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Water Horses and Magical Mares

Venerated since antiquity, the horse long played an important role in the popular religious and secular traditions of Brittany. The beast was more than a mere symbol of power and prestige or a useful descriptor for the state of the ocean waves; it was an integral part of the farming unit and the object of unique rites, superstitions and enchantments. Many of the region’s legends associate the horse with water and death; just like the notorious water horses found elsewhere in the folklore of the Celtic fringe.

Regular readers will know that I am wary of making sweeping generalisations regarding early Celtic beliefs. However, it is fair to say that the Celts likely esteemed the horse a powerful and perhaps sacred animal. The Gallo-Roman god of horses, Epona, is believed to have been a Celtic god before becoming established in the pantheon of the Roman world as the patron goddess invoked for the care of horses as well as a protector of stables and cavalry. Some of the extant iconography and surviving dedications suggest that Epona was also considered a fertility goddess.

Epona - Horse Goddess - water horse - celtic

The horse as symbol of fertility, sexual vitality and power was noted as a prominent part in the coronation ritual of the Celtic kings of Donegal; a 12th century account relates that the king-elect coupled with a white mare in the presence of his people before bathing in a tub in which the sacrificed horse was boiled piecemeal. The king and his people ate the horse’s flesh but the king alone drank the broth in which he bathed. If this was indeed a genuine ritual; it was one rich in the symbolism of power.

However, we do not need to go as far back as the 12th century to appreciate the primeval power once associated with the horse. In 19th century Brittany, the most powerful talisman said to bring good fortune upon the household was the afterbirth of a horse, that of a white mare was held to be the most potent. Taken as soon after the birth of a foal as possible, the afterbirth needed to be placed around the base of the hawthorn tree nearest to the house to be most effective. Similarly, drinking from a bucket of water after a horse had drunk from it was thought to fight off a fever, while the milk of a white mare was considered a most effective remedy against whooping cough

Irish kingship ritual - horse Topographia_Hibernica BL_Royal_MS_13_B_VIII
© British Library Royal_MS_13_B_VIII

The horse was not only of itself a symbol of power but of wealth; the animal required attention, training and feed as well as a plethora of specialist equipment if it was to be utilised for warfare, personal transportation or even as a draft animal. Archaeological evidence suggests that horses were once revered enough to be the objects of sacrifice and worthy of quite elaborate burial rituals. Such reverence even included eating the animal’s flesh. A practice attested by the fact that several Popes in the 8th century instructed the bishops to ensure that their congregations in this part of Europe refrained from eating horses, jays, crows and hares – all then ritually eaten meats.

With ancient historical roots, the special affinity felt towards the horse in Brittany flourished during a time when the horse was a key part of the family and farm; an aid to labour, a means of transportation and a source of pride. Up until the Second World War, the horse was closely associated with all important life events and popular gatherings, such as weddings and funerals, church services and pardons, fairs and harvests. The horse markets of central Brittany always drew thousands of men from across the region and were an important rite of passage for boys keen to understand what made for a good horse and to learn from the horsemanship of others.

Trotting Horse_Bonheur - water horse - celtic

Similarly, the well-attended sacred celebrations known as pardons were always surrounded with secular elements such as ball games and horse races. Many pardons were specifically noted for the blessing of horses, such as at Gourin, Saint Nicolas-du-Pelem, Saint-Péver, Paule, Plaine-Haute and Plouyé: all in central Brittany. Other notable pardons for horses were held in Quistinic, Saint-Eloi, Goudelin, Plérin and Plouarzel. Each of these pardons possessed its own rituals that needed to be followed to ensure good health for the animal over the year ahead.

In some, the horse was led around the church or fountain three times before being forced to kneel before a statue of the saint being invoked; a horseshoe or length of tail being presented as an offering to the saint. In others, the horses were sprinkled with blessed water from the saint’s fountain or ridden through some deep pond fed by its waters. Sometimes, such as in Saint Nicolas-du-Pelem, water was rubbed into the horse’s ear or over its genitalia such as at Plérin. In Plouyé, the horses would be mated after receiving holy water; the mare being struck with a stick immediately afterwards.

Blessing the horses Brittany  - water horse - celtic

Another ritual horse bath was practiced in Pouldreuzic on Brittany’s west coast on the feast of Marymas (8 September), when hundreds of horses from the surrounding parishes were ridden into the sea in an annual ritual that was believed to bring them as much health as a priest’s blessing. Many have speculated that these water rituals are the remnants of ancient fertility rites that simply refused to die-away completely after the establishment of Christianity in the peninsula. It is worth noting that several examples of the ritual sea-bathing of horses at harvest-time were once recorded in other parts of the Celtic fringe.

The arrival of Christianity steadily transformed the ancient devotions by subsuming many into the cult of saints. Thus, it is not surprising that many Breton saints are closely associated with the horse. Chief amongst these are Saint Eloi who was most often invoked against diseases and at the birth of a foal and Saint Gildas who was called upon for strength and fertility. Other saints, such as Hervé, Herbot, Korneli and Nicodème were also petitioned by farmers anxious for the health of their horses. Those who relied on their mounts in the heat of battle solicited the support of Saint Solomon III; a ninth century king of Brittany considered a protector of horsemen thanks to his military prowess, or Saint Théleau whose legend claimed that if this stag-riding saint was invoked by horsemen before launching a charge, they were accorded the privilege of being seven times stronger than their adversaries.

Horses and Stable Breton farmer -  water horse - celtic

The loss of a horse amounted to a tragedy for a humble farmer but before the advent of professional veterinarians there were few ways to guard against it. Under these circumstances it is little wonder that yesterday’s Bretons called upon the power of the saints to protect their horses and to strengthen the effectiveness of these devotions with complementary practices like witchcraft. For many, there was no contradiction in the simultaneous use of the parish priest and the local witch; both invoked God and His saints, used the sign of the cross and attached certain numbers such as three, seven or nine, a special value. The witch or sorcerer was regularly consulted to heal sick animals or preserve them from harm; an ailing horse might have been the victim of a curse and so the witch would be called upon to cast the appropriate spells of disenchantment or to cast a malicious spell against the horse of a rival.

Witches were believed to possess the ability to control animals and it was thought they could revive a sick horse but also weaken it by transferring the animal’s power onto themselves. Sometimes, spells were cast through words and movements alone while other times saw enchantments placed in earthenware vases concealed in the ground near the stable or by the gateway to a field. The use of a clay or wooden effigy known as a dagyde was also popularly used; the effigy of the horse being pierced with nails in order to weaken the animal. It was also possible for an experienced spellcaster to rebound a spell by burning certain pieces of a horse suspected of having died due to witchcraft.

Pale Horse Brittany  - water horse - celtic

The health of the horse was also subject to a great deal of superstitious beliefs and practices. For instance, it was once believed that when horses were afflicted with colic, the only effective remedy was to have them change parishes. Warts were thought cured by a ritual that involved blowing on the affected area while making the sign of the cross and reciting certain charms. The sign of the cross was also used in the cure for sprains in horses but most healing remedies called for plant-based infusions and ointments such as that of Hawthorn to cure lameness.

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

In Brittany, the toad was frequently associated with the evil spells cast to injure livestock and in the west of the region one was often nailed to the stable door to ward-off evil, so it is interesting to note that some 18th century authorities recommended purging a horse by using toad venom to induce diarrhoea. In another remedy, horses suffering from worms might be cured if an excreted worm was pierced with a Hawthorn twig; all other worms infecting the horse would immediately die.

Horse skeleton -  water horse - celtic

Local superstition once attached some curious weaknesses to the powerful horse. It was said that if a horse ate a spider, it would die; a similar fate could be expected if it met the gaze of a fire salamander. If the foot of a mole was wrapped in a Laurel leaf and put into a horse’s mouth, it was said to immediately take fright. Moles were sometimes held to have once been fairies or princesses who had rejected the early evangelists and perhaps this helps explain the belief that if a black horse was washed with the water in which a mole had been boiled, the beast would immediately turn white.

Brittany has a number of, mostly malevolent, supernatural horses; the majority of whom were described as white. Around the Grand-Lieu lake in eastern Brittany tradition tells of a marvellous white steed known locally as the Mallet Horse. Only appearing after sunset, the horse appears perfectly bridled and saddled; a perfect lure for the exhausted and unwary traveller. Once mounted, the horse is said to gallop with the ferocity of a whirlwind; a ride that always ends with the death of the rider and leaving little trace save some torn clothing or scraps of bones.

The only way to avoid such a fate at the feet of the mallet horse was to travel prepared. Several countermeasures were once advised: six coins marked with a cross thrown across its path was said to stop it, as was making the sign of the cross and throwing holy water but the most effective protection was thought achieved by possession of a medal of Saint Benedict, popularly known as the Sorcerer’s Cross.

Sorcerer's Cross -  water horse - celtic

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

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

Mourioche - ghost horse -  water horse - celtic

Many legends tell of the painful pranks of the mourioche and the lives devastated by it. Near the northern town of Saint-Cast, a farmer once found the mourioche in the form of a lost sheep and took it home to his barn. The next day, when he went to check on his new sheep, he found instead a cow; the day after, it had become a horse. On the fourth day, it was a sheep again but this time it laughed and said: “Why do you check on me every morning? You are a strange one!” It was then that the farmer saw that all his animals had been slaughtered; he reached for his gun but the beast fled, destroying half the barn and taking with it the farmer’s three children.

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

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

Marc'h Melen - Fantastic Horse Breton lore -  water horse - celtic

Other horrible horses can be found across the region; in western Brittany, a stallion known as Marc’h Melen encouraged passers-by to mount him before trying to kill them. Around Carnac in southern Brittany, the Kole Porzh-an-Dro was a mischievous shapeshifter that mostly appeared in the form of a bull but it sometimes took the form of a horse; if anyone had the imprudence to climb on its back, it galloped towards the sea and once amongst the waves, vanished from under the legs of its rider. The same region also carries tales of a protean spirit known as the Gwrifer who often assumed the appearance of a horse to make mischief. Another notorious shapeshifter of Breton legend, the Bugul-noz was also said to occasionally assume the appearance of a horse but, like the White Mare of La Bruz, was more mischievous than malevolent; depositing those imprudent enough to ride it into the water.

Eastern Brittany was also the location of the Beast of Brielles who often appeared as a horse that terrorised travellers by blocking bridges or biting people, leaving behind only broken bones. Just 40km (25 miles) south lie the forests once ravaged by the monstrous Beast of Béré often described as indescribable, the creature was sometimes reported to have taken the form of a horse. Of immense size and strength, the beast was said to be immortal although, thankfully, no sightings have been reported this century. Further south, in Saint-Malo-de Guersac, a sorcerer was once said to terrorise children playing near the seashore by appearing to them in the form of a horse.

Supernatural Horses Brittany -  water horse - celtic

Predominantly, the supernatural horses of Brittany were most closely associated with water; some being highly localised. Near the village of Plouguenast, a horse was said to show itself to the local children before gently stooping down so that four or five might find a place on its back. Fully loaded, the horse sped off to drown all the children in the nearby ponds and rivers. Just 25km (15 miles) north, around the Bay of Saint-Brieuc, a local legend tells of horses that see the sea suddenly compelled to rush to the shore before disappearing into the waves, never to return. A little further along the coast, markings on rocks near Trestel beach were traditionally said to have been made by the Devil’s horse.

Around Gourin in central Brittany, the country folk once spoke of lands that seemed impossible to enter on certain evenings. The farmer, driving his cart, saw his horse rear-up and refuse to move forward as if it were presented with some fearful obstacle. The only thing that could be distinguished was the sound of galloping hooves turning in a great circle. The wise man did not force his horse to cross this magical ring but unhitched his beast and allowed it the shelter of a tree. After cockcrow, the path became free of all enchantments.

Local legend tells that no one has ever seen the shadow horse except an old beggar, a graceful man who shared his bread with those poorer than himself. One night he knocked on the door of a house in the village of Tréogan, eyes wild with fear he cried: “I have seen the shadow horse pass. It circled around the village ridden by a dead man.” The people of the house ushered him into their barn but found him dead the next morning.

Breton horses and water -  water horse - celtic

On the highest point of the road between Gourin and Spézet is a place that carried a sinister reputation right up until the First World War; horse dealers and farmers avoided the spot believing their horses saw things invisible to men’s eyes that caused them to bolt in fear. Not surprisingly, the behaviour of the horses was put down to a spell cast by the mischievous korrigans eager to see the horses race.

Some legends accentuate the close links between the little folk of Brittany and the horse. In the south west of the region, a korrigan-like creature known as the Fersé was believed to manifest itself as a colt or stallion demanding the bridle that had been taken from him. In the 19th century, it was widely believed that korrigans visited lonely stables at night in order to care for the horses there. They were also accused of taking the horses and making them gallop on the moors at night; how else to explain the lethargic or sweating horse found in the morning? Further proof of their mischief were the twisted hairs found in the manes which were said to have been plaited to form little reins and stirrups. Interestingly, mares with such “fairy knots” were once reputed to become good breeders.

Gauguin - White Horse -  water horse - celtic

Another group of Breton legends tell of characters that ride horses to whom they have given the power to walk on the waves. The people of Clohars-Carnoët said that Saint Maudez used to visit the chapel dedicated to him there by riding his white horse across the sea. A little further along the coast, it was said that when Saint Gildas was fighting a dragon, he commanded his white horse to leap to the island of Houat some 13km (8 miles) away. Such gifts were not reserved for the saintly as a sorcerer from La Tranche-sur-Mer, after picking some moss at the gate of the cemetery at midnight, was carried off on a white horse to the isle of Ré, 11km (7 miles) away, travelling so fast his mount barely skimmed the waves. In a modern re-telling of the legend of the sunken city of Ker-Is, the horse used by King Gradlon as he flees his damned city is named Morvac’h (horse of the sea).

Water sources and their associated deities were once venerated by the people of Brittany and it is therefore unsurprising that such mystical places were also associated with fantastic horses. In one legend, horses turn into fountains when a sorcerer’s daughter runs away with her lover. A spring near Cléden was said to be haunted by a spectral black dog, a fairly universal symbol of infernal powers, but tradition also held that a white foal also galloped thereabouts. Another ghostly horse was reported to roam the Roz-Vein moor where the sound of spectral children crying was also heard.

