Lost Cities of Brittany

The history and folklore of Brittany contain many intriguing references to once flourishing cities that disappeared from the face of the earth, having left little or no trace of their ruins upon the land. Information on these lost cities is scarce and fragmentary; some seem to have been abandoned under strange circumstances while others simply have simply vanished into myth.

The most famous of the world’s lost cities is surely Atlantis, which is said to have been consumed by the sea in a single day and night. In 1934, the French author François Gidon proposed that the Atlantis legend was born from the flooding of the coastal plains off north-west Brittany. More recently, several researchers have suggested that the megalithic monuments of Brittany are somehow connected with Atlantis. In his book The Glass Towers of Atlantis (1986), Italian scientist Helmut Tributsch expounds a theory that Neolithic Europe was Atlantis and that its capital was around Carnac in southern Brittany.

Perhaps the most well known of Brittany’s lost cities is that of Ker-Is, submerged by the waters of the Bay of Douarnenez in the 5th century. The legend in its most common form tells that the city was damned and taken by the sea due to the sinful passion of Dahud, the resolutely pagan daughter of the Christian king Gradlon. I set out the legends surrounding the city’s destruction in a previous post, so will not repeat them here.

Ker-Ys or Ker-Is

However, it is worth noting that there are as many legends regarding the salvation of Ker-Is as there are of its devastation. Some legends say that the city was not destroyed but rather simply covered by the sea, becoming a sort of enchanted realm under the waves. When the city was engulfed, everyone kept the attitude they had and continued to do what they were doing at the time of the disaster. The women who were spinning continue to spin, the cloth merchants continue to sell the same piece of cloth to the same buyers and the congregation remain seated in church celebrating mass; they are condemned to remain in this state until the city and its inhabitants are delivered.

Some old tales talk of ways of resurrecting the city; spending just one penny with the town’s merchants, donating a coin to the church collection, responding to the priest during mass or even agreeing to a plea for aid. Any of these missed actions by a living person would have redeemed the city, allowing it to return from the depths with all its former splendour.

According to tradition, the ancient city of Lexobia was sited between the north coast town of Lannion and the mouth of the Léguer River, somewhere near the present-day hamlet of Le Yaudet. This site seems to have been continuously occupied since the early Neolithic period and archaeological investigations have uncovered evidence of a fortified Iron Age settlement and a thriving port here during the Roman era. Archaeologists have also discovered evidence of a massive tidal mill constructed here in the 7th century. Albert Le Grand in his Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany (1637) noted that one of the seven founding saints of Brittany, Saint Tudwal, and his pupil Saint Pergat settled here in the mid-6th century and that Pergat later became Archdeacon of Lexobia.

Viking raiders in Brittany

Although written around 1480, Pierre Le Baud’s History of Brittany was not published until 1638, in it, he says that Lexobia was destroyed by Danish raiders in 836. It seems that the devastation was total, as the see transferred to Tréguier in 859 and Lannion, a few miles inland, expanded to become the chief port of the Léguer. However, Jean-Baptiste Ogée in his Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Brittany (1780) believes that the real destruction of the site dates to 786 when the town was taken by Charlemagne’s forces; its weakened defences helped explain how the Danes were able to capture the town just fifty years later. The folk memory of a once significant settlement on this site can feasibly be glimpsed in a ducal charter of 1267 which refers to La Yaudet by the name Vetus Civitatis (land of the old city).

Some authors have dismissed the claims that Lexobia was in Brittany and insist it is instead the Norman town of Lisieux. Perhaps there were once two towns with similar names or the settlement on the Léguer was named after a tribe of Lexobi, different but possibly related to those noted around Lisieux during the Roman era? We will probably never know for sure; perhaps we should call upon Lexobia’s Saint Pergat who was commonly invoked for lost items.

Local tradition attests that near Lanmeur, a flourishing town called Kerfeunteun (town of the fountains) once stood. The noted French author Charles Nodier, writing in Picturesque and Romantic Voyages in Ancient France (1846), reported that Lanmeur emerged from the literal ashes of Kerfeunteun. It seems that the town’s origins date back to Saint Samson, another of the seven founding saints of Brittany, who established a monastery here in the 6th century, around which a thriving settlement subsequently grew up.

Saint Samson

The town is home to a church dedicated to Saint Melar who, according to legend, was the legitimate heir to the throne of Kernev, usurped by his uncle Rivod who also had the boy’s right hand and left foot cut off thus making him unfit to hold a sword and ride a horse. These handicaps were only temporary as a miracle gave him a silver hand and a foot of brass which functioned as well as his own limbs. Seven years later, the young man was murdered, beheaded near Lanmeur and another miracle occurred; his head reattached itself to his lifeless body. While his body was being taken to join those of his ancestors in Lexobia, the horses pulling the funeral chariot refused to be led and headed, resolutely, for Lanmeur. On reaching the town square, the cart’s axle broke; a sure sign from God that the saint would be buried here by Saint Samson.

The church is built over a stunning Romanesque crypt dating to the 7th century, said to have been especially built to house the saint’s remains, although some have suggested the stones used were repurposed from an old Roman temple. Others believe that the crypt itself was once a pagan temple; two of its monumental columns are decorated with high relief carvings of entwined snakes or, depending on your view, vines and a natural spring is captured in a small basin set into the foot of the crypt’s west wall.

It is believed that this was the fountain from which the town took its name. Unfortunately, Kerfeunteun seems to have been destroyed by the Normans in 878 and again in 882, and it was not until their final defeat in 939 that the monastery and town were restored. Having reinstated themselves, the monks subsequently established a hospital and, later, a leper colony. The name Lanmeur, which means great hermitage, was first noted in the 12th century; Kerfeunteun being consigned to legend.

Lanmeur Crypt of Saint-Mélar

According to legend, the fountain in the crypt of the church of Saint-Melar will one Trinity Sunday flow so hard that the church, then the whole country will be flooded entirely. The fountain was also the scene of two popular superstitious practices. Young girls once placed a hairpin on the water; if the pin floated, it was taken as an omen that they would marry within the year. In another rite, pilgrims would dip both hands in the basin of the fountain and then wave them above their heads in order to protect themselves against rheumatism and other diseases.

At the time of the Roman invasion in 56BC, Occismor (which means west sea) was said to be the principal city of the Osismii, the native Celtic tribe whose domain roughly encompassed the land west of the Blavet River. During the centuries of Roman occupation, Vorgium (present-day Carhaix) became the chief town of this part of Brittany. Unfortunately, the location of Occismor eludes us today although the historian Daniel Louis Olivier Miorcec, writing in 1829, proposed the area around Plouneventer in north west Brittany as the most likely site.

This town is named after the obscure 6th century Saint Neventer who is said to have been one of two British knights who, returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, promised the local ruler, Count Elorn, to deliver his lands from the dragon that had taken his son, Riok, on condition that he agreed to convert to Christianity and raise his son in the new faith. The two saints tracked the dragon to its lair and having rescued Riok, they took the dragon to Tolente where they commanded it to throw itself into the sea.

Capturing the Dragon

Archaeological discoveries attest that an Iron Age village grew into a sizeable settlement here during the Roman period and while some authors have speculated that this was the fabled Occismor, it is probably more likely that it is the lost Roman town of Vorganium. It is worth noting that Jacques Cambry in his Travels in Finistère (1799) was of the opinion that the north coast town of Saint-Pol-de-Léon was more likely the site of Occismor.

To identify another lost city of yore, we once again turn to the pages of Albert Le Grand’s monumental work for our information: “The country of Ac’h or Aginense had as its capital the ancient city of Tolente, famous for the size of its enclosure, the strength of its ramparts and the beauty of its port. It was located at the entrance to the Bay of Angels, not far from Île Cézon and it was beyond that it sent its vessels to all parts of the earth”.

The most popular location proposed for the city of Tolente is near the mouth of the Aber Vrac’h River on the far west of Brittany’s northern coast, somewhere in the neighbourhood of the present-day town of Plouguerneau. The area is a mass of promontories, fingers of land stabbing out towards the waters of the Channel, that abound with Neolithic cairns and dolmens, some as old as 6,600 years and amongst the oldest monuments in Europe. Archaeological discoveries hereabouts show evidence of stone enclosures and defensive embankments built during the Iron Age. During the Roman occupation, the area covered by the present-day village of Landeda was the terminus of a road connecting it with the region’s capital, Vorgium; indicating here was a port of some significance.

Brittany as shown in the 13th century Tabula Peutingeriana: a planisphere of the world as known in antiquity
Brittany as shown in the 13th century Tabula Peutingeriana: a planisphere of the world as known in antiquity

The Breton historian Rene Kerviler, in his consolidated edition of Armorica and Brittany (1893), tells that: “The Romans, undeniably, made Carhaix an important city but this shows us that, if the sea returned all that it had taken, would there not be more important Roman ruins in the bay of Aber Vrac’h, where a majestic road led to the direct embarkation port for Great Britain? This is where an ancient tradition placed, on the right bank, the flourishing city of Tolente (Toul-hent, that is to say the hole or the bay of the path), destroyed by a cataclysm”.

According to Albert Le Grand, boats from the port of Tolente traded regularly with Great Britain and the town was, for a time, the capital of Domnonia, the early kingdom carved out in Armorica in the 5th century by the first British migrants fleeing the Saxon invaders. The first book published in French on the history of Brittany, Alain Bouchard’s The Great Chronicles (1514) notes that: “The king Judicael lived in a beautiful city in Brittany called Talenche or Tolente, which has since been destroyed by wars”. Judicael was a 7th century saint, king of Domnonia and High King of the Bretons.

Jean-Baptiste Ogée, writing in 1780, provides a date for the city’s destruction by Norman raiders: “It is claimed that it was in this place (Plouguerneau) that the opulent city of Tolente was located, on the river Vrach; a city which was completely destroyed and reduced to ashes around the year 875″.

Bretons battle the Franks

The 12th century epic known as The Conquest of Brittany by King Charlemagne, deals with the history of 10th century Brittany and the invasions of Charlemagne and the Norman Vikings. The poem contains several references to Gardayne; a “wonderful city” near Saint-Malo ruled by a pagan noble, Doret. Said to have been surrounded by a canal 20 feet wide and 60 feet deep that extended to the sea, the town was flanked by a castle, whose doors were gilded with silver and gold; its brilliance seen from a league away.  In placing the town under siege: “the aspect is terrible. The ditches are full of long spikes on which are planted more than a thousand heads of Christians. The city is still defended by a crowd of ferocious beasts, lions, leopards; there is even a giant”.

Injured before the walls of Gardayne, Charlemagne beseeched God “to confuse this city; let none of these unbelievers escape and let no man live”. Soon, a terrible storm was aroused and “at midnight, the city crumbles with its walls and fortresses. The sea goes beyond its limits and invades the land, swallowing six leagues wide by two long. The French tremble with fear when they see this miracle. More than ten thousand of them drowned there. The tempest and darkness last four days and even the emperor himself is seized with fear. The flood reaches up to him. “You have prayed too well,” said Duke Naimes to him”. However, Charlemagne prayed for deliverance and his pleas were answered; the storm quickly abated, the sea returned to its domain.

Some historians have suggested that the Rance estuary was the site of this battle and that Gardayne might reasonably be located around the present-day town of Saint-Suliac. If we allow for the imaginative exaggeration of our medieval scribe, we might see in the substantial stone foundations revealed at each low tide, a stoutly-built defensive fortification; all that now remains of a important strategic site abandoned by the routed Vikings in 939.

Mapping the Lost Cities of Brittany
The Lost Cities of Brittany : Anti-clockwise from top right: Gardayne, Nasado, Lexobia, Kerfeunteun, Tolente, Occismor, Ker-Is, Escoublac, Herbauges

Further west along the north coast, around the town of Erquy, François Habasque noted, in his Historical and Geographical Notions of the Côtes du Nord (1836), several legends about the lost city of Nasado which was taken by the sea because of the debauchery of its inhabitants. Apparently, the women of this city were famous for their beauty and the delicacy of their skin; it was said that when they drank wine it could be seen travelling through their bodies. Ironically, Erquy once housed a large leper colony for diseased soldiers returning from the Crusades.

According to legend, the soldiers of the town’s garrison, too eager for the attention of these women, no longer obeyed their leader, who, in his frustration at such indiscipline, cursed the city, which was soon consumed by the waves. Another legend tells that Gargantua and his troops rested overnight in the city but none of his men mustered for departure the following morning. Receiving no response to his calls, the angry giant cursed Nasado and its inhabitants: the sea rushed inland, consuming the city and even covering the giant’s heels.

The 1843 revised edition of Ogée’s Historical and Geographical Dictionary identified the hamlet of Pussoir a little north of Erquy as the site of Nasado. The area is rich in Iron Age and Roman remains; unsurprising given that it provided the inspiration for a certain infamous “small village of indomitable Gauls”.

Sometimes, less exotic characters were said to have invoked curses that brought destruction upon the land. In the area around the coastal town of Saint-Briac, an impatient priest, disturbed during mass, was said to have pronounced a curse strong enough to cause a cataclysm. Legend tells that, one morning, the birds made such a clamour that the local curate, frustrated by the distraction to his prayers, cursed the birds and the forest where they sheltered. Immediately, a furious tempest arose and waves rushed through the land. When the sea receded, there remained only the bay that we see today.

Submerged city woodcut

A variant of this legend, located on the other side the Rance estuary, tells of a town whose inhabitants were living in peace until the Devil obtained permission from God to test them. He sent them thousands of crows, which took possession of the trees surrounding the town’s chapel, deafening the people with their croaking which was redoubled on feast days, so that the word of God was no longer heard. The priest charged the townsfolk to keep the birds at bay but one day they fell asleep and the crows came to perch on the chapel roof. The priest, annoyed by their uproar, cursed the crows in his frustration and a great storm soon raged which engulfed the entire town.

Some local traditions tell of cities that have been engulfed not by the sea but by its sands, some of which reveal themselves on certain privileged nights. The Breton writer Emile Souvestre, in his book The Breton Hearth (1844), collected a tale from northern Brittany that tells that in the area now covered by the dunes of Saint-Efflam, a powerful city once stood; ruled by a king whose sceptre was a hazel wand with which he changed everything according to his whim. However, the debauched living of the king and his subjects caused their damnation, so that one day, God sent thunderous waves so powerful that the sands of the shore rose to engulf the city.

