The Standing Stones of Brittany

Brittany is said to have the greatest concentration of megalithic sites in the world. These megaliths range from single standing stones to complex alignments stretching for miles and massive man-made tumuli the size of a small hill. Older than the written word, their meanings remain clouded in mystery, shrouded in superstition and folklore.

The epoch known as the Neolithic, towards the end of the Stone Age, saw primitive man emerge from his cave dwellings and create fixed purpose-built settlements. It was a time when mankind turned from reliance on nomadic hunting for subsistence to the cultivation of crops; animals were domesticated for the first time and rudimentary but effective tools and earthenware vessels developed. In Europe, as elsewhere, one of the greatest reminders of the technological and cultural development that took place in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age are the megalithic monuments that still pepper the landscape.

Here in Brittany, it is virtually impossible to travel more than a few miles without seeing some form of ancient megalith. Many sites are well cared for or have been fenced but most stand mute in forests or heathland, or else surrounded by crops of maize or sit rather incongruously amidst a carefully manicured lawn.

The megaliths here were mainly erected between about 4,500BC to 1,500BC and range from single standing stones known as menhirs (Breton for long stone), some as tall as eight metres, to careful alignments of stones that stretch for miles; from a simple dolmen (Breton for stone table) to more complex passage tombs. In its most basic form, a dolmen can consist of just three stone slabs; two set upright supporting a flatter slab that formed the roof of a burial chamber. The whole structure would originally have been covered by stones and earth forming a small mound and where such mantles survive they are called cairns or tumuli. Finally, when a series of dolmens are built side-by-side, effectively forming a covered passageway to one or more burial chambers, the structure is known as an allée couverte or gallery grave.

Dolmen
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With such a richness of megalithic sites, it would be impossible to do justice to Brittany’s Neolithic heritage in a blog post, so, I shall simply highlight a few of the monuments that have impressed me here the most.

The world’s largest dolmen, or more correctly allée couverte, is known as La Roche-aux-Fées (the Rock of the Fairies) and stands near Essé in eastern Brittany. Constructed from 32 upright stones with nine roof slabs, this structure is almost 20 metres long by five metres wide and at its highest point inside is over four metres high. The massive stones were likely quarried about 4km (2.5 miles) away and dragged to this site some 5,000 years ago. As with many megalithic tombs, it is aligned to catch the sun’s first rays at the winter solstice.

Local folklore ascribed the construction of this dolmen to the fairies who, according to some accounts, completed the work in just one night. However, 13km (8 miles) away at Saulnières is another monument said to have been built by the fairies, La Table aux Fées (Table of the Fairies). This was apparently built by them to serve as a table where they could eat and rest after carrying the giant rocks from the quarry to La Roche-aux-Fées. The presence of many of the neighbourhood menhirs were once explained away as discarded building stones; at the precise moment the structure was completed, the fairies carrying their now superfluous stones, one under each arm, simply dropped them where the stood. It was also said that the fairies had placed a spell of confoundment upon their erection so that no count of the number of stones would consistently tally.

Another tale tells that the structure was built by the fairies to shelter the souls of the just but that these fairies disappeared with the retreat of the forest. Since then, the whistling of the wind between the stones was held to be the lamentations of souls no longer visited by the fairies.

Roche aux Fees
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It was once a local tradition for couples wishing to marry, to visit the stones on the night of a new moon and to walk around them in different directions; the women going clockwise and the men counter-clockwise, counting the stones as they did so. If the lovers agreed on the number of stones, not necessarily the correct one, it was said that their marriage would be a happy one.

While the trees surrounding the stones at La Roche-aux-Fées might have dwindled over the ages, it took a fierce wild fire in Brocéliande to expose a major megalithic site that had long been lost to memory and the forces of nature. Prior to 1976, it was thought that just three menhirs, the tallest of which was 5 metres high, existed at Monteneuf but the fires that ravaged the countryside that year uncovered many more fallen stones. In fact, an archaeological survey undertaken in the 1990s identified over four hundred, including an alignment of seven rows of standing stones oriented east-west. Carbon dating of deposits in the holes used to site the stones has shown that the first stones were erected around 4,500BC and that construction of the site continued for at least 1,500 years. Sadly, the stones were toppled in the Middle Ages, likely at the behest of the religious authorities of the day seeking to rid the land of symbols of paganism.

The alignment at Monteneuf with its 42 standing stones is an impressive testament to the perseverance and industry of prehistoric man but even this pales a little when you visit the Carnac Alignments, where the main sites contain over 3,000 menhirs arranged in about a dozen rows over 4km (2.5 miles) long; the largest concentration of megaliths in the world and first erected some 5,500 years ago. As you head east away from the site of the alignments at Menec, the site’s largest menhir – the Giant of Manio – looms seven metres tall.

Some archaeologists believe that these alignments once served as ceremonial avenues leading to a large enclosure where ritual gatherings took place and that the original, simple avenues were distorted over the millennia by people superstitiously adding new stones each year. Others have suggested that the alignments possibly once extended to twice the length of what we see today; we know that until the 1960s people would regularly dig out stones to re-purpose elsewhere, so, it is difficult to image what might have been lost over the millennia.

There are many legends surrounding the alignments of Carnac; some say that they were produced by Brittany’s little folk, the magical korrigans; others tell of the wizard Merlin cursing a Roman legion to stone or that they are the remains of ancient Bretons so determined to stand fast against the invading Romans that their resolution turned them to stone. Yet another legend tells us that Saint Korneli, the patron saint of horned animals, having been pursued to the edge of the sea by a pagan mob resentful of his evangelising activities, changed his pursuers to stone.

Carnac Alignments
The Carnac Alignments.

Carnac also boasts several dolmens in addition to the Tumulus of Kercado, erected in 5,700BC and thought to be the earliest stone construction in Europe and the awe inspiring Tumulus of Saint Michael, a structure that offers a stunning example of the degree of effort that primitive man put into building 6000 years ago; shifting 35,000 cubic metres of stone and earth to form an artificial hill covering a tomb for just one person. However, an excavation at the turn of the 20th century discovered a second dolmen within the tumulus, indicating that a later burial took place at this auspicious site. A small chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael now stands atop the tumulus on the site of an earlier 17th century structure.

In times past, women, whose husbands were at sea, used to sweep out the chapel in the direction that they wanted to see a favourable wind blow. They would then pray at the sacred fountain near the base of the tumulus and drink its water. This fountain was also held to have divining powers; to know who had stolen from you, it was necessary to visit the fountain on a Monday having not broken one’s fast and cast pieces of bread into the water while reciting a list of suspects. The name of the thief would be identified when a piece of bread sank immediately after their name was called.

Just 13km (8 miles) east, the town of Locmariaquer is home to a number of impressive megaliths. Three are particularly worth noting, such as the remarkable Table des Marchands; a large dolmen erected some 5,800 years ago that features wonderful prehistoric decorations, and the Great Menhir of Er Groac’h (Long Stone of the Fairies in Breton), at 21 metres high and weighing 280 tonnes, this was the largest monolith ever erected by humans at this time but it is now broken into four pieces.

While the finds from the first excavation of the Table des Marchands have disappeared, those discovered at the nearby Tumulus du Ruyk, which was found to be intact and undisturbed when explored in 1863, are safely housed in a local museum. Immediately on entering the chamber was found a large pendant carved from green jasper and in the centre, a large ring of jadite and the head of an axe, also of jadite, its point resting on the ring. Nearby, were three large jasper pendants and an axe-head of white jade. Clearly, these valuable objects were deliberately placed and formed a straight line that coincided exactly with one of the diagonals of the chamber. Other pendants were found in the main chamber as well as 104 other axe-heads – a noted symbol of power. Jadite axe heads were also found in the Tumulus of Saint Michael and carved representations exist in several megalithic sites across Brittany. Interestingly, no traces of bone or cinders were found; the structure must therefore likely have been a cenotaph. At the entrance to the rectangular chamber is a sculptured slab, on which is carved a mysterious rune, perhaps the totem of a once important chieftain?

The engraved stones at Gavrinis

Another stunning Neolithic structure, known as the Gavrinis Cairn, is located just a few kilometres east across the Auray estuary on a small island; the sea level having risen about ten metres in the 5,500 years since its construction. The structure boasts a 14 metre long passageway that leads to a large circular chamber that served as a tomb, although some suggest it might have been used as a temple. The chamber is made up of about 50 slabs of rock which support the largest stone, the ceiling slab, estimated to weigh about 17 tonnes but it is not their size that makes these stones so special but their decoration; the majority feature remarkable carvings of men, cows, axes and bows as well as stunning geometric patterns in spirals and concentric lines.

Some have suggested that these designs are evidence of prehistoric palmistry; the hand being a symbol of power. Others have interpreted the designs as a map of the fabled lost city of Atlantis. The decoration on one of the stones matches exactly those found on the ceiling stone of the Table des Marchands, suggesting that both stones once formed part of a single block that had been part of an earlier monument and subsequently re-purposed.

In 2006, builders clearing a piece of wasteland in preparation for the construction of a housing development in Belz, just a few kilometres west, struck an enormous block of granite; the rump of a buried menhir. An archaeological excavation uncovered another 60 fallen menhirs, all approximately some two metres in length and indicative of a once significant alignment. Experts believe that the stones were erected and then deliberately toppled sometime around 2,500BC.

Unlike other important Neolithic sites where the soil of the period has generally been corrupted by man or eroded by the passage of time, at Belz the Neolithic sub-soil on which the stones were erected has been preserved. This has allowed researchers to uncover traces of the original earthworks and the methods used to assemble and position the menhirs. The fact that the stones were erected and then deliberately toppled was an important discovery, suggesting a significant cultural or religious shift towards the end of the Neolithic period.

It is in the north of the region that Brittany’s second tallest standing stone is found, a few kilometres south of Dol-de-Bretagne. The Menhir de Champ-Dolent stands over nine metres high and was long regarded as the tallest menhir in Brittany until one in the west of the region was confirmed as standing just 20cm (8 inches) taller. Estimated to weigh about 100 tonnes, this block of granite was Christianized in the early 19th century when it was surmounted by a wooden cross but this has since been removed. According to local legend, the menhir fell from the skies to separate two feuding brothers and their armies who were engaged in a great battle at the site. Another legend tells that the menhir is slowly sinking into the ground, and the world will end on the day when it disappears completely.

