wonder therefore that some suggest that, like the korrigans and fairies, the mermaids of Brittany might have been the final echoes of ancient water divinities worshipped here in days of yore.

Medicinal Plants of Brittany

In the rural Brittany of yesteryear, where doctors were exceptionally rare, the populace were happy to utilise the healing power of plants and other natural remedies. Sometimes, the intervention of the local healer or witch was sought but often people were content to apply the ancient wisdom that had been transmitted within the family from generation to generation. The remedies needed to treat the most common diseases and ailments were well known and families had long learned what plants were essential to cultivate near the home.

In Brittany, healers were generally believed to have been bestowed with their curative powers at birth although certain circumstances were thought more auspicious than others. The most powerful healers were held to be found amongst those born on Good Friday afternoon or on the first day of August or on a Friday in March, provided that day was one of the odd days of the month. Similarly, the seventh child born of a family where all six siblings were of the same but opposite sex, was considered destined to be a great healer.

Medication was typically administered here according to the complaint to be treated. The most common remedies involved herbal infusions and decoctions which were either drunk or poured over the seat of the disease. For external ailments and wounds, parts of the plant were directly placed on the body or else the remedy was applied as an ointment in a plaster or as a poultice.

Gathering plants

Some healers never applied healing ointments directly to the seat of the disease in the belief that to do so would ‘push’ the ailment deeper inside the body. Instead, the salve was applied to an unaffected part of the body; the healing power of the remedy was thought to enter through the skin and circulate via the bloodstream before attacking the disease which was eventually overwhelmed and expelled in the sweat and excreta of the patient.

Sometimes, plants were worn about the body to cure or protect against illnesses; a Horse Chestnut carried in a pocket was said to protect against rheumatic pains and prevented haemorrhoids. An amulet containing Wormwood or nine cloves of Garlic, worn at night, was said to repel intestinal worms in children; it being popularly believed that worms could travel up to the throat, causing a cough in the patient. There was therefore some method behind the apparent madness of wearing a repellent around the neck to chase away worms.

Diseases were often believed able to be transferred to a plant which, in decomposing, allowed healing in the patient. In other cases, the plant was believed to act as a simple poultice and drain the disease from the patient, such as Garden Heliotrope leaves for abscesses; the smooth face of the leaf was said to extract the disease causing it to dry-out, the rougher side was then applied to dry-out the wound itself.


Some disorders were associated with notions of corrupted blood in the body which had to be removed or purified. For instance, hematomas were considered indicative of bad blood because they could develop into an abscess and a draught of Myrtle leaves macerated in white wine was drank, on an empty stomach, for three consecutive mornings as a means of removing the tainted blood. Boils were often seen as the visible manifestation that one’s blood was tainted and it was then held necessary to drink a decoction of Dandelion roots whose diuretic action purified the blood. Similarly, a decoction of Walnut leaves drunk at the onset of spring and autumn was thought a powerful depurative that refreshed one’s blood.

To cure eye ailments, bunches of Stonecrop that had previously been passed through the smoke of the Midsummer bonfire fire were lit and the resultant smoke was used to fumigate the diseased eye. Similarly, an eye-bath made from Elderflowers picked on the Feast of Corpus Christi were also believed to heal eye complaints, due more to their mystical association with an auspicious day rather than any particularly beneficial chemical ingredient.

To treat an eye disease popularly thought to betray the presence of an evil spirit, a compound consisting of the leaves of Lesser Celandine and nine grains of salt was applied to the little finger of the hand opposite the infected eye. Another remedy involved making the sign of the cross with nine grains of Wheat which were then thrown, one by one, into a bucket of water, while reciting certain charms. The bubbles which then appeared were said to be the evil leaving the patient.

To cure a sore throat, a poultice made of ground Agrimony fried in lard was put on the throat and massaged into the skin with six drops of vinegar. A poultice of crushed Leeks worn against the patient’s neck was also thought effective although the same remedy, placed hot on the lower abdomen, was used to help those who experienced difficulties urinating. Another treatment for a sore throat involved a plaster made from Wheat flour, milk and pepper; the hot dough was wrapped in a cloth and applied to the throat for two hours. To treat swollen glands, Bugleweed root cooked under hot ash with a little salt was eaten twice a day as a remedy.


An infusion of Wormwood and Sage in water was applied directly, twice a day, to treat earache. However, the juice of the Houseleek, sometimes called Wild Artichoke, was the most popular remedy used against earaches here. The plant was thought to possess other wonderful qualities; many Breton farmers cultivated one or two Houseleek plants on the lower parts of their farmhouse roof to preserve their homes against lightning strikes. The plant was also said to immediately wither whenever a sorcerer or witch entered the house.

Hearing difficulties were often confronted with a potion made from equal quantities of Onion juice, ant egg juice and fresh water. Having been left to stand overnight, three drops of this liquid were introduced into the ear canal of one ear before breakfast; three drops were applied to the other ear on the following morning, the treatment being continued for a fortnight.

Two of the most common treatments for toothache involved the application of hot poultices. The first was made solely from Walnut leaves while the other consisted of a compound made from Figs, milk and breadcrumbs applied to the cheek. However, one daring remedy for toothache involved the prolonged chewing of Sea Holly while the healer recited, nine times, a special charm that ended with an invocation to Saint Apollonia, the 3rd century Christian martyr whose teeth were shattered during her torture in Alexandria. A less vigorous remedy was noted in eastern parts of the region, where a Privet branch, cut before dawn, was placed in the fireplace without the patient’s knowledge, in expectation of bringing-on a cure for toothache and other oral maladies such as thrush in infants.

Sea Holly

Once cooled, a compound made from crushed Bay leaves that had been cooked in boiling bacon fat, was applied as an ointment to heal burns. The petals of Lily flowers, macerated in vegetable oil, were also used to treat burns but the plant’s petals macerated in lambig (cider brandy) were believed able to heal even the most malignant wounds when directly applied for three consecutive days. This treatment was thought effective in preventing infection and promoting healing.

One cure to treat a cold called for a hole to be carved into an Onion which then needed to be filled with mutton fat and cooked in the ashes of a fire. Once cooked, the burnt skins were removed and the onion applied, as hot as possible, as an ointment to the patient’s feet and stomach. Another unusual remedy against the common cold called for a hot poultice made of boiled Barley flour be placed on the patient’s neck and roasted bacon fat in their ears.

Chest colds and acute bronchitis were treated by drinking a herbal tea made of Apples, Figs, Mallow flowers, Plums and Raisins along with two spoons of honey; the whole boiled for an hour before being filtered and the resultant liquid drunk between meals. This treatment needed to be augmented by rubbing the patient’s neck and chest with a piece of zinc for two minutes, twice a day.

The carnivorous Sundew plant has long been reputed to possess multiple medicinal properties and it was once used against warts, burns and even syphilis. However, it was most widely used to make concoctions that were recommended against painful or incessant coughs, whooping cough and asthma. Many of today’s pharmaceutical drugs and cough syrups contain active components found in Sundews and extracts from the plant are also found in commercial wart treatments. The juice of a Dandelion leaf was also popularly applied directly onto warts in the belief that they would soon disappear.


Tuberculosis was treated with a mix of dried and ground Couch Grass, Marjoram, Mint, Nettle and Thyme that had been macerated in white wine overnight. This concoction was then filtered through a cloth and the resulting liquid drunk in the morning for four consecutive days, followed one hour later with a breakfast of a freshly laid egg.

To rupture boils and abscesses, a plaster containing a compound made of soap, boiled cream and a handful of Sorrel leaves was applied direct to the seat of the disease. A plaster made of Duckweed leaves was also used for the same purpose. The Sorrel’s tender leaves were thought to possess purifying and diuretic properties and laxative broths were often prepared from an infusion of them. Likewise, the boiled root of the Yellow Dock plant was commonly used as a purgative and laxative. Kelp was another plant that was popularly boiled and eaten as a laxative.

Although poisonous when eaten fresh, many remedies for easing the symptoms of gout involved concoctions derived from the petals and leaves of the Buttercup. However, here they were most popularly ground to make a plaster that was worn over the pulse of the wrist. The plant’s leaves were also used to treat headaches; a piece of cloth soaked in vinegar in which Buttercup leaves had been macerated for a fortnight was worn across the forehead as an effective cure. 


For those suffering from anaemia or a loss of appetite, drinking an infusion of Gooseberry leaves in hot water was recommended; as much as half a litre, taken on an empty stomach, daily. A more frequent dose of this same drink was used to relieve diarrhoea and dysentery. To ease the pain of a very sore throat it was held necessary to boil the plant’s leaves in water for a third of an hour; while still hot, the patient would then gargle with this water and prepare a plaster, to be worn on the neck, with the boiled leaves. Drinking a herbal tea made from an infusion of the plant’s bark was advised for those people who experienced difficulties urinating.

Growing children were fed Radish to help calcify their bones and to fight rickets and eating the plant’s leaves with a little salt was recommended in order to keep teeth healthy. Similarly, Garden Spurge, also known as Mole Grass, was chewed in the belief that it strengthened teeth. The plant is toxic and when swallowed burns the mucous membranes of the mouth and oesophagus before inducing severe stomach pains. Nevertheless, the plant’s seed capsules were often placed on or in a decayed tooth to ease cases of severe toothache.

To protect against night terrors, children were often given an amulet to wear containing a compound made from Ground-Ivy and lard. Additionally, in the north of the region, Water Arrow, also known as Arrowhead, was put under the beds of boys and balls of Oats under those of girls to help preserve them against such discomfort. To cure children of incontinence, a spoonful of Nettle seeds was mixed into a handful of bread dough; once cooked, the child had to eat a third of the bread each morning before breakfast for three consecutive days.