Phantom Horses France -  water horse - celtic

On stormy nights, frightful whinnies ascribed to the horse of Saint Roux are heard emanating from a fountain in the forest of Rennes. In Boqueho, local lore attests that, on certain moonlit night, horses come to drink in the stream near the menhir of Kergoff; their noise can be clearly heard but they are never seen. Another popular tradition, recorded around the Black Mountains towards the end of the 19th century, spoke of the ghost of the notorious 18th century bandit, Marion du Faouët, who prowled the area on stormy nights; nothing could be seen, only the sound of her galloping horse whose hooves, striking the ground, left a trace of blood.

The horse as guardian features in a legend of Duchess Anne, the last ruler of an independent Brittany. It tells that she escaped the aftermath of the battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488 by having herself sewn into the body of a disembowelled horse which was carried on a dray through the ranks of the English forces hunting her. Symbolism aside, this legend is noteworthy because the 11 year old Anne was not at the battle and the English troops present fought on the side of Brittany against France.

Gwrac'h de l'île du lok -  water horse - celtic

In many of Brittany’s most popular old tales, the horse generally plays the role of the magical protector such as in Trégont-à-Baris where a magnificent white mare, capable of flight and covering a thousand miles in a day, counsels the hero during his quest. A similarly wise horse leads the hero through a series of adventures in Les Quatorze Juments, capturing the most powerful horse in the world along the way. In N’Oun Doare the hero is guided by a horse capable of travelling five hundred leagues in the instant a knot on its halter is loosened; the horse is eventually revealed to be a Tartar princess. In the Gwrac’h de l’île du lok, the heroine uses a magic wand and an incantation to summon a chestnut bidet (a Breton horse now extinct) that she uses to cross the sea to save her imprisoned lover from an evil witch. While L’Homme-Cheval tells of a nobleman cursed by a fairy to live as a horse until his marriage to a miller’s daughter; another version of the tale tells of a man born with the head of a colt.

Although most of the old ballads and stories that feature singular horses link them closely to water, there are also testimonies of diabolical horses and symbolic associations between the animal and death. One tale tells of a drunken blasphemer who invoked the Devil in jest only to sees the Devil’s horse with its red mane hanging down to the ground appear. Another tells of the Devil collecting souls while riding a horse that had, in life, previously been a woman. The cart of the Ankou, the Breton personification of death, was said to have been drawn by pale white horses that walked in step like those pulling a hearse. In times gone by, observing the behaviour of the horses that pulled a hearse supposedly allowed one to identify who, in life, had been a secret sorcerer; the horses being unable to move the hearse or else start running amok.

Devil's Horse -  water horse - celtic

We now live at a time when the horse has virtually disappeared from daily life but the old legends continue to be told and new stories written that will captivate the next generation. Interest in the horse has not waned here and its place in Breton culture remains steadfast.

The Wind-Charmers of Brittany

For centuries, humanity struggled to make sense of the natural world and its unpredictable weather. Sometimes, the blood and sweat of months of hard toil could be torn apart in a matter of minutes; an uprooted crop or spoilt harvest often spelt total disaster for a poor farming family. One of the most feared natural events here was the sudden storm or violent wind and many explanations were once proffered in an effort to make sense of these; the most popular being that certain, gifted, people could control the wind and storm.

In 18th century Brittany, winds were said to have been blown by mountain-dwelling giants, such as Norouas, the northwest wind, and Surouas, the southwest wind. Tales of lost livelihoods caused by such indifferent creatures show that they could, at times, show great kindness towards their human victims by making amends for lost crops or carrying people on their back across mighty seas but also great cruelty.  In northern Brittany, on the approach of a storm, children were once told that if they did not hasten to take refuge inside their home, they were exposed to see, between the sky and the earth to the west, the silhouette of a female black giant.

Wind Charmers Brittany - blowing wind

In some local legends, violent winds were believed caused by dragons that lived far above the clouds. The colour of these wind dragons varied with their original direction; those from the south were said to be golden, western ones blue, eastern ones were green and northern ones white. There are tales of farmers lifting their iron rakes during a storm – in an attempt to counter the supernatural power of the witches and demons widely thought to ride in the eye of the wind – only to see dragon scales fall from the sky.

At sea, the wind dragons were blamed for whirlpools and sudden squalls of bad weather; their tails dragging under the water any craft that foolishly stood in their way. How else might one explain the many sudden disappearances of experienced sailors? Unexpected storms were also blamed on mermaids who were held to be able to unleash storms at will but also to possess the ability to calm the fiercest winds.

Wind Charmers Brittany - sea fury

Sometimes, only supernatural forces could help to explain the fury of the sudden wind at sea. In western Brittany, it was widely believed that the souls of those who had drowned and for whom no funeral Mass had been held announced themselves to their loved ones during a storm.  Around the north coast town of Paimpol it was said that those who had drowned without being in a state of grace were condemned to labour at the bottom of the sea until the Day of Judgement; their movements being responsible for causing the wild waves. Further along the coast, around the Bay of Saint-Malo, such wild waves were attributed to the movements of a sorcerer frantically searching the sea for a magical mill that he had once lost there.

The observation of weather patterns and their effect on the cultivation of crops and thus livelihoods gave rise to many beliefs and superstitions that were particular to the wind and storm here in Brittany. For instance, the direction of the wind during the Palm Sunday procession pointed to the wind that would be dominant throughout the rest of the year.

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

Wind Charmers Brittany - Corot Gust of Wind

In the minds of our ancestors, the world was teeming with signs that had only to be interpreted correctly. In Brittany, a dog rolling on the ground announced a forthcoming wind. Similarly, magpies were said to chatter a great deal before a coming wind and in the summer, swallows flew nearer to the trees and fish swam nearer the surface of the water. In eastern Brittany, the arrival of a windstorm was said to signal that a person had hung themselves or drowned in the neighbourhood and that the Devil had arrived to claim the victim’s soul.

The power of a storm once held a particularly strong grip on the Breton imagination for, in times past, at the outset of thunder, men and women screamed at the top of their voices to prevent hail. However, perhaps the most significant manifestation of the primeval power of the storm on the popular consciousness was the widespread use of Thunder Stones.

Wind Charmers Brittany - Waterhouse Boreas

In Brittany, the small worked stones known as thunder stones were once attributed to lightning; in fact, they were generally prehistoric stone tools or just smooth, oblong pebbles found in the fields. In common with people from other parts of Europe, the Bretons believed that these stones, having been forged in the eye of the tempest, served as a powerful protector against violent storms and lightning strikes; the stones were typically placed in the foundations of buildings, near the threshold of the house or even on a window sill. Small thunder stones were also sometimes hung around the necks of children to protect them from childhood illnesses, particularly skin rashes and eye pain. 

Deep into the 19th century, there are many examples noted here of people who carried thunder stones about their person as a matter of course or who put such stones in their hat, apron or pocket on the approach of high winds. It was believed that these stones afforded the wearer protection from the power of the elements; the logic being that a thunder stone fallen from the sky safeguarded against future thunderstorms and lightning strikes because thunder stones were thought to repel each other. Thus to possess one ensured that any stones concealed in the storm would fall away from the wearer on the ground.

Wind Charmers Thunder-Stones

As with many of these old protective rituals, certain charms needed to be invoked to ensure success and we are fortunate that some were still noted in use here in the 1880s: ‘Stone, stone, save me from thunder’ and ‘Saint Barbara, Saint Flora, At the cross of my Saviour, When the thunder rumbles, Saint Barbara will keep me; By virtue of this stone, May I be saved from thunder.’

The 3rd century martyr Saint Barbara features in a number of ostensibly Christian conjurations noted in Brittany but it is likely that the Saint Flora or Holy Flower referenced is Hawthorn, known in Breton as White Thorn; a plant once said to protect against lightning. Whether such charms were ancient superstitions grafted onto Christian prayers, we cannot say for certain but it is worth noting that such syncretisation can be traced at least as far back as Marbodaeus, the 11th century Bishop of Rennes, who proclaimed that thunder stones provided God-given security against thunder and even nightmares.

Wind Charmers Brittany - Millet Coming Storm

Sometimes, the influence of witchcraft helped to explain the unusual in the uncertain world around them such as a sudden blast or a whirlwind. These freak wind occurrences also played a part in forecasting the weather; a whirlwind was sometimes taken as an indicator of an impending rainfall that would last for three days and a whirlwind headed to the southwest or towards the sea was said to be fetching rain.  Sudden gusts of wind that carried away stalks of hay or straw were taken as a sign that the coming winter would be a harsh one; the straw being carried aloft to help God prepare for a cold winter. However, other tales tell that the movements of the air were so bizarre that only the Devil and his wind witches could be responsible for such actions.

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

Wind Charmers Brittany - Witches brewing a storm

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

While freak winds were feared because of their potential to destroy crops, the potential to harm those labouring in the fields was not underestimated. It was popularly believed that those unfortunate enough to be caught-up in the path of such a wind were chilled to the bone, to the point of paralysis. It was therefore commonly held that the best course of action on the appearance of a whirlwind was to lie flat on the ground until it had passed; lest the power of the wind forever freeze one’s body in the posture that it was in when first encountered.

Wind Charmers - Wind Witches

The people of Brittany were not always passive spectators in the face of the power of the whirlwind. Countering the supernatural forces thought to be behind the creation of such winds was believed best achieved by casting an open knife, scythe or iron pitchfork into the wind; it being popularly supposed that supernatural beings and witches were repelled by iron. It was also believed that the person whose sorcery had caused the wind to rise might themselves receive the blow and be hurt. In the event that the whirlwind contained a person who had been abducted, it might be the victim who would receive the blow but this could have a favourable effect as shown in this tale related by the Breton author Paul Sébillot in Les Coutumes populaires de la Haute-Bretagne (1886):

“Some folk were haymaking when a gust of wind suddenly arose. A girl who happened to be holding a knife at that moment threw it into the midst of the whirlwind. The wind vanished immediately, to the great pleasure of the haymakers who were shouting that the Devil was inside it. Everyone looked for the knife but it could not be found and so they thought that it was likely embedded in the body of someone being carried away by the Devil. One day, as the same girl was washing clothes in a nearby farm, she recognized her knife in the hands of a young woman. When asked where she had got it from, the girl answered that she had sold herself to the Devil in order to be rich because she was fed-up working but the Devil had carried her away: ‘Without your throwing a knife into that wind, I would have become a lost soul’, she said.”

Wind Charmers Brittany - VVG clouds

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

One noted conjuration used by wind charmers called for two apples that had been cut from a tree so that they retained the stems that had held them suspended from the same branch. These talismans needed to be stored in an oak box which was placed on the table as soon as the wind signalled an approaching storm. At the second gust of wind, the box was opened under the sign of the cross. Upon the third flurry, the apples were watched keenly for any sign of trembling; any detectable movement demanded immediate recitation of the prayer: ‘Terrible and unleashed wind, through you everything will be turned upside down. There will be no safety in the house or outside if you continue. Yet, despite your threats, we have here a remedy against you.’

Wind Charmers - Spells - Wind Witches

The wind charmers were then said to pass the two apples from one to the other while reciting another incantation and yet another as the apples changed hands once more. Finally, the apples were passed around all the people assembled in the house or barn while a final prayer was offered invoking the protection of Saint Mathurin; once popularly invoked by sailors and those seeking a cure for madness.

Other Christian saints were commonly petitioned by the Bretons of yesteryear; Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint Houarden were popularly invoked to calm the fury of a storm while Saint Budoc was called upon to change the direction of the wind; the saint was apparently born in a barrel at sea. On the Île de Sein, Saint Corentin, one of the seven founding saints of Brittany, was particularly invoked and his statue in the chapel turned in the direction of the most propitious wind. Likewise, in Saint Michael’s chapel near Carnac, women, whose husbands were at sea, swept-out the chapel in the direction that they wanted to see a favourable wind blow but the ritual was not complete until they had prayed at the sacred fountain nearby and drank its water. Similar practices were once noted in several other chapels across the region.

Wind Charmers - Sea - Brittany

Sometimes, forces far older than Christianity were attributed with the power to influence events and grant wishes. The Neolithic megaliths that pepper the Breton landscape were long ascribed miraculous virtues and while most were related to superstitious rites designed to improve fertility or effect healing, others were believed to control the weather or contain the seas. The Roc’h-en-Aud dolmen near Saint-Pierre-Quiberon contains cupule markings reputedly made by the knees of the 14th century Saint Roch, who landed upon one of the stones when he fell from his horse. Even into the 20th century, women anxious to obtain favourable winds for the voyages of their sailor husbands would strike the cupules with a hammer; an operation that needed to be completed alone at night and without being seen or known in order to achieve success.

In one old Breton tale, to obtain a favourable wind, the hero must make a sign of the cross on the sand of the seashore with a white wand. This nugget may simply be a bit of colour added by the storytellers of old but it is tempting to speculate whether this tale had at its root some early folk memory of an ancient conjuration addressed to the wind. Like so much from such a relatively short time ago, we shall never know for sure but certainty is often as ephemeral as it is unhelpful.

The Treasure Hunters of Brittany

The legends and folklore of Brittany are rich in tales of hidden treasures and the lure of great wealth that lies within the grasp of any intrepid soul that is courageous enough to make the attempt but wise enough to abide by the unwritten rules of the quest.

In common with most other tales of treasure hunts, the treasures hidden across Brittany are difficult to locate but when local legends happily point to a precise location, extraction is never a straightforward undertaking. Usually, elaborate rituals are required or certain conditions, like absolute silence, need to be observed. Sometimes, external factors must be taken into consideration as many treasures are held to only be vulnerable at certain times of the year.

Treasure Hunters Brittany

Many traditions here speak of dangerous times when treasures were thrown into the security of a lake or deep well. A little south of Janzé in eastern Brittany, it was said that the local lord once threw a barrel filled with gold to the bottom of the lake near Sainte-Colombe. A similar legend is attached to the lake of the castle of Montauban-de-Bretagne some 50km (30 miles) to the north-west. While 35km (21 miles) further west, a well of the Motte-du-Parc near Le Mené is reputed to contain a door which leads to a subterranean chamber that holds all the wealth and weaponry of a once-powerful local lord. According to legend, these treasures all remain hidden because none have yet been bold enough to seek them out.

A barrel full of silver and gold pieces is reputed to lie in the marsh near the Bossac lake in Pipriac but it can only be successfully extracted by four immaculate white oxen harnessed above it and only if the herdsman utters not a single sound before leaving the commune’s boundaries. A tale tells that an enterprising man once procured such oxen and managed to harness them with stout chains to the precious barrel. Slowly, the barrel began to move through the mud; tantalising reflections of the treasure danced over the murky water. Excited by the riches almost within his grasp, the man could not restrain a cry of joy; the chains creaked loudly, the marshy water stirred in an unusual way and despite the resistance of the oxen and the desperate efforts of the man, the barrel recoiled violently and disappeared into the marsh. It is said that, on certain nights, the sad shadow of this wretched man wanders the marsh, weeping for his imprudence.