Each year, during the night of Pentecost, on the first stroke of midnight, a passage opens under the mountain of sand that allows one to reach the king’s palace. In the last room of which is suspended the hazel wand which gives all power but if this is not gained before the last sound of the midnight bell, the passage closes and does not reopen for another year.

Grand Rocher Brittany

It is probably to this same city that the legend relating to the city concealed within the nearby Grand Rocher massif refers. This rocky spur was said to entomb a magnificent city that could be seen in its illuminated brilliance through a narrow fissure that only opened-up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. The city would be reborn, if someone was brave enough to venture inside and managed to penetrate to the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and nimble enough to re-emerge before the sound of the twelfth bell had died.

About halfway between the city of Nantes and the Bay of Biscay lies the Grand-Lieu lake; France’s largest natural lake and one of the country’s most significant bird sanctuaries. The region’s folklore has long attested that this lake conceals the once prosperous city of Herbauges; a place renowned as a den of iniquity and vice.

In the late 6th century, Saint Martin of Vertou was charged by the Bishop of Nantes with evangelising the pagan population of the region. The saint’s preaching was not well received in Herbauges whose inhabitants insulted the Gospel and beat its messenger. After one savage beating, he was taken-in and cared for by Romain and his wife, a couple who had recently accepted the new faith. The strength of the city’s attachment to its sinful resistance so offended God that He elected to remove the city from the face of the earth. One night, an angel appeared to Saint Martin commanding him and his righteous hosts to leave the city with all haste, warning that he should not look back, no matter what he heard. Unfortunately, upon hearing the roar of the rising waters, Romain and his wife could not contain their curiosity; turning to witness the terrible spectacle, they were immediately petrified. Two menhirs in the neighbourhood were popularly said to be the only witnesses to the catastrophe.

Ruins of Escoublac

The disappearances of some Breton towns feature a more prosaic explanation. On Brittany’s southern coast, between Guérande and Saint-Nazaire, lies the resort town of La Baule-Escoublac; home to the biggest free Easter egg hunt in France. The village of Escoublac has been noted since the 11th century but its situation on the northern shore of the Loire estuary has created many challenges for its inhabitants over the years. It seems that the original village grew-up by the seashore but was consumed by a tidal wave which covered the settlement under sand in 1450. Despite the danger posed by drifting dunes, the village was rebuilt a little further inland but in 1751 was again consumed by the shifting sand following a violent storm.

Once again, the village was rebuilt but encroaching sands required it to again relocate further inland; the old church was abandoned to the sand and a new one constructed in 1785-86. It was said in the mid-19th century that the people of this flourishing town had gotten rich from the salt trade but had become corrupted by their wealth. One night, a voice was heard warning them, with all haste, to change their wicked ways. Alas, the people did not listen; the sea rushed in to consume the town and in retiring, left it buried under a mountain of sand.

Many Breton towns were once believed threatened with a catastrophe similar to that which befell Ker-Is. It was to avert such an event that a candle lit to celebrate the city’s deliverance from the plague in the 15th century burned day and night at the Notre-Dame-de-Guéodet chapel in Quimper. It was said that if the candle were to ever go out, the city would disappear under the water; the sea inundating the waters of the well sited outside the chapel. The flames of the Revolution extinguished the candle in 1793 and while the chapel has long since disappeared, the city remains as vibrant as ever. However, Quimper and other Breton towns are still in danger because this land was believed to sit atop an underground ocean and might collapse into it at any moment.

Armchair Travelling – Myanmar

Unfortunately, the sunny skies and warm weather heralding the appearance of Spring that we enjoyed last week here in Brittany has been beaten back by frosts and fog this week. This means that another virtual journey is in order and so, for Wordless Wednesday, I will take the road to Mandalay and revisit beautiful Myanmar.

Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma
Myanmar, Burma

Hopefully, the warm weather will return soon and covid-19 will be banished, allowing us all to travel safely again.

Dirty Water for Clean Health

Many people are now increasingly turning to natural remedies for their therapeutic or preventative virtues. In lots of cases, we are merely rediscovering or refining what our ancestors had long known and sworn by as effective and curative. Herb and plant extracts have long been traditionally used for medicinal purposes but, in times gone by, other natural products were routinely used.

The medical use of natural derivatives is well attested from ancient times and was once commonly found in therapeutic practices across the world. Indeed, almost everything that could be taken from the bodies of men and animals, living or dead, was enlisted to prevent and cure all ailments. It may seem strange to us now but the use of ordure in medicinal preparations remained commonplace in France and western Europe long into the modern era.

Many of the popular medical and pharmacological treaties of the 17th and 18th centuries contain copious amounts of recipes and preparations extolling the value of urine and excrement in treating all manner of diseases. These texts were not written by weird charlatans for some rural witch practicing traditional folk remedies but by preeminent scientists for the leading physicians of the day.

Medieval medicine

While our opinions of the medical establishment of 17th century France may be clouded by the contempt in which it was held by Moliere whose scornful attacks on physicians portrayed them as blustering, often dangerous, bunglers. A more entertaining view can be found in the letters of his contemporary, the Marquise de Sévigné, whose works are peppered with references to the medicine of her century, which she did not disdain; on the contrary, she took human urine to rid herself of jaundice. On other occasions, she consumed vipers confident in the belief that they were an unequalled tonic for restoring vigour. She also claimed that, on certain days, eating two shredded vipers at breakfast had a marked influence on her writing.

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné (1626-96) was born into an illustrious French family whose menfolk were noted for dying in some of the nation’s most important battles and whose women were renowned for their virtue. At 18, she married a Breton noble, the Marquis de Sévigné, and honeymooned at his family seat, the Château des Rochers, near Vitré in eastern Brittany; a place where she would routinely stay over the next fifty years. Marie’s husband did not enjoy the luck of her grandfather, who survived eighteen duels, being killed in a duel over his mistress, leaving her a widow the day after her twenty-fifth birthday.

Château des Rochers
Château des Rochers

She is remembered today for her prodigious letter writing, particularly those exchanged for over two decades with her daughter. First published in 1725, the letters provide an interesting insight into aristocratic life in the 17th century and touch on all manner of subjects, from court scandal to family gossip. One of the marquise’s constant concerns throughout her correspondence is the health and well-being of her daughter; it is a subject that casts a fascinating light on the popular remedies and miracle cures of the time; Emerald Water, Tranquil Balm, Catholicon and the Water of a Thousand Flowers.

Many assume that the mysterious Emerald Water mentioned by de Sévigné was a product derived from urine but this is probably unlikely. In her letter of 20 June 1685, addressed to her daughter, she writes: “I told them that my leg perspired greatly and they replied that they knew it, that it was the point they had aimed at in their remedies and that I was cured; they sent me a liquid they called essence of emerald, which strengthened the part and has a most delightful perfume.”

Believing this Emerald Water able to “heal and cure everything”, it was to this essence that she attributed her recovery and after some “six weeks without the least appearance of a sore”, she wrote: “It is now over and I apply nothing to my leg but a piece of lint seeped in the blood of a hare, to strengthen it and perfect the cure.” The marquise went on to write: “I walk as much as I please; I use the emerald water, so pleasant that if I did not apply it to my leg, I would put it on my handkerchief.”

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal Marquise de Sévigné
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné

There is nothing in de Sévigné’s letters to suggest that urine was a key ingredient of this fragrant smelling liquid medicine and we will now simply never know its components. However, a formula for a potion called Emerald Water is found in Elements of Pharmacy (1762) by the French chemist Antoine Baumé: an alcohol infused with a macerated blend of herbs and aromatic plants thus explaining the liquid’s colour and smell.

Many physicians of the time claimed to be able to diagnose disease from urine but the fluid itself was more commonly used in the treatment of disease. It was typically employed in two ways: either in its raw state or in the chemical preparations extracted from it. De Sévigné’s letters show that she herself used to dose pure drops, drops diluted with a balm and also took its vapours.

On 15 December 1684, the marquise wrote to her daughter in the following terms: “I send you, my child, the most precious thing in my possession, which is half a bottle of Tranquil Balm. I can never have it filled again as the Capuchins have no more. It is by the help of this balm that they cured the little woman of her nephritic complaints. They desire you to put ten to twelve drops of it into the same quantity of spirits of urine, made warm, and rub it well into your side by which means it will penetrate to the seat of the disorder. [It is] also a remedy for complaints of the chest.”

Louvre Capuchins

The Louvre Capuchins were two monks who operated a crown sponsored laboratory at the Louvre Palace in Paris between 1678 and 1680. Practicing a mixture of alchemy, medicine and pharmacy, their propriety concoctions proved so popular that, on more than one occasion, they ran out of medicine and had to ask their patients to return unused remedies on the promise of receiving a double dose at the next visit. Their success attracted the jealousy of their lay colleagues and the friars retired to Brittany where they were so overwhelmed by the high number of patients seeking their assistance that their presence became a major distraction to their brother friars.

Tranquil Balm was named after one of the friars who invented it, Tranquille d’Orléans, his partner, Henri de Montbazon, noted its components in his work Secrets and Remedies (1697): “We took all we could find of harmless and fragrant herbs, namely; nightshade, henbane, poppy heads, elderflower, St. John’s wort … all finely chopped, pounded and well mixed. After which we boiled some olive oil and added the herbs which we boiled until they were browned and dry. If we want to make it even better, we add as many large live toads as there are pounds of oil.”

In another letter to her daughter, dated 13 June 1685, de Sévigné wrote: “I took eight drops of essence of urine but contrary to custom, it prevented me from sleeping the whole night. However, it produced the intended effect and my esteem is greater than ever.” The medicinal powers of urine have been noted since the time of Pliny and fifteen hundred years later the influential 16th century Swiss physician Paracelsus wrote that: “The salt of man’s urine has an excellent quality to cleanse, it is made this way.”

Medieval pharmacy

According to some sources, this essence of urine was also called Catholicon because of its wonderful properties. Curiously, this was also the name of the first Breton-French-Latin dictionary, published in 1499. Camille Vieillard in his Urology and Urologists in Ancient Medicine (1903) tells that the essence was made from the urine of a healthy boy of twelve years of age, ideally, one who had been drinking wine for several months beforehand. The urine was then poured upon dung for a philosophical year (one month) and distilled over a low heat in a retort attached to an airtight container. The distillate was then distilled again a further four times. At which stage, the liquid was almost colourless and the pungent odour disguised by the addition of a little cassia and sugar.

Other authors said that urine oil was best distilled from the urine of a healthy, chaste man of thirty years, who had drunk heavily of wine for the occasion and it was believed especially effective if collected while the Sun and Jupiter were in Pisces. Another variant called for the urine of a twelve year old boy, who had been drinking wine, to be placed in a receptacle surrounded by horse dung for forty days. Left to putrefy, the fluid was then decanted upon human ordure and distilled in an alembic. The resulting liquid was said to be effective for treating all sorts of pains and given both internally and externally, successful in treating jaundice, urinary diseases, epilepsy and even mania.

Vieillard noted that urine oil was once thought to possess many virtues: “The essence of urine can be a universal remedy. It has, in fact, admirable properties for all kinds of diseases and wonderfully helps nature. It cures dropsy, suppresses urine and menstruation, prevents corruption, and cures plague and fevers of all kinds. Taken daily, it stops vomiting and nausea, although it sometimes causes vomiting.”

Apothecary shop 16th century

Another popular medicine, whose use is even attested to at the French court, with a deliberately confounding name was the Eau de Millefleurs or Water of a Thousand Flowers. Readers will not be surprised to learn that this was not quite the quintessence of a fragrant floral meadow. It seems that there were commonly two types of Millefleurs Water; one made from plain cow’s urine and the other produced by the distillation of cow’s dung.

The French chemist Nicolas Lémery’s Universal Pharmacopoeia (1697) specifies that it was produced by distilling fresh cow dung collected: “In May, when the grass starts to gain strength, fresh cow dung will be collected and having half-filled a stoneware pot, we will place it in a bain-marie and by a strong enough fire we will distil a clear water called Eau de Millefleurs.”

The physician François Malouin, in his Medicinal Chemistry (1750), offers a quite detailed description of the other type of Millefleurs Water: “… cow urine; one chooses that of a heifer or of a young healthy brown cow fed in a good pasture. In the month of May or in September, in the morning, we receive in a vessel this urine of the cow which is carried, hot, to the patient, who must be on an empty stomach.” Lémery believed this tonic was a purgative most suitable for treating asthma, dropsy, rheumatism, sciatica and gout if the patient drank two or three glasses of it every morning for nine days.

Apothecary shop 18th century

Bastier de La Mirande in his Notebook on Internal and External Medical Matters (1759) noted that the two types of Millefleurs Water possessed distinct attributes: “the first distilled from cow dung is resolutive, softening and cosmetic, it cleans, gives colour and removes facial stains; the second is the urine of a young black cow, if possible, of three years, which is neither full nor nursing, nor mad.” The Dutch-born doctor Jean-Adrien Helvétius in his Treatise on Frequent Diseases and Remedies Specific to Curing Them (1703) also wrote that the cow used needed to be black but furthermore that it must have previously borne a calf.

There was also a Millefleurs variant called the Water of All Flowers which took a mixture of cow dung and snails in their shells; the whole was crushed, diluted in white wine and distilled. This concoction was not for oral ingestion but was applied as a lotion to refresh the hands and face.

The apothecaries of the time drew many fantastic preparations from urine. An anti-epileptic known as Extract of the Moon featured the urine of boys as its main component, as did a potion called Oil of Sulphur. Salt of Urine was produced by distilling the urine of a boy and collecting the saline residue; it was administered for heart troubles and to aid in the expulsion of a dead foetus; from it were also made various remedies with exotic names such as Moon Salt, the Salt of Mercury and the Spirit of Orion.