Weak children, particularly those experiencing difficulties in walking, were sometimes taken to the sacred spring dedicated to Saint Idunet just outside the village of Pluzunet. Here a curious ritual was performed; the ailing child was made to lie on a stone slab popularly known as ‘the saint’s bed’ – local tradition held that this stone was an old druidic altar that the saint had once repurposed as a bed – and restrained there whilst prayers were said for its recovery. The child’s back was then beaten with branches of Broom which were then used to sweep the surface of the stone bed but only after the child’s body had been sprinkled three times with water taken in a cupped hand directly from the fountain. After rubbing the child’s kidneys, the surrounding earth was also sprinkled three times with the fountain’s water. These rites and their focus on two of the primary elements were believed to magnify the healing power of the fountain.

Another curious ritual was also once recommended in the folk medicine of western Brittany; to be rid of ringworm it was said necessary to capture a grey crow while it was building its nest. The bird was tied to a length of string and lowered to the bottom of a dried-up well where it was kept captive for three days. Each morning, before sunrise, it was essential to challenge the crow with a formula that essentially demanded that it reveal the cure in exchange for its freedom. It was said that the remedy would be found at the end of the third day, having been left near the well by the captive’s kinsfolk to secure its deliverance. This plant was Frogbit; a small floating plant resembling the water lily and it was rubbed on the patient’s head for seven days each morning before breakfast as a cure. However, the treatment was believed only effective if delivered to the patient by birds.

Breton well

In eastern Brittany, it was said that a pregnant woman who touched or even stepped over Common Rue would induce an abortion. The roots to this superstition likely lie in the fact that the plant, when ingested, has been widely noted as a powerful abortifacient since Ancient times. In other parts of the region, an infusion made from Rue was thought to quell nosebleeds. Sometimes an abortifacient medicine, such as a decoction made of Laurel, Mint and Peony, was used to treat epilepsy.

Aurone, also known here as Lemongrass, was another abortifacient that was also used to ease abdominal pain, particularly menstrual pains. The plant, boiled in salt water for ten minutes, also produced a potion that was used to wash infected wounds and external ulcers. A plaster made from a mixture of ground Hemlock and coarse salt was also applied in the treatment of abdominal pain. A wash made from an infusion of Mistletoe berries was recommended for the treatment of female genital ailments. Mistletoe was regarded as a wonderfully versatile plant; made into a poultice, its crushed leaves and berries were used to treat sciatica and rheumatism. To treat jaundice, nine Mistletoe berries were soaked in the urine of a young boy and put into a cloth sachet placed on the patient’s head.

Dried Mistletoe leaves, macerated overnight in cold water, were drunk three times a day to relieve convulsive asthma, whooping cough and jaundice. The same tonic and dosage was also held effective against nosebleeds, haemorrhages, convulsions and epilepsy. One recipe against epilepsy called for Mistletoe leaves to be dried in the oven and ground into a fine powder. During the last three days of the new moon it was necessary, every morning, to drink a little of this powder that had been allowed to macerate in white wine overnight.

Mistletoe medicinal

A variant of this treatment for epilepsy required a small branch of Oak Mistletoe, complete with berries and leaves, be dried in the oven and finely ground. A little of the resultant powder was taken in wine or cider each morning and evening during the three days before and the three days after the full moon. Thankfully, given its rarity, Oak Mistletoe could be substituted with Apple Mistletoe without any loss in efficacy. Belief in the plant’s efficiency against epilepsy was still strongly held here well into the 20th century.

To treat scabies and other skin diseases, a decoction made from Elderberry leaves, the stems and leaves of the Common Mallow and the root of the Marshmallow was blended with hand-crushed Marshmallow flowers, some Flax seed flour and a little ointment made from Hibiscus flowers; the resultant compound was applied as a poultice. Another poultice to treat the same ailments involved breadcrumbs boiled slowly in milk, to which was added dried and chopped Henbane leaves.

Sometimes, syrups made by boiling the juice of the Common Fumitory or the Wild Pansy together with a little sugar were taken against skin diseases. Another popular treatment involved fumigation or a steam bath of the vapours of boiling Agrimony, Knapweed, St. John’s Wort and Rupturewort together in a cauldron. Other diseases that manifested themselves on the skin, such as eczema, boils, scrofula and herpes, were treated by an infusion of Walnut leaves in water; three leaves were boiled for a third of an hour and the infusion drunk on an empty stomach each morning. However, to deliver a lasting improvement for the patient, it was believed necessary to continue treatment for a very long but unspecified time. Lining the patient’s bed with branches of Bramble was also undertaken as a treatment for eczema; the plant was said to absorb the disease as it wilted.

Walnut leaves

The treatments for scrofulous diseases ranged from the straightforward to the elaborate. At one end of the spectrum, a strong infusion of ground, dried Acorns in hot water produced a kind of acorn coffee; two bowls of which were drank each morning and evening as a tonic. The roots of Horseradish and Gentiana were mixed with dried Spoonwort and Water Clover leaves as a treatment for scrofula. Having been macerated in white wine for three day, the medicine was ingested each morning before breakfast and in the evening, before dinner. Likewise, a decoction made from the crushed roots of Burdock, Elecampane, Soapwort and Horseradish was drunk three times daily against the same disease.

At the other end of the scale, a mixture of Fumitory flowers in Scabious juice was taken, before breakfast, in the water in which a chicken had been previously boiled. This treatment was supplemented an hour later by drinking a pint of a decoction made from the roots of Impatiens and Elecampane that had been poured, boiling hot, over a handful of Fumitory flowers and allowed to infuse. To this infusion, an anti-scorbutic syrup made from Spoonwort or Horseradish was added before being drank by the patient.

Another popular remedy for all scrofulous engorgements called for the juices of Sorrel, Chicory, Watercress and Soapwort to be blended in equal parts and mixed with a syrup made from a decoction of the roots of Elecampane, Impatiens and Horseradish with a little Barley; taken in the morning before breakfast, a cure within twelve days was expected.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo : Summer

One remedy to dispel fevers required the patient to wear, on one of their pulse points, for two days a plaster made from five cloves of Garlic, five roots of Parsley, a pinch of coarse salt and a little soot taken from the chimney. Another treatment recommended boiling Horse Chestnuts in sweetened milk; the milk was drunk and the Chestnuts eaten every morning before breakfast for three consecutive days. Patients suffering from a pernicious fever were vigorously rubbed, over all parts of their body, with a bouquet of Wormwood while the healer recited certain charms. This done, the healer typically made the patient walk three times around the thorn bush nearest to the house.

While the seeds of the Eagle Fern were long held to possess magical qualities, the plant’s stems were also believed to possess medicinal qualities and these seem to have differed from place to place, for instance in Maël-Pestivien in central Brittany it was applied to treat injuries but just 10km west in Callac it treated skin disorders and another 40km west, haematomas.

Preparations made from Hawthorn Mistletoe were believed to alleviate colic and cure a fever. To treat renal colic, an Onion macerated overnight in white wine was ground to a pulp and passed through a loosely woven cloth before being drunk. Colic in children was thought calmed by an infusion of Cherry stems, Bran and honey while children suffering from hernias were relieved by the application of a Duckweed plaster. The taproot of the Carrot was fed to children in the belief that it made hair grow although a lotion prepared from Boxwood leaves was thought to encourage hair growth in adults losing theirs. However, rubbing one’s cheeks with ant eggs was advised for those who did not wish to have too thick a beard. Another peculiar remedy called for a concoction made from the bark of the Golden Willow that was held good for removing freckles from the face and for drying out wounds.

Lucien Simon : Breton healer

If we have now abandoned the old medicinal practices which were once so deeply woven into daily life and popular belief, the use of plants for their therapeutic and curative properties remains. Today’s allopathic and homeopathic medicine are re-discovering and re-appropriating the old knowledge for the benefit of future generations.

Armchair Travelling – Bangladesh

With increasing signs that this month will see the lifting of the outstanding restrictions imposed on daily life here in the fight against the spread of Covid-19, this might be the last bit of armchair travelling necessary for a while. That being so, I thought a virtual visit to a country that does not often sit atop the Asian travel bucket-lists might be in order; beautiful Bangladesh.

Dhaka houses on stilts
Dhaka boats
Dhaka traffic
Dhaka underpass
Sonargaon Bangladesh
Sonargaon Bengal
Bangladesh fishing
Bangladesh water level
Bangladesh well
Bengali fishing
Bangladesh bicycle
Chai stall - Bangladesh
Cox's Bazar Bangladesh
Bangladesh boats
Cox's Bazar - Rickshaw sunset
Dhaka sunset

Many thanks for joining me on this virtual journey through many different parts of Bangladesh!

A Book Tour of Brittany

Generations of writers, from across the world, have long drawn artistic inspiration from the unique atmosphere found in the small corner of Europe that is Brittany. Stimulated by these surroundings, locals and visitors alike have often put pen to paper with notable success; this post highlights some authors and their books not featured in an earlier literary tour of Brittany.

“I shall go to some quiet place in France to get right again; I don’t mean to live with anybody, even my own family but to occupy myself thoroughly.” These words were written by the English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) not long after the death of his wife, the arguably greater poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Seeking solitude, Browning decided that Brittany offered the desired conditions. After his wife’s death, he stayed near Dinard for three months in 1861; the summer of 1863 was spent in Sainte-Marie, “a wild little place in Brittany,” a small coastal hamlet beside Pornic.

Here he wrote most of the collection that would be published as Dramatis Personæ in 1864; a volume that contained some of his finest work, including James Lee’s Wife and Gold Hair: A Legend of Pornic which carries all the flavour of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Browning spent the following two summers in Sainte-Marie and it was during his last stay that he saw the gypsy girl who inspired Fifine at the Fair; a reflective piece contrasting the exciting but ephemeral quality of lust with the steady permanence of love and the essence of truth in life and art.