Cairn
Cairn de Barnenez

Overlooking the Bay of Morlaix, the Cairn de Barnenez is the largest megalithic tomb in Europe, measuring some 75m x 25m, and also one of the world’s oldest structures, predating the pyramids of Gizah by some two thousand years. Just as in the Tumulus of Saint Michael, the cairn contains burial chambers from differing periods, the initial five chambers dating to around 4,500BC and a second group of six that were added about 400 years later. This massive structure dominates a little peninsula and would have made a considerable impact on our prehistoric ancestors. Today, we can be just as impressed by the commitment of those same people to have moved over 7,000 cubic metres of stone, weighing in excess of 14,000 tonnes to build this monument.

Sadly, the presence of all this stone saw the site used as a quarry as late as 1955 when some of the cairn’s dolmens were exposed. Excavations in the 1960s found Neolithic pottery, axes and arrowheads as well as pottery from the Bronze Age and several of the passageways and chambers were found to be decorated with carvings similar to those seen in other megalithic sites in Brittany; predominantly axes, bows, wavy lines and horseshoe shaped designs.

Another site worth noting for its concentration of megalithic monuments is Plouhinec on Brittany’s Atlantic coast. Known locally as Menez Korriged (Mount of the Korrigans), the Pors Poulhan dolmen is one of the region’s largest and is composed of two rows of 16 upright stones supporting three ceiling slabs. Dating from around 3,000BC, the site clearly remained a significant one as archaeological explorations in the 1980s unearthed several funeral urns from the Gallo-Roman period in the burial chamber. The dolmen was noted as being used as a barn in the 19th century but the structure we see today is the result of renovation work undertaken in the 1980s; much of the structure having toppled and collapsed when it was dynamited to improve the line of sight of a German coastal battery during World War Two.

Dolmen in Brittany
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Nearby, on the Pointe du Souc’h, five dolmens and a Neolithic tomb mark the end of the world with only the remains of the 42m by 11m stone cairn, which once covered the site, now present; the site was used as a quarry into the 1970s. The site was in use for many years; the first burial chamber dates to around 4,500BC and the last to around 2,800BC. Archaeologists have identified six distinct phases of development and finds from the site have included flint blades, polished axe heads and over 100 tiny pearls as well as an earthenware vase of a style unique to this location.

The cliff on which this site is situated contains a cave some 15m deep that shows traces of hominid occupation dating back almost 500,000 years. To date, excavations have unearthed thousands of objects such as cut stones, worked flints and fragments of mammal bones but perhaps the most interesting discoveries have been traces of almost a dozen hearths. These have been found in all the various layers of occupation between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago, making this one of the world’s oldest known examples of controlled fires.

It is commonly believed that prehistoric man worshipped celestial bodies as well as trees, springs, mountains and stones and all remained objects of veneration among the Celtic pagans of Brittany. Some have suggested that primitive man built dolmens to mimic the cave dwellings from which he had but recently emerged and that later the pattern of stones within the tombs was uncovered and expanded to create stone circles.

passage grave
An allée couverte in Laniscat

However, if these stone circles carried ceremonial significance and were used for communal gatherings such as feasts and funerals rather than burials, it raises the question of why people of significance no longer merited massive mausoleums. There are myriad theories concerning the role of standing stones and stone circles in primitive culture; centres of sacrifice, astronomical observation posts, sites for communal gatherings and sacred venues for worship or celebrating the solstices among them. Perhaps, over time, a combination of all the above or possibly none; we will never know with any degree of certainty.

The worship of stones into the common era is not so easily explained as the worship directed toward objects possessing vitality and movement. Perhaps the mysterious nature of these massive blocks of stone retained ancient associations with death and the afterlife or possibly the stones held a ritual significance in the religion of the Celts. Whatever the reason, the worship of stones endured in Brittany and elsewhere in northern Europe.

This is witnessed by edicts from various Church Councils, such as that of the Council of Arles in 452 which expressly forbade the worship of stones; the Council of Tours in 567 ordered that ‘all those who worship stones or ruins and on which they make vows and oblations’ be excommunicated; in 658 the Council of Nantes ordered bishops to dig-up the stones and the Council of Rouen in 692 denounced all who offered vows to stones. Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die under the onslaught of Christianity because a capitulary of Charlemagne in 743 again explicitly forbids the worship of stones and oblations made on them. 

Christianised Menhirs
Christianised menhirs

Thankfully, there appears to have not been any systematic programme of destroying the megalithic monuments of Brittany so as to purge the landscape of its pagan reminders. Perhaps the local priests charged with carrying out any removal orders feared alienating their parishioners? However, hundreds of menhirs were toppled or else dug-out, moved and re-worked as building or paving stone between the 17th and 20th centuries. In many cases, Christianity simply transferred, to its own uses, the ancient religious feeling concerning stones, as many are explained away as existing due to the intervention of a Christian saint.

Sometimes, a chapel or shrine was erected nearby in an attempt to transfer the devotion attached to the stones to a Christian site such as at the Tumulus of Saint Michael in Carnac. Not only were tumuli thus transferred by re-dedication from pagan gods to Christian saints but dolmens and menhirs too. Sometimes this was done by topping the menhir with a wooden crucifix, as at the Menhir de Champ-Dolent, or by carving a Christian cross onto the face of the stone.  An early 18th century chapel in Le Vieux-Marché was even built incorporating an ancient dolmen into its very structure. This is a most curious building and the only chapel in France dedicated to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Local legend says that this structure dates from the beginning of time, having been shaped by God on the sixth day of creation.

The traditional folk beliefs associated with the megaliths of Brittany are, as you might expect, numerous. Many believe that the ancient Bretons venerated the stones as the abodes of gods or as seats of divine power and that such sacred sites were places where the pagan priests once invoked the spirits of their ancestors. Perhaps this helps explain why the megaliths are so closely associated with supernatural beings such as korrigans and fairies; entities who are often said to be spirits from a time before the arrival of Christianity.

fairies and stones
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In Breton legends, fairies are often declared to live in dolmens or in the springs near menhirs, while dolmens were held to contain an entrance to the subterranean world of the korrigans and their hidden treasure. This association has long since seeped into the region’s toponymy with many monuments known as the rock or grotto of the fairies and the house or castle of the korrigans. The old folk belief that only such supernatural creatures could have erected the massive stone monuments was widely found across Brittany, albeit sometimes with small refinements such as the stone blocks being carried in aprons, balanced on the heads of fairies or carried under each arm. The hours of darkness belonged to the fairies and one night was thought all that was needed to raise a dolmen. If the stone had to be brought from afar, the work was arduous and sometimes incomplete before dawn’s first light; as attested by the presence of many roofless dolmens in the landscape.

Other popular legends relate that menhirs go once a year or once every hundred years, usually while the bells of the Christmas midnight mass are being rung, to wash themselves in a river or the sea, returning to their ancient seats after their ablutions and before the sound of the twelfth bell has died. However, the stones of La Roche-aux-Fées dolmen are said to change their places continually.

Some Breton folktales tell that menhirs were once men who had the effrontery to insult a fairy and were turned to stone for their insolence, or were the discarded spindles that fairies had once used when making their clothes. Others say that they are monuments raised by the fairies to honour those mortal men and women who had made good use of their lives, while another legend tells us that the menhirs are powerful enchantments containing fairies who have been locked up by the power of magic. The presence of such a fairy shrine was seen as a guarantee of good fortune, spreading a subtle charm across the immediate neighbourhood. This belief in the benevolent charm of the stones can also be glimpsed in the old Breton practice of placing pieces of megaliths or Neolithic worked flint into the walls and roofs of houses as a protection against lightning.

Standing Stone monolith
Menhir de Saint Uzec with its 17th century decoration

Numerous superstitious rituals connected with sacred stones were noted as still extant in Brittany at the end of the 19th century. For instance, young people would rub their loins against the stele set in the churchyard of Saint Samson in Pleumeur-Bodou in the hope of improving their strength, while men would rub their shoulders against the menhir in Landunvez for the same purpose. To ward off rheumatism, people would rub their backs against the leading stone of the dolmen at Guimaëc and on the menhir in the churchyard at Saint-Guyomard.

Given the obvious phallic significance of the menhir, we should not be too surprised that a number of superstitious rituals surrounding fertility were once closely attached to some stones. The Menhir de Kerloas, the tallest in Brittany at 9.5 metres, was visited by newly married couples who would rub their bare bellies against the stone in order to only have male children; the ceremony was also believed to ensure the woman became the absolute mistress of her household. Similarly, young couples would visit the menhir at Moëlan-sur-Mer and rub themselves against it in the hope of children. Childless couples and barren women would, under cover of darkness, also visit the broken menhir near Locronan and rub their abdomens against the stone in the hope of having a child.

At Monthault, unmarried women would slide down a massive ashlar, leaving behind a ribbon, in the expectation that they would be married within the year. It was important that no one witnessed this act as it was thought only the stone could keep the secrets of the maiden’s heart. Similar practices were known to have long taken place on other stones, such as those at Mellé and on the inclined menhir near Saint-Samson-sur-Rance. The latter stone was also reputed to be one of three stones that blocked the entrance to Hell. At the stone in Plouër-sur-Rance, it was necessary for the woman to slide all the way down the edifice with bare buttocks; the skin in constant contact with the stone. A bare bottom was also needed for sliding down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir at Locmariaquer but to succeed, the ritual had to be completed on the night of May Day.

Menhir de la Thiemblaye - gateway to hell
Menhir de la Thiemblaye , Saint-Samson-sur-Rance

There are also accounts from the late 19th century that relate how some couples yearning for children would visit the stones at Carnac during the period of the full moon; the men undressed and chased their naked wives around a menhir. Similarly, young women seeking husbands, undressed completely and rubbed their navels against a menhir in Carnac that was especially devoted to this usage. Similar practices were also recorded at the dolmen near Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier.

Brittany abounds in megalithic sites and you never need to wander far to connect with our prehistoric ancestors. Whether you wish to visit the world-famous sites or take the road less travelled and seek out hidden gems for yourself, you will be sure to discover something to make you wonder. Indeed, there are about a hundred megalithic sites within just 20km (12.5 miles) of where I sit writing this!

The Black Book of Brittany

In France, books of natural magic, spells and conjurations were commonly found under a variety of names and in Brittany the most infamous of such works was the Agrippa; a massive, mysterious book that was widely believed to have been used by priests to harness the elements, evoke demons and foretell the future.

Books of magic spells and incantations have existed for as long as the written word; some of the well known examples contain fairly benign recipes for treating illness while others are far more malevolent and feature deadly curses and charms for summoning spirits and demons. Such books were commonly referred to as egremonts or grimoires in France and the latter word has long since passed into the English lexicon.