Treasure Hunters Brittany

In a land where constant labour did not always guarantee a meal on the table, the lure of unearned wealth held a particular fascination; an unmerited rise from poverty was viewed with suspicion which likely helps explain why tales of treasure trove here were surrounded in uncertainties and superstition.

Around Lesneven in western Brittany, tales tell of immense hoards of treasure guarded by demons who usually assume the form of a black dog.  On Palm Sunday, during the singing of the Mass, the demons are forced to make an exhibition of their wealth, though they artfully disguise its real value under the appearance of leaves, stones and pieces of charcoal. It is said that if you can succeed in sprinkling these objects with holy water, or even in touching them with some other consecrated item, they immediately reveal themselves as gold and you may fill your pockets freely.

black dog treasure guardian brittany

Hidden treasure was once most closely connected with the supernatural here; either as guardians of secret riches or as mischievous confounders of greedy human treasure hunters. On the west coast Île d’Ouessant, the mysterious creatures known as danserienn-noz (night dancers) were reported to invite passers-by to join in their dances in exchange for fabulous treasures. It was said that the only way to survive their infernal dance was to stick a knife into the ground and graze against it at each round of dance but never to go beyond it. If one succeeded, any wish they made was granted but failure was said to result in broken kidneys.

At the other end of the peninsula, elves were believed to amuse themselves by spreading objects that shone like newly-minted gold coins on the sands of the beaches around the Bay of Saint-Malo. However, those that bent down to collect the coins were disappointed to find only seashells. The region’s most infamous supernatural creature, the korrigan, was also said to delight in preying upon human greed by showing passers-by gold rings and jewels glistening in a pool of water but when a person bent down to take their trophy, they were seized and pulled into the korrigan’s domain. Similarly, in western Brittany, a protean spirit known as the Droug-Speret (Evil Spirit) was said to dwell in ponds and wells, where it tried to attract women and children by deceiving them with the appearance of gold jewellery shining at the bottom of the water.

Treasure Hunters Brittany

Sometimes, even the Devil himself was held to lure human souls with the temptation of treasure. It was said that the verges of the pathways trodden by the devout attending Christmas Mass often glistened; such reflections were not of moonlight but of gold coins scattered by the Devil to enchant the unwary. Deep cracks appeared in the earth around the base of the wayside crosses, offering a tantalising glimpse of a stream of gold coins but any who tried to enrich themselves were unable to keep hold of their gold. For each coin collected immediately escaped their grasp, leaving on the fingers an indelible black imprint and a terrible burning sensation, like that of Hellfire.

The Devil was also reputed to offer people the gift of a magical, money cat in exchange for their soul. To secure such a cat it was necessary to visit a crossroads at midnight and there invoke the Devil. One’s supplications would be rewarded by the appearance of a large black cat who would be accompanied by another smaller cat which would be given to you along with a purse containing a few gold coins. If treated well, the cat would start wandering at night; returning to you each morning with a purse full of gold coins.

However, upon the expiry of the diabolical contract, the cat was believed to takes its owner’s soul directly to the Devil. All contracts, awarded by the cat, were held to be written down in chronological order in his ledger but he had an undisputed right only to every ninth entry. One could never know one’s ranking in the Devil’s account book and so it was always necessary to take care to avoid his claws as your final hour drew near.

Black cat - money cat - Brittany

There were several ways to outwit the Devil and emerge unscathed with a little of his wealth. In one example it was necessary to take a pitch fork, a completely white-feathered hen and some golden grass to a crossroads. When the black cat appeared at midnight it was crucial to immediately release the hen so that the cat would chase after it. The hen, while running away, will scream that the cat has better things to do than chase her. The golden grass will allow you to understand the languages of the beasts, so that when the cat responds to say that he can stop watching over the treasure buried in such-and-such a place for a few minutes, time enough to catch a chicken, you will learn where the treasure is hidden and need only to dig it up with your fork. Even if the animals followed the script, securing the mythical golden grass would have made this a most challenging enterprise.

Treasures were sometimes to be found in the most unlikely of places. Along the Breton-Norman border, it was once said that if one struck a fatal blow to a Fire Salamander while it crossed a road and took care to guard the body overnight, the morning light would reveal as many gold coins as amphibians killed.

Treasure Hunters korrigans Brittany

According to local legend, during the 18th century, dwarfs lived underground below the castle of Morlaix; they were prodigious miners and frequently exposed their gold to the sun to dry it. The passer-by who modestly held out his hand in hope was given a metal handle or some other trinket but the one who came with a sack was swiftly turned away and beaten. Perhaps a less risky undertaking would be an exploration of the ground below the old chapel on the small island of Île Callot in the Bay of Morlaix; a spot long said to protect the hiding place of a great treasure hidden on the island by marauding Danes in the 5th century.

A little further along Brittany’s northern coast, another legend relates that between Beauport Abbey and the Poulafret mill on the coast at Paimpol, there sat a three-cornered field that was said to contain a great treasure. Over the years, many people had tried to locate this prize but none met with any success. However, a young miller who had grown-up on tales of the treasure committed himself to finding it but months of diligent searching were to no avail.

Returning home from work one night, the miller was surprised by a heavy downpour and took shelter under a large oak. In the half-light, his eyes slowly discerned, in the neighbouring field, a pale glow around which several small children were gathered in a circle. Despite his uneasiness, the young man crept closer to this mysterious assembly but his courage almost deserted him when he realised that he was spying on a meeting of korrigans. Transfixed, he watched as one of their number moved out of the circle to stand next to the radiant light but was unable to clearly hear the words uttered by the korrigan, who suddenly stabbed the ground with a pitchfork and pressed his gnarled finger to his lips. 

korrigans - guardians of treasure - Brittany

This gesture was taken-up by all the other korrigans who immediately launched into an energetic ronde or circular dance. Their dance ended as suddenly as it had begun and seemed to coincide with the exact moment the light went out; within the blinking of an eye, the korrigans had all disappeared. Seizing his opportunity to investigate, the miller ran to where the pitchfork staked the ground and stood aghast as the object disintegrated at his touch.

Placing a large rock to remember the spot, the excited miller returned the following day in order to better mark the precise location. He took only his closest friend into his confidence and the two agreed to return to the field on Christmas Eve. Under cover of darkness, they silently dug the hard ground for a long time before striking the famed treasure trove. Faced with such fabulous riches, the miller’s friend was trembling with emotion and could not help shouting out: “The fortune is ours!”

No sooner had these few words been uttered than the gold coins turned into brittle leaves. The stunned miller then remembered the korrigan’s gesture: the silence had been broken. The night also broke, forever, the friendship of the two men. Since then, it has been reported that around midnight on Christmas Eve, the ghost of the miller has been seen wandering the three-cornered field near the ruins of the abbey of Beauport.

Treasure hunting - Brittany

A legend from Brittany’s southern coast tells of a poor beggar woman, scorned as a witch wherever she went, who was treated graciously by a humble paludier or salt worker from Guérande. To thank him for his hospitality, the woman presented him with a little rusty key, telling him to go, on the following night, to the korrigans’ cave on the cliff near Trégaté and to strike the key against a certain rock at the back of the cave. This action would cause the rock to cleave thus revealing an immense treasure but she cautioned him to leave the cave before dawn’s first light. Gratified by the man’s thankfulness, the old woman also gave him a ring that would make him invisible to those that might do him harm.

The following night, the paludier reached the cave just after sunset and quickly pressed his key to the rock which immediately pivoted to reveal a great chamber illuminated by the brilliance of gold and precious gems. He watched as dozens of korrigans moved piles of treasure towards a rock-cut dais where sat the king of the korrigans supervising an inventory of all the riches plundered from the ships that they had caused to run-aground in the last year. The paludier quickly filled his bag with gold and diamonds; he would be the richest man in town yet he left the cave regretting that he could not carry more.

lair of the korrigan - treasure - brittany

Having hidden his booty in a menhir which magically opened on contact with his key, the paludier returned to the cave in the same manner as before. Once again, he filled his bag with the korrigans’ treasure but when he presented his key to the rock, it no longer turned; it was daylight and as his ring had lost its virtue, he ceased to be invisible and was swiftly seen by the furious korrigans who dragged him before their king.

The king’s judgment was swift; the paludier would be buried alive under the gold that he had coveted so much. This sentence was about to be executed when the old beggar woman appeared and changed into a beautiful red-eyed princess before whom the korrigans bowed. She conferred with the king and told the paludier that she had wanted to test him and that, on account of his greed, the treasure he had taken away the first time would remain forever hidden in the menhir. Nevertheless, the princess granted him his freedom and presented him with a little pewter dish which, three times a day, would be filled with whatever food he desired.

An alternative ending has our hero lingering too long in the cave after having been hypnotised by the great riches he saw there. After regaining his senses, he filled his bags and left the cave as quickly as possible but he was too late for the sun had just risen. He then looked in his bags to discover they were filled with only pebbles and seashells. Although mere mortals might simply be offered such a chance only once in their life, the korrigan princess took pity on the paludier and in consolation gave him an earthenware plate that magically filled with as much food as he wanted.

treasure hunters - Brittany

There are several old tales that tell of korrigans and fairies rewarding mortals who had done them some service or simply shown them kindness and appreciation. Usually this is said to be a loaf of bread that never diminished or some other inexhaustible item such as a magical plate but these precious gifts immediately lost their virtue if one did not fully observe any conditions imposed by the little folk; typically these involved not speaking of them to anyone and not sharing their magical bounty with strangers.

Local legends once reported that, at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, one of the menhirs that stood on the summit of Mont-Belleux near Luitré was lifted by a solitary blackbird to momentarily reveal a great treasure. Anyone impudent enough to try to seize it was doomed to be crushed to death as only the korrigans could move fast enough to take the gold. Sadly, these ancient megaliths were destroyed in the 19th century; the last in 1875 to provide hard core for a new road laid nearby. Local tradition cautions against walking on the mountain at night else one encounter the korrigans dancing around the site where their stones once stood; their destruction, a sacrilege still resented by them.

Similarly, the menhir of Kerangosquer near Pont-Aven was said to guard a buried treasure whose presence was heralded by a rooster that sang at midnight on Christmas Eve. As with other sites, this treasure was only accessible during the sound of the Midnight Mass bells when the menhir took itself to drink at a nearby stream. As you might expect, there are several popular tales told of men who came to grief, having been crushed by their greed under the weight of returning menhirs.

flying menhirs - hidden treasure - Brittany

Menhirs were not the only prehistoric megaliths reputed to hide great treasures; the Neolithic long mound known as Le Castellic near Carnac is the site of one legend, unusual in that the treasure guardians are bested by a mortal man. The tale tells that one evening, a poor farmer was wandering near Le Castellic when he thought he saw little men on the mound; some dancing in the moonlight, others emerging from the mound or sinking into it. In his surprise, he uttered an exclamation and immediately the korrigans all disappeared. The farmer resolved to confirm what he had seen and on the following day returned to the mound with a large shovel. After digging for a whole day and deep into the night, he finally exposed an underground chamber where the korrigans were crouched around an old cooking pot which they seemed to watch keenly. On sighting the farmer, the startled korrigans fled in all directions and it took but an instant for the man to grab the pot and scamper away from the mound. On safe ground, the farmer looked inside the pot and was delighted to discover a trove of korrigan gold.

Certain nights of the year were widely regarded as most propitious; during these special nights and usually at midnight, unseen forces could move mountains and seas to reveal hidden treasures ready to be claimed by those bold enough to dare. Some local traditions tell of castles and cities here that were engulfed by some calamity but which reveal themselves on certain privileged nights. One tale from northern Brittany tells that in the area now covered by the dunes of Saint-Efflam, a fine city once stood; ruled by a king whose sceptre was a hazel wand with which he changed everything according to his desires. However, the debauched living of the king and his people caused their damnation, so that one day, God sent waves so powerful that the sands of the shore rose to entomb the city.

submerged city - hidden treasure - brittany

Each year, during the night of Pentecost, on the first stroke of midnight, a passage reputedly opens under the mountain of sand that allows one to reach the king’s palace. In the last room of which is suspended the hazel wand which gives all power but if this is not gained before the last sound of the midnight bell, the passage closes and does not re-open for another year. A variant of the tale tells that it is at the first stroke of midnight on All Saints’ Day that the passage opens, leading to a well illuminated room where the treasures of the buried city are laid out but at midnight’s last chime, the lights immediately extinguish, the passageway closes and all is hidden in silence and darkness for another year.

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

treasure hunting - Brittany

The magic of Christmas night was again manifested in the belief that during Midnight Mass, at the moment of consecration, spectral candles cast light on the locations where hidden treasures could be found. However, not all treasures were buried, for it was said that each hazel tree grew a branch which turned into solid gold on Christmas night. To pick this prize that was believed to make a wand equal in power to that of the greatest fairies, it needed to be cut between the first and last sounds of the midnight bell but whoever did not succeed was said to disappear forever.

It is important to remember that not all treasure brings great wealth; perhaps the greatest of all treasures is that which endures through the years and flourishes in times of poverty as much as in times of plenty. A local legend asserts that the fairies of old sometimes left the mainland to find peace on the Île des Ébihens off Brittany’s north coast. One became lost in an underground passage there and subsequently fell into a deep sleep; she remains there still. Whoever can reach her will win her heart and would be able to marry her and live together happily ever after but to awaken her, one must first endure ordeals of water, earth and fire.

fairies - treasure - Brittany

If the reader is tempted to consider the quest, be careful to locate the right underground passage as another legend says the island is home to a murderous monk who, having refused to perform the penance which had been imposed on him, remains trapped in an underground chamber where owls constantly tear out his hair and beard; condemned to remain there, alive, until the day a white dove places the relics of Saint Anne on his head.

The Beggars of Brittany

Beggars once exerted a ubiquitous and very noticeable presence in Breton society, particularly in the countryside, but their position was often ambivalent: they were feted as the most honoured guests at wedding feats but also feared for their purported ability to cast the evil eye that brought-on misfortune.

The author Gustave Flaubert toured Brittany with Maxime Du Camp in 1847 and, wrote in his account Par Les Champs et Par Les Grev̀es (1886): “As soon as you get somewhere, the beggars rush up to you and cling with the stubbornness of hunger. You give them, they stay; you give them more, their number increases, soon it is a crowd which besieges you. No matter how much you empty your pocket to the last farthing, they nevertheless remain fiercely on your side, busy reciting their prayers, which are unfortunately very long and fortunately unintelligible. If you park, they won’t move; if you go away, they follow you; nothing remedies it, neither speech nor pantomime. It looks like a bias to make you angry, their tenacity is irritating, implacable”.