Washing Beach, Pornic, 1850
The Washing Beach, Pornic , circa 1849

In June 1866, after a spell in Dinard, he moved to Le Croisic, a little town on a small promontory that protected the salt flats of Guérande from the Bay of Biscay: “a spit of sandy rock which juts spitefully north.” Here he took “the most delicious and peculiar old house I ever occupied, the oldest in town,” and enjoyed discovering the area of Brittany that Honoré de Balzac had immortalized in Béatrix (1839). He returned in 1866 when he wrote Two Poets of Croisic and again in 1867 when he penned a spirited tribute to the modest bravery of the French sailor in Hervé Riel. When it was published in 1871, he immediately sent his £100 payment to the Paris Relief Fund.

After a stay in Quimper, he spent the summer of 1868 in Audierne, on Brittany’s Atlantic coast, “a delightful, quite unspoiled little fishing town,” with the ocean in front and green hills behind. His son, Pen, joined him in Brittany on a few occasions but also visited on his own account; he was a successful artist at one time, studying sculpture under Rodin and painting in Brittany.

Born in the north coast town of Tréguier, Ernest Renan (1823-1892) left for Paris to continue his studies in late 1838. Noting the contradictions that existed between the metaphysics he studied and the faith he professed, he realised that a career in the Church was no longer for him. He instead became a biblical scholar of some repute but also wrote on archaeology, history, linguistics and philosophy. Perhaps not as well known outside France as he once was, Renan’s best known work is his seven volume opus A History of the Origins of Christianity (1863-1883) but his attachment to his native land features heavily in The Breton Soul (1854) and the autobiographical Memories of Childhood and Youth (1883). He spent each summer, from 1884 until his death, in Perros-Guirec, a small fishing village near Tréguier. The 1903 erection of his statue in the cathedral square of Tréguier was seen as a deliberate provocation by the staunchly Catholic populace whose protest descended into a melee.

Ernest Rean statue Treguier 1903

In 1847, the author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and his friend and fellow writer Maxime Du Camp, toured Brittany, primarily on foot; it was a long trip which lasted around four months. The pair wrote an entertaining, if slightly condescending to modern susceptibilities, travelogue of their journey; the chapters written by Du Camp were published in serial form from April 1852, those by Flaubert were eventually published in 1881, the completed work being known as By the Fields and By the Strikes.

Flaubert was an exacting writer and known to have laboured over every word he used, often taking a week to write a single page of text. His most famous novel, Madame Bovary (1857), took five years to complete; a year longer than he spent on writing his second novel, Salammbô (1862); a marked contrast to the literary output of his contemporary Balzac, who regularly wrote for ten hours, or more, a day and published two or three substantial new works every year.

A similar tour of Brittany was undertaken at about the same time by the author Anthony Trollope’s elder brother, Thomas Adolphus Trollope (1810-1892). His travelogue, A Summer in Brittany (1840), is an easy read and shares many of the same impressions of delight and disgust at local customs and culture subsequently noted by Flaubert. Later that same decade both the Trollope and Browning households settled in Florence where the families were renowned for their generous hospitality and vocal support for Italian independence.

Peasant of Quimper from Trollope's Travels in Brittany

The English novelist and playwright Jerome K Jerome (1859-1927) is today best remembered for his most successful work, Three Men in a Boat (1889); a humorous and almost timeless tale recounting a leisurely trip down the river Thames. In 1914, his latest play was taken off the London stage due to its celebration of German drinking songs and upon the outbreak of war, Jerome volunteered for military service. Rejected by the British Army on account of his age, the 56 year old writer volunteered as an ambulance driver with the French Army in 1915 and served in Verdun during the following year; this was one of the longest, bloodiest battles of the Western Front. “Those who talk about war being a game ought to be made to go out and play it. They’d find their little book of rules not much use,” he said.

It was during this terrible time that Jerome wrote the short story, Malvina of Brittany (1916). A charming tale about the fairy Malvina, onetime favourite attendant to the Queen of the White Ladies of Brittany, who was expelled from the realm of the fairies four thousand years ago only to reappear to a British flying officer who had landed to make some minor repairs to his aircraft in the depths of Brittany in 1914.

In 1891, T E Lawrence (1888-1935) and his parents moved to Dinard where the unmarried couple were able to live quietly for the next three years. In August 1906, Lawrence returned to Brittany with a school friend and spent the month touring the north-east of the region by bicycle, returning the next summer with his father to explore the castles of eastern Brittany and the Breton Marches. The following year, he completed a 3,500 km Tour de France, from Le Havre to Montpellier and the summer of 1910 saw him again return to Brittany and Normandy to visit the medieval battlefields and cathedrals, devouring French classics in their original text.

T E Lawrence and Brough Superior
Lawrence on his preferred cycle

Lawrence is one of those characters that almost defies being pigeon-holed and so, I shall not make the attempt. His most well-known works are Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), an account of his experiences during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 that the American diplomat Charles Hill described as ‘a novel traveling under the guise of autobiography’ and Crusader Castles (1936), his university thesis which was partly built upon the observations recorded during those many pre-war visits to Brittany and France.

Another noted author who made a point of visiting several castles during her time in Brittany was American writer Louisa M Alcott (1832-1888). Best known as the author of Little Women (1868) and its sequels, the financial success of that novel allowed the author, her sister May and their friend Alice Bartlett to visit Europe. The party stayed in Brittany for over two months in 1870 and a brief account of their sojourn is included in her collection of short stories, Shawl Straps (1872). As an artist of talent, May was particularly charmed by the province, subsequently describing it as a place where “an artist can rest with delight for many months” in her guidebook for women artists, Studying Art Abroad and How to Do it Cheaply (1879).

Louisa May Alcott sketched by her sister May Alcott, circa 1865
Louisa M Alcott sketched by her sister May, circa 1865

In 1875, Émile Zola wrote to his friend and editor that he wanted to discover Brittany and so, the following summer, the pair set off to explore the Guérande region and rented a house in Piriac where they were subsequently joined by their wives. The beauty of the wild coast captivated Zola almost as much as the ability to eat freshly-caught seafood; his friend even noting that ‘his nervous fingers so trembling with happiness when he had clams for breakfast, that he could not eat them at first.’

Inspired by his stay in Brittany, Zola wrote The Shells of Mr Chabre (1884) in which he tells the story of the bourgeois Mr Chabre who takes his wife for an extended stay in Piriac with hopes of ridding themselves of the curse of infertility in the belief that eating seafood would facilitate the birth of a child. A prodigious and versatile author; more than half of Zola’s novels were part of the twenty-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, which detail the history of a single family over five generations and published between 1870 and 1893.

September 1895 found author Marcel Proust (1871-1922) staying on Belle-Île-en-Mer as a guest of the actress Sarah Bernhardt before moving on to Beg-Meil near Concarneau on Brittany’s southern coast, where he stayed until the end of October. The atmosphere and the beauty of the region inspired him and he wrote the first pages of Jean Santeuil (1952) whilst there. Unfortunately, following the critical reception of his first book, The Pleasures and the Days (1896), Proust gradually abandoned Jean Santeuil between 1898 and 1899. Nevertheless, this novel is regarded as a precursor to Proust’s most significant work, In Search of Lost Time, published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927; often cited as one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. Many of the themes developed within In Search of Lost Time find their first articulation in Jean Santeuil, including the enigma of memory and the importance of self-reflection.

Joseph Conrad in Brittany
Joseph Conrad

The author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) married at the end of March 1896 and almost immediately set-off to honeymoon in Brittany. After a few days in the north coast town of Lannion, searching for a suitable property to rent, the newlywed couple moved to a house on nearby Île Grande where they stayed until the end of August 1896. During his time in Brittany, Conrad began working on The Rescue, a novel that he would periodically cast-aside but which he eventually finished in 1920. He did, however, complete several short stories here; The Idiots (1896), The Lagoon (1896) and An Outpost of Progress (1896). The Idiots is not your typical honeymoon fare, featuring as it does a murder, a loss of mental reality, abandonment of faith and a suicide. Conrad is sometimes said to have been one of the greatest English language novelists and is perhaps best remembered today by Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900) and The Secret Agent (1907), all of which have often been adapted for television and cinema.

Pierre Souvestre (1874–1914) was born into a renowned Breton family; his father was sometime Prefect of Finistère, his mother, the daughter of the Breton artist Victor Roussin and his great-uncle was the noted Breton author Émile Souvestre. Pierre joined the Paris bar in 1894 but gradually focused most of his attention on writing for newspapers and periodicals, taking a particular interest in motor car racing and sports journalism. In 1907, he hired Marcel Allain as his secretary and a collaboration was born that saw the serial publication of a joint novel in L’Auto, the predecessor of L’Équipe, in 1909.

In 1911, they created their most memorable character, Fantômas, a ruthless, enigmatic criminal genius and master of disguise whose hand was behind almost any unsolved crime. Much like Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, the amoral, sadistic Fantômas is doggedly pursued by the one man capable of tracing his involvement in all manner of ghastly crimes and always remains one step ahead of his pursuer, often assuming the identity of his victims. With a flair for the dramatic, his crimes often involve bizarre and over-elaborate procedures, such as trained plague-ridden rats or rooms that slowly fill with sand. One of the most popular characters in the history of French crime fiction, Fantômas appeared in 32 books as well as in a number of film and television adaptations. Pierre Souvestre died in Paris in February 1914 but lies buried in the cemetery of his Breton hometown, Plomelin.

Fantomas movie poster 1947

One of the founding members of the Society of Friends of Fantômas, Max Jacob (1876-1944) was born and brought-up in the south coast town of Quimper but moved to Paris as a young man, where in 1898 he became an art critic and a well-known figure amongst the artistic crowd of Montmarte. For a time, he shared a room with Picasso who subsequently became his Godfather on his conversion to Christianity in 1915. Abandoning journalism, Jacob took on a series of odd jobs and sold horoscopes, paintings and poetry to fund his rather itinerant lifestyle.