In Brittany, the most famed grimoire was popularly known as the Agrippa, named after Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a German theologian and astrologer who, between 1531-33, published some of the earliest works on the occult in his De Occulta Philosophia; a trilogy of books of occult philosophy which dealt with the relationship between natural magic, religion and ritual magic. Ironically, it is unlikely that Agrippa was the author of the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy which appeared under his name shortly after his death in France in 1535. This latter work, on the summoning of spirits and demons is likely the book lying at the root of the Breton myth of the Agrippa.

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The Agrippa was widely held to be a most dangerous book, particularly for the curious reader or those who had not been schooled in its proper handling. Reputed to be the size of a grown man, the mighty volume was said to have been written by the Devil himself in red letters on black paper although some accounts say that the pages were blood red and inscribed in black ink. The book was thought to be alive and when not being used it was necessary to restrain the binding with a stout chain and padlock. The locked tome then needed to be secured by an iron chain and hung from the strongest twisted beam in a room especially set-aside for the purpose of containing the Agrippa.

This notion that the book was alive may account for the name once popularly given to it in Lower Brittany, Ar Vif, which is Breton for ‘the lively’. Although some sources suggest that the book derived its name from its ability to imbue the written words with life in the form of fulfilled prophecies. The book was said to be reluctant to share its dark secrets and needed to be coerced and dominated as aggressively as one might tame a wild horse; the prospective reader needed to physically grapple with the book in order to win the opportunity to glimpse its secrets. Strength and patience were needed in order to tame the Agrippa and some tales tell of arduous battles that sometimes lasted for hours before the book yielded its mysteries. Only once the reader had established his dominance, would the Agrippa’s seemingly blank pages reveal their written words.

It was believed that only consecrated priests rightfully owned Agrippas; each having their own copy which had been mysteriously gifted to them. Apparently, the newly ordained priests awoke on the morning after their ordination to find the book inexplicably standing by their bedside with no indication of how it came to be there. The priests were thought to have studied the book and learned how to use it during their time at the great seminary in Quimper. It was also said that the priests who studied at the seminary of Pont-Croix were initiated into the secrets of a less dangerous book of dark magic which nevertheless gave them the power to perform many of the same extraordinary acts or magical deeds known as Ar Fizik (a Breton word covering the physical sciences). However, anti-clerical sentiment and the massive programme of dechristianisation that followed the French Revolution saw thousands of priests forced into exile or imprisoned and in the chaos many Agrippas were said to have been lost.

Grimoire
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Over time, these lost Agrippas found themselves into the hands of laymen who were unable to control the book or interpret its writing correctly. The priests knew that the owner of an Agrippa needed to possess not only physical strength but also mental fortitude. It was crucial that one knew when to stop reading; reading too much at a time, the reader ran the risk of being dragged to hell by demons. Evading the clutches of the ever-watchful fiends was said best done by reading the book backwards.

The knowledge contained within the pages of the Agrippa was commonly thought to give priests the power to control the weather, to evoke demons and force them to hell, to discover the fate of souls in the afterlife and even to see the secrets of the future. Such terrifying powers were not attributed to a gift from God or the Devil but regarded as an inherent force contained within the very words themselves. This belief in the power of the word was commonly held in Brittany in the 19th century and is a tradition that stretches as far back as the Celts of antiquity.

Frequently the only formally educated man for miles around, priests were often viewed by their predominantly uneducated congregations as sorcerers in the rural Brittany of yesteryear. They were popularly endowed with supernatural powers such as the ability to control the weather, to ride the whirlwind and to possess the power to transform unbelievers into werewolves and to be able to shape-shift during Advent.

occult
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At a time when the division between the natural and the supernatural was, at best, opaque, sorcery and witchcraft were accepted as reasonable explanations for natural effects. Concepts such as holy miracles and transubstantiation, coupled with the ability to interpret the wonders of the words of God and his authority over many of the ancient sacred sites added an aura of mysterious otherworldliness to the local priest who was often called an fizikar (literally a practitioner of science but a term popularly applied to sorcerers).

For those people uninitiated into the secrets of handling an Agrippa, reading but a little of the book could bring a great deal of danger and there are several stories told of people, who, having entered the book out of curiosity, were only torn from the very threshold of hell by the extreme intervention of a learned priest. The morals behind such tales are strong in their implication that meddling with this book results in harsh punishments for the imprudent and curious.

However, a knowledgeable layperson able to read and interpret an Agrippa might become a most formidable sorcerer or witch; the book being said to contain the names of all the demons of Hell with instructions on how to successfully evoke them. It was by consulting each demon in turn that the priest was able to ascertain whether the soul of his recently buried parishioner was damned or saved. Having been summoned, the demons were dismissed by the priest calling them again by their names, starting aloud with the name of the demon who appeared last and working backwards.

It was said that anyone, other than a priest, who possessed an Agrippa felt constant pain because they dealt too closely with the Devil and his demons. Such a person was thought to be identifiable by their smell; the odour of sulphur and smoke betraying them. Those people believed to be in possession of an Agrippa were dreaded and shunned, likewise those who were dreaded in the community were often accused of owning such a book.

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Priests were thought able to sense the presence of lost or illicit Agrippas and knew the names of those parishioners who secretly held them. Some stories tell of priests working desperately to recover Agrippas held in the wrong hands, while others speak of priests intervening only when the undisclosed owner was near death. The heavy burden of possessing the book was said to continue after death and the owner would be forever doomed; unable to ever reach Heaven on account of the tremendous weight they were cursed to carry.

Similar to other traditions concerning grimoires, in Brittany the Agrippa was thought only able to be destroyed by fire lit by a priest. Those who possessed an Agrippa were traditionally thought to be unable to rid themselves of it’s grip without the help of a priest and often only when on the very cusp of death.

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There is a story of a farmer who had inherited an Agrippa and was anxious to dispossess himself of it. Pleased to have found a man, who farmed in a neighbouring parish, happy to accept the gift of the volume, the farmer spent several hours one night leading his ox along the dark pathways, pulling the book by its chain to deliver it to its new owner. His duty discharged, he returned home happily but his joy was short-lived and his heart sank when he discovered that the Agrippa had already returned to reoccupy its former place.

Sometime later, the farmer prepared a massive bonfire and summoned all his strength to lift the book into the flames but instead of devouring the Agrippa, the flames moved away from it. Seeing the book was feared by fire, he therefore resolved to drown it in water and dragged it to the nearest stretch of coast. Taking a boat, he rowed half a league out to sea and, having attached several heavy stones to the Agrippa’s chain, cast it into the depths of the ocean.

Finally rid of the book, he rowed hard for land and just as he had finished dragging the boat ashore and securing its anchor chain, he heard the rattle of another chain and turned to see his Agrippa shaking loose the big stones that he had so recently attached to it. The farmer was stunned cold as the great book swept past him as fast as an arrow. At home, he found the book hanging from its usual beam; the binding and pages were as dry as though water had not even touched them. Reluctantly, the unhappy man was forced to resign himself to keeping his Agrippa.

Red Dragon Grimoire
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Perhaps the origin of the Agrippa myth, which was still reported as being widespread in western Brittany at the end of the 19th century, lies not with Cornelius Agrippa’s books of occult philosophy but with the Malleus Maleficarum; a practical guide to identifying and confounding witchcraft and its practitioners popularly known as The Witches’ Hammer, first issued by Dominican Inquisitors in 1487. This was a work that was heavily drawn upon by the leaders of the 17th century Jesuit missions to Brittany and thus might have entered into the popular consciousness and eventually folklore as a magical book.

Alternatively, the myth might have arisen out of the boom in interest in books on the occult which were a feature of the Age of Enlightenment in France and elsewhere; the evolution of cheap printing techniques in the early 18th century saw many grimoires gain wide popularity. The two most popular being the works known as the Petit Albert and the Dragon Rouge; the first was noted for its spells for healing and instructions on how to make oneself invisible while the latter was held to be a reworking of the infamous Grand Grimoire and was notable for including an invocation of the Devil and his demons.

The Grand Grimoire, sometimes called the Gospel of Satan, is often cited as one of the darkest occult books in print and is believed by some to have been written in the 16th century by a man possessed by the Devil. The book is noted for its focus on black magic and like the Lesser Key of Solomon contains incantations for evoking demons and raising the dead. However, such terrible powers come at a price and it is said that anyone reading this volume is, by such an act, freely offering their eternal soul to the Devil.

Portents and Prediction in Brittany

Mankind’s uncertain struggle for food and shelter saw our ancestors constantly battle against the forces of nature. Sometimes nature could be brought under a degree of control but often humanity found itself in a position of incredible weakness. Despite their best efforts, the labours of our ancestors offered no guarantee of success against the whims of the uncontrollable weather. Faced with their own powerlessness, they could only identify what helped or hindered their efforts and try to forsee their influence.

Forecasting the weather has always been one of mankind’s most vital concerns and this was particularly so in Brittany, a country totally reliant on working the land and harvesting its extensive coastal waters; activities that were highly susceptible to the effects of severe weather. Based on the close observation of weather patterns, monitoring the effect of seasonal changes and correlating events with particular weather phenomena, the people of yesterday’s Brittany attempted to make sense of the world around them, sometimes with supernatural explanations. As you might expect, such practices gave rise to a great number of folk beliefs and superstitions.

In many parts of the world, celestial objects were often thought to foreshadow weather events but in Brittany scant attention was paid to the constellations or to the sun; the principle heavenly influence was that of the moon; an orb that seemed to show some sympathy to the affairs of man with its perpetual cycle of death and rebirth across the night sky. The importance attached to the moon by the people of this part of Europe is attested by the edicts of several 6th and 7th century Church Councils seeking to suppress traditional rites and practices associated with the appearance of the new moon such as: refraining from work; lighting fires in front of houses; waiting for the new moon to contract a marriage; and shouting at the new moon to help it regain its brilliance. Even as late as the mid-17th century, it is reported that Bretons popularly prayed to the moon especially on the appearance of its first quarter phase.

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Perhaps the mysteriousness of its constant cycle was associated with supernatural powers as its influence on events on earth was almost always held to be malign. It was, for instance, thought to cast a venom into well water at night and that potatoes, left in the field, would stain under its light. A waning moon was regarded as particularly malignant: childbirth was thought to be more laborious and those born under a new moon destined to die a violent death; to castrate a pig or sow a crop during this lunar phase was to invite misfortune.

