The Giants of Brittany

Found within the mythology and folklore of countless disparate cultures across the world, are stories of giants; sometimes described as mighty men and women of towering stature but sometimes portrayed as a distinct race of huge humanoids.

This is not the place to rehash the debate as to whether the giants of antiquity were really metaphors for meteorological phenomena, the wildness of nature or invading armies. Nor do I propose to get bogged down in the debate about what constitutes a giant. There are, of course, confirmed cases of gigantism in humans but people over 2.2 metres (7.5 feet) tall are very rare and this is supported by the archaeological evidence. However, there have been old bones found in the south of France that suggest some humans might have been considerably taller than this. In 1890, three bones found at a Bronze Age tomb near Montpellier suggest a human that likely stood 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) tall. Some years later, in 1894, further bones were uncovered a few miles away; skulls as large as 80cm (32 inches) in circumference that indicated people of between 3m and 4.6m (10-15 feet) in height. The bones were confirmed as human but it seems that, inexplicably, no modern scientific analysis has been undertaken on them.

In general, folklore and mythology present us with two distinct sorts of giants; the first is a normal person but unnaturally tall, sometimes said to be as much as twice the size of their contemporaries; the second are individuals of colossal proportions, 30m (100 feet) or more high.

Giants Brittany

All cultures seem to carry tales of giants in their folklore and the global spread of such stories has led some to question whether in fact a race of giants did once share the earth with the ancient ancestors of today’s humans. Were the earliest myths based on reality or, over time, were the facts distorted into mythological legend? Perhaps, humanity, unable to explain certain topographical features invented a race of giants greater than man and powerful enough to have created clefts, mountains and other remarkable natural features; such explanations then entering mythology.

Like Great Britain, Brittany was said to have once been inhabited by a race of giants. There are a few references to giants in the hagiographies of the early Breton saints but they are fleeting and formulaic and most likely metaphors or medieval tropes rather than actual people. In Brittany, winds and storms were sometimes deemed to have been blown by mountain-dwelling giants but their activities here were far more popularly ascribed to shaping the landscape.

Many topographical features and megalithic monuments across Brittany are named after giants; by far the most commonly found is Gargantua. For many years it was thought that this character first appeared in François Rabelais’ satirical novel of 1532, The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Very Renowned Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua; the first of five books Rabelais wrote about the adventures of two coarse gourmand giants. However, some scholars have argued, unconvincingly, that Rabelais might have drawn inspiration from lost medieval legends about the Celtic god Gargan.

Giants and Megaliths

One of the advantages of this theory is that it helps to neatly explain why so many sites and megalithic monuments bear Gargantua’s name. It is perhaps easier to accept that these structures were originally associated with a similarly named ancient Celtic deity than that they were all popularly re-named by illiterate peasants within two hundred years of Rabelais’ publication. According to some, the most likely explanation for the success of this massive rebranding programme is that the old sites were already named after some local legendary giant whose identity was, over time, supplanted by the popularity of Gargantua’s reputation. Sadly, these changes were so effective that no trace of the original names survive.

Gargantua has left his mark across the country’s toponyms and folklore but more traces of the giant are found in Brittany than in any other region of France. I had initially intended that this post would highlight these giant imprints but having, too quickly, discovered some 70 sites linked to the giant here, I will instead focus on just a few.

Local tradition credits Gargantua and other giants with modifying the Breton landscape in any number of marvellous ways and many features are claimed to be his chair, bed, bowl or spoon. The giant’s footprint is attested near Saint-Jacut while other sites claim depressions made by his knees and elbows. His sabots are said to lie in several locations across Brittany, including Pont-Aven, Saint-Brieuc and Treillières. A local legend asserts that, one day, he abandoned his wooden sabots which allowed the local villagers to heat their homes for thirty years.

Singing Stones of Brittany

Several menhirs are reputed to have been Gargantua’s teeth; the stone in Saint-Suliac is said to be one that he accidentally swallowed before vomiting it. On the west bank of the Arguenon estuary, the strange basalt boulders known as the ‘Singing Stones’ of Guildo were also said to have been vomited by him. The giant’s vomit was likewise said to have created two promontories that strike out into the Bay of Saint-Malo; the Pointe de la Garde and the Pointe du Décollé. Similar origins were attributed to the nearby islands of Île Agot and Grand-Bé, the latter having been induced following a meal of 790 cows. Just across the Bay of Saint-Malo, the spit of land known as Rocher de Bec Rond is another feature formed by Gargantua’s vomit although another legend says that it was his excrement.

Many of the rocks and islets off Brittany’s north coast were also ascribed to Gargantua’s actions. Sometimes they were said to have been thrown by him from the mainland such as Île Louët and Île Noire in the Bay of Morlaix, while others were pebbles dropped from his pocket, such as the Grande-Feillâtre reef. One legend says that Gargantua’s parents, crossing Brittany on their way to Great Britain to aid King Arthur in his battle against Irish invaders, each carried on their head a rock brought from the East; one dropped rock is now Mont Saint Michel, the other became Tombelaine, an island about 3km away.

Spending time painting on Brittany’s north coast in 1879, Paul Sébillot learned of the long-standing rivalry between the inhabitants of Saint-Cast and Saint-Jacut: two fishing villages that faced each other across the Arguenon estuary. One of the bones of contention between these two communities was the fishing rights around a group of rocks known as the Bourdinots. The people of Saint-Jacut claimed the rocks because they had been thrown from their village by Gargantua. The folk of Saint-Cast acceded that the giant had moved the rocks but that he had placed them for their benefit as a mark of his disdain for the people of Saint-Jacut.

Saint Cast Brittany giant gargantua

The story told in Saint-Cast was that Gargantua had been returning home to Plévenon when he came across a boat from Saint-Jacut loaded with fish caught around the Bourdinots. He devoured the boat, crew and catch but as he walked past Saint-Jacut, the stench of rotting fish made him vomit; the boat’s ballast stones being thrown out to sea, where they formed sundry rocky islets. Another version of the tale tells Gargantua did not eat the boat; the smell of its cargo alone was enough to make him retch.

The islets of Verdelet near Pléneuf-Val-André and Rocher de Bizeux near Saint-Malo, were reputedly pebbles shaken from Gargantua’s sabot, as were those off the beach at Sables-d’Or-les-Pins. Similarly, menhirs in Guérande and Saint-Aubin were other bothersome stones found in his sabots, likewise the many boulders scattered across the moors of Cojoux and Haut-Brambien.

Well-fed by the people of Plouarzel, Gargantua is said to have thanked them by clearing their fields of large stones but ill-treated near Plougastel, he scattered the ground between there and Huelgoat with boulders. The fertile soil around Roscoff was attributed to the peasants once having collected and spread the giant’s excrement over their fields. The origins of some rivers here were also attributed to Gargantua; he having watered the earth so fully that the Frémur and the Arguenon rivers began to flow. His urination was also said to have created a stream near Saint-Cast and even the harbour at Paimboeuf.

Gargantua Notre Dame Paris urinating giant

According to Rabelais, Gargantua was born in the East, through the left ear of the daughter of the King of Butterflies, after she had carried him for eleven months. However, Breton legends tell that he was born of a dwarf who had carried him for two years and that she gave birth in Plévenon, although another legend says that he was born at the end of the world, on the Pointe du Raz overlooking the Atlantic ocean.

Gargantaua’s height is unfixed in Rabelais’ works and seems to vary according to the situation; he was 367 cubits (170m) tall at three years of age but was sometimes able to fit inside a normal house. In Breton legends, he is always colossal; able to cross to Jersey, 56 km (35 miles) away, in a single step and to reach Ouessant, some 212km (132 miles) distant, in two or three strides, even able to circle the world in eight days. He was said to have swallowed ships at sea between Saint-Cast and Saint-Malo and urinated in the ocean whilst standing with a foot in each town, which lie 16km (10 miles) apart. The giant was even believed to have swallowed the sea mist, keeping it all within him for three days. 

Gargantua's finger or penis giant

Some tales say that Gargantua lies buried with his head at Cap Fréhel and his feet 27km (17 miles) away at Saint-Suliac; his tomb being marked by a menhir on Cap Fréhel known as the Finger of Gargantua. This 2.7m (9 feet) high granite megalith has, in the past, also been known as Gargantua’s Tooth and as Gargantua’s Penis. Another account tells that the giant is buried under a dolmen near Corlay in central Brittany.

A legend has it that the giant died at Cap Fréhel after a battle with the korrigans and the islets that litter the coast hereabouts are parts of his body lost during the bitter struggle. Although another tale tells that he is buried under Mont Garrot near Saint-Suliac and that it was necessary to fold the giant seven times in order to fit him into his valley tomb.  An alternate legend says that he lies buried between the Petit Bé and Grand Bé islands off Saint-Malo.

Yet another Breton tale of his death says that, one day, relaxing near the Rance estuary, Gargantua stretched his leg and accidentally knocked over a small boat from which issued a piercing cry. He bent down and picked up a little shape unlike anything he had seen before; it was the Fairy of the Waters. Gargantua was smitten, he fell deeply in love with her while regretting that she was so small. However, his voice frightened her and she fled. Happpily, she returned some time later and she coyly engaged his attentions for a century. At the end of this time, Gargantua wanted to wed but the fairy’s family only consented to the marriage on condition that the newlyweds should have no children.

Gargantua wife - giant and fairy

The giant carried his wife on his thumb and they were happy together for a while but, one evening, the evil witch who had not been invited to the wedding, came to visit them with a gift of marigolds. The next day the fairy told Gargantua that she was going to be a mother and her husband declared that, in order not to violate his oath, he would have to eat their child.

While the giant was asleep, the fairy went to consult her old nurse who lived in a cave on Île Rouzic. The old fairy told her that she would make Gargantua swallow a kid goat and that her daughter would raise the child in a cave under the waters of the sea. Three months later, the fairy presented Gargantua with a heavily swaddled kid, which he swallowed in a single mouthful. Alas, the fairy had a second child and the giant devoured a piglet in its stead; there were four more children and Gargantua successively swallowed a dog, a doe, a calf and a young colt.

Then came a seventh child but Gargantua arrived home just at the moment of childbirth and asked for the newborn. The nurse, who had not prepared anything, found herself at a loss but thankfully espied a large rock which she wrapped in a blanket and presented to the giant. However, the stone was mainly quartz and caused Gargantua to break a tooth. Angry, he kicked-out at the nurse but she was too fast for him and his foot crashed into the earth, sinking the ground to form the basin we now call the Plaine de Mordreuc.

Gargantua Brittany giant

Another version of this tale says that, furious at being tricked, Gargantua lashed out at the nurse and in his wild fury, his blow fell upon his newborn son who was killed instantly. Horrified by this spectacle, the townsfolk tormented the giant to such an extent that he became ill and died one year to the day after the death of his son.

The quartz block greatly upset the giant’s stomach and made him very thirsty. Being so close to the sea, he threw his head into the ocean and sucked in the water so furiously that, without noticing, he swallowed an English fleet that had been cruising there. Sometime later he felt pains akin to iron grappling hooks tearing his stomach; he returned home to consult his doctor and, following his advice, decided to go to the East. Unfortunately, the bewildered sailors, fearing themselves lost, lit their lamps and fired all their cannons in hopes of hearing a response. Gargantua was therefore very ill when he reached India. His doctor managed to make him vomit the fleet, which was now in a very bad state, but the giant’s health failed him and so his father’s friends built for him a suitable tomb; the Himalayas.

The fairy mourned the loss of her husband fiercely and went to join her children under the water. It is said that they are the ones who devour ships and men during storms, without ever being able to satisfy their infernal hunger.

King Arthur battles Giant

Aside from Gargantua, one of the most infamous giants to terrorise Brittany is found in several medieval tales about King Arthur. These tell of a brutal Spanish giant, described as 30 feet (9m) tall, who had made his lair on the summit of Mont Saint-Michel where he held captive the Duke of Brittany’s niece. Many bold knights had tried to rescue the lady from the clutches of this man-eating giant but all had met their end before they could even gain a footing on the island; the giant sank all their ships by throwing massive boulders onto them. Undaunted by the sight of so many smashed ships and broken bones, King Arthur resolved to rescue the Duke’s kin and avenge the deaths of so many noble men.

Accompanied by his knights, Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere, Arthur crossed to the island under cover of darkness but decided to face the brute alone. After a fierce and lengthy battle in which Arthur managed to slash the giant between the eyes before being struck on the arm by his club, the king emerged victorious. Having killed the giant, Arthur instructed his knights to cut off its head for the men of Brittany to stare upon. Unfortunately, the Duke’s niece was already dead by the time Arthur landed on the island; her young body unable to survive the giant’s violation.

Another medieval story featuring Brittany’s giants is the 14th century Tale of Melusine, a fairy who grew up on the fabled Isle of Avalon and who was condemned to assume, from the waist down, the form of a serpent every Saturday. One of her ten sons, Geoffroy à la Grand Dent (Geoffroy with the Big Tooth), so named because of the solitary boar’s tusk that protruded from his mouth, beheaded the giant Guédon who had long terrorised and oppressed the people of Guérande in southern Brittany.

Geoffroy Big Tooth and the giant

It was reputed that over a thousand knights had previously battled Guédon but each encounter had ended with victory for the 15 feet (4.6m) tall giant. Having left his retinue in the valley, Geoffroy’s horse climbed to the giant’s castle where he found an opening in the wall. Challenging the giant to duel, Geoffroy taunted him until he appeared armed with a massive scythe and long flail. Battle was commenced as Geoffroy charged at him with his lance but the first swipe of the giant’s scythe cut down his horse and a fierce fight raged. Geoffroy was wounded in the shoulder but was able to cut one of the giant’s hands off. Enraged, the giant struck his flail with such force that Geoffroy was able to bend beneath its arc and cut off one of Guédon’s legs and with his next blow, the giant’s other hand. Lying helpless on the ground, Guédon lost his head which Geoffroy kept as a souvenir of his victory.

Just 55km (34 miles) to the east, at the northern end of the Lac de Grand-Lieu, France’s largest natural lake, lies a small island on which stands a lonely menhir. According to local legend, this stone blocks the entrance to an abyss whose waters created the lake; this void contains an enormous giant whose efforts to free himself from this subterranean cell, create the storms that sometimes sweep the lake. The giant is condemned to stay imprisoned until a virgin maiden can remove the guardian stone. For this, she will need to hold in her right hand a blessed belt which she must pass around the giant’s neck, who, thus tied, will become docile and a devout Christian.

Found in the folklore of western Brittany is Hok-Bras, a giant who was said to have possessed the ability to grow at will but who was described as barely 15 feet tall on his ‘ordinary days’. Many marvellous acts were attributed to him: the Monts d’Arrée range were a rock pile he created for amusement; to win a wager, he brought down the moon between his teeth; in need of a pond to bathe in, he dug-out the channel now known as the Harbour of Brest. It was while drinking in this body of water that a storm blew a three-decked warship into his path and straight down his throat. Hok-Bras ran in wild panic but the weight of a fully armed first rate ship of the line caused him to sink into the mire in the heart of the Monts d’Arrée. Having struggled to free himself, the unsteady giant stumbled and broke his head upon the very pile of rocks that he had created. Hearing of the giant’s fate, it is said that Noah came and sawed off his beard to make the frames of his ark and carried away his teeth to provide ship’s ballast; it taking three strong sailors to carry each tooth.

Hok-Bras Giant Brittany

One story tells that Hok-Bras was desperately in love with a fairy who was amused to tease him with hopes that she might, one day, return his affections after he had proved himself worthy. Having literally heard his death throes from 14km (9 miles) away, she was so overwhelmed by guilt over her behaviour towards him that she transformed into an enormous black dog; the beast still roams the Monts d’Arrée, mourning the giant’s death at night.

In the far west, the rocky coastline between Pointe de Dinan and Le Château de Dinan was said to have been the stony citadel of a community of giants; wreckers of ships, they feasted on the flesh of drowned sailors. One night, according to tradition, they decided that it might be amusing to torment the korrigans who lived in a nearby cave. However, the korrigans were alert to the giants’ lumbering approach and scattered amongst the rocks. As the giants explored the cave in search of the little folk, they did not notice that the number of little cooking fires had increased dramatically and soon, the floor of the cave was ablaze; thick acrid, blinding smoke filled the cavern. The korrigans were unable to look and witness the destruction of their home; they were all too busy collapsing the cliff face over its only exit.

Little is now known of some of the region’s giants, sometimes even their names have been lost to us. This is the case in the magical Forest of Brocéliande where it was said that, no longer under the guardianship of the wizard Merlin and the enchantress Viviane, the forest gained a new overlord. This king of Brocéliande was said to have been a black giant with only one foot and one eye. All the beasts of the forests submitted themselves willingly to this giant who could summon them all with just a cry and who hurled them, as he desired, against his enemies.

Many of Brittany’s impressive chaoses, such as that at the Gorge of Corong, were said to have been created by Boudédé, a giant often described as the first man of Brittany. One day, walking along the river banks, he was bothered by some pebbles that had found their way into his sabots; he took them out and tossed them into the water. Thus were formed the massive granite boulders that we see strewn haphazardly along the valley today.

Gorge of Corong Boudédé giant

Several local legends in northern Brittany talk of Rannou, a giant whose colossal strength was attributed to the virtues of a potion that the giant’s mother had received from a mermaid. Unfortunately, his mother had not dared to give him all the potion to drink and this fear was, eventually, to be his undoing for legend says that he needed the full draught to thrive. Having taken just half the dosage, his body was unable to survive the precocious decay that ultimately shattered his bones.