Jacob’s poetry was heavily influenced by Surrealism, Symbolism and Cubism as well as his life in Brittany and Paris. His prose poetry, especially The Dice Box (1917) is often cited as an important bridge between the Symbolists and Surrealists while his free verses, such as the collection published as The Central Laboratory (1921) have long been applauded for their inventiveness. Despite his reputation as a poet and writer, it was his painting that provided the main source of his income.

Tired of the Bohemian lifestyle, he returned to western Brittany to escape the excesses of 1920s Paris and later moved to a monastery at Saint-Benoit in 1936.  Having lost both a brother and sister to the Nazi death camps, it was perhaps inevitable that the Jewish-born, homosexual Jacob fell under the Gestapo’s gaze. He was arrested on 24 February 1944 and transferred to a holding camp where he was assigned a place on the next convoy for Auschwitz. Frantic efforts, coordinated by Jean Cocteau, were made to secure his release but he died of pneumonia the day before his scheduled deportation.

Washerwomen at the Flower Bridge, Quimperle by Max Jacob 1909
Max Jacob : Washerwomen at the Flower Bridge, Quimperle (1909)

The first four novels written by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, popularly known as Colette (1873-1954), were published under her writer husband’s pen-name ‘Willy’. Following their separation, she carved out a successful living appearing in music halls, often portraying characters from her own novels; a period she recounted in her novel The Vagabond (1910), which deals with women’s independence in a male-dominated world.

Following her divorce, in May 1910, Colette arrived in Dinard in hopes of finding a home which was as far removed from the literary circles of Paris as possible; by the end of the following month, she had found a magnificent house, set amongst “the most beautiful landscape on earth” just above the beach of Touesse in Saint-Coulomb, near Saint-Malo. Colette spent her holidays here until her third and final marriage in 1925; the new couple preferring the warmer climes of Saint-Tropez. By this time, Colette had become an established and successful author under her own name and is perhaps best known today for her novella Gigi (1944) which became an award-winning Hollywood musical in 1958.

Colette : presentation copy of her 1934 novel, Duo.
Author’s dedication in a copy of her 1934 novel, Duo.

Published almost 75 years ago, Albert Camus’ (1913-1960) novel The Plague (1947) became a publishing sensation again in 2020 thanks to its focus on the effects of a deadly epidemic. The book imagines an outbreak of plague in the Algerian city of Oran; the impact of which is, at first, downplayed by its inhabitants. As the plague’s grip tightens, people are forced to quarantine; such isolation feeding claustrophobia and fear. Each character in the book responds in their own way; some accept their fate, others seek to apportion blame but a few, like the narrator, have the courage to resist the fear that has enveloped the city. The book is widely regarded as an allegory for the Nazi occupation and the lives lived under an atmosphere of threat, separation and exile in which the occupied lived. 

Camus finished the book in Brittany in Les Moutiers-en-Retz, about 10km south of Pornic, in the summer of 1946 and considered his collaboration with Louis Guilloux of Saint-Brieuc so significant that he noted that his friend had “written this book in part.” Camus travelled to northern Brittany to stay with Guilloux in 1947 and during this visit discovered his father’s grave; he died in Saint-Brieuc as a result of wounds contracted on the Western Front during the First World War.

Camus was not overly enamoured with Brittany; the sun was too often absent and the size of the tidal ebbs made sea-bathing an uncertain affair for a man accustomed to the Mediterranean. He drew from the region an impression, an atmosphere that would nourish the writing of his unfinished autobiography The First Man (1994). His encounter with his father’s grave inspired a key scene in this book. In the chapter entitled ‘Saint-Brieuc’, the hero feels a shock in front of the grave: “He read the two dates 1885-1914 and made a mental calculation: twenty-nine years. Suddenly an idea struck him which shook him to his core. He was forty years old. The man buried under this slab and who had been his father, was younger than him. The flood of tenderness and pity which suddenly filled his heart was not the movement of a soul that carries the son towards the memory of his dead father but the upset compassion a man feels in front of a child, unjustly murdered.”

Saint Brieuc

A native of the north coast town of Saint-Brieuc, Louis Guilloux (1899-1980) was himself a highly regarded author and his most famous work, The Black Blood (1935), was an immediate and international success when published. After the liberation of Saint-Brieuc in 1944, he returned from hiding to serve as an interpreter for the Allied military tribunals, an experience he recounted in his novel OK, Joe! (1976), which also highlighted the racism he witnessed in the US Army at that time.

André Breton (1896-1966) was born in Orne but spent most of his formative years with his grandfather in Saint-Brieuc and his grandmother in Lorient on Brittany’s south coast. In February 1915, he began his artillery training in Pontivy in central Brittany but transferred to the medical corps in Nantes where he worked as a neurological nurse. Breton never seriously pursued his early interest in psychoanalysis but his subsequent thinking was heavily influenced by psychological theories.

One of the founders of the Surrealist movement, Breton believed that poetry transcended reason and logic. His Magnetic Fields (1920) is usually regarded as the first work of literary Surrealism, while his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) was one of the movement’s defining texts. Other major works include the novel Nadja (1928) and Mad Love (1937), the latter, a celebration of love, being a particularly difficult book to categorise contains many references to southern Brittany. The Czech artist Toyen was one of the founders of the Surrealists Group in Czechoslovakia in 1934 and her meeting with André Breton the following year marked the start of a lifelong friendship. Having settled in France in 1947, she visited Brittany several times with Breton.

Toyen : Portrait of Andre Breton (1950)
Toyen : Portrait of Andre Breton (1950)

“As a child of Brittany, I like the heathlands. Their flower of pauperism is the only one not faded in my buttonhole,” wrote Chateaubriand, to whom Breton replied in Entretiens (1952): “I also embrace these heathlands, they have often shattered me but I love this flickering light they maintain in my heart.”

Not as well-known as some other 20th century French poets, the works of Danielle Collobert (1940-1978) seem born of the trauma she experienced in her home town of Rostrenen, central Brittany, during the German occupation. She left for Paris at eighteen years of age but appears never to have settled; a restlessness that saw her travel extensively and one that seems to have condemned her to always revisit herself. She destroyed all unsold copies of her first self-published collection of poetry, Chants des guerres (1961) and although her first novel, Murder (1964) received some critical acclaim, a subsequent volume was rejected by the publishers. A few further works were published, including Say (1972) and Survive (1978), in very limited numbers, before her thirty-eighth birthday, when she took her own life.

Collobert’s writing style was then quite unique; she used minimal punctuation and unorthodox grammar, particularly around pronouns and other gender markers to create a deliberate impersonalisation that can be unnerving for the French reader accustomed to strict assumptions based on grammar and gender. Her writing is steeped not in melancholy but in oppressive pain and the notion of death, from the personal experience to its impact on the human condition, transcends her writing. In an introduction to her work, the French writer Jean-Pierre Faye noted that it “presents a cosmology of pain. An incredible pain, majestic one would dare say, rooted in a helplessness to live. Pain that avoids pathos and that never shows a desire to strike a pose: we feel that Collobert is not lying.”

Danielle Collobert

Brought-up on tales of being descended from Breton nobility, Jack Kerouac (1922 -1969) the American novelist and sometime post-war counterculture icon is best known for his novels On the Road (1957) and Big Sur (1962) whose hero roars to the ocean at night: “I am a Breton!” to which the darkness responds “The fishes of the sea speak Breton.” In his book Satori in Paris (1966), Kerouac recounts his, ultimately fruitless, visit to Brittany in the summer of 1965 in search of his ancestral roots. Undeterred, in 1967, Kerouac and Breton poet Youenn Gwernig agreed to return to Brittany together to make another attempt, based from Gwernig’s hometown of Huelgoat in central Brittany. Interestingly, over thirty years later, researchers managed to uncover the truth of Kerouac’s ancestry: accusations of theft had driven the son of a village notary from Huelgoat to escape Brittany for the anonymity of New France in 1720 and it was this de Kervoac that proved to be the elusive ancestor.

I have devoted a previous post to Jean-Marie Déguignet (1834-1905) and his autobiographical Memoirs of a Breton Peasant (1998). Born into rural poverty, Déguignet escaped a life of begging and drudgery by joining the French Army in 1854, and over the next fourteen years saw active service in the Crimea, Lombardy, Algeria and Mexico as well as attending Napoleon III’s coronation ceremonies and losing his religion. An autodidact, he read widely on history, philosophy and politics but returned home to make a bad marriage and enter farming, eventually falling back into dire poverty. Deguignet’s radical thinking often found him at odds with his contemporaries and his memoirs were only re-discovered in 1984.

Another view of life in roughly the same corner of Brittany can be found in The Horse of Pride (1975) by the Breton writer Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1914-1995). This entertaining book offers some wonderful insights into life in Breton-speaking rural Brittany between the World Wars and was adapted for the cinema in 1980. Hélias also wrote several books of poetry in Breton and produced numerous novels and collections of folktales in French. Thankfully, the English translation of this book retains the conversational charm of the French original.

The Horse of Pride _ Pierre Jakez Helias

A Gift from Brittany (2008) by Marjorie Price (1929-2020) is the autobiographical tale of a young American artist who finds herself living in a hamlet in rural Brittany in the early 1960s where she discovers a world little-changed from the end of the Middle Ages but on the verge of disappearing forever. As her marriage unravels, she develops a deep bond with an elderly, illiterate neighbour who has never left the village. This seemingly unlikely friendship transcends the many boundaries that separate the two women; transforming and enriching both their lives.

An amusing, affectionate account of life in a small Breton town from the perspective of an outsider can be found in two books by the American writer Mark Greenside (1944-  ). Having made a snap decision over twenty years ago to buy a house in Brittany, the unique peculiarities of daily life in rural France continue to confuse and challenge him. I’ll Never Be French, No Matter What I Do (2008) and Not Quite Mastering the Art of French Living (2018) are set in Plobien, the fictional yet typical west Breton town where he happily spends his summers.