It has been noted that the Celts of antiquity observed a lunar calendar, counting the beginning of months and years by the moon. In their world-view, night preceded day and solemn festivals such as Midsummer began not at sunrise but on the appearance of the moon. The phases of the moon were more than merely a simple and effective way of measuring time but also likely carried powerful connotations of birth and death, growth and decay.

Each new moon was thought to possess its own characteristic effect on the land and a significant number of these traditional declarations have survived to this day as proverbs, such as: January’s rain fill the ditches with water into February but March can dry all in one night; When April is shaken, May will be warm and cloudy; Sow your wheat whenever you wish but on the full moon in July you will find it.

Certain meteorological phenomena were closely observed and held to be useful signs for predicting forthcoming weather. For instance, the types of clouds were seen as offering a strong indication of the types of rains one could expect: A black cloud in the west brought heavy rain while a thinning cloud to the southwest heralded the approach of a spell of poor weather. The appearance of cloud formations around the moon were also thought significant; a close halo of clouds announced future rain while a distant halo meant that rain would arrive soon.

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A rainbow was often regarded as a symbol of bad weather and its appearance in the evening was a sign that there would be rain or winds in the morning but a rainbow in the morning indicated a forthcoming strong wind that carried little rain. In Brittany, farmers would fend off this bad omen by way of cutting it; spitting in the palm of the left hand and cutting the spit with a quick strike from the side of the right hand or by tracing a cut across the sky with a piece of wire or string, reciting: ‘Cut, cut, rainbow or I will cut you with my thread’. In western Brittany, it was once said that rainbows were celestial ladders laden with lost souls, ascending and descending, and people were careful not to pass under a rainbow lest they change sex.

Similarly, the direction of the winds were regarded as important as they were thought to announce a particular weather pattern: the northeast wind was held to be dry, making for very hot summers and freezing winters; a northwest wind brought storms; the southeast wind was particularly unwelcome as it marked summer storms and very cold winters; wind from the southwest heralded rain. Winds from the south were said to be more benign than those that blew from the north. Sowing a crop was thought to be best done with the northeast wind and avoided at a time of the east wind.

While some of these meteorological proverbs might be linked to empirical observations, they are, of course, generalisations and represent the Breton’s attempt to impose order and a degree of certainty in his ever-changing uncertain reality. Accepting that nature often fails to conform to the designs of man, yesterday’s farmers could maintain a veneer of order by calling upon other omens that could be bent to justify any seasonal irregularities. For instance, the weather during the first twelve days of January was said to be an indicator for the forthcoming weather in each of the following twelve months. Similarly, the direction of the wind during the Palm Sunday procession pointed to the wind that would be dominant throughout the remainder of the year.

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Sometimes, specific dates were popularly associated with the weather: If it rains on Mardi-Gras more rain will follow; If the sun shines for Mardi-Gras, it will stay for Lent; Snow for Mardi-Gras, midges for Easter; Easter rain is a bread giver; On Palm Sunday tether your cows, On Easter Sunday bring-in your cows. The latter sayings implying that the grass is now good for grazing and that the mid-afternoon sun is getting hot. Rainfall on the Feast of the Annunciation was an unfavourable omen as it was said to lead to cows yielding only the milk of a goat, while rain on May Day was thought bad for the yield of fruit trees but rain on Midsummer’s Day was held to be good for the development of wheat: ‘Good rain on the Day of Saint John makes the girl as tall as her mother.’

Other particular times of the year were also said to be auspicious for forecasting the weather, depending on whether it was inclement or fine on Saint Vincent’s Day (22 January), the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul (25 January) or the Feast Days of Saints Gervais and Protais (19 June), Saint Urbain (25 May) and Saint Médard (8 June). The weather experienced on these days was said to determine the state of the weather for the proceeding twenty, thirty or forty days.

In the minds of our ancestors, the world was teeming with signs and portents that had only to be deciphered correctly. When a child was born at night, it was the role of the eldest woman present at the birth to check on the state of the sky; if clouds were surrounding the moon or were masking its face, it was taken as an omen that the new baby was fated to one day be hanged or drowned. Magpies were said to chatter a great deal before a coming wind and in the summer, swallows flew nearer to the trees. Similarly, a scarcity of bees, increased croaking by toads or a large gathering of seagulls inland were taken as signs of approaching bad weather.

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In the Brittany of yesteryear, the concept of the natural world was not restricted to things corporeal and observable but included the incorporeal and unobservable. It was not considered irrational to believe in the existence of spirits causing natural effects and it was accepted that witches acted according to the natural laws; the activities of witches were thus regarded as natural phenomena. Witchcraft helped some to explain the unusual in the uncertain world around them, such as a summer hailstorm or a sudden whirlwind.

These freak wind occurrences also played a part in forecasting the weather; a whirlwind was sometimes taken as an indicator of an impending rainfall that would last for three days and a whirlwind headed to the southwest was said to be fetching rain.  Sudden gusts of wind that carried away stalks of hay or straw were taken as a sign that the coming winter would be a harsh one; the straw being carried heavenwards to help God prepare for a cold winter. The notion that the wind is actively fetching and carrying possibly implies that supernatural associations were once popularly attributed to these phenomena.

One group often blamed for such occurrences were the rural priests, men who were often viewed by their predominantly uneducated congregations as sorcerers. The suspicion that priests were interfering with the weather was most widely found in western Brittany where young clerics were said to practice their skills by raising whirlwinds or were testing the knowledge that they had gained at the seminary by performing magical changes to the weather. A 19th century priest in Cancale was even said to possess a rope that could control the wind; the art of tying-up the wind in three knots, so that the more knots that are loosened the stronger the wind will blow, is noted as having been attributed to sorcerers and witches in other parts of the Celtic fringe. The belief in the power of the priest to raise a whirlwind extended beyond simple creation; like witches, they were thought to be able to control and even travel on the wind. The belief in the power to travel in whirlwinds is culturally widespread and even features in the Holy Bible when ‘Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.’

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The witches and sorcerers were believed to have been taught to travel in this way by the Devil himself. In eastern Brittany, it was once said that it was in such winds that the Devil carried immoral women to hell with him; so desperate was the struggle of the abducted soul that a whirlwind was created. Others believed that the whirlwind contained a damned soul doomed to spend eternity crossing the world from one end to the other, destroying people and crops in its frustrated rage. While others maintained that such a wind contained a witch who, having given her soul to the Devil had disobeyed him and was condemned to forever wander the earth without hope of rest.

While freak winds such as whirlwinds were feared because of their potential to destroy crops, the possible harm they could cause to those labouring in the fields was not underestimated. It was popularly believed that those unfortunate enough to be caught-up in the path of such a wind were chilled to the bone, to the point of paralysis. It was therefore commonly held that the best course of action on the appearance of a whirlwind was to lie flat on the ground until it had passed, lest the power of the wind forever freeze one’s body in the position that it was in when encountered by it. Thus avoiding a permanently stooped back; a particularly unhelpful affliction for an agricultural labourer.

Yesterday’s Bretons were not passive spectators in the face of the power of the whirlwind. Countering the supernatural forces thought to be behind the creation of such winds was thought best achieved by casting an open knife, scythe or iron pitchfork into the wind; it being popularly supposed that supernatural beings and witches were repelled by iron. It was also believed that the person whose sorcery had caused the wind to rise might receive the blow and be hurt.

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In the event that the whirlwind contained a person who had been abducted, it might be the victim who would receive the blow but this would have a favourable effect. According to a tale recounted by the French folklorist Paul Sébillot, the consequence was that it could save the person who had been taken by the Devil:

“One day, some folk were haymaking when a gust of wind arose suddenly. A girl who happened to be holding a knife at that moment threw it into the midst of the whirlwind. The whirlwind vanished instantly, to the great satisfaction of the haymakers who were shouting that the Devil was inside it. Everyone looked for the knife but it could not be found, so, they thought it was likely stuck in the body of someone being carried away by the Devil. One day, as the same girl was washing clothes at a local farm, she recognised her knife in the hands of a young washerwoman. She asked where she had got it and the laundress explained that she had sold herself to the Devil for riches because she was fed up with working but the Devil had carried her away in a whirlwind: ‘Without your throwing a knife into that wind, I would have become a lost soul’, she said.”

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In Brittany, storms at sea were once thought to be an occasion when the souls of those who had drowned and for whom no funeral Mass had been held, announced themselves to their loved ones, seeking to be remembered. Similarly, the sound of crashing waves was sometimes thought the cries of the drowned who were doomed to be denied rest for as long as their bodies remained unburied in consecrated ground. The Virgin Mary and Saint Houarden were popularly invoked to calm the fury of a storm while Saint Budoc was called upon to change the direction of the wind. In some communities, sea winds were said to be a manifestation of the inhabitants of the ocean who had been cursed on account of their revolt against the sea; condemned to blow until the Last Judgement.

Additionally, it was thought that favourable winds could be summoned by a whistle but if the wind proved recalcitrant it was necessary to invoke the intervention of Saint Clement. If the saint appeared slow in responding to one’s pleas then he was considered asleep but it was thought that he could be roused awake and into action if he was cursed or sworn at. However, whistling during a breeze was frowned upon lest the breeze became a storm and seafarers would not whistle when the weather threatened for fear of increasing the force of the wind.

Dangerous winds and storms were also associated with the sight of a rainbow at sea, the ends of which were said to terminate in a maelstrom. The rainbow marked the passage between the realm of the living and that of the dead and was avoided as far as possible; a boat passing under the arch of a rainbow was thought at risk of being taken by the sea. Pointing directly at a rainbow was also avoided as it was considered to bring bad luck.

While many of these traditional beliefs and superstitions might seem incredible to us today, the basic principles of understanding the relationships between observed weather events and what preceded them remain. It is merely that our knowledge and technology have improved, over time.

Brittany and the struggle for American Independence

The terms of the treaties that concluded the complex conflict known as the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) were regarded as something of a national humiliation for the kingdom of France which saw its global empire shorn of the greater part of its colonial possessions in what are now the USA, Canada and India. The fractious times were not long in providing the kingdom with an occasion to exact a measure of revenge; the opportunity being provided by the unrest developing in the British colonies in North America, partly as a result of taxation imposed to pay for the massive costs of the Seven Year’s War.

Simmering unrest and isolated outbreaks of lawlessness and rebellion inexorably led to armed conflict in 1775 and the following year saw the colonies, excluding East Florida and West Florida, supplant the authority of the crown with local autonomous powers and their political assemblies vote for independence from Great Britain. On 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence; the Articles of Confederation took a little longer to be agreed before being approved on 15 November 1777 and eventually coming into force on 1 March 1781.