The stories about Rannou invariably portray him as a generally decent, albeit quick-tempered man; his killings are not done out of malice but as a last resort to right a perceived wrong. The rocks that he throws over great distances have an uncanny ability to find their mark; crushing those that slander or demean him in some way.

A typical legend tells that, one morning, Rannou was walking along the banks of the Douron estuary when his peace was disturbed by the insults of some lads on the opposite bank. Filled with the bravery of being out of range, they were amused to mock and provoke the giant with impunity. However, they had underestimated Rannou’s strength and the power of his rage. The giant uprooted a huge rock, with such force that his arms were imprinted upon it, and promptly hurled it across the estuary, straight at the foulest loudmouth whose bones were crushed beneath this impromptu burial slab; saving the town the cost of a burial.

Rannou Gargantua giants

A megalith near Morlaix was said to have been a stone once carried by Rannou in the palm of his outstretched hand but having carried it for over 10km, he dropped it just outside the town where it has sat for six centuries, waiting for a second Rannou to come and complete its journey. Likewise, an isolated stone near Plestin is known as Rannou’s Chair. Some believe that the stories surrounding Rannou the giant are the exaggerated folk memory of a minor 14th century Breton nobleman, Rannou Tréléver, Lord of Kervescontou, whose many exploits saw his memory transformed locally into a hero popular enough to withstand being supplanted by Gargantua.

While it is rather more popular to talk of gentle giants these days, the association of brute force with giants was one of the constants of folklore and literature for centuries and it is perhaps fitting that I end with a quotation from one of the giants of world literature, the playwright William Shakespeare who wrote: “Oh, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” A sentiment as relevant today as it was when written over four hundred years ago.

May Day in Brittany

May Day is known as la Fête du Travail (Workers’ Day) in France and celebrated with a public holiday. It has become an occasion to be seen to campaign for workers’ rights and social justice but the date also carries a much older tradition here; it is also la Fête du Muguet, when sprigs of muguet or Lily of the Valley are presented to loved ones.

With roots in the ancient practice of heralding new-growth after the end of winter, the custom is said to originate from May 1560 when King Charles IX was given a bouquet of Lily of the Valley as a token of good luck. Not known for his sensitive side, the young King was so charmed by this gesture that, on the following first of May, he presented a sprig of this flower to all the ladies at his court. The tradition is still observed today and you will often see these beautiful blooms sold in sprigs and bouquets, bought by people who give them to friends and family as a token of appreciation.

However, in Brittany, the custom of using green foliage to express hope and gratitude at this time of year extends back to antiquity. For the ancient Celts, the year began on 1 November with the festival of Samhain, which inaugurated the start of winter, while six months later, on 1 May, the feast of Beltane marked the start of summer. Two intermediate festivals, Imbolg on 1 February and Lugnasa on 1 August, divided the year into four equal seasons, the middle of which roughly corresponded to the Midsummer and Midwinter solstices. We need not get obsessed with exact dates, particularly given the changes wrought by the adoption of the Gregorian calendar which mean we are now two weeks adrift of the dates recorded at the end of Caesar’s reign.

La Fête du Muguet Bretagne

When establishing its liturgical calendar, the infant Church took pains to absorb and divert the popular feelings associated with the old pagan festivals by supplanting these with Christian ones. Thus, ancient celebrations 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. The Celtic festival of Beltane, midway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, was most effectively subsumed by the moveable feasts of Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, which shared the same themes of rebirth and new life. These themes were also the focus of another popular festival held at this time of year; the Roman festival of Floralia, devoted to Flora, the goddess of flowers and fertility, which was celebrated between 28 April and 3 May.

The month of May has therefore long represented one of the pivotal stages in the life of agrarian society in Europe; it heralded the arrival of summer, the renewal of nature and the beginning of the heavy agricultural work upon which the people completely depended. The abundance of the harvest and thus one’s hopes for survival through the cold winter months were uncertain; hope and fear merged and superstitions born.

Nature’s re-awakening reminded the farmer of the fragility of the boundary between success and failure; over time, rituals developed that both symbolised nature’s renewal and the farmer’s need for protection. In Lower Brittany, a traditional ritual known as Barrin ar Mae (May Branch) was performed on the eve of May Day. A branch of budding Beech but sometimes Birch or even Hawthorn was hung or laid in front of the house and other key structures such as the stable, hen-house and bread oven, in order to bring on good luck and to protect against evil. Similarly, the gateways to fields were often honoured with a May Branch in order to ensure a good harvest and to protect against crop diseases.

Breton peasants in the field

The May Branches were customarily picked only by boys; a privilege that seems to have continued until the 1960s. Although not as popularly practiced as in the past, the ceremony still survives in some areas to this day; branches being placed in the evening against the homes of the elderly and those of friends, who will not discover this sign of affection until the morning of May Day.

Unfortunately, a related practice, known as Bodig Mae (Girls’ May) disappeared in the years after the Second World War. This ceremony was only performed by young men, who, on the eve of May Day, visited the homes of young women with a Beech branch, popularly known as ‘The May’, which was left against the door or a window as a declaration of romantic interest. Different traditions were noted in different localities; in some areas, it was a solo enterprise and done anonymously, in others, groups of four or five lads would visit several different households and sing songs while one of the party left their dedication.

One custom common to all localities saw the offering placed in the most prominent position available; some were leant against doors so that they would fall inside the house when the door was opened, others were tied against buildings facing the house so that it was the first thing seen on the following morning. The size of the branch offered was said to indicate the depth of the man’s ardour. We can therefore imagine where this notion could have led to or the arguments that might have arisen in the house which contained two unmarried sisters and two branches upon the threshold.

While this might sound endearing, we should not lose sight of the human element and the bitterness occasionally found in a spurned lover’s heart. Sometimes, the budding Beech was substituted with less welcome bouquets of thorns, Stinging Nettles or Brambles. Some offerings were laden with mean-spirited symbolism: Cauliflowers for the jealous woman; Cabbages for the greedy; Laurel for the lazy; Apple tree branches for the drunk; the Fir for the wicked and Broom for the promiscuous. Given the human capacity for cruelty, especially under the cloak of anonymity, we can but wonder what other objects might have been left for the young lady whose only injury might have been to refuse a dance at a church Pardon.

Rogation Procession

At times, spinsters and widows who had re-married with unseemly haste, were targeted in a form of communal condemnation. Those ladies who found themselves ill-served, naturally tried to make neighbours believe that there had been a substitution and it was not unknown for people to stay-up late to be sure that no prankster replaced a Beech with a Bramble. Eligible women who, for whatever reason, had not received a May branch were the object of as much gossip and speculation as those who had woken-up to a bundle of Nettles. Given the anxiety that the eve of May Day might have brought to some households, perhaps it is not too surprising that the custom eventually died away.

There were a few traditional rituals performed on Palm Sunday that seem to have had no theological basis, such as making offerings of blessed Boxwood to productive animals and placing similarly blessed sprigs of this evergreen upon the graves of loved ones and on the strips of uncultivated land in order to invoke good fortune. In many parts of Brittany, blessed branches were also planted in the sown land in order to prevent sorcerers from casting a spell on the future harvest. Evergreen shrubs, particularly Boxwood and Laurel, were believed to be one of the preferred locations for the souls of the dead performing their penance. To plant a branch of it in a field was therefore to involve the spirits of one’s ancestors and their beneficial influence, in the fertility of the land and one’s future well-being. It is not too hard to see in these practices, vestiges of archaic traditions likely transposed to the festival of Palm Sunday which often preceded May Day by just a little.

The notion of renewal and new growth gave rise to several superstitious rituals to celebrate and encourage fertility and drive away opposing forces. On the eve of May Day, it was customary to place a little salt in the four corners of the pastures in order to protect the cattle from evil spells over the year ahead. Similarly, to preserve the health of cows, their udders were rubbed with the morning dew of May Day. Cattle here were traditionally taken out of the stable earlier than usual on this day, to allow them to graze the dew. Great virtues were once attributed to the May Day dew; young girls rubbed their faces with it in expectation of securing a fresh complexion and protection against skin diseases.

Rogation Procession

Likely established to dislocate the pagan Mayday processions from the first day of May, the three days of prayer preceding the moveable Feast of the Ascension, known as Rogation days, were established in Gaul in the 5th century. These ceremonies focused on imploring for God’s protection against calamities and for His blessing on the crops and the year’s harvest. It was customary for the local priest to lead his congregation through the fields of the parish, blessing fields and sown crops in hopes of a bountiful yield. The Rogations processions here usually started early morning and each day followed the direction of the cardinal points, starting from the church and ending at some wayside calvary or saint’s fountain.

It was strongly advised to avoid baking bread and doing the laundry during the Rogations, lest someone in the household die before the harvest. However, it was said that the butter made during Rogations never corrupted and a jar of it was kept all year, for it was considered a most effective balm for healing all wounds. Similarly, the butter made during the month of May was held to possess marvellous qualities for animals and was applied throughout the year as a liniment in the treatment of injured hooves.

May Day was the day when cows were believed most susceptible to the power of the sorcerer; evil spells thrown against them could dry-up their milk or prevent their butter from taking. In order to protect against such misfortune, an elaborate ritual was performed; on the eve of May Day, the cattle were taken from the byre which was then scrubbed thoroughly. The branches of a number of plants collected that morning, namely Bay, Bramble, Elderberry and Laurel, were then burned with scraps of old leather in pots placed in all the corners of the building. Although some accounts say that the fire was only lit in front of the stable door. Branches of Elderberry were then hung from the walls inside the stable and a Bramble, with a root at both ends, fastened in the form of an arc above the door. This ritual complete, the cows were then returned to the stable, being led backwards through the doorway.

Rogation Procession
May Day

The belief that one’s cows’ best milk was, on May Day, particularly vulnerable to thieves able to draw the cream of others to their own herd was once quite widespread here. It was said that one’s rival only needed to attach a string to the filter of their milk churn and drag it in the direction from which they wanted the cream to come before sunrise on May Day, in order to divert the yield. In central Brittany, it was said that milkmaids ran naked before the dawn of May Day, filling their churns with dew collected in their neighbour’s fields in order to steal the cream of their cows. Similar nude expeditions were also reputed to have been carried out by milkmaids in eastern Brittany where it was believed they stole milk by walking naked around the stables of their neighbours at night. Perhaps aligned to beliefs surrounding the vulnerability of milk on this day, it was also said that giving away milk on May Day was to invite misfortune upon the household.

An indication of the ancient traditions that held this month was a period full of mystic potential seemed to have survived into recent times with the popular belief that May Day rain was harmful to the bounty of fruit trees. However, it was not only the fertility of trees that were influenced by this month. In order to be married within the year, in the village of Maen-Roch, the large quartz-rich boulder known as Le Rocher Cutesson was climbed on the morning of May Day by unmarried people, of both sexes, each carrying a bowl full of water. Holding their bowl, the young folk allowed themselves to slide down the rock face; those who managed to reach the ground with their bowl intact were said to wed within a year.

Similarly, in the south coast town of Locmariaquer, on the eve of May Day, unmarried girls would lift their skirts to slide, bare bottomed, down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir. A scratch deep enough to bleed was said to augur a marriage within the year. The menhir was recorded as still standing in the early-18th century thus this custom, which could not have been observed when the stone stood vertical, twelve meters high, must have been relatively recent and was still performed in the late-19th century. Most likely, the unmarried women of the area followed, on the broken pieces, an ancient custom that was formerly held on another stone in the locality.

Roman goddess Flora

Those planning on getting married were once advised to avoid arranging a wedding during the month of May; it was said that to marry in that month was to wed poverty and to invite quarrels into the household. The recommendation to avoid May weddings was once quite widespread but an examination of the old marriage records here shows that little attention seems to have been paid to this superstition as the number of May marriages is consistent with the twelve month average.

The fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves was the site of a once popular ritual that was said to provide a definitive answer to any doubts a couple might have about the faithfulness of their partner. On the first Monday in May, it was necessary to visit the fountain without being seen and without having eaten anything that day. Three small pieces of bread, representing the couple and any suspected third-party, were cast upon the water of the fountain; if the latter piece moved away from the other two, it was because any suspicions were well-founded.

If a person was worried about how much longer they had left to live, they had only to look into the water of the Fountain of Death at Plouigneau at midnight on May Day. If an image of a skull was reflected in the magic mirror of black water instead of a face, they could be certain that death was near. The same ritual was also popularly performed at the Fountain of Death (Feunteun an Ankou in Breton) some five miles away in Plouégat-Guérand.

Calamity - haystack fire

May Day was also the day that it was held necessary to visit these oracular fountains with an infant under one year of age. The fountain was questioned by immersing the child’s feet in its waters; if the child removed their feet it was seen as a sign that they would suffer an early death. In other fountains, a child’s smock was placed in the water; if it sank, it was said the unfortunate child would die within the year.

In addition to the May Day superstitions surrounding fertility and renewal, the specialness of the month also manifested itself in magical and medicinal practices. For instance, only a witch born in May was said to possess the power to stop an expectant mother passing on an unmet craving to her baby in the form of a birthmark or noevi materni. To do so, the witch applied a paste made from Heath Bedstraw onto the relevant part of the mother’s body while reciting a charm of expulsion.

A popular medicine of the 17th and 18th centuries, whose use is even attested at the French court, was Eau de Millefleurs or Water of a Thousand Flowers. The most popular varieties of this tonic were made from unadulterated cow’s urine or by the distillation of cow’s dung. According to Nicolas Lémery’s Universal Pharmacopoeia (1697) the tonic was produced by distilling fresh cow dung: “In May, when the grass gains strength, fresh cow dung will be collected and having half-filled a stoneware pot, we will place it in a bain marie and by a strong fire we will distil a clear water called Eau de Millefleurs.”


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

It was also believed that warts could be made to disappear if rubbed with the tail of a black cat but only if done under the new moon in May. Additionally, a cat born in May was said to be no good at catching mice; it would only bring snakes into the house. In eastern Brittany, some believed that for a cat to be any good as a mouse-catcher, it needed to have been stolen.

Of note in my particular corner of Brittany, May Day is also the feast day of Saint Brieuc, a late-5th century evangelist and one of the Seven Founding Saints of Brittany. He established a monastery around which a substantial community developed and this town, that now bears his name, is the capital of my Département. Saint Brieuc is said to have once travelled with a group of monks that were suddenly surrounded by a pack of wolves. His companions fled but Brieuc confronted the beasts with prayer and the sign of the cross; placated, the animals knelt before him in humility. Due to his legendary acts of charity, he is regarded as the patron saint of purse-makers.

Saint Brieuc Cathedral

I shall end this post with a useless bit of trivia! The day of the week on which the month of May opens, always corresponds to the day on which the calendar places the feast of Saint Germanus of Auxerre (31 July), the 6th century bishop who preached against the Pelagian heresy in Great Britain where he is reputed to have personally led the natives to victory in battles against incursions by the Picts and Saxons, and Christmas Day.

Armchair Travelling – Nepal

Thankfully, Spring has now well and truly arrived here in Brittany; the blossom is falling from the trees and the roses are budding. Unfortunately, the covid-related travel restrictions remain in force. It is therefore necessary to take a non-essential journey and one that is further than the permitted 10km from my place of residence. However, there will be no steep fine for not carrying my attestation papers for this trip; another Wordless Wednesday virtual journey; today, a visit to the ‘roof of the world.’


Thank you taking this little trip! Nepal is a country that I have been fortunate enough to visit many times, these photographs were all taken before the terrible earthquake that caused so much devastation there almost exactly six years ago. As well as being warm-hearted and welcoming, the Nepalese are a most resilient people and continue the hard work of re-building their lives and their historic monuments, scarred forever by that day. If you have an opportunity, one day, to visit, do so!

Finding Fortune and Favour

The origins of many once popular superstitions and beliefs will forever elude us but we can be fairly sure that most have their beginnings in humanity’s attempts to make sense of the world around it or to propitiate an uncaring deity and to solicit better fortune. When ignorance and fear were faced with danger, our ancestors struggled for understanding. Little wonder therefore that the belief in the existence of spirits sympathetic or antagonistic to people’s daily struggles gave rise to superstitions. Surrounded on all sides by forces that seemed incomprehensible, people tried prayers and practices they hoped would compel nature to look favourably upon them.

Predicting the future, inviting good luck and warding off the bad, protecting the family and livestock against disease, ensuring a good harvest were constant concerns. To our ancestors, the world around them offered signs that, if understood and interpreted correctly, predicted the future. Likewise, secret rituals were developed in order to induce benevolent treatment which, over time, became popular, albeit irrational, superstitious practices.

Some Breton omens announcing impending good fortune are found in other parts of France and Europe, such as finding a used horseshoe or accidentally stepping in animal excrement but many are uniquely Breton and even exclusive to particular regions within Brittany where someone sneezing to your right was regarded as an auspicious omen and people customarily leapt over the embers of the Midsummer bonfire in expectation of receiving good luck over the year ahead.

luck at cards good omen

To bring good luck into one’s household it was advised to bake cakes that would be shared and eaten amongst the whole family on Saint-Corentin’s Day; one of the Seven Founding Saints of Brittany, his feast day is on 12 December. However, it was important that these cakes were formed in the shape of a tricorne as it was thought that the saint wore such a hat. This is highly unlikely but probably helps us to date the origins of this superstition to the late 17th or early 18th century.