The first novel of Franco-English author Joanne Harris (1964-  ) in 1989 met with limited success but her third novel, Chocolat (1999) became an international bestseller and was subsequently adapted for the cinema. One of her novels, Coastliners (2002) is set on a small island off the coast of Brittany, Le Devin. A fictionalised island but loosely based on one that the author visited every summer for long stays in her grandfather’s house. It tells of the return of a prodigal daughter of the island and her battle to save the little village she once called home. Two rival communities having fought for generations over the island’s resources, it seems as if her ancestral home has lost all hope of survival until our heroine takes up the fight to stop the decay and breathe new spirit into the community.

Chocolat movie poster

Her Mother’s Secret (2018) by Rosanna Ley is another book that deals with a prodigal daughter returning to her Breton island home to confront the secrets, lies and guilt that have cast a long shadow over her and her family’s relationships. Against the well-drawn and atmospheric backdrop of Belle-Île-en-Mer, our heroine peels away the many comfortable deceptions of the past to secure her future.

The prolific German author Nina George (1973-  ) now lives in Brittany and is, at present, best known for her novel The Little Paris Bookshop (2013); the English language edition of 2015 turned it into an international bestseller. Another of her books to have enjoyed an international surge in sales since the appearance of an English language edition is The Little Breton Bistro (2010). It tells the uplifting, life-affirming tale of a desperately unhappy woman’s suicide attempt during a trip to Paris. Recuperating in hospital, she becomes obsessed with a scene of the small Breton port of Kerdruc which she resolves to visit. Once there, she gradually finds new hope and a renewed passion for life, discovering a better version of herself but is eventually tracked down by her husband who expects her to return to her old life with him. An English translation has been available since 2017 but note that the US edition is titled The Little French Bistro!

Tirant lo Blanch (1490) Brittany

Written while Brittany was still an independent nation and published in Valencia in 1490, the novel Tirant lo Blanch by Joanot Martorell (1413-1468) is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of Hispanic literature and was a major influence on the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The book follows the many adventures of a knight from Brittany whose travels from England to the Holy Land and from Constantinople to North Africa reveal that chivalric tournaments, courtship, love and bloody conflict are not so very different from each other; cruel yet intoxicating for all protagonists. Martorell’s entertaining prose unfolds at an often frantic pace and makes great use of unspoken narrative to drive the plot forward.

Some commentators have claimed that the book illustrates the relationships between the Breton and Iberian peninsulas although I think that this is a little wishful thinking but I include it here nevertheless. After all, how else would I manage to cover almost 530 years of Breton literary inspiration in a single post? 😉

Yannick and the Golden Apple II

Yannick checked his pockets thoroughly as he regained his feet and was relieved that nothing had been lost or broken during his descent through the darkness. Looking around, he found himself in a small cave and having emerged into the daylight, he was surprised to discover that, apart from the rocky outcrop on which he stood, the surrounding land was a vast grassy plain, extending in all directions as far as he could see. He decided to head eastwards and after some hours walking, noticed that wild flowers increasingly dominated the pasture.

The flowers got thicker, taller and more beautiful as he strode onwards when one of them seemed to lean towards him as he passed. He bent down to look closer at this curious effect when the flower metamorphosed into a beautiful, almost translucent, woman right before his eyes. “Fear me not, I am the fairy Bon-Elen. Unhappily, I can no longer maintain my first form for long. I was cursed by the Queen because I was born with the gift of reading all the secrets of the heart. I know why you are here and urge you to return to your world before your presence here becomes known.”

“If you truly know why I am here then you must know that I cannot abandon my mission. I must bring my boy home,” responded Yannick.

Monet garden

“Then know this. The Queen has your son and she means to keep him; not out of love but for spite. You will need to plead with her at her castle but it is very far away and you have nothing to offer her as tribute. I know what lies in her heart. I know what she desires most of all, the possession of which has long eluded her; the Golden Apple of G’mah. However, no one now knows where it grows or even if it still exists,” said the good fairy.

“But this is incredible! Then, I was right to come. I need only have this apple and she will surely return my son to me, in exchange for it,” said Yannick excitedly.

The fairy cautioned Yannick that there was often an impossible gulf separating desire from satisfaction and, speaking quickly, she advised him to keep heading east and search for a white donkey. This accursed beast had once been the human husband of a fairy but was damned for having betrayed her; he had grazed these lands for centuries and she was certain that he knew something of the golden apple. She offered the sabot-maker some final words of warning: “When you are in the presence of the Fairy Queen, keep your distance and no matter what you see or hear, do not utter a single unsolicited word, else you shall suffer the same fate as me.”

Fairy on flower

Filled with renewed vigour, Yannick resumed his march east and, at length, came across a lush meadow quite distinct from the pasture that surrounded it; there, in the far corner he espied the white donkey. Approaching the animal, Yannick could see that a charm of fairies were playing on the beast’s back; sliding down its ears and running along its back before leaping and catching its tail which they swung on until they leapt high into the air to land on his ears, where they promptly began their circuit once again. Yannick remained out of sight until the fairies eventually left to find some new amusement.

“The fairy, Bon-Elen, sent me to you, for I seek the golden apple and she was sure that you would help me,” said Yannick. The old donkey sighed a slow heavy sigh before responding: “She did, did she? Then she is far too hopeful. I have trudged these lands for almost three hundred years and have never seen it but I have heard of it. Many years ago I knew a sorcerer who spoke of it but I have not seen him in such a very long time. I am sorry to say that your journey has been a wasted one.”

“But surely there must be some way of finding him?” cried Yannick anxiously.

“Oh, there is always a way but the challenge is to discover it,” said the donkey, “You could perhaps use the power of Golden Grass for it never fails to reveal all that is hidden. And, fortunately, I know just where it grows. Climb upon my back and hold tightly to my mane.” With that, the donkey set off at such a fierce gallop that Yannick had to close his eyes against the sharpness of the wind striking his face. It was some time later before the donkey slowed its furious pace and Yannick was able to open his eyes. In doing so, he immediately sighted a small patch of grass that looked quite different from the rest.

Degas dolmen

Knowing that, to be effective, the Golden Grass could only be gathered at dawn, Yannick and the donkey settled down for the night but it seemed as though no time had passed at all when Yannick, clad only in his shirt, began to walk barefoot towards the mystical patch of grass. He stopped a few paces beyond the grass and waited until the first rays of the sun danced on the morning dew, whereupon he retraced his steps backwards, reaching down with his left hand to pick the grass as he did so.

With his back to the sun, clutching his staff in one hand and the bunch of Golden Grass in the other, Yannick raised his outstretched arms and slowly began to turn towards the sun. Suddenly, his staff began to tremble and he felt unable to control his own arm as it violently spun his body towards the south-east. Dressing hurriedly, Yannick thanked the donkey for his many kindnesses and having taken a little of his milk, set down the grass so that it pointed towards the south-east. He struck the ground twice with his staff and just as his third hit was about to strike, the golden grass burst into flames and he found himself standing inside a small grove of ash and oak.

“Why have you invaded my sanctuary? What mischief is this? Speak now or see out your days as the miserable toad you are!” commanded a thundering voice that seemed to emanate from all directions at once.

Embreis and Yannick

“Please Sir, I mean you no harm, no harm at all. The white donkey said that you might know the whereabouts of the golden apple,” quavered Yannick, nervously removing his hat. Not knowing which direction to face, he kept turning slowly as he recounted the many adventures that had befallen him since the abduction of his son. His words met no response until he said that he had brought a gift of a little black bread and some well-smoked andouille.

“Thank you! Even a few morsels offering the taste of home will be most welcome,” said an old man, dressed in a white habit, who had now appeared behind Yannick. “I am Embreis, the sorcerer. I was a man such as you but I do not know what I am now, for I have been trapped here for over two centuries and the magic here changes a person. The old donkey did well to remember because I do know the golden apple, moreover I believe that the garden fairy was right; it is likely the only thing in this world or the other that the Fairy Queen will change her mind for.”

Embreis told Yannick all that he knew of the apple; not only was it made of gold but it was a singing apple that besides singing as sweet as a lark also cried out to warn of impending danger. In the distant lands, the apple sat atop a tree located in a small orchard that was to be found at the end of a misty valley populated only by monsters and ferocious beasts; its whereabouts now quite forgotten. If the problem of finding the magical tree had been solved, the difficulty of gathering it remained; for the tree was always laden with apples and if one of these other fruits were accidentally touched by the one who climbed to pick the golden orb, it would instantly turn to stone for one hundred and one years. However, the shrewd sorcerer proposed an ingenious solution that could be found in a valley not too far away.

Celtic sorcerer

Eager to set off immediately, Yannick thanked the sorcerer profusely and left as soon as he deemed polite. Travelling south, it took almost two days before he reached the Valley of Caves described to him by the sorcerer. He knew that all the caves were set into the east side of the rocky valley and had therefore decided to travel along the western slopes in hopes of quickly identifying the cave he sought. It was not long before he spotted the first cave; looking through the moonstone, he could see that the net hung over the entrance was there to stop a large collection of Sea Woodpeckers from escaping. He moved on to the next cave, containing several Green Storks; the next, a pair of White Blackbirds guarded by a mean-looking korrigan; two entwined dragons slept outside the following cave, which seemed higher-set than the others and concealed a mighty Phoenix.

Yannick was concerned to see only two more cave mouths and hoped that the sorcerer’s information was accurate. The next cave was guarded by an ogre who must have stood sixteen feet tall and Yannick was quite relieved to see that it guarded a rare black Caladrius. His prey must surely be held in the valley’s last cave, he thought and he was pleased to discover that this was indeed the case. The cave was guarded by an enormous black dog whose flaming red eyes Yannick could clearly see from across the valley.