One of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence and former representative of Pennsylvania in London was the noted polymath Benjamin Franklin; one of the key figures of the 18th century and a man whose wide-ranging accomplishments it would be impossible to do justice to in a few sentences. In September 1776, Franklin’s diplomatic skills saw him selected by the Continental Congress to plead their case for support to the court of King Louis XVI.

British and French colonies in North America
North America before the Seven Years’ War

While France had tacitly endorsed the sale of arms, ammunition and gunpowder to the separationists from the outbreak of the revolution, it was reluctant to enter into another war with Great Britain while there remained a strong prospect that the rebellion could be quelled. By the summer of 1776, significant amounts of arms and material had been supplied to the American forces thanks, in part, to the efforts of Silas Deane, the Continental Congress’ secret envoy to France. However, more money and material were needed for the war effort and Deane’s position was formalised and strengthened by the appointment of Franklin and Arthur Lee to the official American delegation to the French kingdom.

On 4 December 1776, Franklin arrived in France, disembarking at the small Breton port of Auray; strong headwinds having forced his ship to abandon its original destination, the major Breton city of Nantes. He stayed a few days in the town, recovering his strength after almost 40 days at sea and noting sight of ‘the most beautiful woman’ he had ever seen, before continuing his onward journey by road to Vannes, Nantes and thence to Paris. Here, efforts to negotiate and secure a formal alliance and treaty were begun in earnest.

Franklin’s august reputation saw him widely feted in Parisian high society but although his personal achievements were celebrated, diplomatic success was slow in coming; a position that changed rapidly following news of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. Confident that an American victory in the war was indeed possible, France now formally aligned itself to the independence of the American states and on 6 February 1778 signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance with Franklin and the other American delegates. The impact of the French assistance guaranteed under these agreements was crucial to the eventual outcome of the American War for Independence.

Benjamin Franklin in France
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A discussion about the importance of the French intervention in the war or the results of Arthur Lee’s activities in Spain and John Adams’ efforts in the Netherlands, although of considerable interest, are outside the scope of this post focused on the Breton connections with the conflict, of which there are many.

The Breton port of Nantes was one of the most active channels used for the distribution of military aid to America. It was also here that John Paul Jones, aboard his ship, the USS Ranger, brought news of the victory at Saratoga on 2 December 1777 having captured two British vessels en route. Following the signing of the Treaty of Alliance, Jones left Nantes and on 14 February came across the squadron of Breton nobleman, Commander La Motte-Picquet, laying at anchor in the Bay of Quiberon off Brittany’s southern coast in preparation for a convoy run to North America. This was the scene of the very first salute of the ‘Stars and Stripes’ by a foreign vessel when La Motte-Picquet’s flagship fired a 9-gun salute in response to the USS Ranger’s 13-gun greeting. La Motte-Picquet also featured in the first major naval engagement of the war, when a French fleet of 45 ships fought an inconclusive battle with 36 British vessels off the Breton island of Ouessant on 27 July 1778. The area was also the scene of another Anglo-French sea battle in December 1781 and again in April 1782.

However, it was the Breton port of Brest that served as Jones’ base for his raids into British waters during 1778; a time of high adventure aboard the USS Ranger which in addition to harassing coastal traders, was involved in an attempt to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk as well as an assault on the port of Whitehaven (a previous home port of Jones) before capturing the British sloop, HMS Drake. In June 1779, Jones took command of the USS Bonhomme Richard, a 42-gun vessel gifted to the Continental Navy. In August, together with a small fleet, the USS Bonhomme Richard sailed for northern Britain to carry out diversionary raids in support of the planned Franco-Spanish invasion of southern England. Although the invasion failed to materialise, Jones’ fleet captured several vessels including the frigate HMS Serapis during their fighting circumnavigation of the British Isles.

As the largest military port in France, Brest played a key role in the deployment of the French forces that participated in offensive operations in North America; the fleets of Admirals d’Estaing, La Motte-Picquet, de Suffren and the Comte de Grasse all operated from the city. The majority of the 32,000 men of France’s Royal Navy who fought in direct support of the American Revolution were mustered here. Similarly, the bulk of the 12,000 or so French troops who served in America embarked from this thriving city on the west coast of Brittany.

Anglo-French naval battle during the war of American Independenc
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Other Breton ports also played their part, with privateering ships regularly striking against British vessels from the harbour towns of Saint-Malo and Morlaix in particular. One of the most notable being Charles Cornic from the northern port of Morlaix who came from a family of corsairs and was an experienced mariner by the time he saw his first action towards the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1747. The outbreak of the Seven Years’ War saw him command a small privateer vessel with some success; a distinction which saw him given the captaincy of a 30-gun frigate in 1758 and whose masterful handling, in combat off the Breton coast, saw Cornic further distinguish himself. In 1778, Cornic returned to service as a privateer, harassing British merchantmen and capturing many vessels during his years roaming the Atlantic Ocean until the declaration of peace in 1783.

Another naval officer from Morlaix, Nicolas Anthon, also spent much of the war as an active and successful privateer. The American sailor Nathaniel Fanning, who had previously served as a Midshipman under Jones aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, served as Anthon’s Second-in-Command during some of his deadly raids in 1781 and 1782. Another naval officer who sailed a privateering vessel out of Morlaix was the future Minister of the Navy and Colonies, Jean Dalbarade, who captained a frigate there in 1779 before shifting his home port to Saint-Malo later in the war, after he had been freed in an exchange of prisoners with the British. He too was a successful privateer, capturing a score of prizes in 1780 alone.

The role of the wealthy French aristocrat, the Marquis de La Fayette, in the American War for Independence is well-known. Volunteering – unpaid – into the Continental Army in April 1777, he was appointed major-general at just 19 years of age. In January 1779 he returned to France to lobby for additional resources for the American cause and pushed for an invasion of Great Britain. Although more likely down to broader French strategy rather than La Fayette’s lobbying, an additional French expeditionary force of almost 6000 soldiers under the command of General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau was readied for America; reaching there some months after La Fayette’s own return in April 1780. Buoyed by the arrival of this latest French force, La Fayette, at Washington’s urging, wrote to the French authorities urgently seeking additional men and material and was rewarded with the arrival of a French fleet.

Washington and Lafayette
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Following his participation in the decisive Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, La Fayette returned to France, in glory, in 1782 but the costs he had incurred in waging war in the Americas required the liquidation of many of his assets and he therefore sold some of his estates in central Brittany where his family held extensive landholdings. He subsequently enjoyed a troubled relationship with the post-revolutionary government of France who, for a time, confiscated his remaining lands in Brittany.

While La Fayette remains the most famous of the French soldiers and sailors who fought for American independence, many Bretons, both notable and anonymous made important contributions to the cause.  While history might remember the contributions made by the noted Breton cavalry officer the Marquis de la Rouërie or the Breton naval officer de Beauverger, it is sobering to reflect that a significant proportion of the French naval forces that engaged the British on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean were from Brittany and records show that over 1,300 Breton sailors died in fighting for the American cause between 1778 and 1783.

With the signing of the peace agreement in September 1783, many seasoned campaigners returned to France influenced by the ideals of freedom and democracy espoused by their American companions; contagious ideas that would not take long to spread throughout the kingdom.

The Breton Bluebeard and his Bride

One of the strongest claims to be the source for the legend of Bluebeard is probably the 6th century Breton warlord Conomor, popularly remembered as Conomor the Accursed; an ambitious tyrant who is reputed to have murdered all his many wives.

The first widely available compilation of French folk tales was published by Charles Perrault in his 1697 book Histories or Tales from Past Times with Morals or Tales of Mother Goose. Although only partly derived from traditional folk tales, the collection included such now-familiar stories as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Bluebeard. Amongst the stories of fantastic beings and magical enchantments, the tale of Bluebeard – an ugly mass-murderer who keeps his victim’s corpses in a ghoulish trophy room – sits a little incongruously; if it were not for the magical key there would be little to merit its inclusion in any list of fairy tales. Yet the story continues to exercise a peculiar fascination over readers today, as it has done for the last three hundred years.

Unfortunately, we cannot be certain of the source that Perrault used to build his tale upon and there are several suggested candidates; from a reworking of the classical myth of Eros and Psyche to the life of King Henry VIII of England. However, the two potential sources most commonly proposed for Bluebeard are the story of Gilles de Rais, a 15th century Breton nobleman executed for sorcery and the multiple murder of children, and an oral folktale concerning Conomor, a mid-6th century chieftain often styled as a prince or count of Poher, a district in central Brittany.

A Breton Bluebeard
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Of the two, the stories surrounding Conomor have far more points of similarity with the tale of Bluebeard than do the exploits of de Rais. There are several versions of the story of Conomor but essentially it is this:

Towards the end of one warm summer’s day, weary emissaries from the court of Conomor (Comorre) entered the Kernow stronghold of Gwened seeking an audience with its overlord Guerech (Waroc’h), whose realm shared a long and relatively trouble-free border with Conomor’s domains to the north. A formal meeting was duly arranged for the following day when Guerech graciously received Conomor’s tribute of flax, honey and a dozen suckling pigs. However, Guerech’s effusive thanks were soon halted as he heard his visitors relate how their master had visited the city’s summer fair disguised as a common soldier and had caught sight of Guerech’s daughter and was totally smitten with her; he was now desirous of her hand in marriage.

Now, Conomor might have seemed a strong suitor for Guerech’s only daughter, the virtuous Triffin (Tréphine); he was powerful, wealthy and ambitious but alas he also carried a reputation for wickedness and cruelty. The common folk shared many tales of Conomor’s brutality; as a boy, his mother was reputed to have sounded a bell to warn the people of the neighbourhood that he was at large and when he was unsuccessful in a hunt, he would satiate his bloodlust by setting his dogs on the farmhands in order to tear them to pieces. Most terrible of all the rumours that circulated about him was that he had been married four times and each wife had died suddenly, without receiving the last rites. Some even whispered that Conomor himself had dispatched his wives with the knife or else with fire, water or poison.

Although he was not a man who listened to gossip, Guerech could not countenance giving his daughter, unsullied by a single mortal sin, to this brute of a man and was steeled to sacrifice his kingdom for her honour and happiness. He therefore thanked Conomor’s emissaries and bade them to return with his highest regards to their master but Triffin would not be leaving his court as she was too weak in health to even think of marrying. Unfortunately, Conomor’s men were prepared for such a rebuff and demanded Triffin join them, saying that they were instructed to declare a state of war against Guerech if the young princess was not sent back with them. Unmoved by their aggressive stance, Guerech simply responded that he would not be swayed on the matter and that they need do as they must.