Roussin_The Family - Beggars of Brittany

Belonging to the most disadvantaged section of a still largely illiterate society, the beggars and vagrants of 18th and 19th century Brittany, as elsewhere, produced very few documents themselves. Indeed, unless brought before the magistrates, beggars left little traces to history that lived beyond local memories. A wonderfully notable exception being Jean-Marie Déguignet’s account of his “long lifetime of poverty, slavery and persecution” published as The Memoirs of a Breton Peasant (2004).

It was in the 19th century that the French government began to take a serious look at begging and vagrancy; both regarded as significant social problems that might, ultimately, pose serious risks to the state.  However, the narrative surrounding the nature of the problem was predominantly framed by the state and solutions that might have seemed sagacious in the wealthy corridors of Paris were not necessarily practical or welcome in the remoter, rural parts of the country.

Souter_Vagrants - Beggars of Brittany

In order to pursue official measures designed to tackle beggars and begging, it was necessary to understand the nature and scope of the problem. To this end, the government organised national surveys and required local officials to submit regular reports for L’Extinction de la mendicite (The Eradication of Begging); we therefore have some good data to help us understand beggars and, by implication, poverty in the 19th century here. However, the strength of the information we might glean from this data is corrupted by the poor definitions of the three key terms: beggar, indigent and vagrant; classifications that are intricately linked and often confused by the various compilers due to the difficulties inherent in clearly differentiating between the three states.

The passage from poverty to indigence could be slight and the boundaries between this and begging was slender at best. Any difference in status was not necessarily linked to the degree of misery but to the fact that some desperate people reached out to ask for alms; begging being most often the last or the only means of survival. Indeed, begging was often the only way to stay alive for the families of poor peasants affected by some life-changing misfortune, such as a personal crisis, bad harvest or devastating fire.

Beggars Brittany

Even slight changes in circumstances had major repercussions for those who were already living in extreme poverty. A blog post such as this cannot hope to begin to examine the root causes of poverty in 19th century Brittany but I will highlight a few areas worth noting. Firstly, apart from the hinterland of the three or four largest cities, the benefits of industrialisation were largely unknown in the region; people lived very much as they had done under the pre-Revolutionary Ancien Régime.

Most of the rural population were reliant on agriculture and were thus very exposed to vagaries such as the success or failure of farms and their crops. Farms in the province were small with the average size in western Brittany not exceeding fourteen acres but some were as small as two or three acres; the margins of success were therefore extremely thin. The farmers were generally poor and lived miserably but their wants were mostly satisfied; squalor and poverty were tolerated because they were traditional and familiar.

Generally, the inhabitants of each farm, consisting of the farmer’s family and a few labourers and as many female servants who lived with the family, sufficed for the general work. During harvest time, additional hands were employed and these were often people who worked for two or three months of the year and begged during the remainder. The conditions of the poorer farmers, daily labourers and beggars, were so near alike, that the passage from one state to another was quite frequent.

Beggars of Brittany

In coastal regions, fishermen and cannery workers generally worked when they could and begged or sent their children to beg when they could not. Such practices were even noted in the relatively wealthy port of Audierne at the turn of the century; the town “swarms with children who pester the visitor with begging” wrote Sabine Baring-Gould in his book, Brittany (1902). The collapse of the Breton sardine fishing industry in 1880-86 and again in 1902-03 had a devastating impact on local prospects; the latter saw about 40,000 fishermen and cannery workers without jobs. Begging in such a harsh economic climate really was the difference between survival and starvation.

Although disease did not discriminate between different social classes, it impacted on the poor most strongly. The consequences of poverty, such as a poor diet and miserable living conditions, increased susceptibility to infection and the onslaught of illness could rapidly propel an industrious and independent family into a life of dependency and even destitution. Diseases such as dysentery, smallpox, typhoid and cholera were endemic in 19th century Brittany, claiming tens of thousands of lives; smallpox claimed some 20,000 lives in 1871 alone. Unfortunately, the region was also no stranger to famine with those of 1814-15 and 1846-47, when over 20,000 people died, noted as being particularly severe. 

Breton Beggar

Another factor worth noting is the increase in life expectancy that took place here throughout the 19th century. While life expectancy averaged around forty-two years in the middle of the century, the percentage of older people in the population increased markedly. Thus, more people reached the age of sixty with an expectation of living another ten years but with neither pension nor adequate welfare support; the poor elderly were ultimately doomed to poverty and to eke out their twilight years in begging. “The peasants were a hard, harsh race and pitiless in their dealings toward one another. Their treatment of their old people was terrible. If an old mother, past work, had no money, she was ruthlessly turned out to beg,” noted Anne Douglas Sedgwick in A Childhood in Brittany Eighty Years Ago (1919).

Over 40,000 beggars were recorded in the far western Départment of Finistère in 1830 – a staggering eight per cent of the population – and as many in neighbouring Côtes-du-Nord some ten years later. A report of 1840 noted that the latter Départment contained a commune of 8,000 people, of which 6,000 were classed as beggars. The problems appear to have been so acute that a third of the activity of the police and the gendarmerie were reputedly devoted to vagrants. However, official measures to eradicate the problem of beggars and begging in France, such as dedicated hospitals, charitable offices and public assistance programmes, met with some resistance in Brittany; mainly due to the repressive measures that also formed part of the policy.

The Penal Code of 1810 effectively conflates vagrancy and begging, noting that: “Every person found begging, in a place for which there shall exist a public institution organized for the purpose of obviating mendicity, shall be punished with an imprisonment of from three to six months”. Another article states that: “In places where any such institution does not yet exist, habitual beggars shall be punished with an imprisonment of one to three months”.

Beggars Mendicants Brittany

Repression was therefore inseparable from assistance since the absence of public assistance arrangements prevented complete repression. In practice, vagrants here often obtained a little relief from the local mayor out of parish funds, generally a loaf of bread and a “Passeport d’Indigent” to some distant town. This passport entitled the bearer to a relief of 15 centimes per league, payable at each commune passed-through. Beggars arriving in towns were tolerated to beg for two or three days, during which they were supposed to collect sufficient money to enable them to go elsewhere; they were then required to leave the town. The only beggars allowed to stay in town were paupers belonging to the parish, who had to identify themselves by wearing a tin badge; all others were treated as vagrants.

What the Penal Code called an offence did not appear to Bretons as aberrant behaviour. Government policy was completely at odds with local attitudes and community leaders found themselves in the difficult position of trying to balance demands from the centre against deeply-held beliefs that considered beggars as the “poor of God”. Some argued that to accept the measures of assistance was to allow for the measures of repression that made the beggar an outcast from society and that if the beggar was to remain in society then it was necessary to oppose repression and thus oppose the assistance which necessarily promoted it.

Beggars in Brittany

The key difference between the lawmakers in Paris and those who administered it in Brittany was their attitude to the relationship between the beggar and the rest of society. Here, begging was not considered disgraceful; farmers and fishermen allowed their children to beg along the roads or among the neighbourhood farms. Charity and hospitality were considered solemn religious duties and even those with the least to spare happily gave alms. Far from being rejected and persecuted, beggars played an important role at the heart of Breton society where they were regarded as privileged intercessors between the less deprived and God.

Indeed, it was not unusual for beggars to offer prayers for the living or the dead in exchange for alms or to take-on the role of surrogate pilgrim for those too ill or occupied to travel to receive a particular’s saint’s pardon. Attended by thousands of worshippers, the Pardons of the 19th century also attracted beggars seeking alms in large numbers. Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his A Summer in Brittany (1840) attended the Pardon at Saint-Jean-du-Doigt and provides a most colourful description of the beggars there:

Breton_Pardon Procession - Beggars of Brittany

“Just outside the moving circle thus formed, and constituting a sort of division between it and the rest of the crowd, were a row of mendicants, whose united appearance was something far more horrible than I have any hope of conveying any idea of to the reader. Let him combine every image that his imagination can conceive of hideous deformity and frightful mutilation; of loathsome filth and squalid, vermin-breeding corruption; of festering wounds and leprous, putrefying sores; and let him suppose all this exposed in the broad light of day, and arranged carefully and skilfully by the wretched creatures whose stock in trade this mass of horrors constitutes, so as to produce the utmost possible amount of loathsomeness and sickening disgust; and when he has done this to the extent of his imagination, I feel convinced that he will have but an imperfect idea of what met my eyes.”

The situation seemed little changed over 65 years later when Francis Miltoun noted in her Rambles in Brittany (1905): “beggars, deformed or ill with incurable disease, crippled or what not, all expectant of reaping a thriving harvest from the simple-minded frequenters of the shrine. Whether deserving or not, all of them appear to receive liberal alms, for the custom of giving alms is as much a component part of the event as any of the other observances, nor is it ever frowned upon or curtailed by the religious or civic authorities.”

Beggars in Brittany

Other community celebrations like weddings also attracted large numbers of beggars who often travelled considerable distances to attend. In western Brittany, beggars were treated as honoured guests and the third day of the wedding celebration was often set-aside specifically for feeding the beggars, after which the bride and groom danced with the doyen of the beggars present.

Beggars often travelled far afield; a report from the Pays de la Loire in 1865 complained that most of the region’s beggars were from “the depths of Brittany”. Whether they travelled outside the province or simply around the neighbouring communes, beggars were important carriers of news and gossip to, sometimes, very isolated communities.

Beggars Brittany

In the 19th century, attitudes towards beggars here were also widely influenced by superstition and superstitions pervaded the daily life of most rural Bretons. Beggars were among the characters that were frequently associated with the supernatural; they were thought able to cast the evil eye and to throw curses on cattle and crops, even to stop butter churning. In eastern Brittany, it was said that beggars possessed the power to attract or repel rats, at will, to and from wherever they pleased. Some beggars likely nourished such superstitions and many households no doubt gave alms to prevent some disaster befalling them as much as out of charity.

Court records show that intimidation and fraud were sometimes used by beggars to solicit alms or against those who refused them; crop damage and arson seemingly having been the resort of most spite. Perhaps a more sinister aspect to begging is hinted at in the sketchy records relating to a brotherhood of beggars known as the Truands. The origins of this mysterious Breton gang are unclear but it was said that in the middle of the 19th century bands of beggars would meet annually under a single leader known as Le Grand Coesre. In 1858, Bonaparte’s niece, Princess Elisa Napoléone Baciocchi, is reported to have driven them away from her estate near Colpo in southern Brittany but little is really known of them after that.

Beggar Brittany

While many French accounts depicted the beggar as a deviant figure, in Brittany beggars were regarded as unremarkable. They were simply an ever-present part of daily life, as much a part of the local community as the butcher or baker and as beloved by God as the most innocent child; objects of neither denigration nor romanticisation who slowly faded from the scene in the 20th century.

King Arthur in Brittany

The true origins of the legends surrounding the 6th century King Arthur and his knights are lost in the distant mists of time. Scattered references to this warrior king can be found in early Welsh literature, hagiographies and purportedly historical chronicles but it is in the early 12th century that the characters and features of Arthurian legend familiar to us today, such as Merlin the magician, Queen Guinevere, the Round Table and the sword Excalibur, coalesce into a single narrative about the rise and fall of a king of the Britons who defended his people against the Saxon invaders.

By the end of the 12th century, five epic romances written by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes brought in elements such as the chivalric code, Camelot and the Holy Grail and key figures like Sir Lancelot and Sir Percival. Subsequently, dozens of medieval authors penned other romances, tales and ballads featuring King Arthur or one of his knights. Some of these stories were re-imaginings of the earlier source material and featured major shifts in the personalities of key characters, particularly Arthur who is often depicted as an inert cuckold rather than a vibrant warrior or his half-sister Morgan le Fey depicted less as a healer and ally of Arthur but as a sinister, scheming sorceress.

Knights of the Round Table - King Arthur in Brittany

At the end of the medieval period, these often disparate and contradictory threads were brought together in Sir Thomas Malory’s epic Le Morte d’Arthur (1470) and it is this work, perhaps more than any other, which has shaped our view of the Arthurian universe. Arthur’s connections with Brittany are littered throughout these early works and I propose to highlight some of the most significant links both in literature and local legend.

The most famous of which is surely Brocéliande around Paimpont; the remains of the legendary enchanted forest which once probably stretched westwards across the heart of Brittany to include the now distinct forests of Loudeac, Quénécan and Huelgoat. Here lies the Fountain of Barenton, where Sir Ywain, nephew of King Arthur, avenging the murder of his cousin, defeated the mysterious Black Knight in combat. Ywain subsequently marries the Black Knight’s widow and guardian of the fountain, Laudine, but loses her love after he breaks his vow to return to her by a certain date. Driven mad with grief, Ywain fled into the forest where he reverted to the animal state. Having been returned to his senses by a magical balm, Ywain sets out to win-back his wife’s affections. In Brocéliande, he saves a lion struck down by a dragon. The lion becomes his devoted companion and aids him in his quest for redemption, helping him defeat giants and demons before finally regaining the trust and love of his wife.

Merlin and Viviane, Broceliande - King Arthur in Brittany

However, the fountain is most famous for its association with Merlin for it was here, when travelling in the guise of a young man, that he met Viviane, fairy guardian of the fountain and the cause of his doom. There are several versions of their story but the common theme is that Merlin is fully aware of Viviane’s designs against him but he is so besotted by her that he no longer has the ability or will to save himself from his fate.

In order to please Viviane, Merlin agreed to teach her his magic even eventually confiding to her the secret to bind a man forever. Having learnt everything she could from him, Viviane entrapped Merlin with his own spell and imprisoned him in a cave whose entrance was covered by a large rock, although a more romantic tale has him held in a crystal tower. Confined for eternity, it is said that even today Merlin awaits his release from captivity somewhere deep in the forest of Brocéliande.


Warrior, bard, physician, soothsayer and shapeshifter; Merlin’s role in the legends of King Arthur cannot be understated. He was counsellor to both Arthur and his father, Uther Pendragon, and advised Arthur until the end. While never explicitly referred to as a druid, Merlin’s role with Arthur mirrors the division of powers between druid and king in ancient Celtic society: the kings rule, the druids advise. Like the druids, Merlin interpreted omens and enjoyed absolute freedom of movement, often leaving Arthur’s court for the sanctuary of the forest or to help other rulers without ever notifying the king first.