17th century apothecary

A draught of one’s own urine, taken every morning whilst fasting, was commended for liver complaints and for dropsy and yellow jaundice but some preferred the urine of a young boy. A lotion of one’s own urine was good for the palsy but where this had been occasioned by excessive drinking, the urine of a boy was preferable. A drink of the patient’s own urine was highly commended for combating hysteria although some doctors recommended that the patient’s excrement and stale urine be applied to the nostrils. The patient’s urine or that of a boy was also used to treat consumption and one remedy called for the patient to drink a mixture of his own urine into which a fresh egg had been beaten.

The therapeutic value of urine seems to have known no bounds: it was drunk as a cure for worms, as a remedy for constipation and to treat a prolapsed uterus. If taken twice a day, some physicians even considered it an excellent preservative against the plague.

Urine oil was applied as a lotion for the elimination of head lice as well as dandruff. An external application was also used to treat venereal diseases although some authorities’ recommended drinking urine and the external application of horse dung. It was used as a wash to improve chapped hands and as an aid against all skin disorders. Likewise, ulcers were bathed with the patient’s own urine and it was often applied as a lotion to wounds, lesions and contusions.

Georgian Apothecary shop

For eye ailments, an eye-bath composed of the warm urine of young boys was recommended. Although water distilled from the ordure of a man who had only fed on bread and wine was also considered effective. Similarly, cataracts were thought best treated by the application of boy’s urine, human excrement or of the dung of wolves and green lizards. All manner of ear conditions were managed by the application of fresh human urine particularly that of a young boy mixed with honey.

In their quest for effective panaceas, the ingenuity of yesterday’s healers seems to have been unlimited. However, they were often as stubborn as they were imaginative and habitually clung to repeating treatments that were clearly ineffective, even harmful. Guy Patin, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in the mid-17th century, is noted to have bled one patient sixty four times in an attempt to cure his rheumatism. Similarly, in one year alone, King Louis XIII was bled forty seven times and received almost 260 purges. The king’s Chief Minister and former Governor of Brittany, Cardinal Richelieu, was prescribed horse droppings infused in white wine to treat his rectal abscess, while his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, was given the same medication but applied as a poultice to treat his gout.

If these remedies seem bizarre to us today, we can at least glimpse an appreciation of the value of ammonia in medicine but it is perhaps more difficult to fathom the reasoning underpinning other common cures. Finger nail cuttings absorbed in water were believed to cure fever, earthworms soaked in white wine were recommended for jaundice while dropsy was thought cured if the patient wore a belt full of live toads, which scratched the stomach and kidneys. Alopecia was treated by the application of three hundred slugs, boiled in a decoction of honey, bay leaves and olive oil.

Medicine Middle Ages

In the past, the boundaries between scientific medicine and folk remedies were often blurred and while there are many folk remedies that call for the use of urine, from both humans and animals, it is more commonly found in superstitions surrounding the supernatural. Witches were said to have been able to shape-shift by washing their hands in “a certain water” which they kept in a pot; many believe that this water was actually urine. Other tales tell that witches could be exorcised if sprinkled with urine.

Human urine was also believed to be a powerful ingredient in bewitching spells, love potions and dagydes but it was also a potent means of frustrating the maleficence of witches. In Brittany, peasants once washed their hands in their urine or in that of their husbands in order to divert evil or avert its effect. Even into the middle of the 19th century, some people here washed their face with cow’s urine, or their own if no cow was available, in order to protect themselves from the Devil’s wickedness.

Witch's Brew

While we may find some of these old beliefs and practices involving ‘dirty water’ repugnant today, it is perhaps worth considering the notion that there is nothing dirty in nature; only a mass of chemical compounds slowly undergoing metamorphosis.

Brittany’s Beautiful Brigand

For those without means, life in 18th century Brittany was challenging. It was a time when only the strongest survived the daily struggle to eke out a living against a backdrop of poor harvests, famine and disease. The third of five children born to day-labourers, Marie-Louise Tromel was born on 6 May 1717 near the town of Le Faouët in central Brittany. Little is known about her early years but the young girl was reported to have accompanied her mother to the local fairs and church pardons to peddle small items of haberdashery.

By the time she was 18, she had garnered a reputation as a thief and it was said that it was not unknown for her to ransom children of her own age. She formed a close attachment with Henri Pezron, a servant from the nearby town of Guémené-sur-Scorff, and became a mother late in 1735. A small band of beggars and gamblers gravitated around the couple and complaints about the behaviour of this group soon became a regular feature of life in this remote part of Brittany.

Marie Tromel

Two other children followed before 1743 when the couple and some of their associates were arrested in Glomel and taken to the cells in nearby Carhaix where the authorities opened a formal investigation against them. A tailor had been attacked on the road to Priziac by a gang armed with pistols and clubs; the victim had recognized Henri Pezron and Corentin Tromel, Marie’s elder brother, as being part of the gang. Marie, then described by the Seneschal of Guéméné as “a red-haired harlot”, was separately accused of swindling a man with counterfeit money at the Croisty market and although the case against her was not pursued, the men were convicted and jailed.  

By this time, Marie seems to have acquired the nicknames Marion du Faouët or Marie Finefont (most cunning in Breton). Her group of brigands, which included her two elder brothers, was then thought to number several dozen men and women, many of whom carried nicknames such as the Fox, the Raven and the Gargoyle. Shrewd and careful, Marie’s group primarily targeted travellers passing along the local roads and farmers and merchants returning from local markets or pilgrims returning home from Pardons. Her company did not attack the mail coaches nor those carrying the local gentry or bourgeois; it is thought this was a victim profile born of pragmatism; she feared to attack those targets important enough to ensure a strong reaction against her.

Bandits of Brittany

In 1745, Henri Pezron escaped from prison and re-joined Marie at Le Faouët. The band resumed its activities around Quimper, Ploemeur and Carhaix, and numbers were said to have grown to as many as fifty members. Following a robbery near Ploërdut, Marie and Henri were arrested in the summer of 1746, along with two other gang members. She appeared before the judges of Hennebont who sentenced her to be flogged and branded; her companions to be hanged. However, they successfully petitioned for an appeal and were transferred to Rennes where a second trial began.

Assuming responsibility for the activities of the company, Henri’s testimony exonerated Marie but condemned him; the death sentence was confirmed and he was hanged in the Place des Lices on 28 March 1747. Marie and her two companions escaped the noose but she soon met her justice in the public square in Rennes; stripped naked to the waist and whipped, the letter V (for thief) branded on her shoulder with a hot iron. Despite being officially banished from Brittany, she immediately returned west to Le Faouët and reformed her troop to resume her criminal activities.

Henri_Barnoin Le Faouët market
Le Faouet Marketplace

In September 1747, a man from Le Faouët was killed by one of the gang and this seems to have fundamentally altered the semblance of tolerance that had existed between the local populace and Marie’s bandits. Denounced in the pulpit, one day in May 1748, a member of the gang entered the chapel of the Ursulines in Le Faouët and insulted the priests and nuns. This sacrilege further provoked the wrath of the authorities who redoubled their efforts to chase-down the gang.

Their efforts were eventually rewarded in the south coast town of Auray where, in June 1748, Marie was arrested just a week after giving birth to her son by Maurice Penhouet, another member of her gang. The records of this arrest give us our only contemporary description of Marie, described as having: “a height of almost five feet, grey eyes, chestnut hair, a scar on the top of the forehead, face marked with freckles, wearing a headdress of white canvas in the fashion of the city”.

The judges of Vannes seem to have been rather lenient or else did not have enough firm evidence for a conviction; Marie was condemned a second time by the court and, once again, banished in perpetuity. However, once again, she returned to Faouët and reorganized her group. Her tactics remained the same as before; attacking merchants and visitors returning from the markets and stealing from churches.

Returning from market by Deyrolle

Marie also appears to have implemented a structured racketeering system. She raised levies on the farms of the locality but seemingly not on those immediately surrounding her base of operations. The threat of arson was an effective form of blackmail employed by her group and people paid to avoid trouble and gain her protection. Marie even provided passes of safe-conduct that allowed victims to travel for a year without fear of being robbed again by members of her gang. The testimonies provided at her trial present her as a prudent woman who knew how to use terror and intimidation as well as kindness to obtain what she wanted; moderating the violence of her gang when needed and sometimes even showing leniency.

Some people have suggested that Marie’s uncanny ability to avoid the forces of law and order was due to the influence of a powerful protector, a wealthy lord from an illustrious Breton family; René de Robien who owned an estate in Melionnec, about half way between Gouarec and Le Faouët and a man known to have interacted with Marie and members of her gang. However, his arrest at the end of November 1751, removed any protection that he might once have afforded.

The arrest of de Robien encouraged Marie to maintain a low personal profile but her gang remained as vigorous as ever; her brother, Corentin, being notably active, attacking and robbing those travelling on the roads around Guiscriff, even killing one of his victims in January 1752. Local legends tell that a cave in Huelgoat forest was one of Marie’s many hideaways, while the cave in the wood of Kerbeskont near Rostrenen is said to have served the same purpose for Corentin.

Marie du Faouet's house

Marie was captured, along with her latest companion, Olivier Guilherm, in Poullaouen on 2 July 1752 and once more she found herself confined to the cells in Carhaix. Olivier escaped from jail just five days later and, fearing a rescue attempt, Marie was quickly transferred to Quimper. Held in the town’s jail while the authorities gathered evidence against her, she received many visitors from Le Faouët, including Olivier, and gave instructions as to the treatment to be meted out to potential witnesses against her.

At the end of August 1752, the parish priests of central Brittany read monitoires at high mass on three consecutive Sundays; these were edicts demanding the faithful come forward and reveal all that they knew of the fugitives, on penalty of eternal damnation. With state and church now railed against her, Marie escaped from jail on 9 September 1752. Legend attests that she made good her escape by sawing through the bars of a window but it is more likely that she bribed the gaoler.

Despite her flight, the court in Quimper continued their investigations and the réaggraves issued in February and March 1753 encouraged over a dozen new witness statements implicating Marie in criminal acts. Réaggraves were the ultimate church sanction and those members of the congregation who now refused to come forward with information could expect excommunication and the economic and social handicaps that came with it. New witnesses were called before the court; almost fifty were heard in the months of August and September alone.

Marion du Faouet

At the time, before being able to pronounce a suspect guilty, the investigating judge had to assemble strictly defined formal proofs. Without these, they could only abandon the trial; even a confession was not enough for a conviction unless it was freely made and supported by evidence. Alternatively, it was necessary to have the corroborated testimony of at least two adult, first-hand witnesses of good standing. With such high burdens of proof, a significant proportion of cases were necessarily dropped and torture justified in order to obtain a confession. However, torture was used only because the judges did not have sufficient proof and thus freedom was the only possible outcome for the suspect who did not confess.

In Brittany, torture was officially used only eleven times between 1750 and 1780 and, as elsewhere in France, was used in support of the procedures known as the preparatory question, to have the crime confessed, and the preliminary question, to have the accomplices denounced immediately prior to execution. Trial by fire was the most popular judicial torture used in Brittany; the suspect was typically strapped onto an iron trolley or sometimes an iron chair and carted, feet first, to a fire over which their feet were repeatedly roasted.

Ordeal by Fire

Finally, on 6 October 1753, the judges delivered their verdict, condemning Olivier, Marie, her brother and nephew Corentin and Joseph Tromel, as well as Vincent Mahé to be hanged until dead. Corentin Tromel had been captured on 29 May 1753 but escaped from Quimper jail on 17 June 1753 and so, with no physical bodies to hang, the four were instead publicly executed in effigy later that day.

Once again, Marie found herself on the run and she returned, for a time, to her old haunts near Le Faouët but the execution of two members of her gang at the end of October 1752 encouraged her to go into hiding. Unfortunately, her absence did not restore peace to the countryside and members of her gang continued to harass and rob travellers on the roads around the villages of Saint-Caradec and Kernascléden. The gang were even said to have been responsible for robbing a church near Lesneven, netting a significant haul of money and silver plate.

Marie successfully evaded attention for two long years but finally, on 21 September 1754, in Nantes, she was arrested for vagrancy and, by chance, recognised by a former victim from Gourin. The following May, she was transferred to the court at Quimper to face the twenty charges brought against her, including the sole act of violence directly levied against her; beating a man with a club in 1751. The formalities of the trial confirmed the death sentence but she first faced torture in order to extract information about her accomplices. Despite her feet being roasted, Marie revealed little information that was not already known to the investigators and on 2 August 1755 she was taken to the Place Saint-Corentin, where she was hanged in front of the assembled crowd of spectators.

Place St Corentin in Quimper
Place Saint-Corentin, Quimper

However, the execution of Marie did not put an end to the activities of her gang; many of whom avoided arrest and continued their abuses in the Breton countryside. Records show that one of her gang, Guillaume Hémery, was arrested and subsequently tried in Châteauneuf-du-Faou, being condemned on 24 July 1763 to “reveal his accomplices and to make amends in front of the church; a burning candle in his hand and a sign on his chest, to then be broken alive, finally to expire on the cross of Saint Andrew, the face turned towards the sky”.

Hémery’s last day was recorded for posterity and makes for grim reading: “Six times, his feet, his legs are exposed to the torturing fire, six times he cries under the stinging bite of the flames as part of the preparatory question and three more times as part of the preliminary question”.  The ordeal of fire over, he was led “barefoot, in a shirt, to the Place-aux-Bestiaux and tied to a cross of Saint Andrew with his arms, legs apart, chest against the cross … the executioner raising his iron bar, begins to strike the arms, the thighs, the kidneys …”. His face turned towards the sky, he lay upon the wheel, dying in agony early the following morning.

Thanks to his revelations, several confederates were eventually tracked-down and arrested during the following year, including Pierre and Corentin Bellec, Corentin Tromel and two of his sons, Joseph and Guillaume Tromel. Imprisoned in the dilapidated cells at Châteauneuf-du-Faou, several men escaped in November 1765 but Joseph Tromel was recaptured and returned to jail. Eventually tried in Rennes, Pierre Bellec, Corentin and Joseph Tromel were condemned to be broken on the wheel and executed in the city’s Place des Lices on 31 October 1766. Being only 14 years old, Guillaume Tromel was sentenced to watch the torture of his father and brother and to be flogged on market day.