Good fortune was assured to anyone able to recite the words “Meiz, Tout, Verdun” upon sighting a shooting star but this ritual was only held effective if the plunging star remained visible throughout the complete incantation. For those with lightning fast reactions, any wish that could be formulated aloud while the star fell were sure to be fulfilled.

Anyone who wanted to be certain of winning at games, particularly games of chance such as cards or dice, was thought required to pass the candle or lamp three times around the table or barrel that was to be used for the game, in order to be assured of fine fortune and success. Similarly, when taken in a bowl of cider or lambig, the small metal particles resulting from having ground a copper coin were said to make the drinker of this draught unbeatable in any competition; whether it be gouren (Breton wrestling), a horse race or a game of cards.

lucky at cards good omen

Possession of a hangman’s rope was also said to bring on good luck, particularly to game-players, and protected one against all dangers. Touching this object to one’s temple was held to cure even the most painful migraine, while those who carried a piece of this rope in their pocket were preserved from toothache. However, securing a piece of this rope might have posed some challenges as a Breton tradition said that it brought bad luck to unhook the rope from a hanged man.

When moving into a new home, in order to attract good fortune and happiness, it was recommended to place, in each corner, a small bag containing a piece of bread and a little salt. Similarly, domestic good fortune could be encouraged by arranging one’s marriage for one of the most propitious days, said to be Monday and Tuesday or on a lucky date. Seven was seen as the luckiest number as it was composed of three, being the base, and four, which is the square. Likewise, twelve, which is equal to three times four, was also viewed as a lucky number here; both the numbers three and twelve were also regarded as lucky numbers by the Romans and Jews of antiquity. It also brought good fortune if the new bride danced with the poorest beggar attending her wedding feast.

The umbilical cord of a child was a lucky charm for both the child and the mother and it was not unknown for some mothers to sew it into the hems of their children’s clothes. The umbilical cord was thought to possess innate power and believed to develop intelligence and to open the mind.

family superstitions good omen

Setting aside the many marvellous qualities attributed to Brittany’s magical grasses, other, clearly identifiable, plants were once credited with the ability to attract good fortune. In Brittany, the most powerful symbol of good luck was perhaps mistletoe; hung on houses and barns for protection and given on New Year as a token of love and good fortune. A sprig of this plant was once even said to give one a good number to avoid the military draft. However, to be effective as a lucky charm, it was popularly claimed that the plant must not have been in contact with iron nor have touched the ground or another person.

As in other parts of the world, the four leafed clover was thought to bring good luck to those that carried it but in Brittany it was considered most effective if the plant had been discovered without looking for it. The plant was said to ensure victory to the game-player and, thanks to its shape which echoed the sign of the cross, reputed to repel all evil. Along with other rarities such as a seven headed ear of grain or the grain that had passed through the millstone without being ground, the four leafed clover was once said to allow its possessor the ability to see what remained hidden from the eyes of most people and, if carried unwittingly, to understand the artifices of the sorcerer. The four leafed clover found under a gallows was held to possess the greatest of powers.

The green fern collected on the night of Midsummer’s Day, was, like the four leafed clover, said to ensure victory to the game-player and to grant invisibility to whoever held it in their mouth. It was even said that snakes would immediately fall dead if struck on the head with the plant’s root. The plant’s spores, collected on the same night, were believed to be effective in helping locate hidden treasures and gave the possessor the ability to read the deepest secrets that lay hidden within the hearts of men and women.

lucky flowers good omen

Another plant mutation whose discovery marked impending success and good fortune was a stem of five leafed lilac. Similarly, wild celery was gathered and taken home as a preservative against bad luck and the curse of the evil eye. Hawthorn was also said to be a lucky plant and it was particularly believed to protect one against lightning strikes; an attribute that it shared with laurel. To protect against the ever-present danger posed by the mischief of the korrigans, wearing a gorse flower was strongly recommended.

While there are many birds of ill omen in Brittany, there are a few whose appearance near the home was always welcomed and regarded as good omens.  The most important of which was probably the wren; an auspicious bird in other parts of the Celtic fringe whose status was justified in an old Breton legend. It was told that the wren gave the gift of fire to the world; carrying fire from heaven to earth, it realised that its wings were starting to burn and so entrusted the flame to the robin, whose breast feathers also caught alight. Unselfishly, the lark came to their aid and eventually succeeding in bringing the precious gift of fire to the earth.

In spring, hearing the first cuckoo call of the year was an auspicious occasion. Not only was it a good omen in itself but it was said that if you carried any coins in your pocket at that moment then you would be free of any financial worries for the whole year. Young couples would listen attentively to the bird’s call as the number of songs sung indicated the number of years separating them from marriage. Upon hearing the first cuckoo, those afflicted with rheumatism were advised to roll over on the floor to be rid of pain over the year ahead but hearing this bird sing near one’s house was taken as a very bad omen.

lucky birds good omen

In summer, house-nesting swallows were considered good luck charms as the birds were thought to only settle against a happy home and their presence was taken as a sign of protection against potential disaster, such as a fire or a storm. However, swallow droppings that fell onto the eyes of the members of the household were said to cause blindness. With the onset of winter, the black-headed gull was regarded as a bird of good omen to the people who lived along the coast of the Bay of Morlaix as its appearance was said to herald a spell of fine weather.

One of the national emblems of France, the crowing of the rooster, especially a white feathered one, was a very good omen in Brittany, signalling as it did the end of the witches’ power and the hope of a new day. However, misfortune was sure to follow if white, red and black roosters were kept together in the same henhouse. It was said that if you put a chicken feather together with feathers from red and black roosters into a bowl of milk, a little eight-legged white lizard would be formed but nobody dared to do it anymore because this lizard is insatiable and quickly grows into an uncontrollable dragon.

Birds, or at least their feathers, also feature in two other curious superstitions; it was believed that a patient would not die if they were lying on a bed in which there were partridge wing feathers but if a person was dying it was important to empty their mattress and pillow, lest they contain pigeon feathers, whose presence would make the death a long and agonising affair. Until the Revolution, keeping pigeons was a right reserved for the feudal lord; its meat was the preserve of the nobility and peasants found with these birds faced heavy sanctions. Alas, the liberalisation of the laws surrounding pigeons and dovecotes had the unintentioned effect of sweeping away a great deal of the breeders’ expertise. Many fanciful explanations were put forward by those unable to understand why birds would not roost; one solution offered to bring about a change in luck was to place a dead man’s skull in the pigeon loft.

lucky birds good omen

Certain animals were also popularly thought able to bring on good luck. In many localities here, to see a spider running or spinning its web was taken as a sign that money would soon follow, although some areas refined this to say that the spider’s appearance heralded money if seen in the morning and good news when spied in the evening. Good luck was also said to fall upon the person on whom the spider popularly known as the Daddy Long Legs had landed or been placed upon.

Attitudes towards the weasel differed greatly in parts of Brittany; in the western part of the region it was desperately unlucky to see one, as the person that did was condemned to die within the year. However, in central Brittany, the presence of the animal was believed to bring good fortune upon the house. In the same region, a starfish was also considered a lucky charm and was hung over the bed to protect against night terrors or worn as a talisman on a cord around the neck at night.

Sometimes, animal parts were popularly carried as a talisman. For instance, in western Brittany, whoever carried in their pocket the tongue of a snake that had been removed without killing the beast was guaranteed to have good luck, while applying the crushed head of a snake directly to the wound was advised as a certain cure for snakebite. In a wonderful flight of fancy, it was once believed here that if a snake were able to escape the sight of people for seven years, it would grow wings and become an uncontrollable dragon. 

luck at games good omen

In most parts of Brittany, seeing a live beetle was reputed to bring good luck but in central Brittany, much good fortune was assured if one carried in their pocket the head of a male stag beetle; that of the female which possesses massively smaller mandibles was said not to hold the same effectiveness. Although usually regarded as an animal of ill omen, carrying in one’s pocket the foot of a hare was thought to ward off all toothache.

In eastern Brittany, a lizard’s tail carried in one’s purse was said to attract money there but across the region more generally, it was thought to bring good luck to the game-player. Such competitors could also be confident of every success if they wore the bone of a mole that had been killed in love. However, identifying the bone imbued with this power was not without its ritual. Having been boiled and de-fleshed, the animal’s bones needed to be taken to a stream that issued directly from a spring and dropped into the water, one at a time; the bone that rose to the surface alone had virtue.

Some Breton tales tell of fairies turned into snakes but local lore often associates them with moles; which they transformed into in order to escape the Gospel or else that they were condemned to the darkness by God in punishment for having rejected the early saints. Perhaps because of their association with fairies, moles’ parts were accorded many wonderful virtues here; its skin was said to help teeth grow and carrying its tongue was thought to grant the possessor a most powerful memory. Another curious belief concerning this animal asserted that the hand which had suffocated a mole, while still warm from contact, was able to cure toothache and colic by the merest touch.

lucky animals good omen

Another powerful mascot said to bring good fortune upon the household was the afterbirth of a mare, that of a white mare being held to be most potent, taken as soon after the birth as possible and placed around the base of the hawthorn tree nearest to the house. If by some chance one was unavailable, good luck could still be induced if the afterbirth was put around a nearby elm tree.

The presence of bees near the home was another indicator of good fortune and to give a hive to a neighbour was a gesture of much significance as you were not only providing them with honey but also, and above all, good luck. In Brittany, buying and selling bees as if they were a commodity, like a sack of onions, was frowned upon and they were usually traded in barter. More generally, when selling any animal here, it was customary for the seller to give the buyer some coins, even a token amount, in order to bring good luck upon both parties.

When undertaking a journey, good fortune was said to be assured if, in the morning, one met a debauched woman or a wolf, a cicada or a goat. Similarly, a trouble free journey or successful outcome was assured if the traveller heard thunder from afar, if their right ear tingled or if their right nostril bled. Along the coast of the Bay of Saint-Malo it was considered a most propitious omen to see a donkey before setting out to sea; seamen there considered the animal stupid but courageous. Sighting a goose in flight was also a sign of approaching good fortune.

between two lands good omen

In addition to recognising the omens of good fortune and observing the rituals to attract it, other ceremonies, if performed under certain specific conditions, were once reckoned to bestow unique and marvellous gifts on those bold enough to seek them. For instance, whoever found frogspawn for the first time in the year, without looking for it, was said to need only rub their hands with it, taking care not to wash them all day, in order to acquire the power to heal, by mere touch, animals and children of certain afflictions.

It was said that if a young woman cooked an oak apple, of a certain maturity, in the water of a fountain whose source watered a cemetery, she would be imbued with all the wisdom and knowledge of the fairies of old. While it was said that whoever ate the heart of an eel, still warm from the body, would immediately be endowed with the gift of prophecy. The blood of an eel was believed to possess magical properties; not only could it bewitch but it also cured alcoholism. Eel fat mixed with tallow made from a goat was once a well-known witch’s brew in eastern Brittany and an eel skin, filled with sand, was regarded as a weapon like no other; its blows were said to be almost always fatal.

According to some sources, each hazel bush in Brittany possessed within its folds a branch that turned into pure gold. This branch made a wand that was reputed to equal in power those of the greatest fairies. However, this prize could only be gained if cut between the first and last chimes of the bell announcing the Christmas midnight mass but, lest you be tempted, be aware that whoever tries and fails, disappears from this world forever. Often associated with magic, hazel was said to furnish the very best divining rods, particularly when searching for springs and silver, but, handled well, it could also show us if one was truly loved by our partner. A sprig of the plant was traditionally placed on the bridal bed, while one that had never borne fruit was said to kill snakes with a single blow.

seeing fairies good omen

When a person stood between two lands – their feet on the ground and with a large sod of earth held above their head – on a moonless night, they were believed to have been granted the privilege of seeing things that were unknown to others. This ritual was also advised for those who happened to meet a sorcerer up to some mischief at night because, according to popular belief, sorcerers could not see between two lands.

There are some old accounts that make intriguing references to a magical stone guarded by mice. This stone was reputed to have the power of removing any foreign body from the eye on which it was applied. Mice were said to have used this stone on their own babies who would otherwise have remained blind. Unfortunately, the legends are silent on whether this was the same magical stone that allowed one to clearly see the invisible korrigans and even the ghosts of the dead.

In talking of practices that produced a remarkable faculty of sight, it is worth noting another once popular belief that cautioned against placing a mirror in front of small children for fear that they might be instantly struck dumb. Furthermore, in northern Brittany, women were strongly advised never to look into a mirror after sunset lest the Devil himself be revealed in reflection behind their shoulder.

second sight good omen

As late as the 1840s, washing one’s face in the morning with cow’s urine, or your own if one could not obtain that of a cow, was said to protect you all day from pitfalls and the wickedness of the Devil because you became invisible to him. Similar protection was thought bestowed if one spat on the sabot of the right foot before putting it on or carried unblessed salt in their pocket or part of a chicory root that had been torn off, before dawn, on the morning of Midsummer’s Day.

Many of these old superstitions appear irrational to us today but that is the very nature of superstition. It does not require logic in order to function or to thrive; it does not even demand conviction of faith. Even the petty rituals associated with the lost beliefs that once underpinned them can survive through habit alone. Such acceptance could become ingrained in young, impressionable minds and even if challenged in later years, might be excused on the grounds that if a ritual does no good, its performance can do no harm and so they continue to perpetuate the ceremony.

Brittany’s Beastly Folk Remedies

The health and well-being of valuable livestock exercised the people of yesterday’s Brittany every bit as much as human health. Veterinary medicine, developed in order to preserve the health of domestic animals, was one of the specialist branches of medicine to emerge at the end of the 18th century even if medical treatment for animals was then largely limited to horses. Thankfully, some of the popular remedies and traditional treatments for animal diseases used in Brittany during the 18th and 19th centuries have survived to us to this day, even if their practice has long since died away.

As with the treatments for humans, the use of medicinal herbs was widespread in the remedies designed to treat the diseases in animals but minerals, ordure and magical practices also featured in veterinary folk medicine here for centuries. Indeed, many of the treatments and remedies contain as much unfathomable magic as they do science and vary from the bizarre to the benign. For instance, to treat problems with cows’ urination, particularly urine retention, half the brain of a freshly killed magpie was added to water and given as a drink. Mastitis, on the other hand, was treated with an ointment made from boiling chopped Carrots in some lard.

Breton bull

Bladder stones and problems with the urinary tract were treated with a compound of dried Pellitory which was finely ground and fried in butter; this was then applied as a hot plaster to the animal’s navel. Once cooled, it was wetted with water for two hours to prevent it drying out completely. This herb was also popularly used to treat urinary difficulties in humans.

Some remedies, such as those against rheumatism called for the invocation of God or particular saints, although the Virgin Mary was invoked in a charm to prevent thefts. Sometimes, the disease itself was addressed directly and commanded to leave, such as when treating cattle scab or mange, when it was necessary to pronounce, three times: “Scab, may you dry-up like the dew before the sun”, while making the sign of the cross and making three turns to the left. That done, one needed to recite five Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers. Some other skin diseases were treated with a little mercury oxide and dried Field Horsetail or Boxwood leaves mixed into lard applied directly to the disease.

To aid blood flow and treat abdominal gas, three measures of wine were mixed with vinegar and administered for three consecutive mornings. This drink was followed two hours later by another consisting of a pint of a healthy cow’s milk into which three egg yolks had been well beaten; a third of an hour later, a draft of red wine was also given. Food consumption was kept to a minimum during the three days of treatment. Six raw eggs were also given to cattle and sheep suspected of having eaten poisonous plants.

Battle of Wills by Dupre

A most curious ritual was recommended in the fight against excessive flatulence where it was necessary to walk around the animal three times while holding a blessed candle with which one made the sign of the cross; reciting during each circuit the following charm: “Leave the head where you are tied and go to the land of Arabia where there is neither bread nor wine.” It was necessary to perform this ritual twice so as to have circled the beast six times. Another unusual remedy was the use of Stinging Nettles as an aid to lactation; sometimes as feed and others as an external stimulant. Additionally, branches of Mistletoe, stripped of all berries, were fed to cows and goats to help assure the quality of their milk.

Animals suffering from high body temperature were carefully monitored as rises in body temperature are usually indicative of an infection by a disease-causing organism. One remedy involved a few ounces of vegetable oil administered on an empty stomach. Against diarrhoea a large handful of wood ash from the oven was mixed with three smaller handfuls of ground Buckwheat flour. This powder was then whisked into a pint of milk from a healthy cow and given to the sick animal on an empty stomach.

Those animals afflicted with abdominal bloating were fed three small balls of white pitch in a bowl of Turnip Rape or Field Mustard oil. This plant was once very widely cultivated in Northern France but since the end of the Second World War has been totally usurped by Rapeseed. Cattle and goats that had become bloated by eating wet White Clover were treated with a feed consisting of Garlic that had been pounded together with soot taken from the chimney. Recurring digestive problems in cattle and horses were often tackled with an infusion of boiled Flax seeds.

Cow and sheep painting by Dupre

Cattle usually lick themselves to ease the itching caused by skin diseases such as scabies. This excessive licking often leads to the formation of hairballs as found in cats but unlike cats, cows do not possess the ability to vomit and thus their hairballs eventually work their way down to one of their four stomachs where they remain forever. One recipe for breaking down hairballs in cattle called for half an ounce of powdered Tobacco to be macerated in lambig for 24 hours; which was then applied as a snuff through the animal’s nostrils. This treatment was augmented by a concoction of ground Peppercorn in urine; a pint of which was given as a drink for three consecutive mornings on an empty stomach.