With darkness approaching, Yannick began to manoeuvre himself stealthily across the valley and was getting close to his target when he was halted by a most curious noise. Was there another guardian that he had not seen before, he wondered. Moving closer, he could have laughed aloud when he realised that the mysterious noise was nothing but the snoring of the guard dog. Yannick leapt onto the dog, managing to slip his rosary around its neck as he did so and in that instant of immobilisation, quickly tied a length of blessed twine around the animal’s muzzle. He made the sign of the cross to secure the knot and swiftly tied the struggling dog’s legs together. He was able to slip under the net and into the cave where he held out a piece of andouille, bewitched by the sorcerer, to the bird that would deliver the golden apple to him; a magnificent White Raven.

Wright of Derby

So that he would be better able to move about in the darkness, Yannick had decided to carry the raven in a canvas sack. This precaution was soon proved necessary when, just a mile from the valley, he was suddenly attacked by a korrigan who hit him hard across the legs with a club; Yannick struck back and a furious fight ensued. Finally, Yannick, holding his staff in both hands, lunged at the korrigan who was propelled quite a distance into the gloom. Fearing that he might have made himself invisible before launching another attack, Yannick quickly rubbed his eyelids with the moonstone and slowly scanned the area for the dwarf. He saw nothing but thought that he heard the sound of something falling nearby.

Scouring the area carefully, Yannick noticed a large flat stone; seemingly the only piece of rock in sight. Remembering his discovery at Brobearh castle, he lifted it to uncover a hole big enough for a man to pass through; hoping that it was not too deep, Yannick let himself drop into the pit. He now found himself in a small cave which was empty save for a most singular feature: a large circular stone well, constructed from large blocks of cut granite. As befitted such a big well, half a barrel sat on its lip attached to a winch that held what he estimated to be about 25 feet of rope. Uncertain how the korrigan might have escaped and returned the barrel to the well-head, Yannick positioned the barrel over the opening, stepped inside and began to work the rope.

After half an hour, Yannick realised that he must have descended over 200 feet but the well proved so deep that he reckoned that three days and nights had passed before he finally reached the bottom. Stretching his legs after so long confined, Yannick lit the candle of his lantern and looked around; he was in a rough, square chamber with four doors set into the wall facing him. Remembering the korrigan’s advice, he immediately opened the door on the extreme left and stepped through to find himself in a room that looked exactly the same as the one he had just left. When confronted with a series of doors, always open the one on the left, the korrigan had told him and so he chose that door; this new room was the very image of the previous one. Once again, Yannick took the left-hand door and once again he found himself standing in a chamber that mirrored the others.

Cave in Brittany

Trying a different tack, he lifted his staff and struck it against the door three times, passing through the now open doorway he could see that he was in the rear of a small cave; daylight streamed in through the opening to illuminate the wizard Embreis. “What? How, in the name of all the saints, can this be?” asked an incredulous Yannick.

“Now, it is my turn to reassure you,” smiled the sorcerer. “As you know, I am condemned to stay in this world because I did not leave its boundaries in time but I tried to leave with a grass fairy and such folk are forbidden to ever leave this world. For this transgression, the Fairy Queen split me in two; so that I might endure twice the punishment. One of me lives in the forest above and I keep to the caves here below.” Yannick nodded but did not understand any of this at all.

“You have the raven? Good. Give her to me and I will instruct her to meet you, with her precious cargo, at the Feunteun ar Grogez,” said the sorcerer as he recited a charm into the bird’s ear before casting it out of the mouth of the cave.

Brittany cavern

Yannick stepped outside to watch the raven soar away but was taken aback by the panorama that was now spread before him. It was a sea of gently rolling, verdant hills skirted by fast flowing streams and deep, lazy rivers and everywhere, the graceful silhouettes of lofty towers and grand castles. He could see that fat cattle and large sheep roamed freely here; unfamiliar birds ranged across the sky; richly coloured butterflies and dragonflies swooped from flower to flower, whose thick scent hung on the warm breeze.

Together, Yannick and the sorcerer made their way down the hill and towards a small wood that lay to the south. After some time, they were close enough for Yannick to see that the wood seemed completely encircled by a well-disguised palisade and when, at length, they stood before it, he realised that it was quite impenetrable. Embreis led them westwards along the edge of the wood before stopping before two enormous chestnut trees. “Now, we must wait,” he said.

Yannick must have fallen asleep, for the moon was high in the night sky when he felt Embreis shake his shoulder, saying “It is almost time.” As if on cue, one of the stars overhead began to brighten noticeably, it’s soft white turning an electric blue. “We must enter the charmed wood separately; it is their way and besides, no visitor hears the same demands as another.” So saying, he got up and walked to the wall of roots that spread between the two chestnuts; he struck it with his staff, uttered something unintelligible to Yannick and swiftly passed through a doorway that disappeared as fast as it had appeared. Yannick followed immediately and struck the wall with his staff but nothing happened. He therefore struck it three times in quick succession, again to no avail.

Corot forest at night

He was beginning to think that perhaps some other talisman was needed to summon the door, when he heard a low voice ask; “What goes into the fire and is not burnt?” Surprised to have been asked a child’s riddle, Yannick was about to question the voice when he recalled two other words of caution the old korrigan had given him; nothing is shown or said by chance and questioning is disrespectful in the realm of the fairies.

“A ray of sunshine,” he answered confidently.

“You took over long to answer,” said the voice. “What is made from wood but is not wood?”

Sensing an impatience in the dismembered voice, Yannick was quick to reply: “An apple?”

“Do not distract yourself by thinking about me or my questions and do not answer a question with another. What most resembles the head of a horse in a window?” the voice responded.

Yannick realised that he still retained too many narrow thoughts from the other world; he needed to guard against such thinking: “The head of a mare,” he replied. Whereupon a door appeared, through which he promptly passed. Embreis was waiting for him and laughed as Yannick related the words of the unseen guardian. Seemingly cut through a carpet of bright anemones, the path that they followed eventually led to a small glade of striking beauty, at the centre of which stood a monumental stone fountain of exquisite proportions, surrounded on all sides by a pavement of cut stone; the Feunteun ar Grogez.

Fairy Fountain

“Alas, I cannot go with you to the Queen’s palace but be assured that, if truly needed, help will be close at hand. Now, wash yourself in the waters of the spring and, once re-dressed, drink a pint of its water.” Yannick did as he was bade and was almost dressed when the White Raven swooped down to stand on the floor in front of Embreis; in its mouth hung the golden apple from a long stalk. By dawn’s early light, the sorcerer wrapped the apple in a piece of linen, over which he cast a spell of concealment before handing it over to Yannick. “You know what not to do! Go now. I wish you and yours a happy life. Go!” he said as both men nodded towards each other in silent thanks.

Standing on a slab to the west of the fairy fountain’s basin, Yannick readied himself and struck the floor with his staff; being immediately transported to the gateway of a most magnificent castle whose massive doors swung open at his approach. He stood in a hallway lit by lights as dazzling as the sun, whose ceiling was as high as that of Quimper cathedral. Yannick passed from one splendid chamber into another; all sumptuous but all seemingly empty. He decided to test this and surreptitiously took out his moonstone which he rubbed quickly against his eyelids.

Having walked through six wonderful rooms, he now found himself in the most beautiful of all that he had seen. He could not see it’s ceiling due to its brilliance; an effect magnified by the mirrors that seemed to completely cover the room’s walls, reflecting light so bright that he could hardly look at them. All around the room, he could see crowds of fairies, fions, fadets, korrigans and other magical beings standing as still as if they were made of stone. Atop a mound of gold and silver, stood a fairy so dazzling that he could scarcely bear the sight of her.

Fairy Castle

“I know who you are,” spat the Queen of the Forest, “but I do not know why you are here. I told the old witch that my decision was final; I will keep your child here where he will remain forever young, no matter how badly you dare treat the changeling. Leave my domain forthwith else you provoke my displeasure and you would not wish to do that … again!”

“Majesty, I have not come to plead with you to change your mind. The weight of my crime, albeit unintended, is great. I have made the arduous journey to your halls so that I might apologise, in person, for my wrongdoing. I am truly sorry for my offence and for my ignorance that occasioned it.”

“You have done so and it is now time for you to return to your world, Christian.” replied the Fairy Queen with an air of finality. Yannick bowed low and began to retreat from the room. In doing so, he put his hand in his pocket and pressed his auger hard into the fleshy part of his palm which he then wrapped around the apple.

“What was that? You dare to practice magic in my presence? I felt it! What magic can you weave, sabot-maker?” demanded the Queen.

Fairy Queen of the Forest

Knowing that his blood had broken the concealment charm, Yannick spoke carefully: “I am no sorcerer, Majesty. I can no more cast a spell than I can fly. Perhaps, my little apple sang to you?” Having removed the package from his pocket, he unwrapped it and held the golden apple aloft at which point it began to sing a sweet and melodious refrain.

“How did you come by that? This is powerful magic indeed; that the apple allowed itself to be picked by you, a mere mortal, when hundreds of great fairies have failed to gain it down through the centuries.” The Fairy Queen appeared genuinely perplexed as to how Yannick might have been thought worthy to possess the fabled golden apple.

“This will make a fine gift to my wife and I feel sure my children will be delighted with it, Majesty” said Yannick, “Still, I would be willing to part with it but it would need to be a very rare bargain indeed.”

The Queen immediately understood and soon agreed to return Yannick’s son in exchange for the gift of the apple. She knew, as Yannick surely did, that possession of the apple could only be freely gifted; ownership of such a marvel could never be conferred by purchase or theft. However, although she had elected to change her mind and decided upon the exchange, she refused to confirm when she would return his son. Nonetheless, the Queen’s attitude had changed markedly and she arranged for Yannick to enjoy some refreshment before setting off for his world. He ate a little of the fairy bread, it was as light as a dandelion’s head yet as filling as a New Year’s meal, but gracefully declined the proffered juice of the white water lily.