Breaking on the wheel

The character of Marie has undergone a remarkable transformation in the two and a half centuries since her death. Her memory clearly lingered in the public consciousness, as evidenced by her appearances in the oral traditions of central Brittany noted in the middle of the 19th century. Writing of his travels in Brittany in 1839, the French novelist Fortuné du Boisgobey noted that locals in Finistère spoke of: “a band of extremely formidable brigands active about 50 years ago in the central part of Finistère; led by a woman, a sort of Bohemian queen called Marion du Faouët, named after the small town where she was born”. He added: “a thousand probably exaggerated stories have been embroidered on the horrors committed by this gang, on the kind of absolute and supernatural power exercised by Marion”.

In the popular tradition, Marie was endowed with great intelligence and great beauty; two characteristics which explained her power to manipulate men to do her bidding. One old tale tells that Marie terrorised Brittany at the head of an army of four thousand men, made up of vagrants, vagabonds, malcontents and military deserters, all armed and ready to shed blood. However, other stories said that Marie’s gang also included young men of honest families who aspired to the favours of a debauched Marie: vagrants or youths from good families, her seductions crossed all social barriers.

In old traditions, Marie is painted as a powerful figure who knew, equally, how to deal with lawless vagabonds and the officers of the law, exerting an almost supernatural fascination over all. How else to explain her ability to terrorise the countryside with impunity for so long but through witchcraft? One legend tells that Marie possessed an enchanted auger with which she pierced a tree that poured out a marvellous potion that put the constabulary’s archers to sleep. Similarly, her escape from Quimper jail was attributed to her wonderful hair which sawed through the thickest iron bars. 


The legends also attributed great riches to Marie, her ghost was said to haunt a field outside Le Faouët where she rolled a barrel that clanged with the tune of thousands of gold coins striking against each other in sad testimony to her innumerable victims. Another tale, recorded by the Breton author Anatole le Braz towards the end of the 19th century, noted a popular tradition around the Black Mountains that spoke of: “The famous female bandit, Marion du Faouët, who wreaked havoc there in the 18th century; her name is still only spoken with terror. In the cry of the silversmiths, the mountain dwellers believe they recognise her whistle, so sharp that it pierced the soul of the traveller, so violent that it made the leaves fall from the trees. Her shadow continues to prowl in these areas, on stormy nights; the silent gallop of a dark horse whose hooves, striking the ground, leave a trace of blood.”

The passage from bandit to witch to phantom saw the memory of Marie invoked as a bogeyman with which parents would threaten their children. The author of the first study of Marie, Julien Trévédy, recounted a scene he witnessed around 1850 in Corlay: “A grandmother was dragging her grandson to school: the boy resisted and the old woman, as a last argument, threatened to go and fetch Marion. This word was magic and the child obeyed. I asked who was this Marion and the grandmother replied: “It is Marion du Faouët. I would be very sorry if she came. She was a highway robber who killed a lot of people and took the children away. They say she was hanged in Quimper and she deserved it. It was at least a hundred years ago”. Even as late as the 1930s, the Breton author Paul-Yves Sébillot noted that the children of the Black Mountains were frightened into behaving with threats that Finefont would take them if they did not.

Marion du Faouet

Over half a dozen old ballads, some rather fragmentary, featuring Marie have survived to this day. The oldest of which, collected in the middle of the 19th century, evokes the ravages of her bandits and even attributes to her the looting of a castle near Guingamp. Despite, or perhaps because of, the once widespread prejudice against red-haired people in Brittany, much is made of Marie’s hair; a magnificent fleece of fiery, proud red. Some of the songs also mention quite specific details that are not recorded elsewhere: Marie controlled her troop by means of a whistle; she gave a knife to each of her associates as a symbol of allegiance to her; and she was always accompanied by two dogs, one black and the other white.

In 1884, Julien Trévédy, a former president of the court of Quimper, published the first historical study of Marie, claiming to recover the historical Marie from the legends still then circulating around Le Faouët, Guéméné-sur-Scorff and Gourin. However, when he republished his account five years later, small edits had been made that significantly altered the tale. The violence and debauchery noted in the trial records and in popular tradition were downplayed. Marie was now said to have robbed the rich not to enrich herself but to aid the poor; she had effectively become a Breton Robin Hood. Thus, a new character was formed; a heroine quite distant from that which tradition had long preserved.

Highway robbery

The sympathetic portrayal of Marie was cemented by a song written by the Breton author and poet Pierre-Jakez Hélias in 1954. Here, Marie is poetically portrayed as the most beautiful girl ever seen and one who made more than one man lose his honour. Her robberies are diminished as only a means for her to enjoy life’s simple pleasures such as changing her headdress every day. A misunderstood country girl, she climbs the scaffold to meet her end, full of repentance. In this romanticised vision, the figure of Marie has become completely separated from historical reality and the ground is set for the numerous works of historical romantic fiction that followed in the latter part of the 20th century.

These more recent works developed the popular myth of Marie that we have today and unsurprisingly reflect modern attitudes: she loves deeply; fights for equality and social justice; champions the marginalised; she is a strong, independent woman and feminist icon. It is worth noting that this was also a time when the image of Brittany and notions of Breton identity were being rethought and renewed. Marie, now cast as a Breton free-spirit, fighting the oppression of the French crown, was given a political dimension; a new heroine to embody a new image of Brittany.

Thus, the ambiguous relationship between historical reality and legend continues to evolve. It may adjust itself again and future generations might well question why public roads and civic buildings were once named in honour of a career criminal who menaced those innocents too weak to fight back.

Creatures of the Breton Night

The windswept moors and uncultivated lands of Brittany have long been linked with the ghostly activity of the dead. However, the beings that traditionally inhabit these areas in Breton folklore are the malevolent children of the night. For it is not only the dead who inhabit the gloom; dangerous and evil beings, who are not of the race of men, roam abroad during the hours of darkness and to encounter them could be fatal for us mortals.

Many stories, from across the region, warn of the dangers that await those traversing the lonely places after dark. The Breton nights belonged to the black dogs and to the korrigans; a race of capricious magical dwarves who emerge from their subterranean domain to haunt the moors and the ancient sites between dusk and dawn. They amuse themselves by disturbing the peace of the countryside and playing tricks on passing travellers, never missing an opportunity to entice them to join in their dance, never suffering them to stop until, overcome by fatigue, they fall dead of exhaustion. Should a man offend them, he might be forced to dance to death or even find himself consigned to an underground dungeon without any hope of deliverance.


Although heard of less than the korrigans, the tall, spectral women known as the phantom washerwomen of the night (kannerez-noz in Breton) were far more feared and to encounter them was often fatal. Condemned to forever haunt the washing places and wash their linen at night to atone for their past sins, they entreated unwary men for help in wringing-out their washing. If given reluctantly, they were said to break the man’s arm; if help was refused, they pulled the unwilling man into the water and drowned him. It was believed necessary for those who aided in wringing the laundry to turn in the same direction as the washerwomen; for if the assistant turned in an opposite direction, he had his arms crushed in an instant.

The origins of the creature known as Yann Gant y Tan (translated as John with the Fire) are far more obscure than those of the korrigans or the Phantom Washerwomen. Found only in the west of the region, Yann Gant y Tan is usually described as a hairy demon who roams the nights with lighted candles burning like torches on the five fingers of his right hand which he constantly spins to create a virtual wheel of fire. Unfortunately, it is unclear why he engages in such nocturnal activity, save for the pleasure of frightening any poor soul who may chance to meet him.

One popular tradition speaks of him running away, with all speed, until stopping suddenly only to leave, amidst howls of derisive laughter, the unfortunate wretch who followed him, alone in utter darkness. However, he is not always portrayed as malicious; it was said that he might appear and provide candles to those travellers who had none, thus lighting the way home for those at risk in the night. It was once believed that a sure way to ward off the appearance of Yann Gant y Tan was to leave a gold coin or chain on a travellers post; this offering was thought to distract his attentions, at least until another day.

Yann Gant Y Tan
Yann Gant y Tan

Perhaps the most numerous nocturnal creatures found in the folklore of Brittany are those known as night criers (hopper-noz in Breton) who typically scream out to travellers in order to cause them harm or else to warn them of imminent danger. The criers seem to possess a multitude of forms; sometimes described as demons, korrigans or the ghosts of the dead, or, being shape-shifters, able to assume the form of more fantastic spectres loosely resembling human or animal shapes.

The night criers are rarely seen but they can be heard howling on the moors, sometimes they imitate the call of the farmers or take the voice of a young girl. Their whistles at night were said to beguile the traveller hastening for home; whoever dared to answer was fatally confronted by the creature after three answers. Although usually portrayed as a lumbering giant, the hopper-noz could surprise the unwary. Near the town of Saint-Goulven, local legend tells of a farmer, walking alone with his dog one night, who was startled as his dog suddenly recoiled, growling fiercely. He then realised that he was surrounded by the legs of a gigantic being whose body was lost in the shadows: the hopper-noz.

Like the korrigans, the hopper-noz was often blamed for entangling the manes of horses during the night or was a scapegoat to explain why some horses in the barn were found sweating in the morning. To protect their animals from the mischief of the hopper-noz, it was once customary for farmers to place a cross made of rosehip branches in the stable.

bugul noz

Another nocturnal wanderer is the spectre known as the bugul-noz (shepherd of the night in Breton) or bugel-noz (child of the night); the words have been used inter-changeably for so long that we will never know which was originally applied or whether two, once distinct, traditions have merged over time. Many tales say the bugul-noz is clad all in white and that he carries a lantern; he appears, at first, the size of a korrigan, as small as a child but as you look at him, he increases in size until he becomes of a gigantic stature before disappearing. It was said that he never presented himself before people who carried a light; the eyes of the bugul-noz were wounded by the light made by the hand of man. The only way to protect oneself from him was to take refuge behind a door whose horizontal and vertical bars formed a cross, or else to stand in a ploughed field sown with blessed grain.

Other stories surrounding the bugul-noz describe him as wearing an enormous hat and tell that he is only encountered near a crossroads or ford between midnight and two o’clock in the morning. If one heard it whistling in the darkness, one had to guard against whistling back upon pain of death. Its cries lured lost men and children into deadly traps but sometimes warned of dangers. When the weary traveller calls to him for aid, he appears dressed in a long white cape, which he throws over the suppliant; who, safe beneath its folds, becomes invisible to the passage of the Ankou, the servant of death and harvester of souls.

As with most of the supernatural beings that inhabit the Breton night, the bugul-noz cannot be definitively described. That after all is the nature of supernatural beings. To perhaps explain away the many attributes once attributed to it, the bugul-noz was known as a shape-shifter and is depicted in some tales as a werewolf who snatches young shepherds. Some have suggested that as an involuntary werewolf the bugul-noz was once a man condemned to expiate his earthly sins. A more sympathetic interpretation of the old legends tries to portray the bugul-noz as a benevolent spirit who guides the shepherds safely home after dark but this overlooks its long connection to the demon known as Teuz, recorded here in the 18th century, which bears a remarkable similarity to the bugul-noz.

hopper noz

Another noted shape-shifter, more commonly noted in the north and east of the region, is the mourioche; a malicious spirit able to transform itself into any animal that it chooses. Although it often presents itself to people in the form of a cow, pig or sheep, it is most often noted in the guise of a horse, particularly a yearling colt with a pair of muscular arms. The mourioche appears at night, waiting at a crossroads for the unwary traveller, its spine stretching to accommodate as many people as necessary. It took those foolish enough to mount it, straight to their doom; propelling them into a river or an abyss. At other times, it wrestles passers-by, grappling them with its strong arms and throwing them into water-filled ditches.

Like other creatures of the night, one should never speak to the mourioche lest it mistreat you cruelly and drown you in a river. The mourioche’s only weakness is that it is confounded by anyone who does not fear him. One story tells that it took a tailor into a lake but when the tailor threatened to cut its ears off with his scissors, the mourioche immediately returned him to dry ground and safety.

During the nights of the new moon, it was said to follow people along the road, changing shape every time they turned to look at it, before jumping on a man’s back until he collapsed from exhaustion. However, one of the cruellest pranks the mourioche would play was to possess the body of a recently deceased relative to scream insults at the grieving family and chase the children present at the wake.


Legends differ regarding the origins of the mourioche. Some tell that it was once a person, versed in the dark arts, who sold their soul for a magical potion; others that it was a person afflicted by a curse similar to that of the werewolves, having the ability to change shapes but without control of his actions, and there are even those who claim that it is the Devil himself.

Similar attributes were once attached to werewolves here; creatures that have formed a part of Breton folklore since the earliest times. While the werewolf’s reputation remains well-known, there are a few intriguing old references to sinister creatures that share some of their characteristics but who have now effectively disappeared from the popular consciousness. An account from the 13th century tells of a vampire who appeared at night as an old woman riding a wolf in search of the blood of a one year old child to drink. Some sources from the 17th century talk of chimeral beasts known as barbaous which were used to frighten little children in order to keep them away from dangerous places. Some early 18th century works also mention witches known as graguez-vleiz or wolf-women who, under the guise of beautiful women, dismembered and tore little children to pieces; a trait also shared here with evil creatures known as lamies.

Breton ghosts

In Brittany, there once existed a widespread belief that the drowned whose bodies were not found and buried in consecrated ground, raged forever along the shores, begging for a Christian burial. It should therefore be no surprise that the coasts also featured their own criers known as the krierien-noz (night screamers); the lost souls of the drowned, wandering and lamenting among the rocks and treacherous coastal reefs.

One of the most popularly found coastal criers was Yannick an Aod (Little John of the Shore) whose calls were heard all along the Breton coast at night, imitating the cries of people in distress in hopes of attracting people into the water and their doom. The Bretons of the coast took a typically stoic approach to the howl of Yannick an Aod; telling their children to leave Yannick in peace and, on no account, to tease him by answering his plaintive cries; those impudent enough to do so, risked certain death. It was said that if you answered him once, Yannick an Aod jumped half the distance separating you, in a single leap. If you answered him a second time, he would jump half the remaining distance. If you answered a third time, he snapped your neck as if it were a twig.

A distinctly localised night screamer was once noted on the Quiberon Peninsula. Here, the spirit of a young man known as Pautre Penn ar Lo (the boy of Penn ar Lo) offered those travellers, trapped by the tide, the opportunity to cross the water on his back but invariably threw his passengers into the water; his mocking laughter ringing out loud. A slightly less malicious crier was noted across the Bay of Quiberon on the Île d’Arz where the bugul an aod (shepherd of the shore) was said to cut the moorings of boats at harbour.