To treat joint pain and nerve problems, two treatments were once popularly espoused. One called for four large handfuls of Sage, well ground, to be placed in a pot with a pound of fresh butter and boiled together for a third of an hour. The mixture was then applied directly to the body as a plaster. Another treatment also recommended the use of sage; two handfuls of which were boiled with two cow’s trotters until totally de-fleshed. Once separated, the liquid was boiled with half a pound of fresh butter and having cooled, stored in an earthenware pot. This fat was then applied as an ointment when needed. An application of butter was also used to treat injured hooves but it was only thought effective if it had been made during the month of May.

To stop bleeding, one practice involved the recitation of five Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers while scratching a cross the same number of times onto the surface of a nearby tree or stone. Another remedy called for several handfuls of Field Horsetail to be added to the cow’s drinking trough. For cuts and wounds, Lily of the Valley and Fennel root were mashed to a pulp and applied directly as a plaster, as was Wild Chamomile. For shallow cuts, a Cabbage leaf alone was applied to the wound. To treat the wounds made by animal bites, heated pork dripping was applied directly to the injury.

Horse and rider Skeletons

While Saint Stephen’s Day was traditionally the day in which horses were bled, until the early 20th century, bloodletting was the first choice treatment for most horse ailments. Sickness was thought caused by an imbalance of the body’s fluids known as humours and the animals were bled to release corrupted humours, to relieve blood vessels supposedly carrying too much blood, to divert blood from an over-loaded organ and even to cool the blood.

To cure ringworm in horses and cattle, a large Apple was cut into two halves and the seeds replaced with sulphur. The two pieces were then tied together and baked in the oven, after which it was thoroughly mashed. Once cooled, this pulp was rubbed into the affected area; a treatment that continued for nine days. For horses and sheep lacking vitality, a transfer to a pasture rich in Dandelions and Burdock was once recommended.

To treat horses suffering from ulcers and tumours, a white cloth soaked in the water taken from a sacred spring was applied. If this treatment was unsuccessful, a mixture of saltpetre and water was smeared on as a lotion; very serious cases were doused with a tincture of ground Wolf’s-bane root which had been macerated in cow urine. A handful of salt dissolved in human urine was administered as a drink to treat a horse that had become overfed.

Dying Horse

Although toxic to horses, an infusion made from the boiled bark of Boxwood was given to treat rheumatism. Another toxic plant was also used against eye diseases in horses; a powder ground from dried Wolf’s-bane, one of Europe’s most poisonous plants, was blown into the animal’s eyes. Interestingly, in eastern Brittany, people did not pull hair from their horses but cut them instead; if the hairs were pulled out, it was thought the animal would lose its sight.

Dog ailments appear to have been mainly treated with baths or drinks of water taken from sacred springs. The infection popularly known as cloudy eyes was treated by swabbing the eye with a piece of white linen that had been soaked in the water from a sacred spring. Other topical applications involved ointments made from boiled urine and butter. To improve blood circulation, an infusion made from Hawthorn was given as a drink. Dogs, like other animals, were also subjected to bloodletting in order to rebalance their humours. Fortunately, this procedure was applied less frequently to dogs than to other animals as a dog’s body was held to possess a remarkable ability to self-cleanse and would purge the problem naturally through frequent urination.

Maintaining the health of one’s herd and thus one’s livelihood was a constant concern. Confronted with mishaps and setbacks, suspicions too easily fell upon those who might wish to hinder one’s efforts or harm one’s livestock; jealous neighbours, witches and shepherds were all popularly accused of spreading epizootics at will, of making horses lame or of searing the pastures to starve the herds. Conversely, these same people possessed the expertise to cure sick animals with their tested treatments and charms.

Selling Livestock by Cottet

The Infernal Dictionary published by the French occultist Collin de Plancy in 1818 noted several traditional charms for preserving the well-being of horses and sheep. One called for the spell caster to recite certain incantations while kneeling facing their animals and holding a plate of coarse salt grains with their back turned to the rising sun and a bare head. This ritual was then repeated, following the course of the sun, in all the corners of the field and again at the starting point. It was crucial during the ceremony to ensure that the animals always remained to the fore; any who crossed behind the spell caster were likely unsound. It was then necessary to make three full circuits around the animals while throwing salt on them and making further incantations.

Finally, the animals were bled a little, after which a small piece was cut from the hoof of the right front foot with a knife. This nail needed to be cut into two strips that were then formed into a cross and placed on a piece of canvas and covered with salt. Another cross was made from the animals’ wool or hair and placed atop the salt on the canvas before being covered with another layer of salt, upon which another cross was placed, made from the wax of a Paschal candle, and covered with the last of the salt. The canvas was then tied into a ball which was then used to rub the animals while pronouncing the same incantations used when having thrown the salt. Depending on the vitality of the animals, they were rubbed for three, seven or nine days in a row.

As if this ritual was not convoluted enough, several other precautions were noted to ensure its efficacy: the ritual would only succeed if performed at dawn on the Friday of a crescent moon; the animals should only be rubbed during the last word of the charm; horses needed to be spoken to sharply but sheep addressed slowly; care needed to be taken to ensure the canvas ball did not get wet for fear the animals would ultimately perish.

The spell could be undone if someone managed to gain possession of the canvas ball and cut it into pieces, dispersing the fragments by means of a mole, weasel or toad and then buried in an anthill for nine days. Retrieved while reciting certain incantations, the fragments needed to be ground and thrown over the animals’ grazing pasture. Holding stones taken from three different graveyards, the spell caster was thus able to throw a disease over the animals, killing as many as he wished.

Breton Shepherd

There was a time when people believed that sorcerers, acting out of malice or on behalf of a rival, not only stole sheep but destroyed one’s livelihood by destroying their flocks. It was said that one means used to bring about such devastation were poisonous pellets made-up from balls of tow that had been coated with pitch or honey and scattered about the meadow. Many sheep that died for no apparent reason were suspected of having fallen foul of these cursed balls and the stomachs of such sheep were often found to contain these fatal beads.

Sentenced to public branding and six years as a galley slave, a man in neighbouring Normandy was found guilty of having destroyed a flock in this manner in 1791. Fortunately, his demand for an appeal was granted and the Royal Agricultural Society in Paris was consulted. Their investigations concluded that these poisoned pellets were in fact concretions of wool that had developed a thick viscous coating following long exposure to stomach acids. Hairballs are not always fatal but can sometimes cause serious stomach problems which lead to death. Based on these findings, the defendant was acquitted but one cannot but wonder how many people, over the centuries, had been unfairly labelled a witch and punished accordingly.

Even at the turn of the 18th century, some priests here persuaded their parishioners that if one of their animals were sick, it was due to the displeasure of a departed relative and that it was only necessary to say a novena to appease them and thus heal the animal. It is not therefore surprising that many Breton farmers put their faith in the power of religion and regularly made offerings of cow’s tails and butter at one of the many churches dedicated to the protector of cows, Saint Herbot. Likewise, butter was offered to Saint Hervé to keep cattle safe from wolves; the saint, stricken with blindness, was once led about by a wolf. Candles were lit alongside offerings of horsehair and money at the many shrines devoted to Saint Eloi, the protector of horses and patron saint of farriers and ploughmen.

Blessing horse in stable

This saint was by far the most popularly invoked for the heath of horses and was represented in over a third of all churches in western Brittany alone. On 30 November, the eve of the saint’s feast day, celebratory bonfires were once lit in a large number of the region’s villages. On the following morning, the horses would be taken to the nearest chapel dedicated to the saint and made to circle it, or its associated fountain, three times against the sun. Water from the scared fountain was then applied to their heads, ears and rumps in hopes of protecting their health and ensuring their vigour. These rites were augmented with a lengthy prayer invoking the saint’s protection and were thought most effective if recited before the remains of the pyre erected in his honour.

We know that, into recent times, over two dozen saints’ Pardons were specifically devoted to animals; such pilgrimages were popular in the expectation that the blessings obtained protected the animals from illness or misfortune over the year ahead. The rituals involved varied from parish to parish; cattle were blessed at the church in Moncontour and horses at the church in Landerneau; in Montauban and Bignan, the horses were taken to drink the water from the saint’s fountain before being blessed by the priest. At Plouarzel, horses were made to leap over the channel of the holy fountain before being anointed on the head and rump with its waters. Near Pontrieux, the water of Saint Jorand’s fountain was collected on the day of the Pardon and taken home in containers; it was subsequently poured into the food of animals, as needed.

Many of Brittany’s sacred fountains were said to possess miraculous qualities that protected the health of animals. Water from Saint Jean’s fountain in Squiffiec was thought beneficial for pigs. The waters of Saint Eloi’s fountain in Nicolas-du-Pélem were said to ensure good health for horses and was splashed into their ears. Nearby, the Fountain of Saint Gildas in Laniscat preserved the health of dogs and cats. The fountain in Saint-Nicolas-des-Eaux featured a basin whose waters secured the health of horses while the waters from the nearby fountain of Saint Corneli were given to cows to keep them from illness. Stronger virtues were attributed to water from the Saint Eden fountain near Plouescat; it was said to cure all diseases in cattle.

Blessing the horses at Pardon

Today, horses can still be seen being blessed during several Pardons across Brittany; the biggest spectacle is probably at Goudelin where the horses are blessed in the deep pond that lies near the chapel. However, even this display does not come close to reproducing the enthusiasm noted in earlier years when, at Plouye, horses would be mated after receiving holy water or when, at Plerin, people drew water from the fountain and threw it in the vagina of their mare and rubbed it over the testicles of their stallion in the belief that the water had prolific virtues.

Another popular horse ritual bath of long-standing was practiced around Audierne Bay on Brittany’s Atlantic coast on 8 September, Marymas; a feast first instituted just over the Breton border in Angers in the 5th century, following a revelation in which angels celebrated the Virgin’s birth. This was also the occasion of the great Pardon of Notre-Dame de Penhors in Pouldreuzic when thousands of people descended on the seaside chapel in celebration. After mass, horses from the surrounding parishes were ridden into the sea in a yearly ritual that provided not only an opportunity to wash their hides after the heavy labours of August but also a cleansing that was believed to bring them as much health as a priest’s blessing.

The practice was still extant before the Second World War but gradually waned thereafter. Although no longer attracting the numbers it once did, the Pardon is still celebrated and continues to attract over a thousand pilgrims each year. Several examples of the ritual sea-bathing of horses at harvest-time have been noted in other parts of the Celtic fringe; leading some to suggest that the practice was perhaps a survivor of those that once formed part of the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasa.

Breton Pardon

Possibly other echoes of ancient beliefs lay hidden somewhere amongst some of the old superstitions surrounding the health of domestic animals? For instance, it was once believed that when horses were afflicted with colic, the only remedy was to have them change parishes. An agitated bull was said to immediately relax once tied to a Fig tree. To rid sheep of worms, it was necessary to attach to their necks an amulet of three or nine different kinds of wood. One cure for the highly contagious disease known as sheep pox required the farmer to steal the ear of a plough and bury it under the threshold of the sheepfold before driving his sheep over it. It was also necessary for the animals that died there to be buried to prevent the others from suffering a similar fate.

Other practices were also once widely observed: on Palm Sunday, five leaves of blessed boxwood were placed in the cows’ water to purge them; Field Eryngo or Panicaut was gathered before dawn on Midsummer’s Eve as sick animals were believed to be cured if pricked with this thistle. Likewise, three drops of wax from a Candlemas candle, dripped into their drinking water, was also said to cure sick animals.

To preserve their health, cows’ hooves were rubbed with a paste of ground herbs gathered before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day and in some places, cows’ udders were rubbed with the morning dew on May Day in hopes of the same result. To protect against witchcraft over the year ahead, it was necessary to assemble, at dawn, all one’s sheep at a crossroads on Midsummer’s Eve and smoke them with the Herbs of Saint John picked, before dawn, on the previous Midsummer. Similarly, farmers drove their cattle through the embers of the Midsummer bonfires in order to preserve them from sickness and the malice of the korrigans over the year ahead.

Sick horse footbath

Many farmers here once hung strings of Garlic in their stables to fight-off transmissible skin diseases or branches of Holly to repel cow sores. Likewise, a collar of Ash branches were placed around the neck of cattle against Foot and Mouth disease. However, the presence of a goat in the stable was popularly believed to protect the other animals against disease, evil spells and misfortune. In Brittany, the toad was frequently associated with the evil spells cast to injure livestock and in Finistère, one was often nailed to the stable door to ward-off evil. 

It was believed that certain supernatural beings took pleasure in teasing farmers; witches and korrigans were said to raid the stables after dark and ride people’s horses furiously all night long. How else to explain why the horses were sometimes found hot and sweating in the stable in the morning? Inextricably entangling the manes of horses overnight was another crime usually levied against the korrigans and the Bugul Noz. To protect the animals from the latter, it was customary to place a cross made of Rosehip branches in the stable. To defend against the mischief of the korrigans, inflated pig bladders, holding nine grains of Wheat, were hung from a stable beam. To guard against witchcraft, Elderberry branches were hung from the walls and a double-rooted Bramble fastened above the stable door.

Certain prescriptions designed to preserve animals’ health were linked to the feast days of saints; sheep were not moved on 29 November, the feast day of the 3th century martyr Saint Saturnin who died while being dragged behind a bull, lest the sheep twist their neck. Similarly, it was thought to bring bad luck if horses were worked on 1 December, one of the feast days of Saint Eloi. Conversely, other auspicious days afforded enhanced opportunities to protect one’s animals, such as on Christmas Eve when a little blessed bread was fed to the cattle and horses in the stable to ensure their health over the year ahead.

Martyrdom of Saint Saturnin

The ailments suffered by animals and the ways in which they were perceived and treated by farmers and professional veterinarians were to change considerably over the course of the 20th century.

The Fool’s Quest

First set down from the oral tradition in the middle of the 19th century, the tale of Peronnik the Idiot has often been described as a Breton re-telling of Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th century romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail. However, others maintain that the story is truly a surviving descendant of one once transmitted orally by the Celtic bards of old and that the tales of Peronnik, Perceval and the medieval Welsh romance Peredur all share the same ancient, lost source.

It is said that, in the year in which the following events took place, the great forests of Brocéliande, Loudéac and Quénécan were but one vast expanse of enchanted woodland; a primeval and magical belt around the girth of Armorica. It was to a small farm nestled close against these woods that Peronnik, the feeble-minded son of a poor widow, came one afternoon in hopes of securing a meal and perhaps a measure of fresh milk to wash it down with.

By chance, the lady of the house was scraping the remains of lunch from the sides of her cauldron when she heard the lad’s voice asking, in the name of God, for a little food. She stopped her cleaning and thrust the iron basin towards him, saying: “Here, my poor fool, eat the remainder and say a prayer for our pigs, who seem unwilling to get fat.”


Peronnik seated himself on the ground, put the cauldron between his legs and eagerly scraped its sides with his fingernails. Unfortunately, his efforts met with little reward, for the family’s spoons had done their work thoroughly. Nevertheless, he licked his fingers and made an appreciative grunt as if he had never tasted finer fare. “It is millet”, he murmured, “millet flour soaked in the milk of a black cow by the best cook in the land.”

The farmer’s wife was delighted to receive such fulsome praise: “Poor innocent,” she said, “although there is very little left, I will add a scrap of rye-bread.” So, she brought the boy a cut of bread which he bit into ravenously, declaring that it must have been kneaded by none other than the baker to the Bishop of Gwened. Flattered, the woman responded by saying that nothing elevated the taste of good bread better than a spread of freshly-churned butter and to prove her words, she brought him some in a bowl. After taking this, Peronnik declared that this was living butter, not even excelled by the butter of White Week itself. Overjoyed, the farmer’s wife quickly added a piece of dripping left over from the Sunday soup to the lad’s bowl.

Praising every mouthful, Peronnik swallowed everything as if it had been fresh spring water; for it was very long since he had enjoyed such a meal. The farmer’s wife watched him as he ate and was therefore startled to hear the sudden appearance of a horse. There, in front of her house, a powerful white mare was held at the bit by a fully armoured knight who addressed the woman; asking her for directions to the road for the castle of Kerglas. “Good Heavens, Sir,” exclaimed the farmer’s wife, “are you really set on going there?”

Mounted knight

Yes,” replied the knight, “and I have come from a land so distant that I have travelled night and day these past three months to reach this far on my journey.”

“And what have you come so far to seek at Kerglas?” asked the Breton woman.

“I have come in quest of the bowl of gold and the diamond lance.”

“These must be two very valuable things?” asked Peronnik.

“They are more valuable than all the crowns on earth,” replied the knight; “for not only will the golden bowl instantly produce all the food one could desire but one need only drink from it to be cured of all ailments; the dead themselves are restored to life by touching it with their lips. As for the diamond lance, it destroys all that it touches.”

“And who does this diamond spear and golden bowl belong to?” asked a bewildered Peronnik.

“To a sorcerer named Rogear, who lives in the castle of Kerglas,” answered the farmer’s wife. “He is to be seen every other day near the forest pathway yonder, riding upon his black mare and always followed by a young colt. No one dares molest him, for he always holds that dreadful lance in his hand.”

“Yes, that is also my understanding” replied the knight, “but the command of God forbids him to make use of it within the castle. So, as soon as he arrives there, the lance and bowl are deposited at the end of a long, underground passage, sealed by a door which no key will open; therefore, it is in the castle that I propose to tackle the sorcerer.”