Dismissed, Conomor’s envoys vowed to return as they made their way through the city’s north gate. They had travelled but a short distance when the four men drew out across the road and turned back to face the city, whereupon the eldest of the men set light to a thick handful of straw and grass they had collected from the roadside; pointing the burning embers towards the city, he cast the flames to the winds while declaring that thus would the anger of Conomor pass over the land.

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Guerech did not allow himself to be disheartened by the threat from Conomor but wasted little time in summoning his vassals and men-at-arms to prepare for the defence of his realm. Before a week had passed, news was received in Gwened that Conomor was advancing upon the city at the head of a powerful army. Guerech readied his troops and after bidding his beloved daughter farewell, set out to meet the forces of Conomor.

When the venerable Gweltas (Gildas) witnessed the preparations for a bloody battle he sought the princess Triffin whom he found at prayer in the castle’s oratory.  He pleaded with her to halt the slaughter that was to come; that so many men should die because of her decision could not be right and so he implored her to save bloodshed and consent to the marriage with Conomor. Weeping softly, Triffin seemed to resign herself to her fate, saying: “Alas, that God demands of me the death of all my peace and happiness. Would that I was but a mere beggar, for then at least I could marry the beggar of my choosing but if it is God’s will that I espouse this dreadful brute, then please read for me the Office for the Dead.”

Moved by the distress caused by her self-sacrifice, the wise saint counselled her and seeking to assuage her fears, said: “Fear naught, dear Triffin. Take this ring whose silver shines as white as milk; it shall serve you as a warning for it will become as black as a raven’s wing should any danger approach you. Take courage and have faith.” Reassured by the saint’s words, the young princess consented to his request and agreed to wed Conomor. It was therefore with the utmost speed that Saint Gweltas hurried to the opposed armies to announce the good tidings to their chiefs. However, Guerech remained opposed to the union but was eventually persuaded to accept it by Conomor’s earnest entreaties.

Amidst great rejoicings, the marriage took place and such celebrations have never since been seen in Brittany. The first day saw six thousand guests feast at table and on the second day as many poor people were fed; the bride and bridegroom themselves serving at their tables. Musicians came from throughout the land and the dancing and merry-making lasted for three full days. Finally, the revelries over, the guests departed and the families of these two noble houses of Brittany, now united in marriage, returned to their own lands and Conomor carried off with him his young bride; as a sparrowhawk that had proudly snatched up a little songbird.

Medieval wedding
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For some time all went well and it seemed as though Conomor’s affection for Triffin had softened him more than might have been expected; his bouts of rage were rarely seen and his dungeons and gibbets remained empty. The marriage was far from miserable but despite his kindness towards her, Triffin remained in dread of Conomor and was forever ill at ease. Every day she visited the castle’s private chapel where she prayed at the tombs of his four wives, beseeching God to preserve her from a violent death.

At the next Candlemas festival, Conomor made preparations to attend a formal assembly of the Breton princes that had been called at Rennes and which he was obliged to attend. Before his departure, he gave into Triffin’s safe keeping all the keys to the castle’s chambers and cellars, desiring her to amuse herself as it pleased her in his absence.

It was almost five months before he returned, full of anxiety to see Triffin, of whom he had thought often during his long absence. Unwilling to lose any time by announcing his arrival, he immediately hastened up into her room, where he found her busy trimming an infant’s cap with fine silver-lace. On seeing the little cap, Conomor turned pale and asked for whom it was designed. Thinking to rejoice his heart, Triffin joyfully told him that they would shortly be blessed with a child but on hearing this news, Conomor recoiled in horror and rushed from the room.

Triffin might have taken this for one of her husband’s frequent caprices, had she not noticed that her silver ring had now turned black; which signalled danger. Although she knew not why or how she might escape it. Confused as to the reason for her husband’s sudden displeasure and anxious about her silver ring’s portent, it was with a heavy heart that she went to the chapel to pray.

Here, in this hallowed space, she found peace and it was some hours before she rose from her prayers to depart. The hour of midnight struck just as she was leaving and a sudden sound of movement in the silent chapel chilled her to the bone. The grating sound of grinding stone echoed around the small room and her eyes beheld the eerie sight of the tombs of Conomor’s former wives slowly opening; from which, all silently emerged, swathed in their rotting funeral shrouds. Faint with terror, Triffin tried to flee but the phantoms cried out to her: “Take care, poor lost one! Conomor desires your death.”

Conomor's wives
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“Me but what evil have I done and how have I offended, that he seeks my death?” stammered the frightened Triffin.

“You have told him that you will soon birth his child. The Evil One once revealed to him that his first child will be his destroyer and thus it was that he took our lives when we too fell with child.”

“Have I truly fallen into hands so cruel? If so, what hope, then, remains for me?” cried Triffin.

“Return to the safety of your father’s house,” chorused the spectral wives.

“How can I possibly escape when Conomor’s giant dog guards the door?” responded Triffin.

“Give him this poison which killed me,” said the first wife.

“But how might I ever descend the castle’s high wall?” asked the young wife.

“Lower yourself down by means of this cord which strangled me,” replied the second wife.

“And who will guide me through the dark?” asked Triffin.

“Take this burning fire that consumed me,” said the third wife.

“Gwened is so far to the south, how can I make such a journey?” returned Triffin.

“Make good use of this staff which crushed my skull,” rejoined the fourth spectre.

Trephine
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Now armed with the poison, rope, torch and staff, Triffin resolved to set out for her father at once. Having silenced the guard dog and safely scaled the wall, she headed southwards, the thick blanket of night penetrated only by the torch she carried aloft.

It was shortly after breakfast when Conomor called on Triffin; unable to find her in her chamber or in the chapel, he instructed his servants to search for her in every room within the castle grounds and it was some time before all returned to confirm that his wife was no longer in the castle. On hearing this, Conomor quickly climbed to the top of his castle’s keep and searched not the land before him but the sky about him; to the north he saw a croaking raven; in the direction of the sun, a swallow on the wing; to the south, a wailing gull; and to the west, a turtle-dove that sped away. Taking the latter bird as an omen, he promptly set off in pursuit with his finest hunting dogs.

His unfortunate wife was now upon the border of the mighty forest which surrounded Conomor’s castle near the Blavet River. Warned of his approach by seeing her silver ring grow black, she immediately turned off the track that she had been following and almost at once came upon the miserable cabin of a poor shepherd, whose sole possession was an old magpie trapped in a cage hanging by the door. Here she hid herself the whole day, bemoaning her lot and praying for her urgent deliverance. As the darkness of night drew in, she set forth once more along the rough paths that skirted the fields of flax and corn.

After almost two days of fruitless searching, Conomor was returning home to change his horse when he chanced upon the same shepherd’s cabin. Such is the fickle hand of fate, for what else could have caused him to pass the hut just as the magpie began to mimic the melancholic complaints it had so recently heard, calling out “Poor Triffin!” Surmising that his wife had passed this way, Conomore once more set his dogs upon her scent.

Not far away, an exhausted Triffin lay down to rest and promptly gave birth to a son. As she clasped the baby in her arms, she saw overhead a falcon wearing a golden collar, which she recognised as one from her father’s mews. The bird responded to her call and landed on her knee whereupon she gave him her silver ring and bade him deliver it to her father who would be sure to send men to her aid. The bird understood his charge and taking the ring, it flew like a flash of lightning towards his master in Gwened.

Conomor and Triffin
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No sooner was the falcon out of sight than the air was filled with the commotion of baying hounds and the harsh yells of Conomor driving them onwards. Unfortunately, without her magical ring, Triffin had gained no vital warning of his approach and barely had time to wrap her baby in her cloak and conceal him in the hollow of a tree before Conomor appeared. Seeing his wife, he uttered a savage cry like that of a wild-beast and furiously threw himself upon her and with one mighty blow from his sword, severed her head from her body.

While Conomor sheathed his sword and prepared to turn for home; the falcon arrived at the court of Guerech. Entering the great hall through a roof window, it hovered over the table and dropped the ring into the cup of his master, who, recognizing it, cried: “My daughter is in danger! Saddle the horses and have Saint Gweltas accompany us.” Following the flight of the falcon, Guerech and his party were not too long in reaching the spot where Triffin lay dead. Upon sighting her prostrate body, Guerech leapt from his horse but there was nothing to be done. His beloved daughter dead, all that he could do was scream in anguish until Saint Gweltas silenced him with a call to prayer.

As the party rose from their knees, having completed their fervent prayers, the saint separated himself from the others and stood over the princess’s prone body and called upon her: “Arise, take up your head and your child and follow us.” Triffin’s body obeyed the saint’s command as the men readied for the pursuit of Conmore. However, no matter how hard they forced their horses, the headless body of Triffin was always ahead of them, carrying her son on her left arm and her pale head on her right. In this manner they reached the castle of Conomor, who, witnessing their approach, ordered the closure of the castle gates and the raising of its drawbridge.

Saint Gweltas dismounted near the castle’s moat and called out to Conomor saying: “I return your wife to you, such as your wickedness has made her; and your son, as God has given him to you. Will you receive them under your roof?” Receiving no response, Saint Gweltas repeated his question a further three times but all to no avail. The saint turned and took the new-born child from Triffin and set him upon the ground where, to the astonishment of all except Gweltas, he stood proudly upright and strode to the very lip of the moat where he gathered a handful of earth from the ground. Throwing it against the castle, the baby uttered “Let God serve His justice!” At that instant, the castle’s towers shook and fell with a great crash; the once mighty walls gaped open and collapsed in complete ruin, burying Conomor and all who had abetted him in sin.

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With the air thick with dust and rubble, Saint Gweltas replaced Triffin’s head upon her shoulders and laying his hands upon her, restored her to life; to the great joy of her father and all those who were present.

Several versions of this tale exist; some attest that Conomor had five previous wives rather than four (the spectre of the fifth wife gifted Triffin a horse to aid her escape) and that their relics were kept in a secret room rather than in the dignity of an oratory but all agree that it was fear of a prophecy, claiming that he would die killed by his own son, which drove him to take the lives of his wives once he learned of their pregnancies. Some versions of the tale, particularly that painted in 1703 on the wall of a small chapel in central Brittany, feature a quite different chronology claiming that Guerech brought his daughter’s dead body back to his castle in Gwened and then sought out Saint Gweltas at his remote hermitage to remind him of his earlier oath to keep her from harm and demand restitution.