Flying witches

On the nights of a red moon, the jibilinen-noz (widows of the night) were said to adorn the graves of widows whose husbands were lost at sea with a sprig of boxwood. Reputed to be half-korrigan and half demon, they served as familiars to the witches of the Île de Sein. On the same island, the begou-noz (night mouths) were said to repeat, at night, the words spoken on the wind.

Some 50km to the south, on the Île d’Ouessant, the danserienn-noz (night dancers) were reported to invite passers-by to join in their cliff-top dances, in exchange for fabulous treasures. It was said that the only way for a good Christian to survive the dance was to stick a knife into the ground and graze against it at each round of dance but never to go beyond it. If one succeeded, any wish they made was granted but failure resulted in broken kidneys! On the other hand, the Diaoul-ruz (red devil) of Ouessant was said to be benign, its calls warned sailors of approaching storms and told them to secure their boats.

Some of the creatures that once formed part of the family of criers were clearly designed to explain away the inexplicable sounds carried on the night winds, such as the c’hwiteller-noz (night whistler), the beker-noz (night beater) and the biniou-noz (night bagpipes). It was especially important to resist the temptation to return the whistle of the c’hwiteller-noz as it invited misfortune and risked summoning the Devil himself. The appearance of the, wonderfully named, pilour-lann (moor crusher) was especially noted in the days preceding a storm when it was said to strike the gable end of houses with a large wooden mallet.

Will o' the wisp

The spectral illumination known as tan-noz (night fire) was often attributed to the korrigans or to witches but it was sometimes portrayed as a maleficent spirit in its own right. The tan-noz, effectively acting as a wreckers’ fire lit on the cliffs, attracted ships, fighting for survival on the stormy sea, to meet their destruction on the deadly rocks off shore. On Brittany’s southern coast, the tan-noz was also said to indicate the location where a sinister black boat, laden with ghosts, was moored. Once the korrigans had lured passers-by aboard, the ship raised sail for unknown lands, condemning its passengers to forever roam the waves.

In some Breton tales, the tan-noz was sometimes used to explain the nocturnal lights, known as Will-o’-the-wisp in English, which beguile and mislead the hurried traveller. Usually, these lights were called the letern-noz (night lantern) and were often credited to lamps carried by the korrigans to lure the unwary to some treacherous bog or concealed abyss. However, some tales tell that the lights are in fact the candles carried by the ghosts of women condemned to walk the nights of eternity to expiate their sins. In some regions, the goulou-noz (night lights) were said to be spectral hands that held candles to warn the traveller of dangerous quagmires.

Only misfortune awaited those people who foolishly followed the flickering lights of the letern-noz but in southern Brittany it was said that anyone who gazed too long upon such ethereal lights would soon go blind. On the northern coast, the lights seen around the Île de Batz were supposed carried by korrigans, attempting to lead astray those who had the imprudence to follow them in hopes that they would drown in the sea. In eastern Brittany, wisps were generally said to be elves who helpfully illuminated the feet of those walking near streams and ponds.

White Ladies

The phenomena of ghostly White Ladies are noted in almost a dozen sites across Brittany and while their appearance might frighten the night time traveller, they differ fundamentally from the other creatures of the night highlighted here; they are the ghosts of dead people unable to pass on to the afterlife due the tragic circumstances of their death.

Here in Brittany, it was thought that the dead did not immediately reach the otherworld but stayed in the vicinity of the living for nine generations. Such ghosts did not carry any connotations of good or evil, as their behaviour in death was thought to mirror their behaviour in life. Bound to their former haunts, the ghosts of the dead continued to tread the byways of Brittany during the hours of darkness; even if they could not always be seen, the sound of their passage could be clearly heard. However, it was said that a moonstone allowed you to see the ghosts of the dead but it was not advised, for it would risk their wrath; the dead feared being seen as it would require them to restart their penance from the beginning.

While some accounts of the Phantom Washerwomen portray them as supernatural demons, most accounts identify them as the spirits of women once known in the locality or as anonymous ghosts condemned by God to wash the same laundry over and over again. Despite looking and sounding like ordinary women and not possessing any special supernatural powers, their treatment in folklore is markedly different from that of other ghosts. Perhaps, as some have suggested, they are the distorted spirits of ancient water deities long demonised under the forces of Christianity?

Phantom Washerwomen of the Night

Similar ancient origins have been postulated about some of Brittany’s other supernatural creatures, such as the korrigans and the fairies. However, establishing the development and characteristics of these beings throws up its own challenges; traditions about the nature of the magical family of korrigans and fairies differ, sometimes markedly, between localities. Similarly, the naming conventions are wildly inconsistent from place to place; well over fifty distinct names for these creatures were noted in popular use in the late-19th century in Lower Brittany alone. Such variability makes identifying the core features rather difficult, especially when distinctions can be further blurred when korrigans, fairies and the spirits of the dead are often interchangeable characters in the same tale.

Creatures such as the hopper-noz, the bugul-noz and the mourioche were said to possess similar attributes and haunted the same ground. Perhaps these fantastic beings once had very distinct natures whose boundaries became merged over time. If one sets aside the tales of shape-shifting, they seem to have no more supernatural power than the spirits of the dead.  They are thus not as clearly distinguishable from the dead as are the korrigans or the fairies and yet it seems that, according to tradition, they never once lived the life of men; it seems they have always been wandering spirits and while they never possessed a human body, like the Phantom Washerwomen they nevertheless assume human form.

Possibly all these supernatural beings were originally of the dead and it was only the individual names they received or the particular functions with which the popular imagination invested them that first separated them from the host of the dead. Over time, this gap widened, more and more deeply, until people no longer thought of them as souls of the dead but as supernatural spirits. It is not too much of a leap to see, in Yannick an Aod and Pautre Penn ar Lo, the folk memories of real drowned men who, over time, became separated in the local consciousness from the other dead souls. Eventually, they came to symbolise all drowned men and slowly morphed into supernatural spirits that haunt the shores and claim the unwary fisherman.


Despite their different origins, features and appearances, all the creatures of the Breton night seem to share several characteristics: they should be avoided at all costs; if confronted, they must be accorded due respect; they should not be taunted and will not suffer insults in any way. Forgetting any of these precepts risks exposing oneself to their wrath. Of course, the surest way to avoid these creatures was to stay indoors and not venture out at night, and perhaps they were once nothing more than tall-tales told by anxious parents keen to dissuade their children from wandering outside after dark or from approaching the water’s edge. Whatever their genesis, the creatures of the Breton night, transmitted, distorted and exaggerated from generation to generation still provide an intriguing mix of the real and the supernatural.

Births, Babies and Brittany

At a time when the rural population believed that disease and misfortune were manifestations of divine judgement or else produced by a spell cast by a jealous neighbour, relief was available only from the priest or the sorcerer; people turned to the old saints, miraculous fountains and the ancient stones in their attempts to gain better favour.

As elsewhere, here in the Brittany of yesteryear, the blessing of children was the biggest hope of newly married couples; being unable to meet these expectations was a major concern. To guard against infertility which was often believed to have been the result of sins committed during a woman’s lifetime, young women would invariably devote themselves to prayer and superstition, such as performing certain rites against special menhirs or making devotions and ablutions at sacred springs in hope of a pregnancy or safe childbirth.

Several superstitions once surrounded conception here in Brittany. Local tradition rather than Church dogma claimed it was necessary to abstain from sexual relations on certain sacred days at the risk of deformity or handicap in the child conceived then; to prevent procreation, it was advised that the couple drink the blood of a hare or sheep urine. To facilitate a pregnancy, an application of bull’s dung or a pessary of mouse droppings were recommended.

Medieval lovers

If newlyweds accepted hot wine, it was a sign that the couple had consummated their union before marriage and a child was already conceived. However, spouses who ate or drank before the celebration of their marriage were believed to produce dumb children. It was said that when the woman was on top of the man in coitu, the child she delivered would become a priest and that male children were conceived during a rising tide, girls when it was in retreat. If a pregnant woman carried her baby forward, the child would be a girl, similarly, a well-rounded stomach heralded a boy would be born.

Belief in the power of the moon to influence childbirth, not altogether absent today, was once well entrenched in the popular mentality here. Young women who answered a call of nature at night were careful never to turn to the moon when they did so, especially if it was a waning moon. Otherwise, they risked conceiving by virtue of the moon.

The circumstances of the birth were thought to wield an influence on the child’s future life and the behaviour of the moon served as a particularly powerful omen. If a child was born with the new moon, it was thought destined to die a violent death. Girls born to the old moon and boys under the new moon were fated not to live long. Those born under a half moon and those whose mothers died in childbirth would inevitably be evil and made the most powerful sorcerers.

Deliveries under the last quarter of the moon were believed to be more laborious than others. Those children who were born feet first would inherit the gift of diskanter, that is to say they could lift spells and cure certain diseases such as rickets. Children born in the new moon were said to be more erudite than others, while those born under a waning moon were said to speak less but to reason better. Girls born under a crescent moon were thought to become precocious in everything they did but those children born between eleven o’clock and midnight were destined to never find happiness.

Medieval childbirth

When a child was born at night, it was once the role of the oldest woman present to move to the threshold of the house and examine the state of the sky. If the clouds surrounded the moon as if to strangle it, or they spread over its face as if to cover it, it was thought that the child was destined to be hanged or drowned. The star that seemed to sit, at that moment, above the main fireplace was also consulted; if it shone brightly, the new-born would be happy but it was a bad omen if it was pale.

The notion that everyone was born under their own star was once quite widespread here. The ability to distinguish between benign and malign stars was said to be a gift possessed by priests and wandering beggars and tales tell of such people urging delivery or advising delay until the propitious star’s appearance. Children were cautioned, when admiring the stars, never to count them because anyone who happened to count their own star would immediately fall dead.

Childbirth was and remains a formidable adventure and certain omens were once believed to allow us the means to know in advance how it would unfold. Typically, pregnancies were not immediately announced, this being done when it was no longer possible to hide its signs; such caution was to keep, to a minimum, the amount of time that one’s unborn child was vulnerable to malicious spells.

Young mother nursing child by Jules Breton

There were a great many other superstitions surrounding childbirth; if a pregnant woman left her washing barrel empty on the tripod, it was a sign that she would be a long time in labour. A pregnant woman should not see a priest dressed at the altar and especially not when he puts on his cincture and stole, lest her baby be strangled by its umbilical cord while being born. Likewise, a pregnant woman should avoid being in a room where someone is dying: the child she is carrying could be born marked with a spot above its nose; a sign that the child would not live long.

To prepare for a happy and painless childbirth, it was necessary for the expectant mother to remain seated while reading the Gospel during the last mass that she attends before childbirth. The same outcome was assured if, at some point before the end of her pregnancy, she wore her husband’s trousers. Moreover, if her husband was unfaithful, it was he who would endure the pains of childbirth.

However, it was believed to be critical that the mother-to-be had the will-power to control her cravings or, at least, the ability to satiate them. If a pregnant woman scratched herself out of frustration, her craving would imprint itself on the corresponding part of the child’s body in the form of dark coloured patches of skin such as birthmarks. To prevent these forming, it was necessary to consult a witch but only one born during the month of May was thought able to avert the transference from mother to child. To do so, the witch applied a paste made from ground heath bedstraw onto the mother’s body and recited a charm of expulsion.

Similarly, it was once thought that when a pregnant woman looked upon a deformed object or some monstrous beast, the child she carried would sense it. It was therefore important that she refrained from visiting fairgrounds and menageries, for fear she could give birth to a monster. It was a bad omen if a woman gave birth to a deformed child and such children were usually denounced as changelings, magically substituted by the mischievous korrigans.

Virginie Demont-Breton_

During childbirth itself, the baby was said to be delivered sooner if the mother put on her husband’s sabots or if she held, in her right hand, the words of a special prayer that had been recited beforehand. A quick delivery was also certain if someone climbed onto the roof of the house and invoked a certain charm.

Until the early 20th century, midwives were rare in rural Brittany; births took place with the help of women from the neighbourhood or a local ‘wise woman’ renowned for her expertise. Such women were practiced in the use of medicinal plants and their application as well as in the manipulation of the body. When the crucial moment arrived, a fire was lit in the fireplace, linen strips for the swaddle were put to heat and a vat of water prepared. While many people might have surround the parturient at this point, childbirth was a woman’s business and men and children were excluded from the delivery room.

To help assist childbirth, a combination of massage and ointments were applied by the woman acting as midwife. If it was feared that the baby was too big, the parturient would be given a warm bath in hopes of aiding delivery. To facilitate the birth, the parturient was encouraged to breathe into the palms of her joined hands or else she held coarse grains of salt in one hand and, in the other, a bottle into which she blew until delivery. Sometimes, the woman’s belly was rubbed with a mixture of camomile oil, gelatine and butter foam or an ointment made from the ground leaves of laurel and wormwood was applied.

The treatment of pain seems to have been marked by a feeling of fatality: the woman was held condemned, by original sin, to give birth in pain, so, few serious attempts were made to alleviate it. One peculiar practice to relieve labour pain called for the parturient to sit on a flask of hot water that had been mixed with a little powder of dried toad. A draught of her husband’s urine was also said to ease the pains of childbirth.

Lhermitte_La Famille _1908

At a time when one in ten women died from childbirth-related causes in rural France, particular care was taken to make certain that the placenta was fully expelled so as to avoid infection and potential sepsis. Childbirth complications such as puerperal fever were one of the biggest killers of women of childbearing age. Indeed, a married woman would become pregnant, on average, six times. Given that up to ten per cent of labours proved fatal to the mother, a woman had a sixty per cent chance of dying during her childbearing years.

To help ensure the expulsion of the placenta, the new mother was made to swallow an infusion of figs boiled in water. If that proved unsuccessful, another treatment called for her to urinate upon warm horse-dung, provided only that the horse was not fatigued at the time of its evacuation. The placenta and umbilical cord were carefully treated; the latter was thought to develop the mind and was often kept by the mother as a powerful lucky charm. Otherwise, they were buried so that they could not be subject to any evil spells or used in magical acts.   