“Alas, you will never succeed, my good sir,” replied the farmer’s wife. “More than a hundred gentlemen have already attempted it but not one amongst them has ever returned.”

“I know it, my good woman,” answered the knight, “but they had not been instructed, as I have, by the hermit of the Blavet.”

“And what did the old hermit tell you?” asked Peronnik.

“He counselled me on all that I must do,” replied the knight. “Firstly, I shall have to cross an enchanted wood wherein every kind of magic and deception will be put in force to terrify and bewilder me from my quest. Great numbers of my predecessors have lost themselves there and sadly died of hunger, fatigue or madness.”

“And if somehow you succeed in crossing it?” said Peronnik.

“If grace remains with me and I get safely through,” continued the knight, “I shall meet a korrigan armed with a flaming sword, which reduces all it touches to ashes. This evil korrigan keeps watch beside an apple tree, from which it is necessary that I should gather a solitary apple.”

The Tree of Knowledge-1 by Bill Bell
The Tree of Knowledge ©Bill Bell

“And then, what then?” Peronnik asked in wonder.

“Then, I shall discover the laughing flower guarded by a fierce lion whose mane is made of vicious vipers. This flower I must also gather; after which I must cross the Lake of Dragons to fight the black man, who throws an iron ball that always hits its mark and returns of itself to its master. Then I shall enter into the Vale of Delights where everything that can tempt and stay the feet of a good Christian will be arrayed before me. Once through, I should reach a raging river which has but a single ford and there I shall meet a lady clad in black whom I shall take upon my horse when she will reveal to me all that remains to be done.”

The farmer’s wife did her best to persuade the stranger that it would be impossible for him to survive so many arduous trials but he dismissed her concerns saying that a knight’s quest could not be understood by a woman such as she. Thus, after being shown the right track into the forest, the knight set off at a gallop and was soon lost among the trees.

Heaving a heavy sigh of pity, the woman shook her head, declaring that another soul had left for his judgement before the Lord; then giving another crust of bread to Peronnik, she bade him go on his way. He was about to follow her advice, when the farmer returned home from the fields. This man had just released his flighty young cowherd from his service and the sight of Peronnik was to him most welcome; he thought he had been sent the very aid he sought. After putting a few questions to Peronnik, he asked him whether he would stay at the farm to look after the cattle. Peronnik would have preferred having no one but himself to look after, for no one had a greater aptitude than he for doing nothing but what suited him. However, the taste of that meal still clung to his lips and so he let himself be tempted and accepted the farmer’s offer.

Paul Gauguin - Little Breton Shepherd

Whereupon the good man conducted him to the edge of the forest and there counted aloud all his cattle and having cut him a stout stick of hazel, bade him to bring them safely home at sunset. So, Peronnik now found himself a proper cowherd; running from the black to the white and from the white to the red, in order to keep them from straying.

Whilst he was thus running from side to side, he suddenly heard the sound of horse’s hoofs and saw on one of the tracks, the giant Rogear seated on his mare, followed by a colt. From his neck, hung the golden bowl and in his hand the diamond lance, which shone like flame. Peronnik, terrified, hid himself behind a bush; the giant passed close by and went on his way but as soon as he was gone, Peronnik re-emerged and despite looking all around him, could not tell which direction the sorcerer had taken.

Well-armed and expensively mounted knights continued to pass the farm; a seemingly unceasing passage of adventurers in quest of the castle of Kerglas. None of whom was ever seen to return. Meanwhile, the giant continued his regular forays out of the forest. Peronnik, who had at length grown bolder, no longer thought of concealing himself when he passed by but stared after him enviously for as long as he was in sight; every passing day saw the desire to possess the golden bowl and the diamond lance grow stronger in his heart. Sadly, such things are more easily desired than obtained.

One day, when Peronnik was alone minding the cattle, he noticed an elderly man with long, unkempt hair and a flowing white beard had paused at the entrance of the track through the forest. Taking him to be some fresh adventurer, he asked the stranger whether he sought the castle of Kerglas. “I seek it not, since I already know it well,” replied the old man.

“What? You have been there and the evil one let you live?” exclaimed Peronnik.

Shamok the sorcerer

“Certainly! In any event, he has nothing to fear from me,” replied the stranger. “I am Shamok the sorcerer and am Rogear’s elder brother. When I wish to visit I come here because, despite my, not inconsiderable, powers, I cannot cross the vastness of the enchanted wood without losing my way. I must therefore call his black colt to carry me.”

With these words, he used the tip of his elderberry staff to trace a pattern that resembled three overlapping circles into the dirt before him while murmuring an incantation such as demons teach to sorcerers in a voice that was barely audible. Suddenly, he snapped his head into the east wind and cried aloud: “Colt, unbroken, wild and free; I am here; Come, come and get me.” Within minutes, the black horse galloped into view and stopped, head-bowed, before Shamok. The sorcerer took out a leather halter from his canvas sack and having secured it, mounted the beast and allowed it to return home.

Not one word of this singular event did Peronnik reveal to anyone. Indeed, he had resolved to closely guard what he now knew; the first safe steps towards the castle of Kerglas lay in securing the colt that knew the way. Unfortunately, Peronnik knew neither how to trace the three circles, nor to pronounce the magic words needed to summon the colt. Some other means needed to be found to master the horse and, once it was captured, of gathering the apple, plucking the laughing flower, escaping the black man’s ball and of crossing the valley of delights.

Breton countryside

Peronnik considered the problem for a long time before one day finally deciding that success was attainable. Those who are strong, confront danger head-on and too often perish because of it but the weak need to meet their challenges with subtlety. Having no hope of braving the giant, Peronnik resolved to employ cunning and guile. He was not afraid of the difficulties that lay ahead, did not his mother always say that medlars are hard as stone when picked but always yield with a little straw and much patience.

He therefore set about making all his preparations for the hour when the giant usually appeared at the entrance to the forest. He first made a halter from black hemp and a snare to capture woodcocks, the ends of which he dipped in holy water. He stitched together a square canvas bag which he filled with a pot of glue and lark’s feathers, rosary beads, a whistle that he had fashioned out of an elderberry twig and a piece of bread crust rubbed with rancid bacon. All these items, he stashed carefully into his large travelling sack. Finally, he crumbled the bread given to him for his lunch along the path usually followed by Rogear and his mare and colt.

As anticipated, all three duly appeared at the usual hour and crossed the pasture at their customary spot. However, to Peronnik’s delight, the colt started to sniff the ground and soon identified the crumbs of bread; stopping to tease up a few morsels, the beast was quickly beyond the giant’s sight. Cautiously, Peronnik crept towards the animal; once adjacent, he quickly threw his halter over the colt and jumped upon its back. After a firm nudge from the lad, the black horse, left free to follow its own course, promptly set off down one of the wildest paths into the forest.

Entrance to the Enchanted Forest

Peronnik found himself trembling like a leaf; all the enchantments of the forest conspired to tease and terrify him. He could hear people whispering close behind him and all around were the sounds of a great beast moving through the undergrowth; above his head, the noise of some invisible bird flapping its wings in flight. One moment it seemed as if a bottomless chasm had opened-up before him; the next, all the trees appeared on fire and he found himself surrounded on all sides by walls of flames; sometimes when crossing a stream, it became a torrent and threatened to carry him away; at other times, whilst following a trail along the foot of a gentle hill, immense rocks seemed to break loose and roll towards him as if to crush him to dirt.

Terrible screams and the mad wailing of babies rent the air but all Peronnik could see were ghostly green lights moving erratically amidst the trees. Although he kept telling himself that these were the sorcerer’s deceptions, he felt his very marrow chill with fear. Finally, he decided to pull his hat down over his eyes so as not to see any more delusions and trust in the colt to lead him onwards.

In time, both thus arrived safely upon a featureless plain where all enchantments ceased and the colt’s pace markedly slowed. Peronnik pushed up his hat to survey a most barren landscape; as quiet as a grave and sadder than an unvisited cemetery. Traversing this drab, grey country, he was pained to note the plethora of rusted armour scattered about and the bleached bones of so many men who, like him, had come in quest of the castle of Kerglas. Horror and pity filled his heart when he recognised the colourful mantle worn by the foreign knight he had met just months ago; the proud knight’s broken body lay across a block of cut stone which seemed to serve as a table for the three grey wolves then gnawing at his leg bones.

At length, master and beast found themselves upon the soft grass of an enormous meadow; so broad that Peronnik could not even glimpse its boundaries. However, it was not the rich verdant expanse that captivated his eyes but the solitary apple tree that totally dominated the field; so laden with fruit that its branches hung low upon the ground. In front of the tree, standing sentinel was a korrigan, holding in his bony hand the sword of fire which reduced everything it touched to ashes.

Korrigan and the apple tree

Sighting Peronnik, the korrigan uttered a cry that sounded like that of an angry sea crow and raised his sword menacingly but, without appearing to be surprised, the lad politely took off his hat. “Do not be alarmed, little prince”, he said, “I just want to pass-by to get to Kerglas, where Lord Rogear is expecting me.”

“Expecting you? You? By my mother’s beard, who are you then?” demanded the dwarf.

“Why, I am the new servant of our master, of course; the one he is waiting for!”

“I know nothing of it, nothing at all” replied the dwarf, “and you look like a liar and a cheat to me.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Peronnik, “but that is not my calling. I am a bird catcher and I can train them too. For Heaven’s sake, do not delay me long, for our master is relying on me; as you can see, he even lent me his colt so that I might arrive at the castle sooner.”

The korrigan had indeed noted that Peronnik was riding the sorcerer’s colt and began to think that he was perhaps telling the truth. The lad looked so innocent, that one could barely suspect him capable of such quick-witted artifice; yet the korrigan remained suspicious and asked what need had the sorcerer of a simple bird catcher. “The greatest need, it seems,” replied Peronnik, “for the master said that all that ripens in the garden of Kerglas is too quickly devoured by birds.”

Unconvinced, the korrigan scornfully asked: “So, what will you do to prevent them?” In response, Peronnik showed him the little trap that he had made and declared that no bird could escape it. “Then, that is what I will make sure of,” said the korrigan. “My apple tree is also ravaged by birds; set your trap and if you catch them, I shall let you pass.”

Peronnik accepted the challenge. Tying his horse to one of the tree’s branches, he fixed one end of his snare to the tree trunk and called the korrigan to hold the other end, while he prepared the skewers. The latter did as bade; immediately Peronnik pulled the noose tight and the korrigan found himself caught like a bird. He let out a savage cry of rage and tried to pull away but the laces, having been soaked in holy water, withstood all his efforts. Peronnik picked the brightest apple he could reach and remounted his horse, which continued on its way until the curses of the korrigan could no longer be heard.

Peronnik and the korrigan

Having reached the end of the plain, the country again changed and our travellers found themselves in front of a wonderful grove composed of the most beautiful plants. There, amongst a carpet of celandine and daisy, were orchids, roses of all colours, myriad types of lush lilies, tall bird of paradise flowers, dahlias in vast congregations. Above all, rose the mysterious laughing flower around which prowled a lion with a mane of writhing vipers, grinding its great teeth like two millstones.

Young Peronnik stopped and bowed low, for he knew that in front of the powerful a hat is less useful on the head than in the hand. He wished the lion and all his kin the greatest measures of good health and prosperity and washed him in the silver words of utmost flattery before asking casually whether he was indeed on the road to the castle of Kerglas. Instantly alert, the lion raised his head of snakes high and demanded to know what business a simple man had at the castle.

Summoning his courage, Peronnik quietly explained that he was in the service of a lady, a friend of Lord Rogear, who had entrusted him to deliver a gift to the sorcerer; all that was needed to make the best lark pie in the land. “Larks!” repeated the lion, licking his moustache, “I have not tasted them in more than a century. How many do you carry?”

“As many as my sack can hold, sire, but I have also a little suet, some lard and the finest flour in Brittany. If it pleases you, I might perhaps be able to spare you a bite of good veal,” said Peronnik.

Medieval lion

However, the lion would not be dissuaded from the songbirds: “I did not ask of all that you carried. I asked how many larks you carry. You must have at least a dozen larks for a fine pie but I strongly suspect that you are carrying two or three spare birds!”

“I have only what I carry in this bag, sire,” replied Peronnik, pointing to the canvas square that he had earlier filled with feathers and glue. He continued his deception by mimicking the twittering of the larks; a call that further aggravated the lion’s keen appetite.

“Let me see,” said the lion, drawing closer, “show me your birds for I must know if they are plump enough to grace our master’s table.” Peronnik reluctantly explained that this was impossible lest the birds fly away. The lion’s yearning for the little birds was not so easily dismissed: “Do not toy with me boy! Just open it a little. Open it for me now,” demanded the salivating beast.

This was just what Peronnik had hoped for; he proffered his bag to the lion, who eagerly stuck his head inside to seize the larks and found himself entangled in feathers and sticky glue. Struggling to avoid the darting snakes, Peronnik quickly tightened the drawstring of the bag around the lion’s neck and made the sign of the cross over the knot to make it indestructible. Roaring with rage, the lion bucked wildly but luckily Peronnik was able to avoid its throes and ran to the laughing flower. Having plucked this mysterious bloom and stored it in his sack, he set forth again with all speed.


He had not travelled for long when he encountered the lake of the dragons, which he could only traverse by swimming across its breadth. Peronnik had barely entered its murky black water before they came rushing at him from all sides to devour him. This time, he did not bother attempting appeasement but immediately began throwing the beads of his blessed rosary at the fast-approaching monsters, as he used to do when throwing grain to ducks. His aim was true; the curious dragons took the bait and with each bead swallowed, one of the dragons writhed furiously in the water before rolling over onto its back, dead; and so Peronnik eventually reached the other side of the lake unscathed.

If the words of the hermit of the Blavet were true, it now remained to cross the valley guarded by the black man and sure enough a sharply v-shaped valley soon loomed into view. As he neared the mouth of the valley, Peronnik espied its guardian at the entrance, holding in his hand an iron ball which, after having struck its goal, always magically returned.

However, what struck Peronnik most about the scene before him were the guard’s six eyes; set all around his head, constantly on the lookout. Realising that, if seen, he would likely be struck dead by the iron ball before he could speak, he decided to crawl along the thicket behind the sentry who had now sat down and closed two of his eyes in rest. Judging that he might be sleepy, Peronnik started to softly sing the beginning of high Mass in a low voice. Startled, the guardian raised his head in surprise but Peronnik’s dulcet tones quickly lulled him and a third eye closed. Thus encouraged, Peronnik went on to intone the Kyrie eleison and was rewarded with the closure of a fourth eye and half the fifth, so, he began Vespers but before he had reached the Magnificat, the guardian of the valley was sound asleep.

Having quickly gathered his horse, Peronnik led it quietly through the valley and onwards into the Vale of Delights; perhaps the most difficult proceeding of all because it was now not a question of avoiding danger but of evading temptation. Fearing his resolve, Peronnik called upon all the saints of Brittany to give him the strength to resist all lures.

Peronnik's quest

The valley he now crossed was like a garden richly stocked with exotic fruits, beautiful flowers and clear fountains. However, these fountains flowed with sweet wines and liquors, the pretty flowers sang with voices as sweet as the cherubs of Paradise and the luscious fruits willingly offered themselves to Peronnik’s touch. Each deviation in the pathway was marked with massive oak tables, groaning under the weight of sumptuous feasts fit for a king. His senses were assailed by the smells drifting from the stone ovens built aside the road: fresh balls of bread, big enough for two families, and salted meats; he could even detect the distinctive aroma of his favourite delicacy, chotten (roasted pig’s head). Rushing servants seemed everywhere, setting down large platters of food and motioning him to sit. While a little further off, beautiful ladies emerged from their bathing and danced on the grass; calling him by name, they invited him to join their frolics.

It was seemingly in vain that Peronnik furiously made the sign of the cross while uttering his prayers; unconsciously, he had slowed the colt’s pace and he had involuntarily raised his nose to the wind to better catch the delicious odours of the smoking meats. To gaze attentively upon the sensuous bathers, he might have succumbed and stopped altogether, had not the memory of the treasures he sought suddenly burst into his mind. He caught himself and immediately began to blow his whistle so as not to hear the sweet voices calling him, he chewed his bread rubbed with rancid bacon so as to take his mind away from the sweet smell of the food around him and fixed his stare firmly on his horse’s ears to avoid any sight of the dancers’ charms.

Vale of Delights

In this way, he reached the border of the garden without misfortune and after travelling across open country for a spell, he finally caught sight of the castle of Kerglas in the distance. Unfortunately, Peronnik was still separated from his goal by the raging river which could only be forded in one spot. Fortunately, the horse knew where to safely cross the river and cantered to the right place. Having established the exact location of the ford, Peronnik began searching for the lady who would be his guide. He found her sitting alone on a rock some distance from the river, she was clad from head to toe in black satin; a colour that accentuated the striking yellow hue of her face.

Once again, Peronnik pulled off his hat and after a brief bow, asked her if she did not want to cross the river. “I have been waiting here for you for that very purpose,” she replied, “come closer so that I might seat myself behind you.” Now bearing the weight of two riders, the young colt entered the water and was half-way across when the lady asked Peronnik whether he knew her. The question surprised him for he was certain that he had never seen this woman before in his life: “I beg your pardon milady,” replied Peronnik, “but from your dress I can see that you are a noble and powerful person.”

“Noble, I must be,” the mysterious lady responded, “because my origin dates from the first sin and as powerful am I, for all the nations of the world yield before me.”