This is in keeping with a variant of the story that tells how it was Conomor who had made a solemn oath not to mistreat Triffin and pleaded with the saint to convince Guerech to sanction the marriage of his daughter. Shocked by Conomor’s broken oath, Saint Gweltas first travels to Conomor’s castle where he is rudely rebuffed but after the castle falls before him, he hastens to Guerech’s castle where he restores Triffin to life. Once restored, Triffin gives birth to Conomor’s son, Tremeur, who is raised by Saint Gweltas in the monastery he founded on the Rhuys Peninsula. Tremeur learned well from the wise saint and became renowned for his virtue and miracles, ending his life in holiness. Triffin subsequently entered a convent in her father’s domain where she devoted the remainder of her life to God and herself attained sainthood. Saint Triffin was commonly invoked for sick children and by expectant mothers who were overdue.

Tremeur and Trephine
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According to an account written by Albert le Grand in his monumental Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany (1637), Conomor survived the destruction of his castle by the forces of Guerech and managed to escape to his principal stronghold at Carhaix about 30 miles to the west. Frustrated by his attempt to escape justice, Saint Gweltas devoted the next three years to traversing Brittany denouncing Conomor for his crimes and eventually managed to convene a conference of the bishops of Brittany “to cut off this rotten branch from the body of the Church.” Meeting near Guingamp, the bishops excommunicated Conomor and condemned him to the loss of all his rights, spiritual and temporal and the forfeiture of his civil and religious goods and chattels.

Another story relates how, upon hearing of the birth of his son, Conomor dispatched men to kill the infant but the child could never be found. However, by chance, some nine years later Conomor was travelling through the forest near his old estate at Castel Finans when he came across Tremeur at play and instantly removed his son’s head with a blow from his sword. One story claims that father and son engaged in a bout of Breton wrestling and that Tremeur was slain because he bested his father. Legend has it that Tremeur allowed his father to flee and promptly picked up his head and walked a few miles along the old Roman road to repose at his mother’s tomb near the village of Laniscat.

The intertwining of history, legend and myth that has happened over the last fifteen hundred years or so makes it impossible for us today to clearly separate the disparate threads that constitute the story of Conomor. However, we can be fairly certain that in the mid-6th century there was a man named Conomor who, through conquest and alliances, eventually ruled much of western Brittany, from Carhaix in the west to Dol in the east and from the north coast as far south as Locmine. He is described as a foreigner and thus, like Saint Gweltas, was probably a first-generation settler from one of the Celtic communities of Great Britain; some people have even speculated that he might be one and the same character as King Marc of Cornwall although this is unlikely.

This Conomor is said to have extended his initial domain by having had a hand in the murder of a neighbouring ruler, Jonas, and marrying his widow, while exiling the heir apparent, Judael, to the Frankish domains far to the east. Likely his desire to subsequently marry the daughter of the ruler who held sway over much of the land south of the Blavet River was driven by a vision of extending his domain still further. Whether he actually killed his new wife or mistreated her, we will never know. Similarly, whether the historical Conomor killed his son is unknown although it seems to stand against reason that a man seemingly so desperate to carve out a kingdom for himself in Brittany would murder his only heir and one that was crucial to consolidating his southern alliance.

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Clearly, at some point, Conomor’s rule reached a point where his relationship with the early Church leaders and neighbouring lords broke-down irrevocably and it is said that several Breton bishops were behind the plot that orchestrated the return of the exiled Judael to Brittany. Anathematised by the religious and secular authorities, Conomor and those loyal to him found themselves hounded by Judael’s forces until finally brought to battle near the Arrée mountains where two mighty but inconclusive battles were fought. A third and final clash, said to have lasted for three full days, saw the total defeat of Conomor; killed by his onetime stepson.

The Midsummer Fires of Brittany

Once common throughout most of Europe, the arrival of midsummer was celebrated from time immemorial by the lighting of massive communal bonfires, covering the countryside with a multitude of glowing points of light; an ancient practice that continued in Brittany well into living memory.

It is believed that the calendar of the ancient Celts was built around the equinoxes and solstices and the relationship of them to the key points of the agrarian year such as the times for sowing and harvesting and seasonal transhumance. The summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point before slowly starting its retreat was an auspicious event for our ancestors and one that was widely marked across Europe; from Spain to Greece, Russia to Ireland, communities came together on Midsummer’s Eve to celebrate the occasion with mighty bonfires, imparting to the heavens, in all directions, the pale glow of a man-made sunset.

Fire, as an emblem of primeval power and benevolence aside, served as a beacon between disparate communities that were united, in that one moment, in common celebration. Fire also carried strong purificatory overtones that were more practical in nature rather than symbolic, such as in the preparation of land for cultivation or undertaking prescribed burns to promote growth and cleanse a field of weeds and pests. Some anthropologists have suggested that the ancient fire festivals of Europe, such as Midsummer’s Eve, were in fact rites aimed at cleansing the land of curses and the malevolence of witchcraft in an attempt to secure a fruitful harvest and ensure healthy livestock. There is even debate as to whether these bonfires were actually aimed at burning the witches, whether physically or symbolically, in the flames of the fire.

The wide prevalence of the Midsummer’s Eve fires across such an extensive geographical area indicates that belief in witchcraft as the cause of failed crops and sick animals was quite commonly held before the ascendancy of Christianity in Europe. That the fires and their associated rites remained popularly practised is evidenced by the various Church Councils in the late 8th century ordering all bishops to see to the complete abolition of pagan beliefs, explicitly citing: ‘Let no one, at the feast of Saint John or at any other solemnity of the saints, practice observing the solstices; do not engage in dances, carols and evil songs.’

Saint John's Eve
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The infant Church organised its liturgical cycle in order to co-opt and thus absorb the old pagan festivals, seeking to replace them in the popular consciousness with Christian festivals. Thus ancient observances such as the summer solstice were dispossessed by the new religion to become St. John’s Day; Samhain became All Saints’ Day and Christmas Day appropriated the winter solstice. Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die completely. As late as the 17th century, Jesuit missions in Brittany struggled to suppress ‘shameful relics of paganism such as Mayday processions and the Fires of St. John’.

In Brittany, popular traditions celebrating St. John’s Day enjoyed far more importance than its liturgical significance might have merited. Here, the custom of the communal Midsummer’s Eve bonfire continued well into living memory, particularly in the western rural parts of the region. With the approach of darkness on the eve of St. John’s Day, large fires were lit in each village. Typically, these were set-up in an area of open ground near a chapel dedicated to Saint John but if one did not exist, they were lit in a high area facing the parish church or at a nearby cross-road. The pyres were usually built-up around a central pole but not pre-prepared to any significant degree, as each family in the village was expected to bring some fuel for the fire; faggots, logs or even armfuls of tree branches, dry grass and gorse. A durable fire that produced a great deal of smoke was popularly aimed for. The pole which formed the centre of the pyre was often surmounted by a crown of foliage generally provided by a man named John or else a woman named Jean. In many accounts, the honour of lighting the tantad or bonfire also fell to this person although in some communities it was a role reserved for the parish priest.

It seems that each village maintained its own traditions and this should not really surprise us, no matter how geographically close they were. After all, it was impossible to attend two ceremonies at the same time and the stability of the population that existed then meant that the traditions of one village had little influence on those of another. In some parishes, the villagers would walk in procession from the church to the site of the bonfire. In others, the procession immediately followed vespers and was led from the church porch by the priest himself. Sometimes, the pyre was solemnly blessed, prayers were recited and Breton hymns sung before the pyre was lit.

The Fire of Saint John
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The pyre was usually surrounded by a circle of nine wooden stakes that were collectively known as the Kelc’h an Tan (circle of fire). The fire was introduced at each of these nine points beginning with that which marked east, the principal cardinal point. Once this had been done, groups of young men, armed with torches lit at the stakes, alternated with young women, clutching a bunch of ‘Saint John’s plant’ (this was stonecrop not, as might have been supposed St. John’s wort), in a procession nine times around the fire. After these ceremonious circuits had been conducted three times, the women held out their verdure towards the centre of the fire while the men used their burning torches to describe a series of three flaming circles above their heads.

The last round of dancing completed, the men jumped three times over their stake and threw the young women over the fire nine times while shouting “an nao, an nao” (Breton for the nine, the nine). This accomplished, the men spread out over the surrounding fields, brandishing their torches while continuing to shout out the same invocation. Meanwhile the women passed their clutched bunches through the fire and circulated amidst the crowd, as the smoke from the smouldering plant of St. John was believed to fortify one’s eyesight.

Once the flames of the fire had begun to die down, it was customary for the assembled onlookers to kneel so as to encircle the bonfire, when they would then be led in prayer by an elder of the village. Devotions completed, the entire congregation arose and proceeded in silent procession three times around the fire. Upon completion of the final circuit, all the participants would take a stone from the ground and cast it into the fire; this stone was called An Anaon, and with the completion of this rite, the crowd gradually dispersed.

Midsummer Fire
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In the Breton tradition, the world after earthly death – the Otherworld – is called Anaon and it is a word for both the dead and the place where they were said to reside. In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living but it was commonly held that the veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those solemn days when the dead of each locality congregated, namely; the eve of Saint John’s Day, Christmas Eve and the eve of All Saints’ Day. At these times, some believed that the dead wandered freely in the land of the living, returning to their former homes and haunts. As the dead were always thought to be cold, it was once customary to place a stone near one’s hearth to serve as a seat for the souls of one’s ancestors who might visit, thus allowing them to warm-up at ease.

The same superstition lay behind the stone cast into the midsummer bonfire; attracted to the fire, the dead took their places and sat upon those stones to enjoy the warmth of the smouldering embers. In one part of south west Brittany, the villagers used to place stools around the bonfire for the souls of the dead overnight.

On the morning of St. John’s Day itself – a day when the young women of the village were forbidden to work – the villagers returned to the site of the fire and it was taken as an ill omen if an anaon stone had moved out of the fire; the return of a stone offered to the dead was believed to signify that the one who cast it could themselves expect to meet death within a year.

People also looked for other things amidst the debris of the bonfire. For instance, pieces of charred wood were taken home as a protection against lightning strikes; a defence thought to last until St. John’s Day the following year. Although some maintained that in order to be truly effective, the charred embers needed to be kept under one’s bed between a piece of cake baked on Twelfth Night and a sprig of boxwood that had been blessed on Palm Sunday. Charred sticks from the bonfire were also thrown into wells to improve the quality of the water.