The midwife typically cut the umbilical cord at a length approximate to the width of four fingers and tied it. Sometimes, the full width of five fingers was left if it was a boy. The child was then washed and its lips moistened with a little alcohol in order to make it wince so that it would not be dumb. In some parts of the region, it was traditional for one of the women present to remove the new mother’s wedding ring and put it in a glass of wine before applying some onto the lips of the new-born to protect it against the evil eye. In western Brittany, the new-born was passed through the fire in order to protect it from evil spells and great care was taken to avoid passing the new-born over the table, as this was said to bring on bad luck.

Virginie Demont-Breton_L'Homme est en mer

The newly born baby’s hands and feet were routinely rubbed with a little cold water so that it would not be sensitive to the cold.  If the child exhibited any skin stain or birthmark, this was immediately rubbed with the still warm placenta in hopes of making it pass. Another once common ritual involved cleaning the new baby’s face with the first cloth that it had wet; a procedure said to guarantee the child would possess keen eyesight and a fresh complexion.

It was at this stage that the midwife performed a small but important ritual; pinching and massaging the baby’s nose, skull, limbs and its nipples, if it was a girl. Some old accounts say that this procedure was performed for several hours as it was believed to ensure the child would grow well formed; the new-born being thought incomplete until moulded by the midwife. Such practices were still noted in Brittany at the turn of the 20th century. The woman who acted as principal midwife was not usually paid for her services during the delivery; her efforts often considered a mark of female solidarity. However, she was always nourished and given gifts as a token of gratitude by the family.

As elsewhere, infant mortality was once was very high in Brittany; in the 19th century, one in four children died before their first birthday and only two reached adulthood. If a woman gave birth to a stillborn child, the body could not leave the house through the door but had to be taken out through the window, otherwise it was said that any mother who subsequently passed through that door would only give birth to dead children. The milk of a mother who has just lost her child was passed by soaking the baby’s linen in the husband’s urine and applying these to the unfortunate mother’s breasts.

Gustaf Theodor Wallén_ The Mortuary Room

The baptism of babies generally took place as quickly as possible, within a few days of birth and sometimes even on the same day; an unbaptised child being considered extremely vulnerable to the evil eye. The very real risk of a child dying within a week of birth must also have been a factor as not only were the souls of stillborns and children who did not live long enough to receive the sacrament of baptism, deprived of the grace of God but their bodies were also excluded from the right to burial in consecrated ground amongst their forebears. The crushing reality of this dogma, especially in close-knit communities, may help to explain why deeply religious Brittany typically reported 30 per cent fewer stillborns than other parts of France.

Baptism was celebrated with much aplomb and was a joy shared with the whole community; the church bells were rung as loudly as possible to help ensure the child would never fall deaf. The baby was dressed as splendidly as possible and the one who carried the precious charge to church also carried a small piece of black bread, sometimes this was hung as an amulet from the child’s neck. In western Brittany, a morsel of black bread was once a widely used talisman to protect against evil spells.

By tradition, the godfather and the godmother were always chosen from the wider family, with one from each side but it was said to bring on bad luck to choose the godparents before the child’s birth. A pregnant woman was never chosen as a godmother as it was thought that to do so would condemn her unborn child, or the one to be baptised, to an ugly death within the year. The choice of the child’s Christian name was left to the godfather for a boy, to the godmother for a girl. Although they kept their choices secret, the godparents usually proposed their own name for the infant; the priest being the first to hear it.

It was said that if the candle used during the baptism remained lit throughout the ceremony, that the godfather and godmother would soon marry; if it died before the end of service, it was a sign that no such marriage would take place. Once, it was customary to put a small floral wreath on the child’s head after the service of baptism was over. This wreath was said to bring good luck to the new-born throughout their life. So that it also brought good fortune to the mother, it was hung above the bed; tradition declared that it be hung very high if another pregnancy was to be avoided.

lhermitte_pay harvesters

The mother was absent from the baptism of her child; she was, in the popular imagination, effectively considered unclean, as if childbirth had sullied her. Sometime after giving birth but usually forty days later, the new mother would go to church to undergo a ceremony of re-admittance into the congregation known as relevailles or the churching of woman. While official Church teaching saw this as a ceremony of thanksgiving, many priests and churchgoers associated it with purification and Old Testament notions of uncleanliness associated with childbirth. In Brittany, the new mother was forbidden to cook and care for the animals until she had been churched as it was believed that she cast a curse on everything she touched, except for her child.

The churching rite was fairly straightforward: the mother, dressed in white, presented herself at the porch of the church and knelt there with a lighted candle. Many mothers also carried about their person, the linen cap with which her baby’s head was covered after having been anointed with holy chrism at its baptism. The new mother had to avoid taking holy water from the stoup in the porch, instead, the woman who accompanied her to church took some for herself and threw a few drops on the forehead of the new mother; death within the year was said to befall any woman who, even out of habit, forgot this precept. 

The priest came out to the porch and blessed the mother with holy water before leading her into church where she knelt before the altar and was again blessed with holy water in front of the congregation. New mothers in yesterday’s Brittany were not allowed to go to church for this ceremony alone, else all the potential curses she carried befell her. Leaving church at the end of the ceremony, many mothers took pains to carefully observe the first people met: of good character or bad, her child would infallibly hold the same traits. Similarly, whether the first person met was a man or a woman foretold the sex of her next child. However, nursing mothers needed to avoid meeting the eyes of a dwarf; otherwise they risked losing all their milk immediately.

Breton Mother and Child

It should come as no surprise that many superstitions once surrounded the earliest years of a child here in Brittany. Children born with hair on their head were thought predestined for happiness, those born lame were said to be bawdy while those with a hunchback were thought cleverer than others. When a baby suffered from regular hiccups it was taken as a sign that it would be prolific but those children who, from an early age, were endowed with a prodigious spirit were said destined to die young. Those children who were born with impetigo were said to have been chosen by Providence to remain celibate and without another sign of vocation, they were sent to the arms of the Church.

Children who drooled were said to have been born to parents who attended mass on the day that their marriage was announced. To keep a child from drooling, the godfather provided a pierced penny or one marked with a cross, which was then hung around the child’s neck. To make teething easier, children were usually given a piece of apple to suck. It was believed that if the mother did not touch her baby’s gums, its teeth would grow crooked and a mole skin placed on the fountain of the child’s head was said to facilitate teeth growth; subsequently, children chewed radish leaves to keep teeth in good health. Great care was also taken when a child lost a tooth; if a dog were to swallow it, it would be replaced in the child’s mouth by a dog’s tooth. Throwing the tooth into the fire was thought to be the safest course.

If a child’s fingernails were cut before they were a year old, it was said that their mind would be cut off forever but no nails could be cut on a day of the week containing the letter R, as this was thought to invite misfortune. Another curious belief said that a small child should not be placed in front of a mirror for fear that they might be struck dumb.

Virginie Demont-Breton_ Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants

The health of children, so threatened on all sides, was also the object of certain prescriptions. Swinging an infant nine times over the Midsummer bonfire was said to make it immune to fear. If a child was afflicted with night terrors, it was dressed in its father’s shirt, which was then put on an altar dedicated to Saint Gilles. To treat abdominal bloating in children it was necessary to put oil in the lamp that burned in front of the Blessed Sacrament: if the lamp cast a brighter light, the child would heal.

To cure children of worms, an amulet made of white linen containing a mixture of nine cloves of garlic, salt and oil was hung around their neck. A less pungent remedy recommended they drink an infusion of mint leaves. A little roasted mouse, eaten in the evening, was said to stop children wetting the bed at night but in neighbouring Normandy, mice were fed to children to cure whooping cough.

If a mother wanted her next child to be a boy, it was thought necessary to teach her youngest child to pronounce the word tad before the word mam. Conversely, if she longed for a daughter, the child was taught to pronounce the word mam before tad. Perhaps of more realistic help to a new mother was a remedy for stretchmarks that called for a marinade of snails and rosemary; the juice squeezed from this mixture was then rubbed into the skin so that it again became as smooth as it was before marriage.

A-Sunny-Door-Step_Jules Trayer

For childless couples, adoption was not an option in France until 1804 and even then it was restricted to people over 50 years of age only being able to adopt adults. However, the 1625 Breton edition of the Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine’s Great Catechism makes a curious observation about adoption in Brittany. It notes: “The common people, in the bishopric of Leon and Tregor, affirm by ancient tradition that in Lower Brittany the places to adopt children were the fair of La Martyre and the pardon of Treguier.” An intriguing reference to a market for children that has not been found recorded elsewhere and one that raises many questions that, alas, we cannot now hope to answer, four hundred years later.

Islands of Brittany II

Home to some seventy per cent of the island bodies of metropolitan France, the 800 islands and islets that surround the coast of Brittany offer something for everyone. Some support vibrant communities while others are home to only seabirds and the occasional visitor. Here is a brief sketch of some of the main inhabited islands that were not looked at in an earlier post, starting with those off the south coast and moving counter-clockwise along Brittany’s northern coast.

Île aux Moines

On Brittany’s southern coast, the beautiful inland sea known as the Gulf of Morbihan is peppered with 42 small islands; fifteen of which are permanently inhabited. There are many choices available for those wanting to cruise around the Gulf during the summer months, with regular boats departing from the ports of Arzon, Auray, Locmariaquer, Port Blanc and Vannes.

The largest island in the Gulf, the Île aux Moines, is most easily reached with a five minute ferry crossing from Port Blanc, about 8km south of Vannes. The island is almost 6km long and over 3km wide and you are never more than half a kilometre from the sea at any point. Several marked trails offer some wonderful walks and these are also two well-established cycle paths; the coastal path is about 17km long and bikes are readily available for rent.

Gulf of Morbihan
The Gulf of Morbihan ©Alexandre Lamoureux

Whichever way you choose to explore the island, you will discover life lived at a leisurely pace, roadside calvaries, ancient fountains, little chapels and small whitewashed cottages. The island’s mild climate allows fruit, palm and eucalyptus trees to flourish. Walking around the island is a treat for the senses and, if the breeze is in the right direction, you will catch the smell of the sea along with the fragrance of the mimosas and camellias that seem to dominate the island. There are half a dozen small beaches to enjoy; the charming beach at Anse du Guéric being perhaps the least visited.

The island has several prehistoric monuments, the most well-preserved of which are the cromlech at Kergonan, the largest stone circle in France, located in the north of the island and the dolmen of Pen Hap in the south of the island. This latter megalith is thought to be all that remains of a much larger structure; the massive stones having been taken away and re-purposed by the island’s builders over time.

One local custom recorded here in the late 19th century would not merit a mention nowadays. It was noted that after Vespers on a certain Sunday, young mariners would gather on the parapet in the port and watch the unmarried girls who, dressed in their most beautiful clothes, passed and re-passed with their downcast eyes. When a young man saw a lady that he liked, he dropped down and approached her!

One tradition that does still retain an exotic air today tells that, in the 19th century, local fishermen claimed to have sighted, between the island and the western coast, a shepherd dressed in a black cassock, walking on the crests of the waves and leading a large herd; he was said to be the old rector of Baden, whose soul was in pain for want of masses and prayer.

Breton girl looking to sea

Almost 1,800 inhabitants were noted in the mid-19th century. Today, the island boasts the highest house prices in Brittany and is home to about 600 permanent residents.

Île d’Arz

A local legend tells that the Gulf of Morbihan was born from the tears that the fairies shed when they were forced to leave their lands under the relentless march of Christianity. Upon this new sea, the ancient fairies threw their garlands of flowers, which turned into beautiful islands.

Although the Île d’Arz lies under 700m away to the east of the Île aux Moines, there are no direct connections between the two isles. However, there is a tale that tells the two islands were once connected by a causeway. A young sailor from the Île aux Moines fell in love with a girl from Arz, to the great despair of his parents who had him confined with the monks. Every day, the lovesick girl crossed the causeway in order to sing under the walls of the monastery. The exasperated prior appealed to the korrigans who submerged the road, drowning the young girl and separating the two islands forever.

Today, the island can be reached in about twenty minutes by ferry from Vannes or Séné. It typically sees fewer visitors than its larger neighbour but it certainly has as much to offer. A permanent community of over 225 people live on the island, a significant reduction from the 1,250 recorded in the 1880s.

The highest point on the island is just 13m above sea level which means that even occasional walkers will find no difficulties admiring the island on foot. There are two marked hiking trails as well as a decent cycle path around the island and, given the nature of the landscape, at certain points you could be forgiven for imagining yourself floating on the sea. The 17km long coastal path takes you through a surprisingly varied landscape of small creeks, vast mudflats and sandy beaches; the best of which is possibly the Plage de Brouël on the island’s southern coast.

Berno Tidal Mill
Berno Tidal Mill ©Xavier Dubois

For those interested in the built heritage, two sites are well worth seeking out; the 12th century church known as the Church of the Nativity and the restored 16th century tidal mill of Berno which milled the island’s grain right up to the years preceding the First World War. Arz also has its share of megalithic monuments, the best examples being the dolmen of Pen Raz and the three Neolithic dolmens of Pen Lious, one of which retains traces of ancient carvings. The many scattered stones nearby are likely the ruins of other megalithic structures, long since destroyed.

On the Île d’Arz, it was once believed that husbands’ shipwrecks were announced to their wives by the sound of water falling near their beds. During stormy nights, the noises that were heard on the wind blowing in from the ocean were said to belong to the Ankou; harbinger of death, walking on the waves in his quest for fresh souls or crossing the island on a chariot of fire. Other island legends talk of ghostly women who, at night, left the island and crossed the sea as if it were dry land.

Île de Houat

Lying just 14km off the south coast town of Quiberon, the island of Houat stands proud from the clear turquoise sea with its granite cliffs and sweeping sandy bays. Stretching almost 4km long by 1km wide, this delightful island offers some 17km of coastal paths for you to explore. The main settlement with its blue shuttered whitewashed houses is a mix of new and old buildings and a good spot to dine before heading off to visit Tal ar Han beach and its impressive panorama. The nearby fine sandy beach of Treac’h ar Goured with its crystal clear water is worth visiting; stretching as it does for almost two kilometres and backing onto grassy sand dunes.