“Then, if it please you milday, pray tell me your name,” asked Peronnik.

Plague Witch

“They call me the Plague,” replied the yellow woman, whereupon Peronnik sprang up as if to escape into the water but the lady touched his shoulder and said to him: “Be calm, poor innocent, you have nothing to fear from me; on the contrary, I can serve you.”

“Is it possible that you can show such kindness, Madame Plague?” said Peronnik, this time pulling his hat off for good, before quickly adding: “I believe that it is you who must teach me how I can get rid of the sorcerer Rogear.”

“The magician must die?” asked the Plague.

“I think I should like nothing better,” replied Peronnik, “but he is immortal.”

“Listen closely,” said the Plague. “The apple tree protected by the korrigan is a cutting from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, planted in Paradise by God Himself. Its fruit, like that eaten by Adam and Eve, renders immortals vulnerable to death. So, try to get the magician to taste the apple and from that moment I need only touch him to bring him to death.”

“I will try,” said Peronnik, “but if I succeed, how will I be able to gain the gold bowl and the diamond lance? They are locked in a deep cave that is well secured and that no forged key can open.”

“Fear not, the laughing flower will open all doors,” replied the Plague, “and lights up the darkest of nights.”

Castle of Kerglas

Having entered through the castle’s eastern gate, the colt headed to the left and stopped before a monumental arched entrance, above which hung a large canopy marked in stripes of black and white. Beneath this cloth and sheltered from the sun, sat the giant sorcerer, contentedly smoking his gold pipe. On seeing his colt, on which Peronnik and the lady in black sat, he cried out in a voice that resounded like thunder: “By my master, Beelzebub, this fool dares ride my colt!”

“I am he, the very same, Lord Rogear, greatest of all magicians,” replied Peronnik.

“Tell me, how did you manage to take him?” asked the sorcerer.

“I simply repeated what your brother Shamok taught me,” said Peronnik, “and the little horse came at once.”

“Then you know my brother?” asked the sorcerer. Peronnik’s response was deliberately vague but seemed to satisfy the sorcerer who asked on what errand his brother had sent him hither.

“To bring you a present of two curiosities that he has received from the land of the Moors: this apple of delight and the woman of submission that you see there. If you eat the first, your heart will always be as happy as the pauper who has found a purse containing a hundred crowns in his shoe; and if you take the second into your service, you will have nothing left to desire in the world.”

“Then give me the apple and bring me the woman,” replied the sorcerer. Peronnik obeyed but the instant the giant bit into the fruit, the lady in black laid her hand upon him and he immediately fell to the ground like a slaughtered ox.

Peronnik lost no time entering the castle and rushed through the vaulted entrance hall, clutching the laughing flower in his hand. He raced through some fifty chambers before finally arriving at the silver door which marked the entrance to the sorcerer’s underground chambers. This great door swung open before the power of the flower which then lit up and allowed Peronnik sufficient light to successfully locate the gold bowl and diamond lance.

Storm over Kerglas

No sooner had he regained the fresh air than the earth trembled terribly beneath his feet, quickly followed by a dreadful rolling thunder which was punctuated with sharp thunder claps and a cacophony of simultaneous sheet and forked lightning; one powerful burst of which was so brilliant that Peronnik momentarily lost his sight. Once recovered, he saw that the castle had disappeared entirely and that he now found himself alone in the middle of a forest.

Relieved to have found himself still in possession of the two magical talismans, Peronnik set forth to find the edge of the forest, with the ultimate intention of securing an audience with the King of Brittany. Travelling southwards, he reached the city of Gwened where he stopped to buy the best clothes he could find and the finest horse in the diocese.

Arriving finally in the king’s capital of Naoned, he found the city once again besieged by the Franks, who had so mercilessly ravaged the surrounding country that there were only trees left for a goat to graze upon. Moreover, the siege had created a famine within the city’s walls and those who did not die defending their land, died for want of bread. On the very day of Peronnik’s arrival, trumpeters proclaimed at every crossroads that the King of Brittany would adopt as his heir, anyone who could deliver the city and drive the French from the country. Hearing this, Peronnik said to one trumpeter: “Make no more announcements but lead me to the King, for I can do all that he asks.”

Siege of Nantes

“You?” said the herald incredulously, seeing him so young and small: “Go on your way, little bird! The King has no time to be wasted.” In response, Peronnik touched the man with his lance and caused him to instantly fall down dead, to the great terror of all the crowd who looked on and who would have fled had he not cried: “You have witnessed what I can do against my enemies, now see the power of my friendship.” So saying, he brought his golden bowl to the dead man’s lips who was immediately restored to life.

On being informed of this miracle, the King gave Peronnik command of the city’s garrison. Armed with his diamond lance he set about the besieging forces, slaying thousands of the invaders and with his golden bowl, he returned to life the many Bretons who had been slain. Thanks to Peronnik’s efforts, the invaders were totally routed in a matter of days and their camps razed.

In tribute to his King, he then proposed to conquer all the neighbouring countries such as Anjou, Poitou, and Normandy, which cost him but little trouble. When all these lands had submitted to the King of Brittany, Peronnik declared his intention of setting out to deliver the Holy Land and subsequently embarked from Naoned at the head of a magnificent fleet which boasted the first flowers of the nobility of the land.

On reaching the Holy Land, he performed many personal feats of valour and destroyed all the armies that were sent against him. Finally, an honourable and just peace was agreed across the land and to seal it, Peronnik married the daughter of the King of the Saracens by whom he had a hundred children, to each of whom he granted a fine kingdom. Some say that, thanks to the powers of the golden bowl, he and his sons still live but others assure that Rogear’s brother, the sorcerer Shamok, succeeded in regaining possession of the talismans and that those who wish for them have only to search for them. However, gaining them might be a more difficult undertaking!

Flying Bells and Red Eggs

As the oldest and most important Christian festival, it should come as no surprise to discover that several popular traditions and superstitions once surrounded Eastertide here in Brittany.

In many households here, people would not dare to slaughter any animal on Good Friday or to sow any kind of grain. Serious misfortune was said to follow for anyone who spun yarn on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Nor was the latter popularly regarded as an appropriate day to do the laundry, for it was believed that a person who slept in a bed whose sheets had been washed on that day would be in danger of dying there within the year. Easter was also thought an unlucky time to get engaged to be married but to be assured of marriage within the year, young women once climbed to the summit of the large boulder in the churchyard of Saint Eustache’s chapel in Saint-Étienne-en-Coglès on Good Friday.

However, certain practices were positively encouraged for Good Friday. For instance, it was considered a most auspicious day for sowing cabbages and onions; the latter were said to be protected from drought and insects if sown on that day. Similarly, grilling a sardine to hang from the ceiling beams of your house on Good Friday was said to ensure the year ahead would be free from bothersome flies. Likewise, sprinkling a little broth made of pork-fat into the ponds and streams near the house on Good Friday was recommended to guard against the annoying clamour of croaking frogs throughout the coming summer.

It was also a traditionally held belief here that children needed to be washed on Good Friday in order to protect them from scabies. While the bread baked on that day was believed to hold special properties; if placed in a pile of wheat, it protected it against mice and other rodents.  

Breton calvary

It was also customary here that, on Good Friday, those who lived within striking distance of the sea visited the coast to collect barnacles and whelks. People were not despondent if it rained on the day as it was said to forecast plentiful supplies of bread in August. This was also the day that those who kept bees, placed a small cross of wax, blessed by the local priest, on top of the hives in order to secure good fortune over the year ahead. However, in some parts of the region, it was a blessed branch of boxwood that was put on each hive. This latter practice carries some similarities to the ritual observed a few days earlier on Palm Sunday, when blessed sprigs of boxwood were typically placed on the graves of loved ones and also on the strips of a family’s uncultivated land for the same purpose.

The potential of the day was also manifested in the belief that only a healer born feet first on the afternoon of Good Friday was powerful enough to straighten the spines of those people suffering from rickets. Likewise, the seventh child of a family of seven boys was thought to possess the gift to cure intermittent fever and scrofula but only on a Good Friday. While a seaweed popularly known as marine mistletoe was said to cure epilepsy but only if harvested at three o’clock in the morning of Easter Sunday by a person with a perfectly clear conscience.

Belief in the transformative power of Easter can also be seen in its employment against the supernatural. For instance, in some parts of Brittany, it was believed that werewolves could only be killed by being struck three times by a dagger made of silver melted from a crucifix or shot by a ball moulded from the same source but only if the haft of the knife or the stock of the rifle had been rubbed with wax from the Paschal candle. It was also said that even that bird of ill omen, the magpie, crossed its nest on Good Friday. Roosters born on this day were believed to start crowing unusually early and to possess the ability to foretell death, which they did by altering their usual cry. Around Saint-Brieuc, mariners once believed that fish spoke in the language of men on Easter Day.

Breton easter egg

In Brittany, the eggs laid by chickens on Good Friday were thought to bring good luck to the household and were carefully kept as talismans to protect the house against fire over the year ahead. Here, people traditionally refrained from eating eggs during Holy Week but then ate as many as a dozen on Easter Day. Care having been taken with storing the eggs laid on Good Friday as it was once believed that eating the first egg laid on that day would protect one from illness for the following seven months. As well as using-up whatever fresh eggs remained from the previous week of abstinence, eating eggs on Easter Sunday was also thought the best way to assure the fertility of the household’s domestic animals. While Easter Sunday was the day to break open the eggs, Quasimodo Sunday was traditionally the day to break apart the pots and plates that had been chipped and damaged over the previous year.

While the custom of exchanging gifts of eggs was not unique to Christian celebrations, at Easter, the egg symbolized both life and the sealed tomb which contained the body of Christ until it opened after His resurrection. Another widespread custom once associated with Easter here involved colouring, on Maundy Thursday, the eggs to be gifted on Easter Day; typically these were dyed red with boiled onion skins. We will now never know why red was most popularly used; some suggest that it was to symbolise Christ’s sacrifice, while Christian legends tells us that it was in remembrance of the miraculous tears shed by the Virgin Mary at Golgotha or in support of Mary Magdalene’s proclamation of the resurrection before the sceptical Roman Emperor.

The egg has long carried mystical connotations and was often a favourite tool of the humble healer as well as the more sinister sorcerer. Traditionally, fresh eggs were often mixed with various leaves and seeds to treat all manner of ailments but it was used on its own to treat eye diseases which were treated with the application of a very fresh, still warm, egg. An egg yolk mixed with lambig and red wine was even said to cure dysentery. In times past, the practice of transmitting a disease from the patient into an egg was not uncommon. In central Brittany, sick people would place a fresh chicken egg into the waters of the Notre-Dame-de-Lille fountain in Kergrist-Moëlou; as the egg rotted, so, the fever dissipated.

Easter bells

Sometimes, eggs served more rather diabolical purposes; sorcerers were believed to use them to cast malevolent spells that caused great harm. Thus the shells of eggs that had been eaten were customarily struck three times so as to deny one’s enemies the means of preparing an evil charm against you. Additionally, foretelling the future by inspecting the motion of egg whites in water was once popular with witches and alchemists alike; the eggs laid during the day by black hens were held to be the most effective for such oomancy, especially if consulted under the light of the midday sun.

In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, church bells were traditionally not rung between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday; a mark of mourning for the death of Christ before ringing again in celebration of the resurrection on Easter Day. According to legend, the bells did not sit idly in their towers; for, on Good Friday, they made a pilgrimage to Rome where they were blessed by the pope. They returned full of pious vigour on Easter Sunday, laden with eggs dressed as red as the pope’s cardinals, along with other treats for the children. Chocolate eggs did not really start to appear in Brittany until well into the 20th century.

Some old stories tell that the bells are accompanied on their homeward journey by hosts of angels carrying baskets filled with flowers and eggs which they disburse near the houses of the deserving. However, the spirit of darkness, ever vigilant in its quest for fresh prey, was sometimes nimble enough to slip its rancid egg amongst those gifted by God.

Easter bells fly to Rome

It is said that many years ago, in a small village located several leagues south of the market town of Guingamp, a widow and her beautiful daughter earned an honest living as seamstresses of note; such was their reputation for delivering fine results that they always found themselves busy with work. Nolwenn was now nineteen years of age and it was not just her mother who considered her as beautiful as the fairies and as virtuous as the angels; many proposals of marriage had been made to her since she had turned fifteen but her mother had always postponed the painful day that would separate her from her daughter. “You’re not ready. Wait just one more year”, her mother would say and Nolwenn was always happy to acquiesce and remain under her mother’s wing.

Returning home from mass one Easter Sunday, the two women discovered an old beggar seated at the doorway of their cottage. This beggar was unknown to the village and yet entreated Nolwenn’s charity as though he had known her for years. Nolwenn’s mother went to fetch water while, as was her way, Nolwenn donated what she could spare by way of coins and bread. On receiving her alms, the stranger, whose face remained hidden by a ragged hood, said to her in a quavering voice: “Beautiful lady, today is the greatest feast of the year, if you do not disdain the poor gift of an old beggar, take this egg, it will bring you good fortune. Before the next Easter arrives, a kindly lord will come and ask you for marriage, you will become a countess my beautiful child because it is written so. On the day of your union, break this egg and you will find within its frail shell, my wedding present to you.” As he said these words, he handed her an egg, unusually large and of a brilliant deep red hue.

Nolwenn de Kersaliou

Having thanked the beggar for his kind gift, Nolwenn watched him shuffle steadily away and took a moment to examine her egg, laughing at the old man’s prophesy as she did so. For some reason, she did not tell her mother of this most singular encounter, she merely wrapped the egg in a piece of torn cloth and placed it at the bottom of her clothes box. Her life continued as before but increasingly her mother would surprise her in some deep reverie. Unknown passions burned in her heart, enchanting dreams disturbed her sleep; several times, she even saw in her restless sleep the beggar’s egg glow a sinister red and radiate like a fiery coal in the darkness.

More than once, Nolwenn was tempted to break the egg in order to know the future but she pushed such curiosity to the bottom of her heart and instead surrendered herself to the destiny of God’s will. A short distance west of her village stood the old castle of Kraviou; dismembered during the Wars of Religion, the castle had been abandoned for centuries and its ruins long since consumed by ivy. It therefore caused much surprise in the locality when a gentleman arrived on Midsummer’s Day claiming to be the heir to the old lords and their estate. In short order, the castle was partly restored and the new lord, Rivallon de Kersaliou, established a comfortable home there, surrounding himself with friends from the city who spent their days hunting and feasting.

Kraviou castle

During one of the lord’s outings, providence conspired to set Nolwenn across his path; he espied her walking near the village fountain and was immediately stuck by her beauty and grace. Having inquired as to her name and whereabouts, it was not long before he stood upon the threshold of Nolwenn’s cottage. The haze of introductions were still floating about the air when, suddenly, the Lord of Kersaliou made a bold proposal of marriage. Nolwenn’s mother, stunned by this unexpected proposition, refused but the good lord would not be swayed and eventually, she yielded to him. Perhaps it was the improved prospects offered for her daughter’s future by a noble match that changed her mind. Whatever the reason, she gave her approval only on condition that Nolwenn herself agreed to the union.

This Nolwenn did with much eager happiness, assuring her mother that as the wife of a lord, they need never again fill every hour of daylight with labour and that her improved circumstances would allow her to donate more alms to the poor and needy. Finally, the necessary arrangements were made and five weeks later, the wedding of the noble Lord of Kersaliou and Nolwenn, the seamstress’ daughter, was celebrated on an auspicious Tuesday in the chapel of the castle in the presence of an unknown chaplain and de Kersaliou’s many high-born friends.

A Breton Bride
A Breton bride sketched in 1840

The day was filled with a wonderful banquet; a feast of such splendour as the parish had not seen before. All the inhabitants of the village were invited and there were also full tables of food set-up for the beggars and vagrants of the neighbourhood to enjoy the day’s festivities. Everyone remarked on how fine the musicians were; always sensing when to encourage another gavotte or to lead the guests into an energetic circular dance. Nolwenn’s mother, who had been to the city, said that she had never seen as many people as there were servants hurrying to and fro between the castle and the wedding feat with fresh pitchers of drink and full platters of food.

In the midst of the day’s head-spinning splendour, Nolwenn had not forgotten her Easter egg, nor the old beggar’s prediction that was now coming true. She was anxious to open her egg and had earlier arranged for her box to have been brought over to the castle and placed in the bridal chamber. With nightfall, the merrymaking and dancing slowly fell away and, little by little, the guests showered the couple with good wishes and withdrew. The newlyweds ascended the stairs together but her husband had taken just a few steps before he turned back to have words with his page while Nolwenn’s maid led her eagerly upstairs and into the most beautiful room she had ever seen.

Young Dreame

The midnight bell was striking and Nolwenn caught herself quivering with emotion when her husband, Rivallon, entered their chamber. He smiled as he walked towards her in hopes of his first husband’s embrace but Nolwenn stepped back from him, saying: “My dear lord and love, before I belong to you, as I swore before the chaplain, I want to know what is in my mysterious egg, which, almost a year ago, was given to me by a beggar who predicted the fate that favours me today. I promised to break it on the first night of my marriage because it must answer the enigma, which, for some time, has enveloped my existence and made me its mistress.”