The Golden Apples

Realising that now he risked all by staying, Yannick soon made his farewells and began to quickly retrace his steps through the Fairy Queen’s palace. The korrigan and the sorcerer had both cautioned him against drinking water lily water, for it bewitched any man who tasted it. He needed to locate the exit from this world as soon as possible. Thankfully, he found the door where the Queen’s attendants had said it would be; set into the rear wall of the old stone bread oven that sat in the palace’s kitchen garden. It did not open, as expected, at his touch and so he struck it with his staff but nothing happened. He therefore struck it three times in quick succession but with the same result. Suspecting treachery, Yannick could feel the panic rising within him as he anxiously looked around him for signs of anyone’s approach.

“Do not despair, the Queen intends to honour your bargain. The enchantment that holds your son will break when the sun has left the horizon,” said a thin voice from somewhere close by. Yannick could see no one near when he noticed some kind of fairy floating near his shoulder. “I am Sandrin, an old friend of Embreis who asked me to guard over you while you were in the palace. Tell me all that you carry in your pockets.”

Yannick felt about in all his pockets and listed the items he found: his auger, flask, moonstone, piece of black bread and an amulet containing the eye of a wolf. “Are you sure that is all?” asked the grass fairy, half a moment before Yannick admitted to also carrying a piece of fairy bread that he intended to show to his family. “Return it to the palace,” she instructed. Yannick quickly ran back to the palace entrance and threw the bit of fairy bread inside before returning as fast as his legs could carry him.

Grass fairy

To his great relief, the little silver door now swung open at his touch. He thanked the fairy for a kindness that he could never repay and she told him that his camaraderie with Embreis represented any payment in full. She also warned him that mortals can penetrate the domain of the fairies only once. Anyone who tried to return, even if they were to have waited a century, would instantly fall dead under the watchful gaze of the fairy who guards the observance of this ineluctable law. With these words of warning ringing in his ears, Yannick passed through the doorway to find himself standing in front of another silver door, concealed in the thick roots of a giant stump of oak and draped by a rich curtain of ivy.

Having extricated himself, Yannick immediately recognised the stump that had been the root of all his troubles but he felt no bitterness, only relief. He turned towards home as the rosy fingers of dawn began to stretch across the morning sky, bringing with them a new day full of hope.

Yannick and the Golden Apple

In the folklore of Brittany, fairies are rarely benevolent and when they are, it is usually under the tightest of conditions; the smallest infraction being punished severely. Perhaps aligned to their status as a cursed race, they are immensely powerful but fiercely proud and will not stand to be mocked or ignored. They sometimes appear seductive and protective but when provoked they can be malicious and cruel; to annoy a fairy was to expose oneself to their evil spells. There are many Breton tales of mortals battling against a fairy’s curse, one such is that of Yannick, a humble clog-maker. Here then is the story of The Clog-Maker’s Son.

Clog Maker Sabotier

Yannick could not remember a single day when he had not made sabots or cut the choicest trees from which he crafted them. His father and grandfather had been sabotiers and he knew that his own children would, one day, be joining him in plying this trade. Poor light had put a stop to the day’s labours and so he was heading home for what he hoped would be a bowl or two of hot stew and thick slices of the andouille he had exchanged with the local farmer for a pair of fine sabots last week.

As he approached his makeshift house, he was surprised to see someone leaving his threshold; a decrepit little old woman who seemed to be walking away from him with a speed he would not have credited her capable. His two young daughters ran to him as he pushed the door open, they gripped his legs tightly as he walked the few steps to his wife who sat simultaneously stirring the cooking pot and rocking their baby son’s crib.

Clog maker's House

“We are lost, my love, totally lost. The groac’h has spoken to the Queen of the Forest and she refuses to yield. She will keep our dear son forever; such was the gravity of your crime,” his wife spoke, her eyes red from crying.

“In the name of God, there must be something that can be done! Something, anything. I will give anything to regain our boy,” pleaded Yannick, “She really had no hope to offer us at all?”

“Alas, none. We could put him to the fire but that would just bring down the wrath of the fairies and I could not bear to lose Gwenaëlle and Alwena too. No, it would be too much. We must accept the fate God has chosen for us, we can do no other. Perhaps we might love him, in time,” his wife said hopelessly.

Dinner was a dour affair, nobody spoke, all seemed lost in their own thoughts and the girls, who did not understand why their parents were so tense, were unusually keen to get into bed and slide the door across to shut out the world that night. His wife busied herself washing the dinner bowls and setting the overnight fire but Yannick was barely aware of her presence; so lost in his thoughts was he. Hanging the spoons from the beam above the table, he caught sight of the little spoon that he had finished carving just two days ago. Two days, he thought; days that seemed like lifetimes.

Suddenly, he knew what he needed to do; he had to do something, he had to at least try his utmost. “I am going to see the groac’h myself,” he murmured to his wife who, roused from slumber, held his gaze with her own and nodded in silent acquiescence.

Moonlight painting

Yannick could hear the comforting sounds of the midnight bell, carried on the wind from the village four miles distant, as he reached the moor of Kerhoc. Thankfully, there was enough moonlight for him to traverse this desolate place without incident and it was not long before he spotted the copse of chestnut trees that he had been looking for. The moonlight barely penetrated the canopy of these mighty growths and he stumbled twice in the gloom, narrowly missing a cat that ran past him in the darkness.

The one-roomed cottage was cleaner than he had expected, warmer too, for he could feel the heat of the fire on his face as he waited for the old woman to respond. She sat facing him with her back to the fire, a long clay pipe clamped in her bony fingers; she blew lazy smoke rings in the air as she studied his face. “You will waste your family. I have spoken to the Fairy Queen and she will not be moved. She will not. You risk all that you have left for one that is already lost,” cautioned the old woman.

“But I must try to make her see reason. I must. I shall petition her from the heart. I will plead, I will do anything she demands. I will offer my life to her; my life for his,” Yannick replied.

The woman’s face cracked into an earthy smile which exposed her three long teeth and she laughed hoarsely; much to Yannick’s annoyance. “You have understood nothing, nothing! She will not be swayed by you or any childish begging. If she had wanted your life, she would have taken it. She wants only your grief. If you provoke her, she will take your daughters too. She wants you to suffer for your crime. That is why she took your baby and left a changeling in his place; every day you will be reminded of your offence.”

Painting of a witch

“But I did not know! Please, for the love of God, I truly did not know. I found the tree felled. I only cut two boughs, two! And only so that my family might eat,” implored Yannick in desperation.

“It is of no matter. You cut up her place of birth, her home for two centuries. She will have her vengeance and you must accept that,” explained the crone. “There is nothing to be done. She will no longer be seen by human eyes in this world and I will not chance her ire by imploring with her in the other.”

Yannick was crushed by the woman’s vehemence; the hope that he had kept kindled in his heart these last two days was extinguished. Tears welled in his eyes as he rose to leave. Embarrassed, he hurriedly dropped three sous coins into the woman’s scrawny hand and left. He retraced his steps through the silent wood, his mind unable to focus on anything but getting home and he barely noticed a cat speed past in the shadows. Having crossed the moor, Yannick took the trail that led home and it was in sight when his path was suddenly blocked; a cloaked figure stood before him. “One should never start a new day without hope, my son. So, I will gift you some words of the same; speak to the korrigan who lives under the dolmen of Merzhin.”

Korrigans' Dance of Death

“A korrigan?” exclaimed Yannick, “What hope is to be found in such evil? They will take me for sure and drag me to hell. I will be killed or kept in their dungeons and never see my loved ones again. Madame, this is not hope you offer me but cold death.”

“Why so? Men are such stupid beasts; so narrow minded,” said the old woman. “Do not let the stories of old maids and children guide your fears. Men could learn much from the korrigans, if they would only take the trouble to talk but you, you might discover the only way to find the Queen of the Forest.”

“But they will drag me down to their lair and my doom,” Yannick responded indignantly.

“Let them! Alone, you will never gain access to their haunts, for they are well guarded and even better concealed. Nor will they ever invite any man to visit them. So, let them take you to their underground domain. Be not afraid. There is much to fear in the dark places but the unknown is not one of them,” she said and with those words, the witch vanished as suddenly as she had appeared.

Sheepfold by Moonlight

It was the night of the new moon and Yannick had used the days since his encounter with the witch to prepare himself for his confrontation with the korrigan. It was nearly midnight as he approached the massive stones of the dolmen of Merzhin but his courage did not fail him. Seeing no sign of movement, he walked around the ancient stones and cautiously entered the chamber. He did not know what he had expected to find within but was as relieved as he was disappointed to find it empty.

Yannick started to sing, not the comforting tones of something familiar but the discordant noise of a drunkard headed for home. He leant against the cold stone as if to steady himself and, singing loudly, meandered his way to the little pond that lay nearby. There, hidden amongst the heather, sat a korrigan who immediately leapt to his feet and began frantically skipping around Yannick’s legs. “We should dance! Such a fine night as this calls for a fine dance. Dance with me!” sang the little korrigan.

“Begone! In the name of the Blessed Virgin and of Saint Anne, begone little man,” Yannick cried. However, the korrigan would not relent and pulled Yannick towards the black waters of the pond and it was then that he saw it; a large gold pendant, glistening brightly through the shallow water. “Take it, it is yours. Take it. It is fairy gold and quite ancient,” urged the korrigan. Yannick was captivated by the gleaming jewel and found himself involuntary drawn closer to it. Tentatively reaching his arm into the water to grasp it, he was transfixed when two strong hands instantly gripped his limb and pulled him into the water as if he had been no more than a child.