The Feast of Saint John
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The bunches of stonecrop, known in Brittany as the plant of St. John, that had been used by the dancing young women were usually retained by them as a charm against maladies and pain. They were often hung from the ceiling beams; if they continued to grow, it was taken as a sign of life but if they withered, an omen of death. In the traditional medicine of the region, stonecrop was commonly used as a purgative and also for the treatment of burns. It is worth noting that stonecrop is not one of the seven sacred plants of St. John; these were herbs which needed to be gathered on the morning of St. John’s Day whilst walking backwards barefoot through the dew in a state of grace. When combined appropriately, this blend of herbs was thought to be able to counteract fever and be powerful enough to repel witchcraft.

Other superstitions were once closely attached to the midsummer bonfire: in some communities, farmers drove their cattle through the fire’s embers in order to preserve them from sickness and the malice of the korrigans until St. John’s Eve the following year; if a young girl danced around nine midsummer fires, she would marry before the next Midsummer Day; a similar outcome was assured if she found a vantage point that allowed her to see the flames of nine separate fires at once; and if a baby was swung before the flames of three midsummer bonfires, they were thought to be forever protected from fear.

Some of the accounts written of rural Brittany towards the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries suggest that, in some areas, the high ritual noted above had reduced to the young people of the community simply dancing around the blazing fire and leaping over the embers once the flames had subsided. In the port city of Brest, pyres were replaced with burning torches which were swung in circles and thrown into the air but the city of Rennes maintained its traditional pyres into the 1960s. By the years between the two World Wars, midsummer bonfires and particularly the ancient practices associated with them had become increasingly uncommon.

St John's Eve
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However, certain elements of the complex ritual attached to the old bonfires of midsummer were still reported in some villages as late as the 1970s. For instance, one writer notes that one bonfire took place without any special rites except that bunches of St. John’s plant were passed through the burning embers and were subsequently taken home by the onlookers to be hung from the ceiling as a charm to protect against ailments of the eye.

In another village, the fire was lit by a man named Jean and everyone was gathered around the flames in silence until a young child began playing with stones and casting them about. Whereupon an elderly lady approached the boy, telling him “That’s not the way it is done, watch …” and picked-up a stone from the ground and threw it into the flames. As if waiting for the cue, the majority of the adults surrounding the fire picked up stones and, pretending to amuse the children, threw their stones into the fire; the ancient rite was thus observed while maintaining appearances that the old superstitions were a thing of the past.

On another occasion, it was a group of young women who took the initiative to throw stones into the bonfire and everyone followed their lead. This was followed by a seemingly impromptu call from the oldest woman present who led the crowd in a recitation of the Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers in honour of Saint John and then for all those who had once lived in the village but were now dead. After which, she passed bunches of St. John’s plant over the burning embers, distributing sprigs to those who wanted them.

The custom of roaming the countryside, brandishing lit torches continued in parts of Brittany at least until around the time of the Second World War. Setting aside the phonetic similarity between the  invocation ‘an nao’ cried out as the men ranged their fiery and smoking torches amidst the fields, and the word for the dead ‘anaon’, it is worth noting that the same call was once used in western Brittany in rituals marking a clearing of the land and a first sowing.  

A burning torch
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Without stretching credibility too far, it is interesting to contemplate whether these are the vestiges of some ancient rites invoking dead ancestors to help ensure the fertility of the earth and thus the well-being of the living. Anthropologists have identified many archaic societies who hold seasonal ceremonies that serve as a symbol of an exchange between the world of the living and the world of the dead, particularly amongst those who practice the shifting cultivation technique known as slash and burn (plots of land are cleared, worked until exhausted of nutrients and then allowed to be re-claimed by nature and thus regenerate). Many of these societies held the belief that the spirits of the deal dwelt in the land or in the trees and a similar belief existed in Brittany where, as late as the turn of the last century, many traditions were recorded that identified the fields of gorse and other uncultivated land as the domain of the dead serving their penance.

It is therefore reasonable to wonder whether this rite of taking fire and smoke – from the main bonfire – to the fields while calling upon ‘the nine’ was a way of calling on the dead who dwelt there to intercede and aid in the regeneration of the land; the cycle of the land entwined with the cycle of life. The number nine is a significant one, both on its own and as a multiplier of three, in many cultures, and in Brittany kinship was once counted over nine generations and certain prayers addressed accordingly. Nine was therefore a number that was not only associated with the ancestors and the generations passed but with the human gestation period and thus the generations of the future, so, a symbol of all fertility. Furthermore, it is not too fanciful to suggest that the burning torches themselves are symbolic of the fires once used to burn the land in order to ultimately propagate new growth.

We will never know for certain the extent to which these old rites were survivors from antiquity nor of their proper place in the religious views of the ancient Bretons; the basic beliefs that underpinned them have long since been lost to us. Nevertheless, even if the rites have become corrupted or obscured over time and have lost their original meaning, their survival is no less remarkable and while the midsummer bonfire was commonly found in other areas of France, it was in Brittany that it remained burning most visibly into recent times.

The Fires of Saint John
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Many midsummer fires still take place in Brittany nowadays; some are recent attempts to rekindle the old traditions or are attached to a seasonal Fest Noz gathering. However, the majority of the traditional fires take place under the guise of a Saint John’s Fire – a communal bonfire that marks the end of a pardon dedicated to that saint. The Pardon of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt, sometimes known as the Pardon of the Fire, on Brittany’s north coast is perhaps the most well-known pardon to feature a massive bonfire. The village is said to have possessed a relic of St. John since before the new church was built in 1440 and a solemn pardon has been celebrated there for the last five hundred years.

The relic, a finger bone, is reputed to have been brought inadvertently to the village by a Breton who had visited the shrine of St. John in Normandy during the Hundred Years War. After seeing the relic, the young man suddenly felt compelled to return home and by all accounts enjoyed an unusually swift and trouble-free journey back to Brittany. As he approached his hometown, the bells of the church of St. Meriadec immediately began to ring of their own accord and the trees bowed down before him and no sooner had he reached the church, than the cause of these marvels became apparent. For, in the same instant that he prostrated himself before the altar, the holy relic was seen lying there; it having dropped from his coat sleeve. The joy at receiving St. John’s grace saw that saint supplant St. Meriadec as the patron saint of the village and his 12th century church rebuilt to the honour of St. John.

Contained in a reliquary donated by Anne of Brittany at the end of the 15th century, the church is said to hold the forefinger of the right hand; the digit that the Baptist used as he announced the Lamb of God to the multitude assembled on the banks of the River Jordan. The same finger bone is claimed by a monastery in Montenegro and other bones from the saint’s right hand are said to be held by monasteries in Greece and Egypt as well as the Topkapi Museum in Turkey.

Since its appearance in Brittany, the sacred relic has been an object of veneration and pilgrimage for the highest and lowest throughout the land. The relic and the sacred fountain near its associated church have long been accorded miraculous qualities and both were especially renowned for curing all diseases and imperfections of the eyes.

A Breton Pardon
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The author Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his travel narrative, A Summer in Brittany (1840), describes his visit to the pardon at Saint-Jean-du-Doigt thus:

“During its celebration the relic of the Saint … is wrapped in the finest of linen and one by one the congregation files past the abbé for the purpose of touching, for one brief moment, the relic he holds. At the same time another cleric stands near the choir, holding the skull of St Mériadec, and before this the pilgrims also promenade, reverently bowing their heads as they go. The devotees then repair to a side wall near which there is a fountain, the waters of which have been previously sanctified by bathing in them the finger of St Jean suspended from a gold chain and into this the pilgrims plunge their palms and vigorously rub their eyes with them, as a protection against blindness.”

“Fireworks were to be let off first and when this had been done, the firing of a cannon gave the signal that the bonfire was about to be lighted. This, however, was to be accomplished in no ordinary way, but by fire from heaven or by a contrivance intended to resemble it in effect, as nearly as might be. A long rope was attached to the top of the church tower, the other end of which communicated with the fuel. Along this a ‘feu d’artifice,’ in the form of a dove, was to be launched which was to run along the line and ignite the dry brushwood.

Soon after the pile was lighted, the clergy, with the banners, the relics, and the principal part of the procession, left the bonfire and returned down the hill to the village. This appeared to be the signal that all semblance of a religious ceremony might now be dropped. The remainder of the evening was given up to unrestrained merry-making and carousing.”

Saint-Jean-du-Doigt
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Similar scenes are related in other later accounts although the references to the blessing of the participants are clear that the relic remained in its reliquary and it was this that was applied, in rapid succession, to the eyes of the pilgrims lining the altar. The pyrophoric dove was replaced by a dragon sometime prior to 1893, before itself being retired in the middle of the last century. Despite renewed efforts by the Church in the mid-19th century to put a stop to the bonfires associated with pardons, they remain a popular feature of many pardon celebrations although, in several locations, religious authorities insisted that the fires burn in daytime and that is now the case at Saint-Jean-du-Doigt.

While the nocturnal dancing around the bonfire is a scene missing from the pardon ceremony that you can witness today, so too are the crowds of drunken brawlers, mendicants, peddlers, hawkers, healers and charlatans that characterised the pardons of old. The pardon of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt remains both a religious and secular festival that continues to attract the devout and the merely curious in large numbers today. Unfortunately, this year’s event has been cancelled due to the coronavirus related restrictions surrounding social gatherings but, for those interested, the pardon is celebrated on the last Sunday of June.

Women Artists in Brittany

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

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

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

Marie Bashkirtseff : An Atelier at the Académie Julian in 1881

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berthe Morisot : A Lady at her Toilette (c1877)

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

Mary Cassatt : Maternal Caress (1896)

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

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

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

Amélie Lundahl : A Girl from Brittany (1880)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Forbes : Medieval Woodland Scene (1885)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elisabeth Sonrel : The Forest of Brocéliande (c1900)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toyen : A Portrait of Breton (1950)

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

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

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

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

The Bee Whisperers of Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarassin or buckwheat honey
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Spells and Curses from Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bookish Browsings in Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cosette
Emile Bayard : Cosette (1862)

When one thinks of novels depicting Brittany during times of war, a much earlier conflict is usually brought to mind – the French Revolution of 1789-99 – due to one of the greatest of French writers, Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Profoundly influenced by the work of Chateaubriand, Hugo’s talent was prodigious; publishing several volumes of highly acclaimed poetry and two novels by the time he was 29. His novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) confirmed his reputation as a powerful writer of note and was, tellingly, cited as a major influence by both Dickens and Dostoyevsky. Hugo made two extended tours of Brittany in 1834 and 1836 and while a popular playwright in his day, he is perhaps best remembered internationally as the author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862) which he wrote during his long exile in Guernsey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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