“Why now, what is the point tonight? Today is for happiness! Would not tomorrow be soon enough? Surely, we can …,” her husband replied. However, Nolwenn could not wait to even listen to the end of her husband’s words and had already taken the egg between her fingers. Alas, the egg was so hot that, without thinking, she instantly threw it to the ground where it shattered. Immediately, an enormous toad emerged from the broken shell. The vile beast jumped on to the wedding bed, vomiting flames which set the curtains ablaze; then, with a tremendous leap, it passed through an archway and continued to spew its sulphurous fire on all sides. The fire’s surge was swift; its grip terrible. Flames consumed everything and soon a terrific crack shook the castle’s rafters which collapsed in a ghastly conflagration, returning the castle once again to ashes. Satan had gathered one more soul.

From that day to this, local people claim that during moonlit nights, the ghostly figure of the young bride can be glimpsed prowling around the castle’s ruins. Sometimes, the soft wind is said to carry the sound of her lamentable voice begging the poor of the village for their prayers, in memory of the many alms she had given them when she lived.

Fire by Wright of Derby

As you impatiently break open the delicate shells of your Easter eggs, spare a thought for the poor lady of Kersaliou and the steady path to perdition that began with a gift that was not what it was blindly hoped to be.  

Armchair Travelling – Cambodia

The onset of Spring here has brought us little respite from increased Covid infections and additional travel restrictions. This means that another virtual journey is in order and so, for Wordless Wednesday, I propose another holiday in Cambodia to revisit the fascinating Angkor Archaeological Park which contains the remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century.


It is humbling to imagine how much human history has passed by the way while these temples have stood resolute down the centuries!

Healing Herbs of Brittany

Herbs and plants once played a key role in the traditional medicine of Brittany, being employed in a wide variety of remedies to treat all manner of diseases in humans and animals. Most proprietary recipes were tightly guarded, being handed down within the family from generation to generation. However, knowledge captured from the popular memory in the early 20th century and uncovered in the old pages of witch’s spell books and folklore, allow us to construct a Breton herbal pharmacopoeia.

Traditional healers and herbalists long subscribed to the theory that the beneficial qualities of healing plants were revealed by their shape, colouring, texture and habitat; unique signatures that helped define the virtues of such plants. For instance, the yellow sap of Celandine was considered appropriate for treating jaundice; the blue of the Cornflower recalled the iris of the eye; the tubers of the Lesser Celandine were thought to resemble haemorrhoids.

In Brittany, the preparation of herbal remedies could differ from healer to healer and was also adapted to the ailment to be treated. Some plants needed to be gathered on certain auspicious days to be held effective, such as Corpus Christi for Elderberry, or collected in a certain way, such as when cutting Verbena or Broom. Most of the plants were dried for use, others were preserved by maceration in alcohol or oil, some being exposed to the sun for forty days.


Medication was typically administered according to the complaint to be treated. The most common remedies involved herbal infusions and decoctions which were either drunk or poured over the seat of the disease. For external ailments and wounds, parts of the plant were directly placed on the body or else the remedy was applied as an ointment in a plaster or as a poultice. Sometimes, plants, such as garlic, were even worn about the person to cure or protect against illness.

Medicinal plants were typically gathered from the hedgerows, forests and meadows. However, the majority of these plants were typically found around the home, where the plants were readily to hand; rarer plants would have been grown and nurtured in the healer’s garden. The picking of medicinal plants was not surrounded with the high ritual employed when gathering magical plants or the seven sacred plants of St. John on Midsummer. However, some exceptions did exist, for instance, the curative panacea Verbena or Vervain was thought most effective if gathered during the rising of the dog-star (Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky) when neither sun nor moon shone; with the left hand only after having traced a circle around the plant.

In Brittany, verbena was once ascribed a multitude of healing properties, from conquering fevers to healing snake bites. The plant’s dry leaves, finely ground and mixed with a spoonful of rye flour and two egg whites, were applied as a plaster to treat external ulcers. A decoction of its leaves in vinegar produced a mixture that was used as a compress for treating rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica and even headaches. Boiled in red wine, it was even said to be effective in treating a prolapsed rectum. Verbena leaves crushed with salt were applied to wounds to stop bleeding. An omelette made with its dried chopped leaves was eaten in expectation that it helped to heal bruises. An infusion with water was used to treat eye ailments; the leaves of the Fir Clubmoss, similarly treated, were also thought an effective remedy against eye diseases.

Gathering Herbs

Now popularly worn as a mark of remembrance for the war dead, Cornflower was another multi-purpose plant and was traditionally used here to treat eye infections; an infusion of the flowers was used to bathe the eyes and applied as an overnight compress. It was used to treat rheumatism and those suffering from stones in the urinary tracts; dried flowers were macerated in beer for eight days and the resultant liquid ingested. Dried flowers were also ground into a powder which was beaten into an egg yolk and taken twice a day to manage jaundice.

The plant known as Royal Fern was used to treat abdominal bloating in children and also hernias. A herbal tea made from Field Horsetail was thought effective in the treatment of hematemesis (vomiting blood), diarrhoea and even dysentery. Macerated in white wine for a fortnight, the plant was also said to be a potent diuretic, while a poultice placed against the lower abdomen treated incontinence. This herbal tea was also thought a good remedy for hematuria (bloody urine).

Those suffering from decreased urine output were advised to drink an infusion of Parietaria but for those suffering from urine retention, a very hot poultice of the plant was placed on the lower abdomen for as long as possible. A decoction of this plant in honey was drunk hot to treat asthma while a decoction in butter was applied directly as a hot poultice to ease neck pains. Difficulties with urine retention were also treated with Couch Grass, a noted host of the deadly scourge of the Middle Ages, the ergot fungus. The plant possessed diuretic properties, particularly when administered as a decoction with a handful of barley and a little liquorice root.  


Boxwood features heavily in folklore and in certain superstitious practices but it also had its role in traditional medicine The plant’s bark was used as a soporific and purgative while its leaves were used in several preparations. To aid digestion, a spoonful of white wine in which boxwood leaves had been macerated for eight days, was recommended before a meal. A decoction diluted with a little water was drunk before bedtime as a laxative. To sweat out a cold, the water in which leaves had been boiled was drunk every half hour for two hours. If taken every night, a daily draught of this herbal tea was also said to cure rheumatism after seven months. Rheumatism was also treated with Wood Anemone, whose leaves and flowers were ground with a little butter and massaged as a liniment into the patient’s skin.

Many of the medicinal plants of Brittany were held to possess multiple virtues, such as Elderberry; its flowers, soaked in vinegar for a fortnight, were ingested as a treatment against rheumatism; its leaves, ground with salt and vinegar, were applied as a plaster to treat minor wounds; the bark, macerated in white wine for two days, produced an infusion that was taken to treat edema (swollen limbs) and to eliminate the burning sensation while urinating with nephritis.

Preparations from Meadow Scorzonera, also known as Viper’s Grass, were used in the treatment of rheumatism and coughs. Additionally, the plant’s roots were boiled in water for half an hour and the resultant brew was drank, on an empty stomach, as a diuretic but it was also said to be effective at inducing sweating and detoxifying the blood. Water infused with Knapweed root was drank to cure kidney ailments but when macerated in white wine, its crushed seeds provided a powerful diuretic. An infusion of the plant’s flowers in water was also thought effective at treating all manner of fevers. 

Dog Rose
Dog Rose

Although a toxic plant, an infusion of Ragwort flowers in water was recommended as a treatment for coughs, asthma and even congestion. To treat a sore throat, a poultice of the plant’s leaves was placed on the patient’s throat and a decoction made of the same material used as a mouthwash. The leaves were also boiled in butter to create an ointment for treating all wounds. Stonecrop was another plant whose leaves were boiled in butter and applied as a plaster to heal ulcers and skin burns. Similarly, Wall Pennywort, also known as the Navel of Venus, was treated in the same way to cure the same problems. The leaves of this plant were thought to offer a most effective treatment for all cuts; the most common practices saw the skin of the leaf peeled-off and applied as a plaster directly to the wound, or the exposed part of the leaf was rubbed directly over the wound.

Sore throats and gum disease were also treated with a mouthwash made from an infusion of the petals of the Dog Rose but it was the plant’s rosehip that was more popularly used; chewed raw to combat intestinal worms or made into a jam to aid digestion. Dried rosehips macerated in lambig for a fortnight produced a liquid in which a cloth was soaked and then applied directly to the wound to help it heal. Rosehip juice was brought to the boil with a little sugar to create a medicine for treating diarrhoea if taken nine times a day.

Common Barbary, known in Brittany as the Grass of Saint Barbara, the 4th century Christian martyr tortured by fire before being beheaded by her father who was immediately struck by lightning, produced an effective balm for soothing fire-related wounds. Macerated for a month in vegetable oil, this compound of the plant’s leaves was also used to heal cuts and abrasions. The plant’s seeds, having been soaked in wine for four days, were used as a poultice applied to the body to treat kidney stones and liver ailments.

Medieval Herbiary

Kidney stones were also popularly treated with Common Groundsel, a plant that was thought effective in improving blood circulation and considered a powerful diuretic, purgative and anti-parasitic. Two popular remedies were noted for the plant’s leaves; a handful of which were mixed with a handful of those of the Mallow and boiled in butter for half an hour to deliver a concoction that was applied to the stomach of expectant mothers approaching labour. Those suffering from urinary retention were treated with an abdominal plaster which contained a preparation made from Groundsel leaves, Pellitory and nine cloves of Garlic that had previously been boiled together in red wine for an hour.

The flowers of the Common Marigold were used to prepare infusions and tinctures which were believed to have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Poultices made with crushed dried leaves were said to help heal wounds, ulcers and burns. The tea made with this plant was also thought effective in aiding digestion. To induce sweating, an infusion of dried Marigold flowers and Borage leaves was drunk.

To treat amenorrhea, an equal amount of Marigold leaves were ground with those of Mugwort and macerated for eight days in white wine; the remedy worked best if drunk every morning on an empty stomach in the week before menstruation was due to start. Red-Veined Dock, also known as Bloodwort, was also used to encourage menstruation but to combat heavy menstrual flow, an infusion made with the leaves or seeds of Privet was drunk.


Common Tansy or Saint Mark’s Herb was said to be a highly effective remedy against intestinal worms; its flowers were boiled in wine and the potion drunk, on an empty stomach; or else the plant’s leaves were ground with a head of garlic and applied as a plaster to the abdomen. A handful of dried leaves, crushed and boiled in very salty water, was applied as a plaster directly onto wounds in the belief that they would heal quickly without leaving a scar. An infusion of Tansy leaves was also taken to reduce fevers and to treat digestive ailments and rheumatism. The medicinal value of this plant seems to have been very broad as it was also used as an abortifacient, an insect ​​repellent and as an aid to control flatulence.

The medicinal value of Bryony, also known as Devil’s Turnip or Climbing Mandrake, has been noted since ancient times when it was said to treat neuroses. Most of the plant is toxic to humans except for its seeds; contact with the skin can cause dermatitis while ingesting its berries can have serious consequences beginning with nausea, violent vomiting and diarrhoea. A potion made from the plant’s leaves macerated in white wine not only served as a powerful purgative but was also said to be effective against kidney stones, edema, rheumatism and epilepsy. To treat sebaceous cysts, the leaves were ground with salt and applied directly to the cyst as a hot poultice for a fortnight.

The seeds of another poisonous plant, the Garden Spurge, also known as Mole Grass, were typically used as a purgative after having been crushed and soaked in vegetable oil for eight days. The plant’s sap caused contact dermatitis but was applied, daily, as a treatment for warts and to relieve bee stings. The sap of Greater Celandine, also known as Wart Weed and Witch’s Milk, was also used against warts, corns and calluses. Preparations made from a decoction of the plant in white wine were believed effective against jaundice, rheumatism and scrofula; its dried root chewed to ease toothache. Lesser Celandine or Pilewort was also employed in the fight against warts, scrofula, eye diseases and haemorrhoids. Indeed, Brittany’s most famous cosmetics and herbal care company, Yves Rocher, has its origins in a haemostatic ointment made from this plant according to a recipe given to him by a local healer just after the Second World War.

Celandine in the garden

While the earliest references to the power of Betony or Bishop’s Wort attest to its effectiveness against witchcraft, it was used here to treat all manner of wounds. The plant’s leaves were macerated in white wine for a fortnight and the resultant liquid used to bathe the wound three times a day. To treat venous ulcers or open sores, it was necessary to boil the wine for fifteen minutes and apply the mixture as a hot compress. The plant’s dried leaves were also smoked to relieve headaches.

Drinking Mint tea was said to cure children of worms but a plaster could also be made with the leaves and applied warm to the stomach. This infusion was also thought to aid digestion, stimulate urination, relieve intestinal gas and, if taken with a little vinegar, cure hiccups. Mint leaves were also crushed and mixed with wheat flour to form a plaster applied to treat engorged breasts.

Another plant popular with the traditional healers of Brittany was the Common Broom. Its flowers were macerated in a mixture of honey and water, and several spoons of this liquid were taken to alleviate fever, rheumatism and kidney stones. To treat edema, the plant was burnt and the ashes macerated in white wine for four days and dosed at the rate of one spoonful every few hours. The plant’s bark, when cut at around half the total height of the plant, was crushed and applied as a plaster to stem minor bleeding.


Garlic, roasted in the Midsummer bonfire, was believed to be a powerful medicine against fevers. Ground with salt and introduced into the ear, it relieved toothache. It was also used against intestinal worms in the form of poultices applied to the stomach and worn as an amulet around the neck to treat croup. One remedy for dealing with intestinal worms here involved boiling fifteen cloves of Garlic in oil and taking a spoonful of this potion every morning before breakfast for three days. Wounds that were not healing quickly were washed with the water in which twenty-five cloves had been boiled but to cure a cough it was necessary to drink cow’s milk containing several cloves of crushed Garlic.

A large dose of raw Onion was recommended for those suffering from kidney complaints but another remedy called for several onion bulbs, finely chopped, to be macerated in white wine for four days before being taken daily. Cooked onions were also used as a poultice against whitlow, an infection of the finger and thumb caused by the herpes virus. Raw onion juice applied to the skin was said to increase blood circulation and to relieve muscular pains.

The medicinal value of Mallow was attested as long ago as the third century BC; a worthy reputation as the whole plant is edible and rich in mineral salts and vitamins. A concoction made from the plant’s flowers was used to treat cuts, ulcers and abscesses; a hot poultice of the plant was also applied to treat sebaceous cysts. An infusion of leaves and moss was employed in a plaster against breast abscesses, while the same mixture was used as a bath to relieve swelling and inflammations. As a powerful emollient, the plant not only soothed external irritations but when its seeds were taken in a decoction it also proved an effective demulcent, soothing coughs and sore throats.

Considered a universal remedy in antiquity, Celery was used here as a diuretic and as an antipyretic (fever reducer) but it also had more unusual applications. The plant’s roots were chopped and boiled in water to treat liver complaints; its leaves were boiled in milk and drunk hot to ease asthma. Dried leaves were ground and mixed into a lump of lard to create a plaster that was applied to treat a swollen stomach.


Carrot juice was drunk as a medicine to cure sore throats and manage asthma but eating raw carrots was recommended against intestinal worms and to relieve stomach aches. An infusion of carrot leaves was used to bathe wounds and it was also said to be particularly useful in treating scalds and for healing whitlow.

Parsley was another versatile plant that was thought to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion. Its leaves were rubbed on bee stings to relieve the pain and on bruises to prevent swelling. Additionally, the leaves were chopped and mixed with salt and vegetable oil to make a poultice that eased toothache and earache. Bizarrely, a poultice of parsley was applied to the throat of those suffering from angina and to the eyes to treat conjunctivitis. The vapours of parsley boiling in salted water were used to treat women suffering from a breast abscess or swollen lymph nodes. Its juice was recommended to asthmatics and those bothered by a persistent cough, while an infusion of the plant’s chopped root was drank against liver disease.

The healing powers of Common Purslane, also known as Duckweed, were thought so strong that Pliny advised wearing the plant as an amulet to expel all evil. In Brittany, the root was typically used to treat gum diseases and intestinal worms. The juice of the plant, boiled with honey and red rose petals, was directly applied to treat haemorrhoids. Similarly, the juice of Hogweed or Cow Parsnip was also used in the battle against haemorrhoids.

common centaury

Scarlet Pimpernel or Red Chickweed boiled in honey was said to be effective against eye problems if applied as a plaster on the eyes. Although the same decoction was drank in the treatment of epilepsy. Another plant that offered very different treatments from the same preparation was Common Centaury or Knapweed; its leaves, infused for a fortnight in red wine, was prescribed as a treatment for anaemia but a mere spoonful of this same medication was also taken against worms and diarrhoea.

The roots of the Primrose, boiled in red wine, were taken to treat stones in the urinary tracts and also to combat intestinal worms. A tea made with the plant’s dried petals was drunk as a remedy for severe diarrhoea. The leaves were used as part of a poultice applied to the wrist in order to treat gout; macerated in vinegar for a fortnight, a cloth soaked in this liquid was pressed against the forehead of those suffering from extreme headaches. The flowers seemed to possess a sedative quality and were ingested to treat diseases of the nervous system and heart palpitations. Those patients seeking a more powerful soporific drank an infusion of Hemp seeds in cider.

Once popularly strewn on floors to improve the smell of the farmhouse, the herb known as Meadowsweet or Meadow Queen was used to ease rheumatism and kidney ailments; its flowers were macerated in white wine which was then drunk daily on an empty stomach. It is worth noting that the plant contains salicin; one of the active ingredients in aspirin. Another natural pain reliever was said to be Yellow Bedstraw, which, as its French name, Caille-Lait Jaune, suggests, was traditionally used to curdle milk for the production of cheese. The flowers of this plant were boiled in water and applied as a compress which acted as an astringent and pain reliever. Infused in water and ingested, the plant’s leaves also acted as a diuretic.