A dolmen painting

He must have fallen into unconsciousness, for when he opened his eyes he found himself in an enormous chamber cut entirely from the whitest quartz; the walls and vaulted ceiling sparkled and reflected into a thousand points of light, that given off by the candles nested in the golden candelabra that stood nine foot tall in the centre of the room. Yannick was struck by the fact that he could not see any doors but was completely felled by the immense heap of silver, gold and precious stones that glistened so much that he thought they could have changed night into day.

Without having noticed where he came from, Yannick was startled by the sudden appearance of the korrigan before him. Small and lean, wearing a dirty canvas smock and holding a large stick, he looked at Yannick as quizzically as a dog watches a kitten. “Why have you come? Did you think to steal my treasure? Are there more of you skulking about up there?” demanded the korrigan.

Yannick explained that he was quite alone and that he had meant no harm, indeed he had come to deliver a gift as a token of respect between neighbours. The korrigan seemed unconvinced; “Respect? It has been centuries since your kind showed mine any decency, let alone respect. Anyway, what could you have thought I needed,” he said mockingly as he turned to cast his stick over his pile of riches. It was then that Yannick noticed his tail; it was perhaps as long as that of a cat but covered in the soft down that boys like to think is the making of a beard.

“I have brought you these,” said Yannick as he reached inside his pocket from where he withdrew a small piece of grubby linen. Unfolding the cloth slowly, he revealed a very small pair of sabots which he set down before the korrigan. “They are made from the antlers of the great stag of Quénécan; a beast so fast and powerful that no huntsman ever got near him, for he outwitted them all.” The old korrigan nodded appreciatively as Yannick removed another package from his pocket, which he unwrapped saying: “I made for you another pair, these I fashioned from the tusks of the giant boar of the Blavet; he was a mighty swine, renowned in these parts for his daring spirit and elusiveness, he having never fallen to a hunter.”

Korrigan wearing clogs

Taken aback by Yannick’s kindness, the korrigan thanked him for his thoughtfulness and the quality of his work. He took off his own sabots to try on his gifts and revealed his cat-like feet. It was now Yannick’s turn to be taken aback but he did not let his shock show; he merely took out an auger and began modifying the little shoes. He worked quickly and soon presented the korrigan with his craftsmanship; the ghost of a smile crossed the dwarf’s eyes as he tried on each pair with complete satisfaction at Yannick’s skill.

Now, Yannick pressed what he hoped was his advantage and extracted a final bundle from his pockets, which he offered to the korrigan who unwrapped it eagerly to expose a fine pair of sabots whose soles were studded with an arc of stout hobnails. After some swift re-working by Yannick, the korrigan put on the sabots and danced a quick jig; the clamour of iron against the stone echoed around the room, much to the dwarf’s delight. “These were crafted from the oak of the Fairy Queen herself. They are unique and always will be, for no more will ever be made from that magical bough,” explained Yannick.

“Remarkable, truly remarkable,” responded the korrigan. “Made from the Queen of the Forest’s tree you say? There is power to be marshalled in these, mighty magic indeed and for which I give you my sincere thanks. Please, as a mark of my gratitude, take whatever item that takes your fancy from amongst my trove. Only one, mark you, but any one.”

Korrigan's Cave

Yannick cast his eyes over the dwarf’s treasure; there were diamonds as big as goose eggs, nuggets of gold as big as his forearm, golden torques worn by the princesses of old but the prize he sought was not amongst them. Taking a deep breath, he turned to the korrigan and having bowed lowly, said: “I am honoured that my humble gifts have met with your favour and greatly appreciate your offer but what I desire most is the return of my son, who has been taken by the Fairy Queen. If you know where I might find her or how I might bring my boy safely home, I beg you tell me,” he pleaded.

“You would really turn away from riches that would make you more powerful than the dukes?” asked the dwarf with no little surprise. “Very well then, listen to me and listen carefully. You will need more than courage and cunning to force an audience with the Fairy Queen for there are many hurdles to be overcome and many guardians to pass. You will need to uncover hidden gateways and know which to open and which to avoid. Even if you succeed in standing before her, you need to have something to offer her in exchange for your child and it needs to be far more valuable to her than new shoes,” explained the korrigan.

Yannick listened intently as the old dwarf told him of the rigid etiquette to be followed when speaking to the little folk and of the ways to pass through the realm of the fairies without drawing attention. He often found himself repeating the dwarf’s words, to make certain that he had understood them correctly. Yannick had clearly underestimated the difficulties that lay head but was relieved that he now had an understanding of what to expect and the mind-set that he would need to adopt in order to progress.

Fairies Brittany

“The entrances to the world of the fairies all change on the appearance of the blue moon, so, whatever happens, you and your son must quit those lands by the calends of Giamoni, lest you be condemned to stay there forever. Fortunately for you, the nearest portal is one of the most poorly guarded; it lies within the ruins of the castle of Brobearh and is guarded by a korikaned of prodigious strength who is, in turn, protected by the ghosts of two red monks.

Finally, you must, at all times, be in possession of two mighty talismans; without these, there really is no hope for you,” cautioned the korrigan. “Before setting out, you must, for three consecutive mornings at the first appearance of the sun, drink the milk of a white yearling in which you have boiled the heart of a swallow along with six acorns that have fallen from an oak on which a sorcerer was hanged. Carry this potion with you and be sure to drink of it every morning you are in the abode of the fairies.”

Staff of Power

The korrigan paused to make sure that Yannick had understood the importance of this condition before moving on to share the secrets of the sorcerer’s staff. “This is no mere walking stick, so treat it with the reverence it deserves for it will serve you as a wand of great power. You must remove the pith from a branch of elder cut during the sounds of the midnight bell on the night of a full moon. Replace it with a compound made from the eye of a wolf, the heart of a dog, the brain of a sparrowhawk, the tongues of two mating toads and the stinger of a queen bee, all of which must have been dried by the heat of the sun between two parchments of moleskin sprinkled with saltpetre. On top of this, place seven leaves of vervain, gathered on the eve of Midsummer, together with a little powder ground from the type of moonstone found in the nest of a mouse. Lastly, cap both ends of the wand with iron ferrules made by a blacksmith born on a Friday.”

Yannick’s head was reeling with the knowledge of the ancients but his heart was now full of hope and he thanked the korrigan for this most wonderful of gifts. Whereupon, the little dwarf took hold of Yannick’s trouser leg with one hand and with the other, struck the ground three times with his stick. Instantly, they found themselves standing outside the mouth of the dolmen of Merzhin; the sun had set on another day and the moon was lying low in the sky. “Go now Christian, for you have much to do. Remember all I have told you and when you have found the moonstone, keep it with you always. As a man, you will need it and don’t forget what I said about the korikaned. Good luck to you.” And so saying, he vanished.

Moonlight in Brittany

Having made his farewells and promised to his wife and daughters that he would return within two moons, Yannick finished his last mouthful of andouille as he lay hidden in the long grass, waiting for the sun to set on the castle of Brobearh. He knew timing would be key, he had to reach the gateway to the fairy realm when it could be opened; only while the church bells announced midnight. The distant sounds of the eleven o’clock bells signalled that it was time to act and Yannick stood up to better survey the ruins. He moved quickly through the heather and stopped behind a large gorse bush, breaking off a branch and several flowery stems that he attached to his coat. Taking the moonstone from his pocket, he rubbed his eyelids with it for several seconds before again studying the castle and then he saw them; two tall red monks with long beards and even longer swords but no sign of the korikaned.

Yannick had long steeled himself to be bold; he could be nothing less if he expected to rescue his son, and so, kissing his rosary, he walked straight to the biggest opening in the castle’s wall. “Return and leave the night to whom it belongs!” boomed a voice from the shadows. Yannick lit the candle of his lantern and looked around him saying; “I bring no trouble. I am gamekeeper of yonder estate and am tracking some poachers who would see me and my family without a home, if they are not stopped.”

“The night belongs to the dead. Leave this place and go home,” returned the voice which Yannick could tell was now quite close to him but whose owner was choosing to remain invisible.

Castle by moonlight

“If you come from God, tell me your wish but if you are from the Devil, go your way as I go mine,” challenged Yannick who immediately flicked his small flask of holy water over each of the ghostly knights. Burned by their sins, the red monks recoiled in agony and in retreat seemingly passed into the very rock of the castle itself.

Now inside the castle grounds, Yannick ran towards the inner courtyard and quickly spotted his target; a large hawthorn near the west wall. Hurrying towards the tree, he stumbled over a clump of earth but turning around to look, he saw that it was in fact a hedgehog. No sooner had he noticed, than the hedgehog grabbed his ankle as hard as if a tree had fallen on it. Yelling in pain, Yannick tried to shake off the animal but it would not budge, so tight was its grip. As he struggled to free himself, he was able to press one of the stems of gorse onto the hedgehog’s spines; the animal’s grip weakened and so he impaled two more. The animal lost its grip but instead of rolling into a ball, it straightened into an enraged korrigan; the korikaned gatekeeper. Yannick struck the dwarf repeatedly with the branch of gorse that he had carried in his belt and thus subdued, quickly tied his legs together with a length of blessed twine.

The first chimes were sounding as Yannick ran to the tree and began examining its roots, pulling furiously at the undergrowth in his determination to find the entrance. Lifting a slab of schist, he grabbed at a large iron ring that seemed to have been buried in the earth under the stone but as he pulled it, he realised it was a handle. He heard the striking of the ninth bell as he frantically pulled the ring in every direction but all to no avail, when he had the idea of holding it upright. Once vertical, Yannick pushed down on the ring which slid seamlessly into the ground and as it did so, the tree split open to reveal a small door made of silver which opened to his touch. With no time to spare, Yannick pushed himself through the opening and found himself plunging rapidly into the darkness.

…. the conclusion follows here.

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