The fountain, which never seems to have been successfully Christianised, was traditionally said to possess a particular characteristic; whoever drew water from it and sprinkled the stones therewith, produced a terrific thunderstorm accompanied by thick darkness. The spring was also believed to possess both healing and divinatory powers. Its waters were once taken in expectation of a cure for madness but it was also popularly visited by young people seeking marriage; the image of their future spouse was said to appear on the surface of the water at midnight on the night of a full moon. Similarly, young women would throw pins into the water to find out if they were truly loved or not.

Barenton Fountain, Broceliande - King Arthur in Brittany

A ruined Neolithic dolmen in the north of the forest of Brocéliande is known as Merlin’s Tomb; the broken slabs are said to lie over the entrance to Merlin’s prison. Unfortunately, the site is difficult to interpret today due to the significant damage wrought by dynamite-wielding treasure hunters in the 19th century.  Another dolmen in the forest is known as the Giant’s Tomb and was said to have been the tomb of a giant killed by Arthur’s knights.

Not too far away is a spring known locally as the Fountain of Life; according to one story, it was created by the fairy Viviane so that Merlin might be rejuvenated. Viviane is also strongly associated with the nearby Château de Comper; the lake beside the castle is reputed to have been home to Viviane who lived in a beautiful crystal palace created for her by Merlin and magically disguised as a lake.

In another legend, King Ban of Benoïc and his family took refuge in Brocéliande having fled their country on the eastern borders of Brittany following its invasion by King Claudas of the Wasted Lands. As Ban lies dying, tended by his queen, their infant son is dragged underwater by the Lady of the Lake. The boy is raised in her enchanted realm until his fifteenth birthday when he leaves to become a knight, Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Further south, towards Coëtquidan lies the Aff Valley where Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere, subsequently opened her heart to that Breton “flower of the world’s knights”, Sir Lancelot.

Lancelot and Guinevere - King Arthur in Brittany

Almost from the beginning, Lancelot loves Guinevere unabashedly and devotes himself to her service but he cannot act on his passion and so, more often than not, he removes himself from Arthur’s court. As a knight, he has no equal and the tales of his exploits defeating Arthur’s enemies in battle or dragons, giants and mighty villains in single combat are as numerous as the tales that relate the many times he rescues those held captive or in distress. His love for Guinevere withstands all trials and temptations; his only infidelity is when the daughter of the Fisher King uses magic to convince him that she is Guinevere and it is the child born from this liaison, Sir Galahad, that is destined to become the perfect knight and find the Holy Grail – a prize denied to his adulterous father.

A little to the west, towards Tréhorenteuc is a deep ravine known as the Vale of No Return; the reputed onetime home of Arthur’s half-sister, the fairy Morgan le Fey, where the passage of time once flowed differently to the outside world. It is worth noting that in the early 19th century this Arthurian site was said to lie further to the east but shifted westwards in the middle of the century when the industrial scars created by the metallurgical industry sullied the romantic image of an unspoilt wilderness.

High on the ridges of the Vale of No Return stands a rock formation known as the Rock of False Lovers; two upright rocks are said to be the figures of the knight Guiomar or Graelent and his lover, turned to stone by the betrayed Morgan when she discovered them together. The unfaithful Guiomar was condemned to never leave the Vale and Morgan extended this punishment to any knight who entered the Vale who had been unfaithful, in thought or in deed, to their beloved; only a truly faithful lover, capable of overcoming the trials in the Val, would be able to free the captive knights. These trials involved besting terrible dragons and crossing a wall of fire and a cliff-lined pool and were attempted, unsuccessfully, by many knights including Sir Ywain. Finally, Lancelot learns of the captive knights and eventually overcomes the trials to lift the curse of the Vale and free the knights.

Lancelot in the Vale of No Return - King Arthur in Brittany

The character of Morgan sometimes varies greatly between the different tales in which she features but she is always depicted as a great healer and a sorceress eager to improve her mastery of magic. In the earliest account, she rules the Isle of Avalon where she and her eight sisters tend to Arthur; a description that seems to echo the 1st century writings of the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, who wrote of another island off the coast of Brittany; the Île de Sein. This island he described as the dwelling place of nine female virgins known as the Gallicenae. These virgins were said to be Celtic priestesses who worshipped a god of prophecy whose shrine they guarded. Many magical powers were attributed to these women and they were said able to cure even the most impossible of diseases.

Like Viviane, Morgan was once one of Merlin’s apprentices but while the early tales portray her as a wise healer, the later tales paint her magic and morals in a much darker light: “Mighty was she in magic and her life was greatly in defiance of God”. From being an ally of Arthur and Guinevere, Morgan becomes the arch-villain of the Arthurian world; a sinister schemer opposed to Arthur’s queen, whose infidelity she often tries to expose, and some of his knights particularly Lancelot who she seems infatuated with. However, after the fateful Battle of Camlann where Arthur defeats his treacherous nephew Sir Mordred, such intrigues are set aside; Morgan is one of the four enchanters, alongside Viviane, who arrive in a black boat to transport the wounded king to the Isle of Avalon where she will heal his wounds.


A Neolithic menhir or standing stone on the small north coast island of Île Aval is traditionally said to mark the spot where King Arthur lies buried; awaiting his re-awakening which will restore peace to the Celtic lands. Just over three miles (5km) from Île Aval lies the 13th century Château de Kerduel; reputedly built on the site of one of King Arthur’s hunting lodges. Local legend tells that, on certain nights, Arthur rides along the castle’s pathways on his white horse. It is difficult to pinpoint the age of this tradition but it is interesting to note that the word Kerduel resembles Carduel where Arthur is said to have held court and where, according to one story, Merlin prepared the round table.

One legend tells that Arthur and his queen spent each Spring at their castle in Kerduel but that one night, Morgan le Fey kidnapped Arthur and took him to Île Aval where she offered him her love and eternal life. A powerful enchanter, Morgan’s magic kept the king imprisoned on the isle until he asked her for the favour of being able to review his kingdom. This request she granted but on condition that Arthur was transformed into a crow to fly over his realm. It is said that only if Brittany should find itself in great peril will Morgan release Arthur to return to his lands.

Sir Lancelot - King Arthur in Brittany

However, another legend says that Arthur lies waiting, asleep in a cave in Huelgoat Forest, some 30 miles (50km) to the south. Similarly, a cave not far from Le Roz, near Guerlédan in central Brittany, is traditionally held to have once been home to the magician Merlin. It was said that the cave could be turned by magic so that it never faced the wind, or even moved completely underground if the wind happened to blow from every side. While a rock in the woods known as Koat Toul Lairon Arthur near Spézet carries seventeen marks which were said to have been created by the agitations of King Arthur’s horse that had been tethered to the rock for seventeen long years.

Huelgoat Forest also contains the remains of an ancient Celtic hill-fort, today known as King Arthur’s Camp, and the giant granite blocks hereabouts gave rise to the popular belief that that this was the site of one of Arthur’s castles. The settlement seems to have been abandoned towards the end of the 1st century BC, when the Roman occupiers created a new town, Vorgium (Carhaix), 10 miles (15km) to the east.

According to local tradition, the massive rocks that litter the hills of Poullaouen just 4 miles (7km) away are the remains of Arthur’s castle. Here the king is reputed to have hidden his treasures when he routinely left Brittany to attend to business in Britain; the Devil and his sons were said to guard this wealth and it is a reckless person indeed who would dare to steal Arthur’s riches!

The knight distracted by Pirner - King Arthur in Brittany

One of the first missions of the newly crowned King Arthur was to help his vassal, King Leodegrance, whose kingdom of Cameliard was besieged by Arthur’s opponents. An early 13th century French account tells that the decisive battle was at Carhaise (Carhaix) where Arthur’s forces under Merlin and a few knights including King Ban de Benoïc were triumphant. Leodegrance had served Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon and had been entrusted with the keeping of the Round Table upon Uther’s death. He was also Guinevere’s father and, according to some texts, gave the Round Table to Arthur as part of her dowry.

Another Breton legend tells that King Arthur wed not Guinevere but Saint Tréphine or Triffin. In this tale, it is the noble Arthur who weds Tréphine rather than the barbarous Count Conomor but there are clear similarities with the more popularly known accounts of Arthur’s marriage. Much of the story revolves around Kervoura, Trephine’s evil brother, who envies Arthur’s kingdom. When he discovers Tréphine’s pregnancy, he decides to eliminate the line so that he might inherit the realm. When his sister is about to give birth, he kidnaps her and hides the baby in his castle in Lanmeur. He accuses Tréphine of killing the baby and uses false evidence to incriminate her in a plot against Arthur’s life. The latter, deeply upset, puts his wife under arrest but she manages to escape and lives anonymously for six years as a humble servant.

Tréphine was eventually discovered and brought back to court where Arthur accepts her innocence. In time, the royal couple have a daughter together but happiness is short-lived as Kervoura then accuses Tréphine of adultery by using dishonest witnesses. She is therefore condemned to be executed. However, her son Tremeur, who is now grown-up, manages to escape his jailers and returns. He arrives at court just when his mother is to be beheaded and challenges Kervoura to a duel. Tremeur is victorious and Kervoura confesses his crimes before atoning and seeing Arthur and Tréphine reconciled once more.

Knights battle at Cameliard_Pyle - King Arthur in Brittany

Other uniquely Breton legends exist about King Arthur. For instance, a hagiography composed around the 13th century tells that, in the 5th century, all infants who died without baptism were delivered to the terrible dragon of Grand Rocher, near the north coast town of Plestin, but every year, on Christmas Eve, it demanded human prey of royal blood. The legend tells that King Arthur the Terrible fought this human-headed beast, whose neck was as thick as the necks of seven bulls, for three days but was unable to defeat it; the dragon was eventually slain by Saint Efflam, a cousin of Arthur’s.

Further along the coast, in the northernmost corner of Brittany, the island of Mont Saint-Michel was once the lair of a brutal giant, described as 30 feet (9m) tall, who held the Duke of Brittany’s niece captive. Many knights had tried to rescue her from the clutches of this man-eating giant but all had met their end before they could gain a footing on the island; the giant sank all their ships by throwing massive boulders onto them. Undaunted by the sight of so many smashed ships and broken bones, King Arthur resolved to rescue the Duke’s kin and avenge the deaths of so many noble men. Accompanied by his knights, Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere, Arthur crossed to the island under cover of darkness but elected to face the giant alone. After a fierce and lengthy battle, Arthur emerged victorious and instructed his knights to cut off the giant’s head for the men of Brittany to stare upon. Unfortunately, the Duke’s niece was beyond saving; her young body unable to survive the brute’s violation.

King Arthur and the giant of Mont Saint-Michel - King Arthur in Brittany

The area around Mont Saint-Michel also features another link with Arthur that was told in The Great and Inestimable Chronicles of the Great and Enormous Giant Gargantua, published anonymously in 1532. This tells that in order to protect King Arthur from the enemies he will have, Merlin created Grantgosier and Galemelle, the father and mother of the giant Gargantua, from whale bones, Lancelot’s blood and Guinevere’s nail clippings. When their son is born, Merlin instructs them to send him to Arthur’s court on his seventh birthday.

In time, Gargantua’s family journey to Arthur’s court, taking two rocks with them but Gargantua injures his foot and they rest at the seashore before crossing over to Great Britain. The curious Breton peasants come and attack the provisions of the giants. To protect their belongings, the giants put down their rocks and thus created Mont Saint-Michel and the adjacent islet of Tombelaine. Unfortunately, the parents die of fever and it is left to Merlin to take Gargantua across the sea to Arthur. The giant agrees to fight for the king whose enemies he mercilessly defeats time and again. Finally, after many years of fighting great giants and strong armies he is taken to the Isle of Avalon by Merlin.

Gargantua - King Arthur in Brittany

Not all memories of Arthur are anchored to the earth here for several superstitions once attributed marvellous origins to the strange noises heard on the wind at night. Such noises, distorted by fear, were believed to have been produced by supernatural hunts from the Otherworld. In many parts of Brittany, it was King Arthur that was said to lead these wild hunts through the air; cursed, due to a sacrilege, to lead an unfinished hunt until Judgement Day. Arthur’s representation as the eternal hunter leading these fantastic hunts was attested as early as the 12th century when Gervais of Tilbury wrote: “the foresters of Britain and Brittany say that they often see, on certain days in the first part of the night, when the full moon shines, a company of knights who hunt amidst the din of dogs and horns. To those who question them, they answer that they are from Arthur’s court.”

Wild or Fantastic Hunt - King Arthur in Brittany

We will likely never know whether a historical King Arthur ever existed but his legend shows no signs of diminishing. Was he the heroic great-nephew of King Aldrien of Brittany or a provincial chieftain in a Britain in turmoil; in many ways, it matters not. Arthur might even have remained an obscure local legend if the distant memories of a warrior king bravely defending his people had not been woven with the darker traditions of Celtic mythology to create a canvas upon which generations of Breton minstrels overlaid their rich romances before others set-down and embellished their tales on paper.

If you have reached this far, I thank you for reading! I would also like to extend my grateful thanks to those readers who have stuck with me during my enforced absence from WP; your tolerance and support is much appreciated, thank you!!

The Pardons of Brittany

A distinctly Breton tradition that has survived into the 21st century is the Pardon. In this context, a religious Pardon is perhaps best described as a communal expression of devotion to a particular saint, from whom grace or a pardon is requested. Since the 15th century, these annual festivals, celebrating and honouring local saints, witness the gathering together of worshippers; some local and others who have made a special pilgrimage from further afield.

It may be difficult to imagine today, as you travel on well-maintained tarmac roads across Brittany in a matter of hours, that the roads of rural Brittany only received serious attention from the government in the second half of the 20th century. Even as late as the turn of the last century, taking part in a Pardon not in your commune required dedication, time and effort. Indeed, participation at a particular Pardon was often undertaken as a public act of penance.

Breton pardon procession

Nowadays, usually observed more in the west of Brittany than elsewhere, the Pardons predominantly begin in March and end in October. Held on a Saint’s feast day, each occasion has a character of its own but generally features two or more masses (some churches repeat their masses in Breton) followed or preceded by a formal procession that sees banners, relics, statues and crosses carried by a cortège of worshippers, sometimes dressed in traditional costume, around the church or chapel and often culminating at a calvary or sacred fountain associated with the saint.

The Pardon is not always tied to an ecclesiastical building as it is the saint who is being venerated and whose presence is invoked during these ceremonies, thus you may find Pardons taking place at sacred fountains which would have been cleaned beforehand by the parishioners and decorated with flowers for the occasion. Some fountains had particular rites attached to them and these traditional practices often bemused 19th century visitors such as this instance, related by Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his A Summer in Brittany (1840) :

“Many [fountains to which marvellous qualities are attributed] are situated in villages where Pardons are held; on those days, in the midst of the crowd, women may be seen rushing to the fountain and exposing their persons in the most extraordinary manner, in order to pour the water over every part of them. Nor have the performers of this ridiculous ceremony, or the numerous spectators of it, male and female, the least idea of anything indecent having been done. The scene is watched by the crowd with the utmost gravity and decorum and most perfect faith in the efficacy of it for bringing about the desired result.”

A Pardon in Brittany

Sacred fountains were a key part of many Pardon traditions; pilgrims would invoke the saint and enjoy the beneficial virtues of the water which, as noted above, sometimes involved far more than simply drinking the water; rituals, some of great antiquity, were important. Perhaps there are still individual and anonymous practices but the rites of collective immersion in the waters of fountains have long disappeared from contemporary Pardons.

As might be expected in a region so reliant on agriculture, many Pardons specifically involved animals, such as those of the dogs and cats at Laniscat, pigs at Trégomar and Plouisy, cattle at Plonevez-du-Faou or horses at, amongst others, Goudelin and Plérin where the animals were blessed in the water of the sacred fountain. There were even Pardons for birds: on the north coast at Plourhan and on the south coast near the town of Quimperlé in the Forest of Carnoët.

The origins of this latter Pardon of the Birds are now lost to us but it seems that it was a religious event held at Pentecost, dedicated to Saint Maurice, a 12th century saint from Loudéac who, as a child, was able to control crows and who ultimately founded Carnoët Abbey. After the Revolution, when such events were banned, the event re-established itself as the Pardon of Saint Toulfoën; named after an alternate name for the forest rather than any actual saint.

The pardon was noted as one of the most popularly attended in the region. One visitor in 1847 described it thus: “Here you can buy different species of local birds, such as hawks, kites, buzzards, owls, lapwings, cuckoos, blackbirds, thrushes, larks, linnets, goldfinches and canaries and also small animals like squirrels, rabbits and hares.” By the end of the 1880s, improvements in road and rail connections saw pilgrim numbers in excess of 20,000 but numbers dwindled significantly after the First World War and the pardon morphed into a secular folk festival in the years after the Second World War before disappearing entirely towards the end of the last century.

Pardon Brittany - Blessing Horses

In the early part of the last century, cattle were brought for blessing to the church in Moncontour whose church is dedicated to Saint Mathurin, patron saint of such beasts, while horses were taken to the church at Landerneau. Similarly, the mid-September Pardon of Saint Corneli in Carnac long attracted thousands of cows whose owners were anxious that their herds were sprinkled with water from the saint’s fountain in the belief that it would protect them from misfortune over the year ahead.

The practice of holding a candlelit vigil after or before mass on the night before the Pardon was once commonplace but is less so these days. This might be due to a change in tastes but might reasonably be attributed to the fact that most pilgrims now have ready access to reliable transportation and can schedule their arrival at the Pardon. A noticeable contrast to the weary pilgrims of yesteryear who arrived at the Pardon’s location throughout the course of the preceding day. Upon first sighting the church tower, it was once customary for the pilgrim to pause for prayer before resuming the last leg of the journey in song.

For many, the formal procession is the highlight of the Pardon; in times past it was customary to not take breakfast on the morning of the procession and to complete it barefoot and in silence. These processions are usually quite colourful affairs, featuring a long parade of the young girls of the parish resplendent in white gowns, the local clergy, town notables, the devout and the curious; all giving reverence to the scared relics carried aloft and united behind the timeworn, embroidered community banners and pennants held just as high. It was not uncommon for the carriers of relics to be flanked by two wardens carrying stout sticks to vigorously discourage the hands of pilgrims, too eager to touch the holy relic or statue.

saints' banners at a pardon in Brittany

The procession banners were often, in days gone passed, not immune from similarly robust handling. Typically, when the banners of two processions from different parishes met, the banners were lowered and inclined so as to touch one another in a ceremony known as the Salutation of the Banners. Trollope provides a useful, if colourful, history of the practice:

The pride of the villagers in their banners and in the splendour of their processions is connected with a spirit of emulation and animosity against those of their neighbours. Thus, when the processions of two rival parishes met, especially if, as is likely frequently to be the case, the meeting chanced to take place in a narrow hollow way, where it was impossible to pass each other, each was unwilling to give way. It became, however, necessary that one should give place to its rival, and retrace its step. This was a degradation to which neither party were willing to submit. Each maintained the superior dignity of its own saint; and where is the Breton who would not die for the united cause of his own saint and his own obstinacy!

The holy persons, whose figures were displayed on the banners, were supposed to be animated with the same passions, the same zeal for their own dignity and the same hatred for the opposition saint of the next parish, which actuated their followers. The most bitter and lasting religious feuds were thus generated. Desperate battles were fought under the banners and for the honour of the saints. Nothing could better deserve indulgences, and protection and favouritism from a saint, than courageous exertions on these occasions, and victory achieved for him over his enemy and rival of the next parish. Bones were broken, and lives sometimes lost, in these obstinate encounters, which never ceased till the figure of one saint was borne in triumph, amid the shouts of his followers, over the prostrate body of the other.

In order to put a stop to these battles, the priests, from time to time, pretended that such and such rival saints had declared their mutual reconciliation; and. it was publicly announced that henceforward they intended to be the best friends in the world. A solemn peace-making took place and, whenever the friends met afterwards, they were held out to each other by their respective bearers to kiss. Hence, the salutation of the banners.”

Pardon Procession in Brittany

After the parade, there are prayers and usually a final opportunity for the faithful to see the holy relics before they are returned to their sanctuary. In coastal parishes, the procession often ends at the port where the priest and relics embark on boats in order to bless all the vessels at harbour.

With the serious business of the day done, there usually follows a secular fête, involving a goodly amount of food, dancing and traditional Breton music. This is not a modern addition to the day, laid-on for the benefit of visiting tourists but a traditional, albeit very secular, climax to the Pardon. In the past, these fêtes featured a great deal of drunkenness, merry-making and robust competitions of all kinds, with contact sports such as gouren (Breton wrestling) and soule (a loosely structured full-contact game similar to rugby football) being particularly popular; much to the consternation of the local priests.

The occasion was and remains, a celebration of fellowship and unity in the profession of faith and an opportunity for an often scattered community to come together. It was also one of the few opportunities where young people could meet members of the opposite sex in a relaxed, informal manner without being under the watchful gaze of their parents!

Pilgrimage Brittany

Over a thousand Pardons continue to be celebrated each year in Brittany. Some are quite modest affairs with just a handful of observers, whilst that of Sainte Anne d’Auray attracts thousands of pilgrims from across Europe. The Pardon of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt (near the north coast town of Morlaix) is another well-attended event with numbers perhaps swelled due to its famous relic and massive bonfire. Bonfires, known as tantad in Breton, are still lit after the main procession at a number of Pardons these days but the practice is now nowhere near as widespread as it once was.

Other notable Pardons include those at Notre-Dame du Roncier in Josselin, Notre-Dame de Rumengol in Faou and Notre-Dame de Quelven in Guern. The latter is one of a number of Pardons that still feature a pyrophoric angel – the statue of an angel (some churches use a carved dove) carrying a flame descends on a zip line from the bell tower of the church to ignite the festival bonfire. Attending the Pardon of Notre-Dame de l’isle in Goudelin affords one an opportunity to witness a pyrophoric angel, a traditional celebratory bonfire as well the immersion of horses as part of the blessing ceremony.

Often known as the ‘Grand Pardon of Brittany’ is the Pardon of Saint Ronan at Locronan, where every six years (the last was in 2019) the Grande Troménie is performed. This festival consists of a 12km pilgrimage over hilly moorland route-ways once sacred to the ancient Celts and marked by twelve stations of the cross; a pilgrimage of 6km is followed in the intervening years.

Pardon procession Brittany

According to Breton tradition, there were three pilgrimages that the devout had to make at least once. The first was to the Troménie at Locronan but it was not considered completed if you looked, even briefly, in any direction other than straight ahead!  The second pilgrimage was to the Pardon of Saint-Servais. Some believed that if one failed to make this pilgrimage during one’s lifetime, they were doomed to do it in the afterlife, carrying their coffin on their shoulders and advancing only the length of the coffin each day! The final obligatory pilgrimage was to Bulat-Pestivien in order to participate in the Pardon of Notre-Dame de Bulat.

Banned under the revolution, romanticised by 18th century travel writers, sentimentalised by 19th century artists and picked-over by 20th century anthropologists, the Pardons of Brittany remain strong; a harmonious juxtaposition of pious observance and secular celebration that continue to attract pilgrims and curious visitors in large numbers.  If you visit Brittany and have the opportunity to attend a Pardon; I strongly recommend that you do so.

The Bonesetters of Brittany

In the Brittany of yesteryear, there was a dearth of medical doctors practicing in the rural areas and when one could be found, his professional services were rarely affordable. Traditional healing treatments and remedies were therefore widely used; one of the local healers most commonly consulted was the bone-setter.

The Age of Enlightenment saw great leaps in the understanding and acceptance of the role and benefits of medicine and treatment. Good health was considered the natural state of the body which therefore needed to be maintained and protected, particularly through diet and environment. However, diagnosis and the relationships between illness and cure were not fully understood and many clung fiercely to a belief in the Hippocratic theory of humours which held that a healthy body and mind came from a good balance between the humours that existed as bodily fluids, identified as blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.

An imbalance between the four humours could result in disease; treatments were therefore aimed towards restoring balance. These could be relatively benign such as dietary or environmental changes but were frequently far more aggressive; purges, enemas and blood-letting being the most common treatments. Purging the body of negative humours was regarded as efficient medicine, at times laxatives and emetics were used or deep enemas of water and vinegar administered but blistering the skin and blood-letting were very common.

blood letting

Indeed, blood-letting was used to treat a very broad range of ailments affecting patients of all ages. Depending on the illness, blood was taken from different parts of the body, although it was traditionally performed at the elbows and knees. The most common, general blood-letting, involved cutting open a vein or artery with a lancet and drawing about a pint of blood at a time but localised blood-letting could also involve the application of cups or leeches.

Initially, in theory at least, doctors in France were responsible for internal medicine while the treatment of wounds and external injuries were the preserve of the surgeon but such boundaries were quite often ignored by both parties. They sometimes even prepared their own medicines but mostly they bought them from apothecaries – whose role was to prepare, preserve and distribute medication – and sold them on to their patients in the form of ointments and plasters. While doctors normally practised only in institutions and in cities, surgeons would sometimes make brief forays into the countryside.

bleeding a patient blood letting

For most people of the time, securing access to a reliable medical practitioner was difficult if not impossible. Even access to one of the overcrowded charity hospitals found in some large towns usually required ready money. The formal, professional, medical community of doctors, surgeons and apothecaries were concentrated in the cities and large towns and all required hefty payment. Little wonder that much of the rural population of Brittany took their ailments to the local healer or put their faith in the healing waters of a sacred fountain.

In March 1803, the French authorities enacted much needed laws to reform the practice of medicine throughout France. Over the next seven years, the right to practice was linked to the obtainment of two nationally recognised degrees; a Doctorate in medicine or surgery awarded by one of the medical schools and the Bachelor-level qualification required to be licensed as a Health Officer.

These Health Officers existed until the end of the 19th century and were initially modelled on the Ancien Régime’s surgeons “of light knowledge” and were the cause of much debate. Practicing within strict Departmental boundaries, their great advantage was that they necessarily happened to be local; understanding and speaking the languages and dialects of their customers. However, their creation supposed two levels of medical competence and thus two modes of medical practice, calling into question the principles of equality which officially was the foundation of the republic. The usefulness of these demi-doctors was questioned, some thought lowering the academic bar unnecessary even dangerous and that it would be better for the countryside to lack doctors than to receive fatal ones.

In managing the risks Health Officers could potentially generate, their role was tightly prescribed. They were to “limit themselves to the most ordinary care, to the simplest procedures. Deliver first aid to the sick, treat the least serious ailments and take care of common dressings. Their main science was to recognise cases where they should not act.” Minimising the role of Health Officers not only created a two tier healthcare system but significantly undermined their standing in the communities they served. After all, these men were serving as the vanguard of the fight against the very empirics, conjurers, witches and charlatans that the 1803 law set out to eliminate.

bone setting

The doctor was considered to be a man of learning who focused his science on diagnosis, prognosis and prescription but there was little official expectation that he would ply his science outside the cities and largest towns. Lawmakers of the time argued that the effort and expense spent on becoming a doctor would be rewarded by reputation, glory and fortune and that it was inappropriate to expect a doctor to bury his talents in the countryside and practice his art in a sparsely populated commune. This metropolitan bias was compounded by the suggestion that “the inhabitants (of the countryside) having purer manners than those of the cities have simpler illnesses which require, for this reason,less education and less preparations.”

This notion that the countryside only needed Health Officers more practiced than learned in theory, to treat mild ailments and minor accidents, totally overlooks the obvious; that without proper trusted care, people will remain with or soon revert to the traditional healers of the locality. Throughout the 19th century, the vast majority of the professional medical practitioners in Brittany were based in the prosperous coastal cities, with the greatest concentration in the two cities of Brest and Lorient due to the presence of the prison and naval yards; solid, regular payers. In the middle of the 19th century, the ratio of medical professionals to the Breton population was 1:5740 against a national ratio of 1:1890; the rural interior of Brittany simply did not have access to these professionals. If a patient could afford the time and cost of travelling to the city then the cost of a formal medical consultation, likely in a language they could not understand, would have been found exorbitant.

traditional healer

Given the dearth of accessible and affordable medical professionals, the rural folk of Brittany sought relief from their ailments in their sacred fountains and traditional folk healers such as witches, homeopaths, herbalists and bonesetters. After all, what could the science of a “paper doctor” do against the sacred power of the saints?

The stoic nature of the Breton character was highlighted by the author Émile Souvestre most markedly when recounting the cholera epidemic of 1832; while the Parisians blamed the government for poisoning the water, Bretons largely accepted that the sickness was a form of divine punishment and cries of “God has touched us with His finger! God has delivered us to Satan!” were heard across the region. This fatalistic approach was noted by Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his travelogue, A Summer in Brittany (1840):

“It is in the hour of sickness and of death, when all men most feel the necessity of it, that the undoubting stern faith and sombre religion of the Breton are seen in the most striking manner. It is rarely that he thinks of appealing to human aid in illness. A few years ago, according to M. Souvestre, the peasants never had any recourse to medical men at all and, at the present day, confidence in their utility is very far from being general.

The more ordinary and more favourite resources are vows to some popular saint, prayers and masses, together with, perhaps, some traditional remedies, whose efficacy is often supposed to depend more on times and places and the observance of various ceremonies, than on any inherent quality in the medicine itself.”

healing fountain

For millennia, sacred springs were considered powerful sources of healing in Brittany and such convictions were still widely held long after these ancient fountains had been given a Christian gloss and patron saint. While waters from all sacred fountains were regarded as possessing therapeutic or curative properties, many fountains and particular saints were believed to hold qualities that tackled very specific ailments from anxiety to leprosy and even madness. One of the sacred fountains associated with the semi-legendary Saint Diboan was believed to cure ear infections but he is more widely known as ‘the saint without suffering’; a saint to be invoked to relieve the pain and suffering of the sick and dying. At the saint’s fountain in Plévin, the water was used to divine the fate of a sick loved one; if the fountain’s basin re-filled noiselessly, the sick person would be sure to recover. In extreme cases, it was necessary to collect water from the fountain and pour over the body of the sick person; this would either bring about relief or death, both would see an end to the patient’s suffering.

The traditional healers (louzaouer in Breton) were found in nearly all communities in Brittany; sometimes several being active in the commune and covering a range of specialities. For instance, local witches and herbalists – it is not easy or sometimes even necessary to draw clear distinctions between the two labels – prepared and administered medicines derived from what we would now call medicinal plants. These were mostly composed of a mixture of bark, flowers, fruits, leaves, roots and seeds although animal products such as butter, eggs, honey, milk and even dung were also used along with minerals such as sea salt, alum, antimony, lead, mercury and sulphur. Animal fats were also held to contain healing properties; for instance, to cure a fever, a patient’s chest would be rubbed with the fat of a gull killed on a Friday.

For almost every ailment in everyday life, there were traditional remedies that were long regarded as more effective than the expensive cures prescribed by a medical professional. In Brittany, the boiled root of the yellow dock plant was commonly used as a purgative, poultices made from walnut leaves used to treat toothache; pennywort was used to treat sores while ear infections were cured by the juice of a houseleek or by dropping-in some freshly expressed milk from a nursing mother. To reduce a swelling of the body, broom root was boiled in water and drunk; sores in the mouth were treated with the application of spoonwort. Whooping cough was held to be alleviated by carrot juice or, in persistent cases, the milk of a white mare. Urine was often thought to sterilise a small cut which would then be protected by the slime from a slug which would act as a collodion. Incantations, charms, amulets and sachets containing bespoke concoctions were also prepared and administered to those seeking relief and cure.


The Breton countryside also featured healers known as the diskanterezed (a hard word to translate literally but it means one who can undo or peel away/take off). It was believed that only children who were born feet-first possessed the gift necessary to be a diskanterez and that only a skilled practitioner could identify which child was worthy of initiation into the mysteries of the craft. Commonly consulted for their expertise in handling benign ailments each diskanterez often specialised in a limited number of afflictions such as removing warts or healing eczema.

Healing was achieved by the precise recitation of chants and the execution of very specific gestures. For example, to heal eczema, the diskanterez would recite the following three times in a single breath while making the sign of the cross with a silver coin: “Go away, go away! This is not your home. Neither here nor anywhere. Between nine seas and nine mountains and nine fountains, turn northwest!”

Diseases of the eye were sometimes seen as a manifestation of the presence of an evil spirit and nine grains of salt were squeezed onto a pilewort leaf and applied to the little finger of the hand apposite the infected eye. If a child appeared anaemic, the diskanterez would hunt for signs in the contours of the infant’s head, probing the fontanel or soft spot for confirmation of the klenved ar penn (literally, a head disease). A sharp tug of the hair and the fontanel was explored again, the treatment repeated until the diskanterez judged that the evil had been expelled. Another treatment involving a seemingly unrelated part of the body concerned that for ailments such as rheumatism or gout; the soft palate was scored and a piece of mucosa lining torn out before the patient gargled with salt water.

The diskanterez was not called upon trivially or for matters involving childbirth – unless there were serious complications. Otherwise, the older women of the community acted as midwives and advisers on children’s health; most women preferring the advice of experienced mothers known to them rather than doctors and surgeons whose theoretical health care advice often led to mortality for infants and mothers.

female bone setters

Pierre-Jakez Hélias tells us in his memoir of life in rural Brittany between the World Wars (The Horse of Pride, 1975) that “With the holy healers, you have to believe, it is understood otherwise it is not worth it. The pretences and formulas of ‘old gossips’ and ‘health peddlers’ are nothing other than superstition or junk witchcraft but nothing prevents you from going to see it, if only for a laugh. And laughter is always good. The bonesetters know their job and do it well if they are reasonable enough.

Another healer found in most localities was the bonesetter who would be consulted on a broader range of issues, such as stomach aches, headaches, heart and circulation problems, than simply bones. A certain degree of physical strength was needed to be a successful bonesetter and after the reforms enacted in 1803 most had an official primary or secondary occupation to protect them against charges of practicing medicine illegally. As the name implies, bonesetters were adept at re-setting broken bones and dealt with all manner of fractures, dislocations and sprains; manipulating bones, joints and muscles to heal the neighbourhood sick at prices that were affordable.

bone setter re-setting a bone

“For broken limbs, strains, sprains, we prefer to go to a bone repairer. In the canton, there are several, more or less declared. In general, they are millers. These people, whose job is to carry very heavy bags of grain, know from father to son how to put bones and muscles back in place. When they do not succeed, you have to get on a charabanc to go to Quimper on a fair day. There, around the Place des Chevaux Gras, outside the walls of the old town, two or three famous bonesetters receive the mutilated in the back rooms of cafes. They never miss a shot.” Pierre-Jakez Hélias (The Horse of Pride, 1975).

The author and photographer Charles Géniaux described some of his meetings with bonesetters in Upper Brittany in the works La Vieille France (1903) and La Bretagne Vivante (1912) and they provide an interesting insight into the bonesetter’s craft:

“The bonesetter of Saint-Gourlay.. inherited his practice from his mother… wins over the others for two specialties: healing the demented and caring for the heart. The parents of a fool lead him to the bonesetter for treatment. With a wooden stick he hits the sinciput, then the side walls of the skull, until the patient howls. At this moment, he declared that he had found the lesion and, fortified by this result, he showered the unfortunate with plenty of water. Finally the parents will have to apply poultices on the sick part.”

bone setter in brittany

“I will introduce to you a bonesetter named Josso, or more properly, Big Josso, as he is usually called. Big Josso is not only a bonesetter but also a gardener and the owner of an inn and would work only for reliable farmers of the region. Usually, the client enters his bar and they start to speak together. The customer complains of his ailment and in this case, he fell from the loft.

bone setter at work

Josso proposes to help and both of them go where they are sure that nobody will disturb them. The operation starts, the bonesetter feels the painful area. Most of the time, the bonesetter can operate alone but it can be more complicated: Three or four strong men are called for assistance. Two of them are instructed to pull as mightily as they can while the other prevents the body from moving using a large cloth. At the same time, Big Josso is placing the bone at the right place.”

“A farmer seeks treatment for kidney pain. Without being moved, the great Josso made him sit astride a chair, and putting his knee on the patient’s spine and grabbing him strongly with his hands criss-crossed across his chest, he twisted backwards, reducing the lumbago by an effort in the opposite direction.”

bone setter at work

In rural Brittany, bonesetters and other traditional healers filled the void created by the severe lack of medical professionals; they enjoyed the trust and support of the local populace. These were not peripheral figures operating at the margins of society but a key part of that society.

In 1951, after pressure from local doctors, a successful bonesetter and miller from Landrévarzec was prosecuted for practicing medicine illegally. A practitioner of some repute, he gave consultations at his mill but also held weekly surgeries in the nearby towns of Douarnenez and Quimper. During his trial, dozens testified on his behalf and reports state that there were up to a thousand protesters outside the courthouse demanding his acquittal. He was found guilty and fined, subsequently being carried by supporters through the city in triumph.

It was not unusual for the professional medical profession to push for the prosecution of traditional healers such as bonesetters whom they regarded as uneducated and thus dangerous, unfair competition. In earlier times, there existed a profound paradox; doctors claimed they could not settle in the countryside because of unfair competition from healers but since there were few doctors, the locals had no alternative but to consult the healers.

The range and specialisms of these traditional folk healers was, and to some extent, remains, very broad. In addition to the homeopaths, herbalists, diskanterezed and bonesetters there were sourciers who doused for a variety of health-related issues; bandagistes who claimed to heal hernias and rheumatisms with bandages; stomach lifters who acted on the viscera; fire-cutters who healed burns but were also called upon to stem bleeding and reduce pain. There were even healers known as uromantes who studied a person’s urine in order to detect traces of diseases such as diabetes or kidney disorders. The gifts that these healers claimed to possess were, by their very nature, difficult to define and even harder to prove empirically by science. Whatever the source of the healers’ legitimacy, the anxieties and superstitions of the Breton countryside were thus fertile territory for the charlatan.


In many countries, these traditional healing practices are regulated but in France, the framework is rather vague. Officially, healers are not allowed to practice and like their predecessors of yesterday, run the risk of being charged with practicing medicine illegally. However, plenty of grey areas exist and there is a significant amount of official toleration. Acupuncture, homeopathy and naturopathy are officially recognised and probably the most frequently consulted types of alternative healing but there are also many other popular non-biomedical practitioners such as magnétiseurs (magnetisers), radiesthésistes (dowsers), iridologists and aromatherapists. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to find a magnétiseur who is also a radiesthésiste or a bonesetter, sometimes re-badged as an osteopath or chiropractor.

Today, over 400 different alternative medical practices are available across France and it has been estimated that as many as four out of ten French people resort to alternative practices, even if only to gain a second opinion after visiting a doctor. While the medical profession may frown upon the continued popularity of practices that might have been expected to drop away with advances in 21st century healthcare, it is perhaps interesting to note that my local Yellow Pages records 580 General Practitioners and 360 bonesetters active today.

Witchcraft in Brittany

In 1917, the author Lewis Spence claimed that sorcery “in the civilised portions of Brittany is but a thing of yesterday, while in the more secluded departments it is very much a thing of to-day. The old folk can recall the time when the farm, the dairy, and the field were ever in peril of the spell, the enchantment, the noxious beam of the evil eye”.

In the 17th century, the division between natural and supernatural differed markedly from our modern-day notions. The concept of the natural world was not restricted to things corporeal and observable but included the incorporeal and unobservable. It was not considered irrational to believe in the existence of spirits causing natural effects and it was widely accepted that demons and witches existed in nature, acting according to its laws.

Witchcraft helped some to explain the world around them; whether that was a hailstorm in summer or a pail of fresh milk turning sour overnight. Thus the activities of witches were regarded as natural phenomena by most people. A notable sceptic being the noted 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who held that belief in witchcraft originated in ignorance of natural causes and was promulgated and encouraged by self-serving priests.

While the word witch is now almost exclusively applied to women, it was not always so. Derived from the Old English word wicce which related to magic and sorcery, the word evolved into wicche in the Middle English period and did not differentiate between masculine and feminine subjects. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the current spelling was in use and described a woman who attempted to control and manipulate natural or supernatural forces in order to effect changes.

the shameful kiss with the Devil

In the late Renaissance period, the accepted characteristics of a witch varied but a little across Europe; they were held to engage in illicit or dangerous practices usually in secret, carried the power to use evil forces and possessed an innate capacity for harm. In Brittany, they were also held to have the ability to talk the languages of the beasts. However, some distinctions were made between witches along the lines of what we would nowadays call ‘white witches’ and ‘black witches’.  The ends of the spectrum being, on the one hand, the cunning folk or folk healers who treated ailments, cured illnesses, enhanced fertility, divined springs or misplaced items and marshalled fair weather. On the other hand were the witches who practised sorcery invoking, usually, malevolent spirits in pursuit of selfish aims or to cause harm to others. In French, the word sorcier encompassed the full spectrum of witchcraft.

At this time, accusations of witchcraft generally included accusations of Satanism; the witch being accused of having rejected God and entered into an alliance with the Devil. Unfortunately, examples of such trails were not rare throughout 17th century Europe; one of the most notable cases taking place just over the Breton border in Loudun. Where, in 1632, a group of nuns from the local Ursuline convent claimed to suffer strange visions and hallucinations causing them to behave erratically with displays of fits and convulsions. Under investigation by Church authorities, the nuns accused a parish priest, Urbain Grandier, of sexual assault and of having bewitched them, sending Asmodeus (the demon of lust) and other demons to commit evil and impudent acts upon them.

Despite his vow of celibacy, Grandier was known to have had sexual relationships with a number of women and had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer around town, much to the ire of husbands and fathers alike. As hysteria around the events at the convent increased, Grandier’s enemies seized upon the opportunity to orchestrate his downfall. Public exorcisms during which nuns barked, spoke in tongues, screamed blasphemies and performed obscene contortions were performed to no avail. These mass demonic possessions were regarded as powerful witchcraft and Grandier was accused of having acted as the agent of evil.

In 1632, he was arrested on charges of witchcraft, interrogated, tried and convicted by a tribunal directed by a special envoy appointed by Cardinal Richelieu; a magistrate well practiced in trying witches and a relative of the convent’s Mother Superior. This lady provided one of the key pieces of evidence used against Grandier – a document purporting to be his pact with the Devil and helpfully signed by him, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, Astaroth, Leviathan and Elimi.

We, the all-powerful Lucifer, seconded by Satan, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Elimi, Astaroth and others, have today accepted the pact of alliance with Urbain Grandier, who is ours. And we promise him the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of nuns, worldly honours, lusts and riches. He will go whoring every three days; drunkenness will be dear to him. He will offer to us once a year a tribute marked with his blood; he will trample under-foot the sacraments of the church, and he will say his prayers to us. By virtue of this pact, he will live happily for twenty years on earth among men and will later come among us to curse God. Done in hell, in the council of demons. . Signed by Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, Astaroth, Leviathan and Elimi and set down by Baalberith.