To the south and west, a more rugged coastline is revealed, concealing pretty sandy coves between the folds of the cliffs. On the southern promontory, you can see several of Houat’s larger islets with the Île aux Chevaux in the distance; this large islet once served as a common pasture for the people of Houat and neighbouring Hoëdic. One islet to the east, Er-Yoc’h, renowned for the prehistoric finds uncovered there, contains a feature known as the Devil’s Hole. Legend tells that the Devil chased Saint Gildas to Houat but while the Saint’s horse safely made the leap from the mainland, the Devil fell short and smashed his head into Er-Yoc’h.

To the west, the lovely beach known as Treac’h ar Vénigued enjoys a wonderful view of the Sènis and Guric islets, both accessible at low tide. The northern part of the island contains the best preserved of the island’s three defensive forts and the best of its megalithic monuments, the Menhir de Bar-Kreiz. Visit the headland of Beg Run ar Vilaine for a great view along the north coast of the island and out over Quiberon Bay.

The island is currently home to some 240 permanent residents; about half the number recorded in the mid-1960s when the island was electrified. Fishing and tourism form the backbone to the island’s livelihood but even in high season, the island never feels busy. For those interested in more than a day-trip, a range of accommodation options are available as well as a number of bars and restaurants.

There are daily ferry crossings from the mainland at Quiberon although other services also operate between April and September. Depending on the boat, the journey from the mainland takes about 40 minutes before continuing on to Hoëdic; the duckling to Houat’s duck, according to their Breton names.



The 8km of blue waves separating Houat from Hoëdic is covered in about twenty minutes and if you are not soon charmed by this island, please have someone check your pulse immediately – you might be dead. Lying just 16km off the Breton coast, this small island is only about 2.5km long and 1km wide but its diminutive size belies its massive appeal. The island is a pleasure to wander around, particularly when tracing the 8km of coastal paths which allow you to discover so many picturesque coves laced with soft white sand. The views off the southern coast being wonderfully fringed by the half a dozen islets lying off the coast.

The island contains many Neolithic monuments including dolmens, stone alignments and menhirs, such as the Dolmen of the Cross and the Menhir of the Virgin which was once venerated by those women seeking to bear a child. Hoëdic also boasts one of the very few known Mesolithic sites in Brittany; shell mounds having preserved ten graves containing the bones of some fourteen people who lived about 8000 years ago. The dead were buried with flint and bone tools, shell necklaces and with deer antlers framing the heads of some bodies. Similar burials have also been discovered on nearby Téviec, a small island off Quiberon.

Mesolithic grave
Grave Reconstruction at Muséum de Toulouse

Given its strategic position in Quiberon Bay, the island was the scene of several confrontations between the forces of Great Britain and France; having been captured, re-fortified and re-captured on many occasions between the mid-16th and late-18th centuries. Reminders of these turbulent times can still be seen in the landscape today and while little remains of the English Fort at Beg Lagat on the north of the island, the impressive Vauban-style fort in the centre of the isle is in good order; built in 1853 to house 200 men, the fort was never commissioned.

A population of 425 was noted in 1920 but no more than a hundred permanent residents remain today. The dynamics of the island never really recovered from the aftershocks following the sinking of the passenger ship Saint-Philibert, about 40km to the south-east. This small coastal steamer, over-loaded with some 500 day-trippers from Nantes, capsized in rough seas during its return approach to the mouth of the Loire in the late afternoon of 14 June 1931. A lack of life-jackets and insufficient life-boats saw only eight survivors, yet the official inquest into the sinking subsequently absolved the ship-owners of any responsibility.


The tragedy was turned into a drama by the press with sensational and unfounded allegations of drinking and violence amongst the passengers. The morbid reporting also stoked an atmosphere of mistrust among the population of Nantes towards the region’s seafood; suspected by them of having been contaminated by the bodies of the drowned. Demand for seafood, the islanders’ primary livelihood, slumped and in a few months, a third of the islanders were forced to flee to the mainland to escape destitution.

Today, there are just a few settlements on the island but you will be able to find all you need for the day or even a short stay and several accommodation options are available. The island is served by daily ferry crossings that take about an hour from the mainland at Quiberon, with other connections also available between April and September.



Brittany’s largest island is located about 13km south of the Quiberon Peninsula and is a veritable magnet for tourists drawn by its mild climate, magnificent coastline, gorgeous beaches and internationally renowned opera festival. The island has always attracted artists, including Courbet, Matisse, Maufra, Vasarely, Russell and most famously, Claude Monet, who painted over three dozen works here. The celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt also loved the island and its “wild, harsh and soft lands of granite and moor”.

Bernhardt kept house in a converted fort at the Pointe des Poulains, on the island’s northern tip, for almost thirty years. It was near this point that a merman was sighted in the 17th century, described as possessing a body the size of a barrel of wine, covered to the shoulders with rather white hair. The creature was captured with a net but managed to escape and for the next fortnight showed himself in inaccessible places, before disappearing.

Sarah Bernhardt in Brittany

The island has a turbulent past, which included occupations by the Vikings, Dutch, Spanish, British and Germans. The British held the island for two years before it was returned to France in exchange for Menorca and the lands abandoned due to this upheaval were subsequently offered to the deported Acadians; about 300 were initially resettled here but only about a quarter of them stayed to put down roots on the island.

Unlike other Breton islands, it is possible to rent a car on Belle-Île but I would not recommend doing so. Instead, hire a bike or use the public bus service which runs throughout the island between April and November. With about 90km of marked hiking trails, this is not an island that you will be able to explore in a day or two. If time is at a premium, you might want to consider hiring a bike in the main town of La Palais and traversing the island to view the striking coastline that so captivated Monet at Port Coton before returning via either of the pretty beaches of Plage de Kérel or Plage du Donnant. This part of the island’s coast was once said to be populated by the ghosts of the drowned.

Claude Monet : Rocks of Belle-Île (1896)
Claude Monet : Rocks of Belle-Île (1896)

Those who prefer walking might want to head to the island’s wild southern coast and follow the clifftop trails from the town of Locmaria; now famous for its association with the death of Porthos in The Man in the Iron Mask. Starting at the beautiful sandy cove of Port Maria, the trails to the east will allow you to discover the fine beach of Port Blanc and the striking views from the Pointe d’Arzic, the Pointe du Skeul and the Pointe de Pouldon, before cooling down in the clear water of the little sandy cove of Grand Cosquet. This is about a 10km hike, so, worth considering if you want to experience the island but are pressed for time to do so.

Belle-Île’s permanent population is now about 5,300; over half that recorded in the 1870s. There are many accommodation options available and plenty of activities to help keep you amused on the island. A regular 45-minute ferry service connects the island to the mainland at Quiberon and other connections are available from April to September.


Île Grande

Lying off Brittany’s northern Pink Granite Coast, Île Grande is just 1km long by 2km wide and is connected to the mainland by a bridge. It is during periods of high tide, when the mudflats are covered, that the island with its sandy beaches and numerous islets is displayed at its finest. Despite being home to almost 800 people, the island retains a wild and natural atmosphere. The author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), stayed on Île Grande on the occasion of his extended honeymoon between April and August 1896.

A 7km long coastal path offers you the opportunity to go around the island in about two hours but part of the joy of this island is stopping to explore the sandy beaches of Pors Gwenn, Pors Gelin and Toul Gwenn or hiking to the very tip of the island at the exposed Pointe de Castel Erek. A short climb to the granite outcrop near the Neolithic dolmen provides a wonderful panorama of ocean and islets.

Île Grand
Île Grand

Two of the largest islets, Île Aganton off the east coast and Île Aval off the west, can be reached on foot at low tide. In the grounds of the old monastic cemetery on Île Aval stands an ancient menhir and it is under this megalith that local legend attests that King Arthur lies awaiting his re-awakening which will restore peace to the Celtic lands. It was here, in 1878, that a local farmer is reported to have discovered three dozen skeletons with markedly elongated skulls. Be aware that today, the islet is private property.

Two other sites worth visiting include the Saint Sauveur fountain which was once visited by couples about to be married. According to tradition, the couple knelt opposite each other and each cast a piece of bread onto the surface of the water; if the two pieces met, it was a good omen and they could face marriage without fear, otherwise it was thought best to cancel the wedding. The fountain was also visited by mothers concerned that their children were slow to walk; the recommended ritual involved immersing the child three times into the waters of the spring. Inside the Church of Saint-Marc, you can see one of the very few extant old statues of the Ankou, the Breton personification of death and gatherer of souls.

Île Callot

Only accessible by road at low tide, Île Callot in the Bay of Morlaix barely extends over 3km in length and, at its widest point, is just 500m wide. Non-residents must leave their cars on the mainland in Carantec and cross to the island on foot or bike. The island is a delight with a few scattered farmhouses and fields full of cabbages and artichokes; a green finger pointing out into the turquoise sea. This is certainly the effect noted from the highest point on the island, the Notre-Dame chapel. Thought to date back to the 6th century, the present building mainly dates from the 17th century when its steeple provided a navigational aid to mariners in the Bay of Morlaix. Local legend insists that the chapel protects the hiding place of a great treasure stored on the island by marauding Danes in the 5th century.

Île Callot
Île Callot ©Thibault Poriel

The island boasts about a dozen sandy beaches where one might happily pass the time between tides; those on the eastern side of the island look out over the many islands that guard the approaches to the Morlaix Bay. Wandering the island today, reminders of the island’s economic past can still be glimpsed in the remnants of old seaweed ovens. Like many other coastal and island communities, gathering seaweed was once an important activity on Île Callot; families would collect seaweed which was then dried in the open air and burned in one of the island’s fifteen kilns to make soda, which was used as a fertilizer or else sent to factories where iodine was extracted.

As recently as the end of the 19th century, the islands of Brittany inspired only indifference and aversion.  The travel guides of the period are punctuated with remarks announcing that the islands have no attraction and are not worth the effort of visiting; a position that began to change at the turn of the 20th century and one that seems positively ridiculous to us today.

Armchair Travelling – Thailand

Another winter week in what is effectively a national lockdown here in Brittany and the mind invariably wanders towards the departure gate, heading for sunnier climes. With the current restrictions on travel, a leaf through the pages of the memory bank must suffice for now; another vicarious journey.

Buddha in the mist
Statue in tree
Garlands on tree
Royal Palace Bangkok
Temple roofs
Koh Muk
Koh Poda

Thank you for visiting!

Prayers, Pancakes and Paintings

Candlemas, or la Chandeleur in French, is celebrated on the second day of February, forty days after Christmas. Announcing the end of winter, the festival was, for centuries, closely associated with traditions related to purification, fertility, prosperity and light and is popularly known here as le jour des crêpes or Pancake Day.

Candlemas is one of those Christian festivals whose precise origins remain obscure. Many ascribe the establishment of the feast day to the 5th century pope, Gelasius I, but it seems that the celebrations were observed in Jerusalem well over a century before his time. The feast of Candlemas honours the presentation, in the Temple, of the infant Jesus, born forty days earlier on Christmas night, and the purification of the Virgin Mary. Its name is said to derive from the blessed candles that were carried in solemn procession to the church.

Candlemas by Jozef Israels

In establishing its liturgical year, the early Church took care to divert the popular feelings associated with the significant seasonal pagan festivals by supplanting these with Christian ones. Assigning Candlemas to the second of February was likely an attempt to displace the Celtic festival celebrating the end of winter known as Imbolg which was typically held on the first day of the month. Like Candlemas, it too was a feast of purification but also of rebirth and light.

It is believed that for the ancient Celts the year began on 1 November with the festival known as Samhain, which inaugurated the start of winter, while six months later, on 1 May, the feast of Beltane marked the start of summer. Two intermediate festivals, Imbolg on 1 February and Lugnasad on 1 August, divided the year into four equal seasons, the middle of which roughly corresponding to the Midsummer and Midwinter solstices. However, we should not get too fixated on precise dates, especially given the changes wrought by the adoption of the Gregorian calendar that mean we are today almost two weeks ahead of the dates known at the end of Caesar’s reign.

The Crepes by Pieter Aertsen

Candlemas heralded the end of winter and thus the beginning of the agrarian season; by February the days are noticeably lengthening and new shoots begin to make an appearance. Its significance is highlighted in many once popular Breton sayings, such as: When Candlemas comes, put away the spinning wheel and take the plough; At Candlemas, hide the candlesticks and break the distaff; At Candlemas, daylight for all workers, except the tailor and the loafer.

Tradition, rather than history, says that in order to relieve the weary pilgrims arriving in Rome, Pope Gelasius I arranged for them to be comforted with simple pancakes made from flour and eggs. We will never know the truth of it but it is likely a tale designed to provide a pseudo-historical link between pancakes and Candlemas with the pope once believed to have instituted the festival. Pope Gelasius I did however institute a festival that succeeded in finally suppressing the ancient Roman purification and fertility festival of Lupercalia; displaced by the Feast of Saint Valentine at the end of the 5th century.

Pancakes by Gabriel Thurner

It is difficult to say how far back the custom of eating pancakes on Candlemas extends but the practice was noted as traditional here in the 16th century. For centuries, the people of rural France believed that if they did not make pancakes on Candlemas, their wheat would spoil. The pancakes were prepared from the wheat of the previous harvest, which was used in quantity because future harvests were almost in sight now that the agricultural year was restarting. An old Breton proverb notes: Candlemas, the year half-passed, the grain half-consumed.

Abel Hugo, elder brother of noted French author Victor Hugo, wrote in his work, Picturesque France (1835): “At Candlemas, if the peasants did not make pancakes, their wheat would rot. The one who turns his pancake with skill, who does not drop it in the ashes, or who does not catch it in the pan, in the heart-breaking form of some crumpled linen, that one will have happiness – money, this tangible form of happiness – until Candlemas of the following year.”

Pancake flipping

Readers will not be surprised to learn that a number of other superstitions once surrounded the feast of Candlemas here. Some people believed that in order not to run out of money during the year ahead, it was necessary to bake pancakes at the time of the mass. In eastern Brittany, it was said that to have money all year round, one needed to hold a coin, preferably made of gold, in your left hand, while the first pancake was thrown from the right. This pancake was then carefully wrapped around the coin and carried in procession by all the family to the main bed where it was left until the following year on the top of the closed bed. The remains of last year’s pancake were then recovered and the coin it contained given to the first deserving beggar that called upon the house.