An infusion of Redcurrant leaves in water, taken daily before breakfast, was used to treat those with anaemia; the same concoction was drunk three times a day against diarrhoea and dysentery. Urinary problems were medicated with an infusion made from the plant’s bark. An infusion made from the plant’s berries was drunk daily by those with a fever and also measles.

To detoxify the blood and reduce swollen glands, a poultice made with the leaves of the Figwort was applied to the body. Infused in water, the leaves of the plant were also used to combat malarial fevers; as was an infusion made with the bark of the Golden Willow. The active extract of the bark of the White Willow, like Meadowseet, contains salicin. To cure a fever, it was necessary to drink, each morning and night, the potion that had been produced after the bark had been macerated in white wine for four days. To treat dysentery, the leaves were boiled in milk. Eating a few bunches of Elderberry was also said to prevent dysentery.

The Small Nettle was employed against rheumatism, sciatica and lumbago but was also used to treat ailments identified by the coughing-up of blood, such as tuberculosis or bronchitis. Some healers here advocated a nettle leaf tea while others advocated that the nettle seeds be boiled in water for thirty minutes before being mixed into a fresh egg yolk. The same concoction was recommended for treating heavy colds but drank as hot as could be borne. In central Brittany, Nettle baths to calm leg and foot pain were noted well into the 20th century, as was the practice of striking bunches of the plant against the body of a patient affected with rheumatism.

These natural remedies are not only testimony to the patient ingenuity of the healers of yesterday but also provide us with a fascinating insight into the most common ailments once faced by the people of Brittany.

Memoirs of a Breton Peasant

A fascinating insight into the popular mentalities of 19th century Brittany as seen through the critical eyes of a remarkable man; sometime beggar, soldier, farmer, bar keeper, tobacconist and paranoid vagrant. This autobiography is an absorbing account of a “long lifetime of poverty, slavery and persecution” and one that I would recommend.

The book constitutes the memoirs of a remarkable man: Jean-Marie Déguignet who was born into abject poverty in the small town of Guengat, a few miles west of the city of Quimper in July 1834. The Prefect of Finistère noted at the time that the town’s population “eats poorly, is puny and withered”. He was born just as his tenant farmer father, ruined by a series of failed harvests, was evicted from his farm. In lieu of back rent, the family of seven were forced to leave everything they owned behind and moved to a hovel in Quimper with “a bit of straw, an old cracked cauldron, eight bowls and wooden spoons”.

After two years, with the malnourished children suffering ill health, the family moved to a small cottage on the other side of Quimper where his father eked out an existence as a day labourer. Sadly, the privations of the previous two years proved fatal to two of his siblings; “two angels in Heaven to intercede with God” on behalf of the still growing family, his parents told him.

Breton family

When he was six or seven, he was kicked in the head by a horse that had been roused to anger by a bee sting. This gave him a wound that left a large scar on his temple and which suppurated for many years but he also believed the injury “contributed to the remarkable development of my mental capacities”. Begging for his meals at the farms of the locality, he would sometimes be given work as a cowherd. At nine years of age, he joined other children in learning their prayers and catechism at the home of a local seamstress. It was here that he also learned to read; there being no school in the village until 1854.

Here too, he learned some rather less edifying lessons, recounting how once the prayers and catechism were completed, the teacher and her woman friends would take turns masturbating the village idiot. If it was a day when he had not followed the children to the cottage, “the women would amuse themselves with the children, some of whom were already quite grown-up. All this with no shame or discomfort … the spinster herself, our teacher, was considered a saintly woman. […] Our Breton priests do not see much harm in these little natural things, any more than they see in drunkenness; they see much more in the moral and scientific instruction given by laymen”.

Other peculiar but popular activities, undertaken between adults, were noted by Déguignet: “The women’s favourite game was […] usually done in the big days of work, when the best men were involved in laborious tasks such as clearing the land for burning. After the noon meal, the men would take a nap around the farmyard; when the women found one isolated and sleeping soundly on his back, they tackled him four or five at a time, each jumped on an arm or a leg so that the man could not move. The fifth woman would then unbutton the breeches and fill them with mud or cow dung; it was called laka ar c’hoz and did no harm to the victim, but the other game was worse; here the woman who remained free prepared a large split stick which she opened with her two hands as one opens a trap and sprung it onto the poor victim’s penis. It was called lakad ar woaskeres and it was done openly in front of everyone, in front of groups of children who applauded and laughed aloud. […] I saw these games everywhere in various parts of Lower Brittany”.

Breton farmers

In 1844, his mother agreed that he would be able to contribute more to the family’s upkeep by devoting his attentions to begging full-time. After a six week apprenticeship with an old female beggar, he felt able to go solo but often returned home empty handed, having been robbed by other, more indolent, beggars. The potato blight of 1845 reduced the family’s circumstances still further; most poor people relied heavily on the humble potato for their meal, sometimes it constituted the only meals of the day. With the crop rotten, many went hungry; in 1846 over four per cent of the town’s population died, effectively of starvation. Thankfully, such deprivations were mitigated by a bumper buckwheat harvest that year.

In early 1851, he was able to reduce his reliance on begging for his sustenance when he became a cowherd on a model farm at Kerfeunteun near Quimper and it was here he practised writing and learned to speak French. “As soon as I was in the fields with cows, I took my pencil, a white sheet of paper and I tried to form letters. I quickly discovered that it would be more difficult to learn writing that it was to learn reading. My head learned what it heard and saw but my hand was not as skilled as my head. Used to handling heavy tools, it was not used to handling a pencil”.

A few years later, in 1854, after a brief spell as a domestic servant on the mayor’s farm in the same commune, he enlisted into the army, seeing service with the 26th Regiment in the latter stages of the Crimean campaign. With the cessation of hostilities and awaiting repatriation to France, he took the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and was very disillusioned by what he found, particularly in relation to the division and animosity evident between the various Christian Churches present there and the “shameful commerce, profanation of nature, common sense and of reason” that he witnessed.

French Infantry uniform 19th Century

Déguignet’s fourteen years of military service included several spells of active duty; times that he also used to acquaint himself with a knowledge of Italian and Spanish. In 1859-60, he served in the 26th Regiment as part of the Franco-Piedmontese force fighting against the troops of the Austrian Empire in Lombardy. Having re-enlisted into the 63rd regiment, he served in pacification operations in Algeria in 1862-65 and subsequently volunteered to join the French military expedition to Mexico in defence of Emperor Maximilian in 1865-67. Demobilised the following year, he returned to Ergué-Gabéric with hopes of farming a smallholding and keeping bees in the Odet Valley.

“When I described (in 1868) my plan to live in the Odet Valley, my uncle told me the valley was still haunted by ghosts and korrigans and that the old groac’h (witch) still ruled there. He said he had seen her many times. In those times, everyone had seen ghosts, miserable souls caught in some swamp, in a nook of an old house or in the hollow of a tree trunk”.

Unfortunately, he was unable to show his contempt for such superstitions by realising his dreams of a move to the Odet Valley. His homecoming as an eligible bachelor made him prey to his needy friends and relatives and he very quickly found himself pressured into a marriage with a widowed farmer’s daughter from nearby Toulven in October 1868. She was nineteen, “strong and beautiful” and, now married, responsible for her mother and younger siblings. Their family farm had been badly neglected but, in time, Déguignet seems to have successfully turned it into an efficient and profitable enterprise.

Breton family

In 1879, a beggar burnt down the farm in an attempt to conceal a theft, his drunken wife and the local priest loudly proclaimed that the fire was Heaven sent; punishment for his blasphemies and lack of faith. The arsonist, apparently a friend of the local priest, was not charged; an inaction that affirmed Déguignet’s belief in the corrupt power of the clergy. However, he was taken aback by the kindness of his neighbours who donated linen and kitchen goods to replace those lost to the flames: “Even the seigneurs at the chateau, my mortal enemies, gave us many things; most importantly, they gave us the essentials of shelter and beds”. Having lost none of his herd or any farm equipment, Déguignet resolved to continue farming.

Unfortunately, his reputation locally as an anti-clerical, republican agitator proved his undoing when it came time to renew the lease on his farm and his truculent opinions and quarrelsome nature made it impossible to secure a tenancy elsewhere in the parish. Unfortunately, just as he faced eviction, he was run over by his own cart and subsequently bedridden for over two months.

During his incapacity, his wife leased a bar in Quimper at twice its value, Déguignet was certain that it “would not last six months, even if her alcoholic insanity let her live that long”. With his wife drinking away the bar’s meagre income, he took a position selling insurance to farmers around Quimper; he no longer being healthy enough for farm work. His wife lived longer than he forecast but it was not too long before he noted: “I saw that it was all over. My wife had fallen from moderate madness into furious madness, we had to tie her up and two days later the doctor told me that she had to be taken to the asylum else she would certainly commit some misfortune”. With his wife’s early death in 1883, Déguignet was left to bring up their four surviving children alone.

Chateau de Toulven

Later that year, he was able, as an ex-serviceman, to secure a licence to sell tobacco in Pluguffan but, echoing his knack of alienating people in Toulven, after three years, his tenancy agreement was cancelled and other possibilities for renting a shop were thwarted by the pressure applied by the local priest. He left Pluguffan in 1892 and spent the rest of his life lodging in attics in and around Quimper; sleeping on a bed of straw, surviving on a diet of black bread and potatoes. A failed suicide attempt in April 1902 saw Déguignet compulsory placed into the care of the lunatic asylum in Quimper where he was diagnosed with persecution mania. Discharged after a few months, he would undergo repeated stays until his death there in August 1905.

Although reared amidst what he called the ignorance and superstition of a deeply religious rural Brittany, the demobbed sergeant who returned to Brittany was not the young cowherd who had left; years of travel, interactions with diverse groups of people and a voracious appetite for knowledge had changed him forever. He was now a confirmed atheist and free-thinker, who rejected the religious and superstitious world in which he had been brought up. A rationalist, he described himself as “a republican of the most advanced sort and in religion a freethinker, a philosophic friend of all humanity … the declared enemy of all gods, who are only imaginary creatures and priests who are only charlatans and knaves”. He felt that he was separated from his countrymen by two crucial factors: his exposure to the wider-world and having been kicked in the head by a horse as a child. 

Déguignet’s intimate understanding of his countrymen meant that he was well aware of the challenges and limitations of rural Breton society, of which he was a keen observer. He was critical of those who had children without the means to support them and was honest enough to acknowledge this was a failing that he himself shared: “There was one wrong I blame myself for, a wrong that many commit unthinkingly. I knew I had committed a grave fault in bringing creatures into this world before I was sure there was a place for them and that I could give them the means to survive here”.


Alienated from his children, whom he believed had turned against him under the influence of his former in-laws, he was hurt that his eldest son did not invite him to his wedding in 1900 but barely mentions the deaths of the five children that predeceased him.

Although he considered his stoicism a virtue, he deplored the fatalism of his fellows and their seeming acceptance that little could be done by the common people, who he described as ignorant, dull witted and cowardly, to help themselves. Sometimes, his observations are more balanced, even prescient when he highlights the social changes likely to arise from the increased canning of food and the unemployment sure to follow the march of mechanisation. He also denounced the excessive felling of ancient woodland.

Déguignet held strident anti-establishment views which he attributed to his superior cognitive capabilities and seems to have never knowingly missed an opportunity to denigrate the clergy and officialdom. His anti-clerical views are particularly trenchant and his memoirs are littered with invective bemoaning the superstitious grip they held over the people. For Déguignet, tolerating the opinions of others was not a consideration: “Let us rid humankind of all these scoundrels, swindlers, liars, idlers, infectious parasites, vampires, bloodsuckers, deceivers and thieves” being typical of his views.

Peasant costume of Quimper 1900

In his writing, Déguignet’s anguish is plain and he appears to revel in his misery, seeing it as the inevitable price to be paid for his non-conformity and independent thought. He often seems to blame the misfortunes of his life on others and this is particularly noticeable in the latter half of his memoirs. He sees conspiracies against him everywhere; orchestrated by the priests, the town hall, landowners, business rivals, his in-laws and even his own children. He does not seem to consider that his vociferous antagonising of people who held contrary views to his own might not always serve his best interests in managing relationships with others. Déguignet described himself as a man “always quicker to forgive than condemn” but there is precious little evidence in his memoirs to support this.

Déguignet criticised those lately interested in Breton culture and folklore as “monarchisto-Jesuitico-clericoco-Breton regionalists” and claimed that: “Your goal would be to lock the poor people of Brittany into their primitive old traditions, their barbaric language, their foolish beliefs, so that … you can go on forever exploiting them, sucking from them as much juice as possible”. He was amused by what he regarded as the naivety of the nation’s folklorists, reserving particular scorn for the Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, whom he believed had reneged on a promise to publish his memoirs. He claimed that the collectors of local folklore had been duped by imaginative locals eager to exchange stories for a few drinks.

One particular target was the old tales, collected by Le Braz, featuring the Ankou, the Breton personification of death. To Déguignet, the only explanation for the Ankou “comes from the same source as all Breton legends; Christian missionaries and their successors, Catholic priests. Ankou comes from the word anken, ankrez, which means anxiety, fear; a word which very well characterises the executor of high divine works”. While this theory of a post-Christian origin for the Ankou has been proposed by others, his comments on the festivals of Saint-John (24 June) and Saint-Peter (29 June) celebrated in 19th century rural Brittany are more intriguingly unique.

Saint John's fire

“When I read the stories of these researchers of Breton legends, I am more and more certain that they have seen nothing of what they report and that they have been mystified and misled in everything by clever drunkards. I do not see anything in their accounts which conforms to reality. Thus one of them, speaking of the feast of Saint John, says that the peasants gather around a fire in the evening to say graces and that it is called tantad. No, that is not how it was. […] There were two fires and thus two nocturnal feasts not one; the first is, Tan San Yan in whose honour it was lit and the other, five days later, was called Tan San Per. These nocturnal feasts often lasted from sunset until midnight.

We announced the feast by gunshots, then loud blows on large copper basins and we played music there that I never saw played anywhere else. We put a basin on a tripod then took two very long meadow rushes and placed them across the basin at the bottom of which we put water. Then, a milkmaid would take these rushes that another held on the edge of the basin and pull on them by sliding her fingers all the way, as she would have pulled on the teats of a cow. The basin would start to tremble on the tripod, then two or three other women holding keys suspended from threads put them in contact with the interior of the basin. These keys of different sizes made different notes by their vibration on the edge of the bowl. All this made extraordinary music which could be heard from one end of town to the other, especially when, in the large villages, several basins of different size and thickness were used”.

Déguignet 1870
Déguignet, aged 36, in 1870

The only contemporary description of Déguignet we have comes from Anatole Le Braz, who met him in December 1897: “A man of about sixty years, still very lively in appearance and manner, fairly small, short legged with hulking shoulders, the classic type of Quimperois peasant, dressed in the local style and bearing all the external markers of such a man, except for one detail instead of the shaven face of his fellows, he let his tow-coloured beard grow freely and it bristled his face with its untended brush. He wore wooden clogs and his clothes were worn but clean.

There was a certain bitter harshness to his voice. Great was my surprise to hear a peasant from Lower Brittany speak with such casual disrespect about beliefs that may be the most profoundly rooted in the heart of the race. He saw my amazement and, levelling upon me the clear gaze of his grey eyes hooded by a canopy of thick brows, said: Ah, well, you see I am a peasant who has moved about a good deal, whereas the others have stayed put”.

It was towards the end of his life, between 1898 and 1905, that Déguignet, out of boredom and frustration, re-wrote and expanded his memoirs which he introduced thus:  “I know that at my death there will be no one, neither kin nor friend, to come shed a few tears over my grave or to say a few words of farewell to my poor corpse. I imagined that, if my writings should fall into the hands of strangers, they might win for me a little of that kindly feeling I have sought in vain throughout my lifetime”.

A Breton peasant

The publication of Déguignet’s autobiography has a long history behind it. In 1897, Anatole Le Braz secured from the author, the rights to publish his memoirs which were eventually serialised in the weekly literary magazine Revue de Paris in 1904-5. However, these edited extracts only took Déguignet’s story up to 1861 and it was not until 1962 that a local historian managed to trace Déguignet’s grand-daughter and, to his delight, discovered a second manuscript of the memoirs along with a collection of poems and writings on philosophy and mythology. In the following year, extracts from these works were published by the historian Louis Ogès in the Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Finistère. An appeal for more information in 1984 was answered by Déguignet’s great-grandson whose family had retained the notebooks and their 4,000 pages of closely written text.

Deciphering and editing these works proved a challenge; written mainly in French, the text is littered with writing in Breton, Italian, Spanish and Latin. In 1998, a heavily edited account of Déguignet’s life story was published as Memoires d’un Paysan Bas-Breton; a complete edition, Histoire de Ma Vie: L’Intégrale des Mémoires d’un Paysan Bas-Breton, over twice the length of the initial book, appeared in 2001. The 1998 French edition was translated into English by Linda Asher and published as The Memoirs of a Breton Peasant in 2004.

There is no more fitting way to end this post than to leave the last words to Déguignet and his final journal entry, dated 6 January 1905: “I end by wishing mankind the power, or rather the will, to become true and good human beings capable of understanding one another and getting on together in a society that is noble and happy”.

Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this: