Folk Medicine of Brittany

The folk medicine and traditional remedies of rural Brittany changed little over the centuries; a fascinating blend of ancient superstitious practices, naturalistic beliefs, witchcraft, religion and empiric medicine. In an earlier post I highlighted some of the popular herbal treatments once used in the Breton countryside; this post will therefore focus on other traditional natural remedies once found here.

Some of the old folk remedies seem fairly benign, for instance, skin diseases were often treated by rubbing the affected area with a handful of oats which were then allowed to dry; the scabs were said to disappear as the oats dried. However, other treatments required a strong constitution and a deep conviction in the efficacy of the healer; one cure for rheumatism and gout involved scoring the patient’s soft palate and tearing out a piece of mucosa lining before gargling with salt water, while one remedy for toothache involved chewing sea holly as the healer recited a special charm nine times before invoking the 3rd century Christian martyr, Saint Appollonia.

In another popular remedy, a roasted hazelnut, as hot as one could bear, was applied directly to treat a diseased tooth but some healers recommended the application of an earthworm that had been reduced to ash on a hot shovel. One cure for jaundice recommended infusing earthworms and woodlice in white wine for twenty-four hours before drinking the resultant beverage for three consecutive mornings before breakfast. Another treatment for curing the same ailment called for goose droppings; dried and ground, stirred into a bowl of white wine and drank before breakfast for nine consecutive days.

Folk healer

Chicken droppings were used as a poultice against toothache and to prevent the formation of abscesses. This remedy was also believed to combat inflammation but to treat such an affliction, an ointment made of honey and an equal amount of dirt from a swallow’s nest was often applied. One practice, noted at the end of the 19th century, for treating the swelling caused by toothache, involved the application, upon the swollen cheek, of a poultice of freshly expelled cow dung. However, human faeces, provided that it was freshly expelled and still warm was considered more efficient.

Many other ailments were once treated with animal ordure here: an application of fresh cow dung was used in the treatment of angina while a handful of dung, infused for twelve hours in a pint of urine, was held to be effective against tumours. A poultice of warm cow dung was also used to treat tonsillitis and to relieve strains. Similarly, an application of pig dung was said to have been an effective means of relieving strains. A pint of white wine, infused for twenty-four hours with horse dung, was taken as a cure for pleurisy. To aid a pregnancy, an application of bull’s dung or a pessary of mouse droppings were recommended; dried and powdered mouse droppings were also used in the treatment of epilepsy.

Another medicine used to treat epilepsy was made from the legs of twelve moles that had been boiled in vinegar until completely desiccated. Once dried, this compound was ground to a powder which was added to jam and taken every morning before breakfast during the three days before the new moon and for the three days following its appearance. The healing power of the mole was also witnessed in the belief that the hand in which a live mole had been squeezed to death, while still warm from contact with the animal, was thought able to immediately cure all toothache and colic, while mole skin placed on a baby’s fontanel was said to encourage strong dental growth.

A Breton Girl

Similar to the belief in the healing power of herbal amulets, wearing certain items against one’s body was also thought to combat sickness. A ring made from a piece of nail taken from the foot of a donkey was worn on the finger to treat epilepsy although some folk recommended pressing the nail from a crucifix against the patient’s arm. A bag containing the tongue of a mole was carried by those wishing to recover memory lost following an illness and a necklace of limpets was worn around the necks of children at night to protect them from intestinal worms.

Typically, spider webs were applied to a wound to halt bleeding and to preserve it against infection, while the ear stone of a carp, placed against the fold of the little finger, was said to stem the most impetuous flow of blood. Sometimes, blood itself seems to have had value, as the blood from the tail of a black cat was thought to have healing properties if rubbed directly on the seat of the disease.

Water and stone once held significant positions in the old folk remedies of Brittany, while the practices associated with them may have altered and adapted with the Christianisation of the region, their importance was still noted late into the 19th century. I have already looked at the popular use of sacred springs as a source of healing, so, will not repeat that earlier post here. Suffice to say that people would visit certain springs and apply the water to their body or else drink it in expectation of a cure. These sacred springs often cured quite specific ailments and were usually associated with particular ‘healing saints’ and rituals.

Healing Fountain

For instance, those suffering from migraines would visit Saint Gildas’ fountain in Carnoët to drink its water; the 6th century saint was also invoked against madness, toothaches and rabid dog bites. In eastern Brittany, to cure a fever, one needed to collect water from a fountain at sunset, leave it in a glass outside overnight and drink it at sunrise the following day. This is notable because the tradition was not tied to a particular spring; any source was believed effective, provided the ritual was observed.

In western Brittany, one means to be rid of rheumatism required the patient to strip naked on the outbreak of a storm and lie on their stomach, under the rain, for as long as the downpour lasted. Another treatment from the same area, recommended rolling the affected limb on the ground immediately upon hearing the first cuckoo song of the year, while a more practical remedy involved the application of the fat of a badger. In the east of the region, another water-based remedy held that anyone who could gather the first drops of rain that fell on Saint Lawrence’s Day (10 August) was assured a cure for any burn.

Belief in the healing power of stone was once widespread here and numerous rituals connected with healing stones were noted as extant in Brittany at the end of the 19th century. For instance, youngsters would rub their loins against the stele in the churchyard of Saint Samson in Pleumeur-Bodou in the hope of improving their strength while men would rub their shoulders against the menhir in Landunvez for the same purpose. To ward off rheumatism, people rubbed their backs against the leading stone of the dolmen at Guimaëc and on the menhir in the churchyard at Saint-Guyomard.

Christianised Menhirs

The feet of children who had difficulties walking were placed into the small depressions found on a rock near Ménéac, while the mother placed her foot and knee in another hollow; divine healing was thought assured in the belief that these depressions had been made by the Virgin Mary. Another healing stone was found 50km south in Plumergat where those suffering from colic invoked Saint Stephen while lying on a stone basin. Weak children were taken to the church at nearby Pluneret and placed on a quartz block known as the Boat of Saint Avoye in expectation that they would be imbued with strength from the 3rd century Christian martyr. Touching a stone near the Saint Egarec chapel in Lampaul-Plouarzel was believed to heal ear problems.

Warts were clearly a popular concern in yesterday’s Brittany as they were the focus of several prescriptions. One remedy called for the warts to be rubbed with fluff found fortuitously upon a path or with a large red slug. In some parts of the region, it was important that the slug was then impaled upon a thorn or on the tallest stalk of cereal that remained standing after harvest; the warts were believed to disappear as the slug dried-out. Rubbing the tail of a black cat over warts was also said to help them disappear but only if done under the new moon in May.

Other treatments for warts appear to have been vestiges of quite ancient practices where the ailment was magically transferred from its human host into another being or even an inanimate object. For example, one cure called for as many pebbles as there were warts to be placed in a small bag that was then tied shut and left on a road. The curious passer-by who subsequently opened the bag was believed to take-on the warts that would have immediately left the original patient. A similarly underhanded way of ridding yourself of warts required having them counted by some naive person in the expectation that they would absorb all that they could count.

A Breton Peasant

Some traditional remedies were a little more unusual, as another cure for warts required the sufferer to cut a pigeon’s heart in half and rub the warts with both pieces before tying them together in a fig leaf; as they rotted, the warts were expected to disappear. Some healers believed an apple was as effective as a pigeon’s heart, while others said that the apple needed to be buried at the foot of a walnut tree. Around Rennes, peas were thrown into a sacred spring on the sighting of the rising sun in the belief that the warts would disappear as the peas rotted.

The custom of throwing peas into water sources and wells, with the intention of getting rid of unpleasant growths, was once quite widespread in Brittany. In the east of the region, it was believed necessary to throw them with your eyes closed and without the ritual being witnessed by anyone. Peas were not the only object thrown into a sacred spring to rot in expectation of a cure; a barley grain was thrown in hope of getting rid of a stye around Fougères, while a chicken egg was used about Rostrenen to be rid of a fever.

Another means of transferring a fever involved de-shelling a hard-boiled egg and pricking it in several places. After having soaked it for three hours in the patient’s urine, it was then given to a person of the same gender in the belief that the recipient of the egg would acquire the fever. In some areas, the film of an egg, placed around the little finger of a feverish patient, was also thought to absorb the fever.

Eggs in medicine

On the isle of Sein, those suffering with a fever wrapped nine pebbles in a cloth that was then tied and placed at the foot of one of the two menhirs popularly known as The Talkers; whoever picked-up the cloth was said to take on the fever. However, to treat chest infections in central Brittany, nine white stones gathered from a road where a funeral had recently passed were boiled in milk; the patient drank the milk and pressed the stones against their chest.

Other treatments against fevers once noted in central Brittany ranged from the bizarre to the unusual. One remedy recommended preparing a small roll of bread with the urine of the sick person and once baked, it needed to be fed to a dog three times; the fever was then said to leave the patient and be absorbed by the dog. Another cure called for a freshly killed and quartered magpie; two hot pieces of the bird were applied to the kidneys, the other two to the soles of the feet. A perhaps more palatable belief held that nail scrapings, absorbed in a glass of water, cured the most vigorous fever.

Cures involving birds were found in other parts of the region; in the west, the fat of a gull killed on a Friday was rubbed onto the chest of the patient to cure a fever. For a stubborn fever, a pigeon was cut in half; the pieces were applied to the soles of the patient’s feet, the bird’s head being turned towards the heel. The application of a freshly killed and halved pigeon was also noted in the treatment of meningitis.

Bread Oven in Brittany

The ever-present threat of succumbing to a fever can be glimpsed by the plethora of popular remedies and superstitious recommendations that were once widespread here. Drinking from a bucket of water after a horse had drunk from it was thought to fight off a fever by strengthening the patient’s constitution. Those who managed to receive three sprinkles of holy water in three different parishes on the same Sunday or who drank holy water on the eve of Pentecost, or who exposed themselves naked to the rising sun while reciting a certain number of Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers, were thought assured of defeating their fever. Alas, the reasoning behind the practice of stealing a cabbage from a neighbour’s field and putting it to dry in a rack in one’s barn eludes me.

In eastern Brittany, snails that had been de-shelled were applied as a poultice to the soles of the feet of patients suffering from typhoid. Crushed snails were also applied directly as an ointment to treat whitlow while the juice of a crushed snail was applied into the ear as a treatment for deafness. In the west of the region, ear infections were treated with a drop of milk expressed directly from the breast of a nursing mother into the affected ear; a practice still noted in the 1930s.

One treatment for tuberculosis required that a crayfish be pounded alive and macerated in white wine overnight before being drunk. However, this remedy was not as unpleasant as another 19th century treatment for easing the plight of those suffering from this dreadful disease which recommended that patients visited their garden at dawn and swallowed all the dewy slugs they found alive there.

Toads in folk medicine

The notion of transferring disease from a human patient into another being can also be seen in the old practice of bandaging a live toad over a cancer in the belief that it would consume the disease. An appropriately sized toad was bound over the cancer for twenty-four hours and replaced with another if the cancer had not been completely eaten. In eastern Brittany, a toad was sometimes placed in the room of a feverish patient to absorb the fever and toads were placed in the beds of those afflicted with smallpox in the belief that their presence would prevent the patients from being scarred.

To treat eye ailments, some healers employed nine grains of wheat, begged from nine different houses. Each grain was used to trace a cross on the patient’s eyelids while certain charms were recited but some healers circled the affected eye nine times with each grain, reciting a charm at the end of each revolution. Both rituals were completed with the grains being plunged into a bowl of water which was then thrown into a fire. A more popularly used treatment for eye diseases involved the application of freshly laid, still warm, eggs but another remedy involved exposing the infected eye to the smoke produced by roasting a live snake on hot coals.

In the 17th century, the soil of Île Maudet, infused in a bowl of water, was widely taken as a cure for intestinal worms; the north coast island is named after the 6th century saint who is said to have once cleared it of snakes. By the mid-19th century, the island’s soil was also popularly used as a remedy against snake bites, eye diseases and skin complaints. The saint was also invoked to cure knee swelling and sufferers would visit the chapel dedicated to him in Haut-Corlay to take a handful of soil which they applied as a compress before washing the limb in the saint’s fountain nearby. At the saint’s fountain near Josselin, it was necessary to locate an earthworm and place it on the body; the ailment was cured if the worm died, otherwise, the ritual needed to be repeated.

Night in Brittany

The practice of transferring a disease to the land itself was also noted here. To cure whitlow, it was necessary, at nightfall, to go to a crossroads and press the infected hand upon the ground. This sod of earth was then cut-out and lifted, leaving a cavity in which the patient placed his hand for a few moments before leaving a coin and covering it with the overturned sod. The disease was now thought to heal but only if the patient had not been seen by anyone.

The belief that one could get rid of disease by visiting an anthill was once found in several parts of France. Along the Breton border with Normandy, urinating on an anthill for nine consecutive days was said to cure the patient of jaundice. However, typically an object, such as an egg boiled in the patient’s urine, believed to contain the disease was buried in the anthill; healing took place as the egg rotted. Clearly, some mystical power was once associated with anthills here as it was also said that one could conjure the Devil if, during the night of a full moon, one placed a green frog on an anthill and invoked certain charms.

The milk of a white mare was thought effective in treating whooping cough but in the south-west it was believed that it was possible to grind-out whooping cough. This was achieved by taking the sick child to the first mill in the neighbourhood, the child was placed on the hopper and the millstone set in motion. It was at this moment that the person who had brought the child recited a series of charms and the whooping cough was magically ground-out of the body. Another curious example of magical healing was seen in a cure for epilepsy, where it was necessary to place the patient in one of the balances of a scale and their weight of rye in the other.

Church in Brittany

In the late 17th century, several churches in Brittany were noted for having masses said to cure or preserve people from diseases and illness. While there may be nothing too unusual in that, the rituals noted at these masses formed no part of Church dogma; people offered crooked pins upon the altars and nodded their heads three times in a cupboard or in an alcove near the altar. Even into the 20th century, one of the altars of the Saint Mériadec chapel in Plumergat was the repository for three black and white quartz stones which people rubbed against their temples to be cured of headaches. Similarly, the chapel of Saint Egarec in Briec was home to nine stones shaped like ears that were applied against the ear as a cure for ear problems. Those suffering from hearing difficulties could also visit one of four chapels that possessed healing hand-bells that were rung over the patient’s head in expectation of a cure.

If most of these traditional treatments appear incredulous to us today, it is because we are unable to properly enter the mind-set and world view of the Breton peasant of yesterday. Even into the inter-war years, most rural dwellers depended more upon the herbal remedies and traditional medicine, long used in their communities, than upon the professional doctors of the cities. Crucially, people believed in the efficacy of their local healers and trusted in the power of their treatments. Shakespeare once wrote that “the miserable have no other medicine but only hope”; sometimes, hope goes a long way!

The Lore of the Drowned

Surrounded on three sides by the wild ocean, Brittany has always enjoyed a special relationship with the sea. It has long played an important part in the life and soul of Brittany; its waters have nourished and sustained generations of Bretons since time immemorial but the bargain has sometimes been cruelly struck. A point that is well made in an old Breton saying that tells: “Who trusts the sea, trusts death.”

By its very nature, folklore often differs quite distinctly from village to village and can be riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. The traditional lore surrounding the drowned in Brittany is no different but there are many areas of commonality across the region. While the cries of the dead were feared and even resented, the dead themselves were profoundly pitied by the living. Generally, those claimed by the sea showed no ill will towards those still living whom they often helped by warning of approaching danger.

In Brittany, there once existed a widespread belief that the drowned whose bodies were not found and subsequently buried in consecrated ground, raged forever along the shores, begging for a Christian burial. It was said that these lost souls could be heard at night lamenting among the rocks and deadly coastal reefs; they were popularly known as the krierien-noz (night screamers) on account of their infernal wailing.

Brittany shipwreck

One of the most widely known night screamers was known popularly as Yannick an Aod (Little John of the Shore), whose calls were heard all along the western coasts at night, imitating the cries of people in distress in hopes of attracting people into the water and their doom. Children were cautioned to never tease Yannick by answering his cries; those foolish enough to do so, risked certain death. It was said that if you answered him once, Yannick jumped half the distance separating you, in a single leap. If you answered him again, he would jump half the remaining distance. If you answered a third time; he broke your neck.

On the isle of Sein, the souls of the drowned were known as the krierien and their cry was said to announce an impending storm. Likewise, the ghosts of seven drowned fishermen were sometimes reported on the island; the crew appeared as if they had just been shipwrecked, their oilskins still dripping wet. Locals claimed that the ghosts always appeared in order to warn the living of an approaching storm and of the necessity of removing their boats from the water.

Some 55km east, around the south coast town of Quimper, it was believed that storms never subsided until the bodies of those who had drowned had been cast ashore. Sometimes, however, the sea refused to yield the bodies for burial and the drowned cried in rage and howled in despair whenever the raging sea pulled their rolling bones away from the shore.

the drowned of Brittany

It was said that those who drowned off the western coast of Brittany were carried by the currents to the Baie des Trépassés (Bay of the Dead in English or Bae an Anaon in Breton) on the Atlantic coast. Here, some desperate souls would emerge from the sea and walk in slow procession to the little chapel near the port of Vorlen. One legend tells that a fisherman, who had moored his craft for the night, noticed lights on the beach and a line of people walking towards the church. He took off his hat and followed them but when he tried to enter the church, the former rector, dead for fifteen years, put his hand on his shoulder and told him to go home because this was no place for the living.

Another once popularly held belief about the bay said that, when the moonlight cast its glow at a particular moment during the nights of Halloween and Christmas Eve, one could see, in the cold waters of the bay, tens of thousands of heads breaking the surface of the waves; their outstretched arms begging for deliverance.

In a rather more poetical fashion, the Breton author, Émile Souvestre, recounted of the bay: “On the Day of the Dead, the souls of the drowned rise to the top of each wave and we see them running on the crest like a fleeting foam. Each passing wave carries a soul, seeking everywhere the soul of a brother, a friend or a beloved; when they meet face to face, they cast a sad whisper and pass, necessarily driven by the flow they must follow. Sometimes, a confused, prodigious noise quivers on the bay; an inexplicable mixture of soft sighs, hoarse moans and plaintive cries that whistle on the swell. These are the souls who talk and tell their stories.”

drowned Brittany

Those who had drowned without carrying the stain of sin were said to eventually be carried to a sea cave a little further along the coast near Morgat. Here, their souls stayed for eight days before finally leaving for the Otherworld. Death was assured to anyone who might have the temerity to venture into this cave and disturb their sacred penance.

Other legends are associated with the Bay of the Dead; it was traditionally believed that this was the point of embarkation for the ancient druids who were buried on the isle of Sein. This early belief may have fed into the more recent traditions that held that, on moonless nights, hosts of the dead waited in silence for the appearance of the Bag an Noz or Boat of the Night.

One local legend tells that, on certain nights, a powerful voice carried over the bay, calling a local fisherman by name; the only man able to hear this voice. The man was not surprised by the call for it was a secret his family had carried for countless generations; he was the hereditary helmsman of the Boat of the Dead. Arriving at the shore, he found the seemingly empty boat lying heavily in the water and cast off quickly. Immediately upon landing on the isle of Sein, he felt it lighten and rise on the water as his passengers disembarked. On his return to the bay, the boat seemed as a shadow and disappeared completely once he set foot ashore.

Drowned tapestry

Tales of a boat of the dead have long been associated with Brittany; the 6th century Byzantine historian, Procopius reported it thus: “The fishermen and other inhabitants of Gaul who are opposite the island of Britain are responsible for ferrying souls there and for that service are exempt from tribute. In the middle of the night, they hear a knocking at their door; they get up and find on the shore foreign boats where they see no one and yet seem so loaded that they appear on the point of sinking, rising but an inch above the water; an hour is enough for this trip, although, with their own boats, they can hardly do it in the space of a day and a night. The boat speedily unloads and becomes so light that it only rides its keel in the waves. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see anyone but they hear a voice on shore calling out the name and style of those who had disembarked.”

Well into the 19th century, several traditions of ships of the dead were still recorded in various parts of Brittany. Émile Souvestre, writing in 1835, noted that near Saint-Gildas, fishermen of bad character who cared little about the salvation of their souls, were awakened at night by three knocks struck on their door by an invisible hand. Compelled by some supernatural force, the men go to the shore where they find long black boats which seem empty and yet are sunk into the sea to wave level. As soon as they board, a large white sail hoists itself to the top of the mast and the boat leaves the port, as if carried away by a rapid current.

Tradition held that these vessels, laden with cursed souls, did not reappear on the shore and that the fishermen were thus condemned to wander with them across the oceans until the Day of Judgement. Some also believed that these boats were doomed to forever travel from beach to beach, from island to island, in search of the bodies of drowned sailors to return them home to the village of their birth.

Boat of the Night Brittany

Around the north coast town of Tréguier it was thought that there were boats which carried the souls of the dead, especially those of the drowned, to unknown islands that sat at the end of the world and from which no traveller had ever returned. It was said that, on summer nights, when the wind is silent and the sea is calm, the oars can be heard moaning and white shadows can be seen fluttering around the black boats. However, anyone who dared to follow the boats at sea was condemned to accompany them until the end of time.

Nearby, around Port-Blanc, people claimed to have seen the spirits of those known to have been lost at sea, land in small boats to stock-up on supplies of fresh water. They were said to have walked silently, in a long procession led by an unknown woman. Sometimes, they could be heard whispering to each other in low voices but only one word could be distinguished – yes! The silhouette of their ship could be seen in the distance, as if floating on the clouds.

Like the other night boats, those noted on the west coast were as mysterious as they were sinister. Fishermen who encountered these vessels told of seeing no one aboard or of hails answered only by an invisible chorus of ‘Amens’. Other tales tell of them hearing the sound of oars breaking the water or the cry of commands to draw-in sails despite nothing to be seen between their craft and the horizon.

Boat of the Dead Brittany

In many parts of western Brittany, the Boat of the Night was thought commanded by the first drowned person of the year but on the isle of Sein, the helmsman was believed to be the last drowned of the year. A tale tells of a widow whose husband had been lost at sea, without his body having been found; saw him holding the helm, one day when the Bag an Noz passed very close to the island.

Not only did this boat carry the souls of the dead but its appearance was also thought to announce some imminent disaster. It was said to have possessed a rather indecisive form at nightfall but disappeared completely if approached too closely by another vessel. However, one night, a brave fisherman did manage to get close enough to see that there was no one aboard apart from the helmsman; the boat vanished at the instant the helmsman was hailed.

Many isolated coastal chapels are associated with legends of being visited by the souls of the dead, either alone or in procession, in order to fulfil a promise or prayer made at sea. It was widely believed that anyone who had announced an intention to undertake a pilgrimage had made a sacred vow; if someone died before fulfilling their vow, they were thought to have to honour their obligation in death. Near Saint-Servan, young girls once reported seeing a procession of men emerging from the sea accompanied by a priest and even a choir, fulfilling their vow to make the pilgrimage they had promised whilst alive.

Pilgrimage Brittany

Other legends about the drowned are less wholesome. In times gone by, the fishermen of Trévou-Tréguignec often claimed to have seen the dead hands of drowned men clinging to the planks of their boats when fishing at night. Apparently, the women who had drowned did not cling to the boats but let their hair float on the water so that it entangled the oars.

Some miles east, off the coast of the isles of Ébihens, the noise of the wind around the reefs exposed at low tide was said to have been the moans of three women from Saint-Jacut who drowned there at the turn of the 19th century. The women had been taken to the rocks, in order to gather abalone shells, by a friendly customs officer. However, the turning tide was accompanied by a wind that blew so violently that he dared not take his boat out to retrieve them. Since that day, when the weather is bad, the spirits of the drowned women stir the sea and send tremendous winds to shake the old Customs House.

One curious belief found in parts of western Brittany claimed that those who died at sea did so because of the weight of their sins. This was said to explain why those who had drowned remained caught in the grip of the sea; their deliverance would only be realised when another unfortunate drowned in the same place.

widows Brittany

The methods advised for locating the bodies of those who had drowned seem to have varied from place to place. In the north of the region, it was recommended to balance a wooden bowl filled with bran upon a plank of wood or bundle of straw. A blessed, lighted candle was planted in the bran and the little raft placed onto the water; the candle was believed to show the location of the body. Around the central town of Guingamp, a lighted candle was fixed in a loaf of bread, which was then abandoned to the current; the body was expected to be discovered near the location where the floating loaf had halted. In western Brittany, tradition called for the seeker to a get into a boat accompanied only by a cockerel in a sack. The boat was surrendered to the current and it was thought the rooster would crow when the body of the drowned was near.

In the same part of Brittany, it was believed that the body of the drowned resurfaced nine days after being at the bottom of the deep and that a drowned man would bleed from the nose when removed from the water if one of his relatives was among those present. A variant of this belief held that tears flowed from the eyes of the recovered corpse.

Around Paimpol, it was said that when a fisherman perished at sea, gulls and curlews visited his former home to announce his death by crying and flapping their wings at the windows. However, around the west coast city of Brest, the gulls that flew around the rocks offshore were believed to be the souls of those who had drowned nearby.

searching the seas Brittany

It was once widely accepted here that those who died a violent death were forced to remain between life and death until the time that they naturally had to live had elapsed. This state of being, which is no longer life but not yet death, features in a curious legend from Bro-Bégard that tells of a girl who drowned but who, thanks to the protection of the Virgin Mary, continued to live for six years in a sort of limbo. She was nourished by the bread that her mother gave to the poor and dressed in the old clothes that she distributed to them as alms. Her husband was not really a widower and did not become so until the end of these six years.

The notion of an existence between real life and utter death is found in other Breton legends about drowned people. The victims of the Witch of Lok and the Red Witch of the Île du Château are entombed in water but return to life and the inhabitants of the sunken city of Ker-Is also live, submerged under water, awaiting their deliverance.

This fascination with the plight of the drowned must be placed in the context of a culture where the dead were never far removed from the living. There was a significant absence of separation between the living and the dead who were commonly believed to exist, in close intimacy, together. The dead involved themselves in the everyday life of the living. They did not remain locked in the ossuary but wandered at night along the deserted paths or upon the moors and meadows. They returned to their former homes, by the permission of God, to watch over those they had left behind or to deliver hope for salvation. However, these privileges were reserved for those who had been consigned to holy ground, those lost at sea had been denied this honour and were thus unable to return to their former haunts; a cause of profound grief to the loved ones they had left behind.

widow of sein

In Brittany, it was once said that three worms lived within the human body; when a person drowned, each of them became embodied in a bone, these three bones detached from the corpse and, three months later, they turned into shells. The fishermen of the coasts used to say, when they heard of a person dead at sea: “One less man, three more seashells.” According to legend, some so-called cursed islands off Brittany’s northern coast were formed from the skeletons of the drowned and such origins were once ascribed to the Sillon de Talbert; a 3km long furrow that stretches out to sea from the tip of the peninsula of Lézardrieux.

Tolkien’s Tale of Brittany

The popular memory of JRR Tolkien’s literary output will forever be overshadowed by his novels of Middle-earth, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but other gems are to be found amidst his rich body of work. One of these is a lengthy poem written in octosyllabic rhyming verse in the style of a medieval Breton lay, entitled The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun; a tragic tale featuring several motifs found in the traditional folklore of Brittany.

Believed to have originated in Brittany, lays are long narrative poems that typically explore the nature of love while recounting the deeds of great heroes and marvellous beings. Written in rhyming verse, these poems were initially designed, in medieval times, to be sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.

Tolkien wrote The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun around 1930; some seventeen years after he had stayed several weeks in the up-market Breton resort of Dinard. However, the lay was not published until December 1945 when it appeared in the literary journal, The Welsh Review. Amazingly, another seventy years would pass before the poem became more widely available at the end of 2016 when it was published internationally along with two other similar but complementary poems.

Tolkien Mirkwood Brittany

Several scholars have suggested that Tolkien’s inspiration for this lay came from the pages of Folklore in English and Scottish Ballads (1928) by Lowry Charles Wimberly or even English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) by Francis James Child. However, it is far more likely that Tolkien’s source was ultimately the same as that of both these authors: a collection of traditional Breton ballads set down from the oral tradition by Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué in his book, Barzaz Breiz (1839), where a similar story appears under the title Le Seigneur Nann et la Korrigan (Lord Nann and the Korrigan or Aotrou Nann hag ar Korrigan in Breton). Tolkien is known to have possessed his own copy of this work as well as a number of other volumes of Breton folklore.

The Aotrou and Itroun of the title refer to a long-married but childless Breton lord and lady. Tolkien sets the scene with his customary, tightly expressive language: “In Brittany beyond the waves, are sounding shores and hollow caves; in Brittany beyond the seas, the wind blows ever through the trees.” Over the next 500 or so lines, Tolkien weaves a wonderfully worded tale relating how the lord was haunted by sad dreams of “lonely age and death; his tomb unkept, while strangers in his room with other names and other shields were masters of his halls and fields.” Desperate for an heir, the lord secures the assistance of a witch “who span dark spells with spider-craft and as she span she softly laughed; a drink she brewed of strength and dread to bind the quick and stir the dead.”

In just a few lines, Tolkien powerfully evokes the pall of dread surrounding Aotrou as he locates the witch seated outside her cave in “the homeless hills” whose “eyes were dark and piercing, filled with lies, yet needle-keen all lies to probe.” The old witch gives him a glass phial filled with a magic potion but refuses any payment, saying: “Let thanks abide till thanks be earned” before ominously adding “we shall meet again one day and rich reward then you shall pay, whate’er I ask: it may be gold, it may be other wealth you hold.”

Tolkien Smaug Brittany

Having returned to the sanctuary of his castle, the lord was filled with hope for the future and thus: “A merry feast that year they made, when blossom white on bush was laid; there minstrels sang and wine was poured, as if it were the marriage of a lord.” In acknowledgement of a toast raised by her husband, Itroun drains her glass: “The wine was red, the cup was grey; but blended there a potion lay” and the die is cast.

“Now days ran on in great delight with hope at morn and mirth at night” and the noble couple were “after waiting, after prayer, after hope and nigh despair” soon blessed with twin children; a son and daughter. Completely overjoyed, Aotrou demands to show his appreciation to his wife by gratifying her whims and desires but she does not wish for gold, jewels or silks, telling him only: “I would not have thee run nor ride today nor ever from my side.” However, Aotrou refuses to relent until Itroun expresses a sudden craving for “water cool and clear and venison of the greenwood deer.”

Setting out with his bow and lance of ash-wood, “his horse bore him o’er the land to the green boughs of Brocéliande, to the green dales where listening deer seldom a mortal hunter hear.” Aotrou soon espies a white doe that he hotly pursues, to the sound of dim laughter on the wind, until “the sun was lost and all green was grey.” Finding himself before a fairy grotto and fountain, he sees a female korrigan or fairy sat upon a silver stool combing her long pale hair with a golden comb. “He heard her voice and it was cold as echo from the world of old, ere fire was found or iron hewn, when young was mountain under moon.”

Tolkien Map Middle-earth Brittany

The korrigan now demands her payment but Aotrou is slow to appreciate that this creature is indeed the witch that he had dealt with so many months ago and claims not to know her. Affronted, she responded: “How darest, then, my water wan to trouble thus, or look me on? For this of least I claim my fee, if ever thou wouldst wander free.” She presses him to forget his wife and to marry her but Aotrou refuses to betray his love and is summarily cursed by the korrigan to die within three days.

Once safely home, Aotrou is seized with the realisation that his death is near and instructs his trusted steward to conceal news of his return from his wife in order to save her from any anxiety and grief. However, Itroun does worry about her husband’s continued absence and her questions are repeatedly evaded even when she asks about the tolling of the death bell she hears rung a few days later.

Attending her churching ceremony, she passes a bier covered with a pall bearing the arms and banner of her lord. Her shock is total, her sorrow overwhelming and Itroun dies of grief during the night. “Beside her lord at last she lay, in their long home beneath the clay; and if their children lived yet long, or played in garden hale and strong, they saw it not, nor found it sweet their heart’s desire at last to meet.” The korrigan’s revenge was complete for “deep in dim Brocéliande, a silver fountain flowed and fell, within a darkly woven dell and in the homeless hills, a dale was filled with laughter cold and pale.”

Tolkien Bilbo Barrels Brittany

As is so often the case in both Breton folklore and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, direct encounters between mortal humans and immortal enchanters rarely end well. Tolkien wrote two other, shorter, ballads about human incursions into the world of the korrigans but it is likely that these were written as a means of working-out his thoughts for the fuller tale he would subsequently weave in The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun.