Across Brittany, it was regarded a good omen if the candle, blessed and lit in church, arrived home unextinguished and whoever carried it was believed sure not to die before the next Candlemas.  Once home, the candle was carefully stored away; at least until its many virtues were called upon by the household.  The Candlemas candle was considered a precious talisman against evil spells; it was re-lit to invoke God’s protection from them and to repel evil spirits. It was also lit to ward off potentially catastrophic lightning strikes during a raging storm. In some areas, it was said that in order to be protected from lightning and all evil spells, it was necessary to turn three times around a stool while holding a lit candle blessed that day.

Making pancakes

The power of the candle was also invoked at life’s key moments and was popularly lit to bless first communicants, engaged couples about to be married and people close to death. Sometimes, the candle was even lit in the hope of shortening the suffering of the dying. However, care was taken to ensure that three candles were not lit in the same room as this was said to announce a painful death and foreshadow the three death candles of a wake.

The Candlemas candle was also once held to possess curative powers here; three drops of its wax, dripped into their drinking trough, cured sick animals and a few drops placed on hatching eggs was said to ensure that they hatched properly.

Pancake maker by Brekelenkam

Candlemas was also a festival devoted to lovers. For unmarried girls, the tradition was to bake six pancakes in a row and drop them back into the pan to ensure a wedding within the year. Other young ladies, who wanted to know what the future held for them, made a novena in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. During the night of the last day, the young lady, once asleep, was said to see in a dream the face of her true love and vice versa. Candlemas was also a day that allowed one to forecast the weather; it was said that if the weather is fine on Candlemas, forty days of winter will surely follow.

While candlelit processions are an increasingly rare sight nowadays, other old Candlemas traditions are still observed stronger than ever and in Brittany – the home of the crêpe – you might be hard-pressed to find a family not celebrating the day with a meal of crêpes together. Although, how many of them will remember that in western parts of Brittany, before leaving the house after a meal of pancakes, it was once thought important to eat a small morsel of bread first, otherwise one risked being taken by the mischievous korrigans!

Brittany and pancakes

Here in Brittany, two main types of pancake are popularly baked nowadays. The designation crêpe being applied to those made using white flour, eggs, milk and butter, and usually containing a sweet-filling such as salted butter, lemon juice or jam. The term galette is used for heavier pancakes made with buckwheat flour and water, which typically contain a savoury-filling such as cheese, eggs or slices of pork sausage.

To continue the virtual feast, here are a few more images of pancake making through the centuries; with not an electric crêpe maker in sight!

Pancake baking outside
Pancake Baking Woman by Willem van Mieris
Making pancakes
Crepes by Pieter van Slingelandt
Making Pancakes by Giraud
Crepes by Desplanques
Crepes in Brittany

Visions of Love in Brittany

The novena of Candlemas, covering the period from 24 January to 1 February, was a devotion once particularly performed by those young Bretons who wished to know who they were destined to marry and it was believed that there was no devotion more agreeable to the Virgin Mary than this novena which rewarded, with extraordinary favour, anyone paying her this special tribute.

Once far more commonplace than popularly found today, a nine day period of devotional prayers, known as novenas, are sometimes observed in preparation for a Christian feast day. Such prayers, typically offered at the same time each day, are made to petition for special favours or to ask for a sign from God.

Perhaps best known for his 1820 adaptation of John Polidori’s tale The Vampyre, French author Charles Nodier described the novena of Candlemas in his Souvenirs de la Jeunesse (1832) and La Neuvaine de la Chandeleur (1839). He tells us that the novena started on 24 January with eight hours of prayer in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin, where, with a piety that did not diminish, one needed to hear the first mass said every day and attend the last prayers each night until 1 February. On the eve of Candlemas itself, it was necessary to attend all the masses in church and to hear all the evening instructions without missing a single one. It was also important to have made a full confession and received absolution; it was crucial, for any hope of success, to return to one’s home in a state of grace, prepared for an evening of devout prayer and fasting.

Devotions in Brittany

Once alone and closeted away in one’s home, it was necessary to ensure that all was arranged in such a way as to be appropriate to receive a guest of some distinction. Particular care needed to be taken with the dining table which was decorated with clean white linen, as fine as could be obtained. The table, set for two, was garnished with two full dinner services except for the knives, which were to be avoided at all costs.

The meal served consisted of two pieces of blessed bread brought back from the last mass attended and two small measures of unadulterated wine divided equally between the two place settings. In the middle of the table, separating the two placings, only a single porcelain or, if available, silver serving dish was called for, containing two blessed sprigs of myrtle, rosemary or any other green plant except boxwood; carefully placed one next to another so as not to cross.

Such formalities completed, the door was reopened in anticipation of the expected guest. Taking a seat at the table, one recommended themselves devoutly to the Virgin and drifted to sleep while waiting for the effects of her protection which, it was said, never failed to appear. In the comfort of sleep, strange and wonderful visions were revealed.

A young Breton couple

Those girls for whom providence had intended the happiness of marriage were believed to see the image of the man who will love them, if he finds them, or the man that would have loved them if he had found them. It was said that a particular privilege of this novena was to give the same dream to the young man of whom one dreamt and to inspire him with the same impatience to join the lady made known to him in a dream.

It was said that those who were destined not to marry were tormented by alarming forecasts. Some, intended for the convent, saw a long procession of nuns slowly pass, singing prayers; the others, whom death must strike before their time, attend their own funerals and awaken with a start to the light of funeral torches and the sounds of their family weeping over a coffin draped in white.

A procession of nuns in Brittany

A story tells of the daughter of a Breton noble who, on the eve of Candlemas in 1794, during the height of the Terror, visited the Fontaine du Coq in Bulat-Pestivien. This sacred spring, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was once a popular site of pilgrimage; its water being said to hold therapeutic virtues that cured the sick. It was also said to be an oracular fountain that allowed believers to read their fate in its water. According to legend, it was on the eve of Candlemas that the waters revealed to young women the face of their future husband.

Born the only child of the Marquis de Kergoat, Catherine Glomel celebrated her eighteenth birthday at the family’s ancestral home; an old granite manor nestled in the countryside a short distance east of the village of Bulat-Pestivien. She would, of course, have preferred to have been near her friends in Nantes or Paris, where her family kept houses but those cities held nothing for her now; there had been no word from her friends for almost two years and her father’s city properties had been seized by the authorities.

The majority of the marquis’ vast estate in central Brittany had been confiscated by the new republic but the old manor house, being in a poor state, had, so far, escaped sequestration. To avoid any untoward official attention, the old marquis lived as a recluse surrounded by only his oldest, most trusted servants and his beloved daughter. As an additional precaution, he had also assumed the name of a commoner, Jean Glomel.      

A Breton household

On the evening of the first day of February, clad in thick woollen shawls to guard against the biting south wind, Catherine set out to offer her devotions to the Virgin at the ancient fountain with its ornate 16th century edifice. As ever, she was accompanied by her trusted maid, Marie Anne; a family retainer of longstanding and a lady known throughout the canton for her deep familiarity with the old beliefs.

The women had skirted the small Chapel of Saint-Blaise when the moonlight broke through the trees to illuminate a pyramidal wall of dressed stone adorned with fine pinnacles and carved figures; its niches sadly devoid of the statues that the women had long been used to seeing there. As Catherine descended the few steps into the fountain, she caught the sweet smell of damp moss in the air and turned towards the source once thought to have been home to a fairy venerated by the Celts of old.

Catherine made her ablutions as she softly uttered the mysterious incantation taught to her, in return for a very modest donation, by the old woman whose wild hair, wrinkled features and mumbling lips were well known in the cottages and castles of central Brittany: “On the surface of the fairy mirror, Good Lady, show me, for a moment, the one who will be my love.”

The Rooster fountain in Bulat
The fountain was very badly damaged in the aftermath of the Revolution

Almost immediately, the charm began to weave its special magic. In the middle of the water, a small mist suddenly formed and slowly lifted; a form took shape then melted into a single appearance. In the gloom, Catherine distinguished the smiling face of an old man with greying hair, ruddy cheeks and a thick white beard. Catherine swiftly hurried away; her head reeling in anxious confusion. The notion that the Good Lady intended for her, a husband in his sixties, frightened Catherine so much that when she returned home she could not sleep all night.

Two days later, still overwhelmed by her vision, she could not help raising the matter with her father over dinner. The old gentleman pushed his bowl of kig ha farz aside and gently teased his daughter, he laughed at her evocations of Candlemas and reminded her that she had no need of the old superstitions and indeed had she not been engaged for some time to her distant cousin, Hervieu de Gourmont, who was far from having a single grey hair on his head.

A young Breton woman

Their simple meal, a far cry from the fine fare that they had once been accustomed to, was almost over when they were interrupted by an unexpected commotion in the hallway. Suddenly, the door crashed open and there, on the threshold of the dining room, stood five men dressed in long grey cloaks, their long hair tied at the back of the neck by a large ribbon, their faces concealed behind black velvet masks.

One of their number stepped forward: “Citizen Jean Glomel” said a young voice with a clear air of authority, “we are here to search your home. You have been hiding the old priest of Bulat here. Your daughter was seen two nights ago skulking near the presbytery and leaving with him, disguised in women’s clothes. There is no need to try to pretend otherwise or any point in resisting. Come along, quickly now, show us your attics and your cellars.”

“Citizen,” replied the old marquis, rising to his feet: “I give you my word of honour at this time when, I accept, the notion carries little weight, that there is no shadow of a cassock in my house. The person who accompanied my daughter in Bulat the other night was none other than her old nursemaid, Marie Anne. Both had been to the old fountain to evoke the superstitious and naive visions of Candlemas. Go ahead, search my home as you think fit.”

Stepping towards the masked man who had spoken, Jean Glomel mustered his manners and graciously asked if he would care to share their meal. The man, clearly the group’s leader, sent his men to search the house and gladly accepted the hospitality offered. To the marquis’ surprise, the conversation and wine flowed easily with his Jacobin guest, especially as no words touched upon the upheavals wrought by the revolution.

The French Revolution in Brittany

Throughout dinner, the official’s mask remained fast and it was impossible for the marquis to distinguish the features of his uninvited guest. However, there was something in the man’s voice particularly its inflections, which told him that he was not in the company of a stranger. Alas, he could not be certain and was unable to retrieve any memory that would help identify his guest although he was convinced that the stranger’s language and manners revealed him, at times, to be a man of his own world, now lost.

Catherine maintained a respectful interest in the evening’s exchanges but found her mind worrying over the fate of Father Jean.  She had been assured by her father that the priest had escaped overseas so as to avoid the doom that befell the rector but perhaps he was still hiding in the area; these men clearly thought so. She wondered whether these were the same men who had desecrated the church a few years earlier. Was she perhaps, even now, sitting at table with one of the men who had stripped the church of its gold and silver thus robbing the community of its most sacred relics in the name of ridding them of the vain tinsel of fanaticism?

It was very late at night by the time the masked official gathered together his men and left the old manor. His last words, spoken softly, were to reassure the family of their safety. However, morning brought an unexpected and disturbing discovery; a small, grubby piece of card was found, discarded, in the vestibule. It bore just three words but they tore the soul out of both father and daughter: Hervieu de Gourmont. Catherine was stunned to silence while the old marquis cursed as he felt tears of shame well in his eyes for the man who was to have become his son.

Old Breton woman

The years of turmoil endured and eventually eased but the marquis did not live long enough to see the return of kings. Catherine never married; she refused any alliance, being unwilling to again embrace the blue dreams of her youth and replace the image that had once filled all her heart. She invested all her energies in the farm that her father had managed to carve from the rump of their, once fine, estate and spent much of her days caring for her trusty maid, Marie Anne, now approaching ninety one years of age.

As always on the eve of Candlemas, that of 1830 found Catherine’s memories return to settle, briefly, on the events that changed her life so long ago. No sooner had she sat down for dinner than suddenly, just as thirty five years earlier, the door to the hallway opened with a crash and a stranger stood at the threshold. The light of the high oil lamps illuminated a man dressed in the manner of a Parisian, with greying hair and ruddy cheeks framed by a fine white beard: indistinguishable from the appearance in the mirror of the Bulat spring.

“I have come, as I once did before on such an evening, to requisition your supper, my dear cousin,” said the newcomer with a slight bow, “but this time as an honest man, as a gentleman.” The brief moments of tenderness, once glimpsed in her young girl’s dreams and dashed so cruelly long ago must have still lingered in the depths of her heart, for Catherine indulged her visitor and it was with an earnest wish of welcome that she invited her former fiancé to stay.

An old Breton man

The years fell away as Viscount Hervieu de Gourmont and Catherine dropped into easy conversation over dinner. The viscount regaled her with many tales of his emigrant adventures and showed himself to be a good and attentive guest; an amiable man and amusing conversationalist. He recounted, with great wit, how he had been obliged to assume a false identity in order to save the Marquis de Kergoat, whose presence had been noted and reported to the Revolutionary Committee in Guingamp.  With a little quick thinking and some judiciously applied gold coins, he had been able to secure, from the military commission of Port Brieuc, leadership of the party sent to Bulat that Candlemas.

Hervieu laughed heartily when he heard that his search party had unwittingly been within feet of discovering the famous statue known as Our Lady of Bulat; a large silver statue of the Virgin that had, for years, been sought by the authorities as the main instrument of superstition in the region. This treasure of Brittany had been buried by the priest of Bulat in the corner of the marquis’ barn, where it had remained safe and undetected for ten long years.

Reconciled and reunited, the couple parted company in the small hours and, as the poets tell us, love recalled is love reborn and so it was on that Candlemas. Later that day, Catherine told Marie Anne of the night’s events and the old lady was delighted to celebrate the return of one to accompany the joy of the other. A wedding was arranged for the Tuesday following Easter and as the fairy mirror had predicted, Catherine would marry the old man whose image had smiled at her thirty five years before in the fountain of Bulat. Truly, the vision of Candlemas did not deceive.

An old Breton couple

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