Like the versions collected by la Villemarqué and later by the folklorist François-Marie Luzel, Tolkien’s ballads of the korrigans contain many classic ingredients from traditional Breton folklore: ancient dolmens are the hallowed homes of the supernatural; the forest is a gateway to the Otherworld, a place of magic where supernatural creatures closely guard their sanctuaries and human trespassers are punished by being united with the tutelary spirit or else are destroyed by it; disturbing a female korrigan is to invite her wrath; a white doe enjoys a special affinity with the supernatural world; true lovers remain united beyond death.  

In the folklore of Brittany, there are certain prohibitions in the magical domain of the korrigans and any mortal who transgresses them is usually exposed to an unavoidable sanction. Such notions of punishment befalling mortals who betray their promises to the fairy folk are, of course, found in the folktales of other regions. For instance, the 12th century Breton Lay of Lanval by Marie de France sees Lanval repel the advances of King Arthur’s wife by invoking the greater beauty of his own wife, even though he had promised to never tell of her existence. Her sudden appearance eventually saves him from being executed on account of what was regarded as a slanderous lie. Similarly, a 13th century history of Raymond of Poitou tells of his marriage to the fairy Melusine whom he was forbidden to see taking her bath; an instruction he had promised to honour. He eventually broke his promise and saw his wife’s serpent tail; a betrayal that caused her to disappear forever.

Tolkien Rivendell Brittany

Some commentators have suggested that the korrigan in Tolkien’s lay inspired the character of the elf queen Galadriel, “the mightiest and fairest of all the elves” who features in The Lord of the Rings written between 1937 and 1947. Alas, this is probably a piece of wishful thinking. While both characters are described as immortal enchanters with long pale hair and strongly associated with sacred water and a magical phial, these few qualities are far from unique in folklore and in Tolkien’s writings.

Keen-eyed readers of Tolkien might have recognised in his description of the korrigan’s voice, the enigmatic answer given by the sorcerer Gandalf to King Theoden’s question asking whose wizardry had summoned the huorns to his aid during the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Gandalf replied: “It is not wizardry but a power far older; a power that walked the earth, ere elf sang or hammer rang, ere iron was found or tree was hewn. When young was mountain under moon, ere ring was made or wrought was woe.”

Tolkien Morea Brittany

It is worth noting that all of the wonderful artworks used in this post were produced by JRR Tolkien himself and I believe that The Tolkien Estate retains the copyright to most of these.

Brittany and the French Counter-Revolution

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

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

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

French Revolution Brittany

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

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

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

Brittany French Revolution

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

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

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

Brittany French Revolution

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

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

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

Brittany French Revolution

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

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

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

French Revolution Brittany

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

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

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

Briany French Revolution

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

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

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

Le Mans French Revolution

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

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

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

Brittany French Revolution

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

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

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

Brittany French Revolution

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

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

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

Brittany French Revolution

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

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

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

French Revolution Brittany

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

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

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

French Revolution Brittany

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

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

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

Brittany in French Revolution

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

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

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

Georges Cadoudal
Georges Cadoudal

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

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

Brittany’s Street Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street Art Brittany

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

The Rare, the Rude and the Unusual

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

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

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

calvary Plougonven - Brittany churches
The calvary at Plougonven

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

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

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

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

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

Decorated beams Lampaul Guimiliau
Decorated beams in Lampaul Guimiliau

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

Rood Screen - Brittany churches
The Rood Screen at Priziac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death clock Magoar - Brittany churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rumengol church
The church at Rumengol

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

Brasparts church Brittany
The church at Brasparts

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

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

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

Crenenan church Brittany

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

Landerneau church Brittany

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

Renart and the chickens

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

Graces church Brittany

Other carved contortions seem to require no comment at all.

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

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

The Seven Sacred Plants of Midsummer

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

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

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


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

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

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

Gathering Midsummer plants

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

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

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

Dog Daisy
Dog Daisy

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Saint John's Wort
Saint John’s Wort

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

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


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

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

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

The Mermaids of Brittany

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

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

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

mermaid of Belle Ile

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

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

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

Mermaids 18th century illustrations

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

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

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

Mermaid Brittany

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

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

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

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

Mermaid Byrne Jones

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

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

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

Mermaids medieval bestiary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mermaid Brittany

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

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

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

Mermaid Brittany

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

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

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

mermaid of La Fresnaye

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

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

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

Brittany and mermaids

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

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

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

Mermaid family

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Mermaids Breton art deco

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

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

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

Dahud first Breton mermaid

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

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

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


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

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

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

Medicinal Plants of Brittany

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

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

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

Gathering plants

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sea Holly

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Breton well

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

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

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

Mistletoe medicinal

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

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

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

Walnut leaves

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

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

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

Giuseppe Arcimboldo : Summer

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

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

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

Lucien Simon : Breton healer

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

Armchair Travelling – Bangladesh

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

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

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

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