Urbain Grandier pact with the Devil
Grandier’s pact with the Devil

My lord and master Lucifer, I acknowledge you as my God and prince, and promise to serve and obey you while I live. From this hour, I renounce the other God, as well as Jesus Christ and all the saints and the apostolic and Roman church, all the sacraments and all the prayers and petitions which might be made for me. I promise to adore you and pay you homage thrice a day and to do the most evil that I can and to lead into evil as many others as possible. I renounce chrism, baptism and all the merits of Jesus Christ and his saints. And if I fail to serve you, I give you my life as your own, having dedicated it for ever without any will to repent. Signed, Urbain Grandier, from hell.

On 18 August 1634, Grandier was sentenced to be tortured and burned alive at the stake; his ashes scattered to the winds. There was widespread public interest in the trial and Loudon was swelled with thousands of onlookers who had come to town in anticipation of a guilty verdict; the sentence was therefore carried out immediately.

The ropes, boards, and mallets used in the torture known as The Boot were exorcised to ensure no demons would interfere and relieve Grandier’s suffering. It took almost an hour before his legs were completely crushed to a pulp and still he refused to confess to witchcraft. With a rope around his neck, he was hauled through the streets on a cart to beg forgiveness for his sins. At the place of execution, a piece of iron was used to keep his broken body upright against the stake which, along with the straw and wood, was exorcised to prevent any intercessions by his diabolical partners. Grandier made several attempts to speak but his words did not reach the baying crowd as Capuchin friars silenced him with buckets of holy water and blows to his mouth with an iron crucifix. After the pyre had burned itself out and embers cast to the wind, the crowd surged forward to scavenge any detritus; the relics of a witch being popularly believed to form the basis for powerful charms and spells.

Urbain Grandier burned at the stake

Another notorious witchcraft trial in Brittany happened in the town of Fougères in 1642 when Isaac Marais was accused of having used curses and incantations to the devil in the treatment of the plague some years earlier. It is unclear whether, under torture, he denounced Mathurin Trullier, chaplain of the Saint-Sulpice church in Fougères and an accomplice with whom he had been involved in conducting alchemical experiments in search of the Philosophers’ Stone. Trullier was arrested and also charged with sexually assaulting a young girl and of possessing grimoires. The two cases were heard together at the Breton Parliament, then sitting in Rennes. On 19 January 1643, the pair were convicted of lèse-majesté divine for having used magic arts and spells; a rather vague charge that could cover transgressions ranging from petty counterfeiting to high treason. Both were sentenced to death, Marais to the gallows and Trullier condemned to be tortured and burned alive.

After enduring the torture of The Boot and neither confessing their crimes or denouncing others, Trullier and Marais, with ropes around their necks, were led to door of Saint-Peter’s Cathedral to beg for forgiveness. Trullier was taken through the cheering mob to the pyre set-up in the nearby Place des Lices where he was tied to the tall stake and burnt; the fire’s ashes being subsequently scattered to the four cardinal points of the compass. Marais swung from the gallows nearby.

The persecution and prosecution of witches in the 16th and 17th centuries mainly focused on the notion that they were heretics who had renounced God and made a pact with the Devil and in some countries this new concept was even introduced into criminal law, making witchcraft an offence under both ecclesiastical and common law. Slowly perceptions about witches turned from the harmless traditional healer to a dangerous sorceress in league with the Devil, the source of her magical powers and the object of her adoration. Closely related to this, was the idea that witches who made pacts with the Devil also worshipped him collectively and engaged in a number of blasphemous, immoral and obscene rites in gatherings known as Sabbaths.

devils and witches Sabbat dance

This new perception of witchcraft was propounded by the Papal bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus issued by Innocent VIII in 1484 and refined in the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer) issued by Dominican Inquisitors in 1487. The effect of these two documents over the next two centuries was profound; recommending deception and torture to obtain confessions and extermination rather than redemption seen as the only sure remedy to contain witchcraft.

The Malleus Maleficarum describes how women, rarely men, become inclined to practice witchcraft, arguing that women are more susceptible to demonic temptations through the innate weaknesses of their gender; the demon assails them in particular, being weaker in faith than men. Men could sometimes be witches but the impetus behind male witches was attributed to ambition and a desire for power rather than from faithfulness or lust, as was claimed for female witches. Women possessed loose tongues, a temperament towards flux and were defective in all the powers of body and soul. Lest there be any doubt that women were being targeted as the villain, the very title of the document uses the feminine noun, Maleficarum! The result of this deeply misogynistic text was that over three quarters of those subsequently prosecuted as witches in Europe were women.

A Jesuit priest, Antoine Boschet, described 17th century Brittany as being in the primitive age of the Church, a place where one witnessed something akin to what the pagans experienced when the first Apostles preached to them. Superstitions and witchcraft flourished, talismans and charms abounded, prayers were addressed to the moon and relics of paganism were noticeable everywhere. The region was therefore a prime target for Christian revivalists and evangelical missions abounded.

The principal 17th century Jesuit missionary to Brittany, the Blessed Julien Maunoir, kept an extensive journal of his 43 years work in the region and these formed the basis for Xavier-Auguste Séjourné’s biography, Histoire du vénérable serviteur de Dieu (1895). In it, he recounts that nine years into Maunoir’s mission he met his first ‘follower of hell’ in Saint-Guen in 1649. A young man he met said he was persecuted and threatened with death for having deserted a secret society. He spoke of nocturnal assemblies held on a large, deserted moor.

There, by torchlight that gave the light of day, a noisy crowd engaged in all kinds of games of chance such as dice and cards, while others danced around a golden throne on which sat a horrible monster. He was the king of this empire of darkness. Above all, it was necessary to pay him homage of fidelity. In return, he promised happiness that would last as long as life. Adore him, give him shameful kisses, give him body and soul, such were the tributes demanded. Furthermore, he demanded the merrymakers deny God, Christ, the Virgin, the sacraments, the Holy Church, that they renounce the faith of His baptism and the worship of saints especially Saint Anne and Saint Corentin. The unhappy culprit admitted to having submitted to these infamous conditions and to seal the infernal pact he had concluded, he had been struck on the neck with an indelible mark and his name written in a black book with the blood that had been drawn from one of his fingers. Thereafter, for many months, he took his share of the banquets, dances and abominable secrets of which the Sabbath was the theatre.

a witches sabbath

Maunoir feared that ‘the evil’ had deep roots in central Brittany and was much more extensive than he had thought. “The Sabbath was the meeting not of a small number but of a considerable multitude. We saw people of all ranks and all conditions: men, women, young people, daughters and children whom their parents had devoted to the Devil from their birth, sometimes even before. The gentleman struck the country shepherd there; the woman of the lowest condition, the high-born lady; and in the middle of this filthy bog, one could distinguish priests. The place where they met was not always the same but most often it was a huge heath which was called the crossroads of the Seven Ways”.

Séjourné relates other instances of what Maunoir called the Iniquity of the Mountain around Saint-Guen: “A man whose name and authority inspired all confidence, had asked a young girl to accompany him to a meeting where she would find, he told her, a lot of pleasure. When she got there, she was in the middle of the Sabbath. She was immediately asked to renounce Jesus Christ and worship the Devil.

Another time, one of the most daring characters in the sect – must we say that he was a priest? – had offered to an old peasant woman at a Sabbath, an enchanted mirror where he showed her Father Bernard and Father Maunoir surrounded by demons. They taught her to mould portraits of the two missionaries in wax. The operation finished, she had to prick the effigy with a needle every day while reciting certain cabalistic formulas. To this stratagem, their death was assured at short notice. Two years later, the two Fathers visited a parish near the one where this woman lived. She had never seen the missionaries except through her enchanted mirror. Great was her surprise to recognize them and especially to find them alive. The obvious uselessness of her spell became the cause of her conversion.”

The missionaries were not surprised to encounter witches and what they termed Devil worshippers in parts of Brittany; it was no more remarkable than in other parts of France and Europe yet the extent of religious ignorance, even amongst the native clergy, alarmed them. Re-building a deeper faith took time and zeal; mission priests worked in pairs, parish by parish, staying in each for up to six weeks every five years or so, not leaving until the entire adult population had made confession. “How to confess so much sacrilege, blasphemy and turpitude? Had these people not renewed every month, between the Devil’s hands, the promise to descend into hell rather than disclose anything to a confessor of their monstrous attacks against God, Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints?”

depiction of hell in church
Fresco depicting the torments of hell from the church at Kernascléden

Maunoir had been given a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum by his predecessor and mentor Dom Michel Le Nobletz in 1641 with the words “A day will come when you will draw from this book of great lights to lead the souls deceived by the Devil”. It was a work he drew heavily from when framing instructions for his missionaries in search of witches. He noted that demons enter their victims through dreams and tempted them to assemblies with pleasures of the flesh.

Thus, when interrogating a virgin, it was necessary to ask her of her dreams: did she dream of beasts or of men? Did they offer her gifts and make promises to her, as lovers do? Did she feel the weight of their body on hers as she slept? Did she think about her dreams during the day? If the penitent was married, the questions turned to her children; how many does she have and how many did she sacrifice to the Devil? The question of abortion was also to be confronted, interrogators were instructed to ask how many children the woman had lost and whether the Devil had told her that she had too many children and that neighbours would mock her because she had not the means to feed them all. Had she ever desired the death of the unborn child she once carried?

Such questions were strikingly similar to those asked of women in Brittany a hundred years later, long after the witch-hunting frenzy had died away, as part of a typical official investigation to assess a woman’s honour. The key difference being that positive answers in a witch-hunt carried demonic as well as criminal implications. Unfortunately, the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment did nothing to enlighten attitudes towards women and in the 18th century, the position of women in Brittany was little better than it had been in previous centuries. Even Europe’s most influential Enlightenment era philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considered that “there are no good morals for a woman outside a withdrawn and domestic life”.

Lone women in particular were open to accusations of immoral living and punishments were severe with public humiliation, confiscation of all assets, prison and even banishment. False accusations – and an accusation was often enough to completely destroy a woman’s reputation and livelihood – were an all too easy means of ridding oneself of a rival whether in business or love. As in the witch-hunts of earlier times, women were also the common accusers of other women and just as in the witch-hunts, an accusation was enough to kick-start formal investigations. It was almost impossible to successfully defend oneself against charges as vague as moral misconduct. Conviction for crimes against morality rarely required any more evidence than a denunciation and a supporting testimony. It was often enough to simply show that a woman had been in the ‘wrong’ place or in bad company or even badly dressed!

Similarities between 16th and 17th century witch-hunts and an 18th century ‘honour trial’ do stand scrutiny. The methods of detection and punishment were similar and both targeted non-conformist or unconventional women and relied on evidence that could almost always neither be proven nor disproven. Both were predominantly trials by suspicion, usually based on anonymous and vague denunciations, a standard pro forma wording of accusations and the general non-conformity of the accused; usually masterless women or societal misfits who could be punished on the most cursory of evidence.


The vast majority of those accused of witchcraft or dishonourable conduct were women; who were expected to uphold standards never expected of men. Many have claimed that the majority of women accused of witchcraft were probably guilty of nothing more than possessing a forceful and forthright personality and were likely well known in their neighbourhood as being unconventional or notorious for behaving in a way that was regarded as contrary to society’s notion of proper female decorum.

The psychologist Léon Marillier, writing in 1893, proposed that Bretons still possessed a state of mind where the explanation of a natural phenomenon, illness or death, which immediately comes to mind, is a supernatural explanation; a manifestation of the human tendency to treat objects of the imagination as real entities. So, we should not be too surprised to see that despite the formal disdain of society, people continued to consult the Groac’h or local witch to assuage ills, retain livelihoods by inviting her intercession to ensure the health of livestock and crops, seeking her assistance in affairs of the heart or as a fortune-teller. With many witches adept at healing or popularly held to be gifted in lifting curses through charms of un-bewitchment, the witch’s position in rural society was often an ambivalent one.

One of the most well-known witches of modern times was Naïa, the witch of Rochefort-en-Terre, who lived in the ruins of Rieux castle just outside the picturesque small town. Daughter of a local bone-setter, she claimed never to eat and relished in the air of mystery that surrounded her. A herbalist of some skill, she was a popular yet marginal figure at the same time; a loner who lived at the very fringe of society. In her time, she was quite well known in southern Brittany and was consulted by a broad cross-section of people, from star-crossed lovers to litigants in property disputes. The author and photographer Charles Géniaux described his meeting with Naïa in the Wide World Magazine in 1899.

“She stood there, in her majestic ugliness, solemn and imposing like Pythia of ancient times. We watched each other in silence. Her eyes inspired dread: sunken in their sockets, creamy in colour, glassy like those of the dead. Her hands, large and bony, were resting on a thorny staff and a sort of colourless shawl, partially covering her head and shoulders, fell to her feet. Long strands of white hair slid out of her hood. An indomitable will was imprinted on her wrinkled face, with an expression of intelligence even more striking than the hideous ugliness of her appearance.”

“The oldest among the old men remember Naïa. Their early childhood was lulled by the magical tales of her exploits. They have always known her unique silhouette, that is to say the same appearance, an invariable costume, neither newer nor older, and her gait, her features, her vigour, would escape the attacks of age. From there, they conclude to the immortality of Naïa.

There was a touching unanimity to convince me of this: namely that Naïa did not eat or drink and that, in memory of man, she had not entered a farm, a house or a shop to buy or ask what the common people usually dispense daily in the uses of life.”

Naia the Breton witch

He recounts the experiences of Jean Élain, a farmer from Pluherlin, with Naïa: “While I was telling my story, my tongue sometimes went into my throat from what I saw. First, she started a wood fire with smoke that I sneezed at every moment, and my eyes stung horribly. Then she threw dry herbs into the flames, which she removed from the pockets of her apron. Instantly, the fire started to speak. Yes sir! She would make little cries and chuckle with laughter. Suddenly, Naïa picked up the red coals with her fingers and placed them in her hands like a bouquet. I couldn’t speak but I heard myself called by my dead wife whose voice I recognized. Thereupon, Naïa gnashes her teeth and crushes the red coals between her palms. So, she started to tell me such shenanigans that a cunning lawyer would have gotten lost and thanks to her, I won my case.”

“Finally, and this borders on demonism, a notable family from Rochefort told me that, on the same day, the witch was met at very distant distances by two brothers. One, disembarking at Malensac, met her near the vast abandoned slate quarries, and the second, who was at the Questembert fair around the same time, swore to me that Naïa had called him by name.”

Naïa clearly had a sense of the dramatic; among her last words to Géniaux, she asked that he report their meeting thus: “Tell them also that I am not a foolish good woman, like their city sleepwalkers. I have the power! Me! And Gnâmi is stronger than death. He is The One Who Can, The One Who Wants, The One We Do Not See.”

The Pilgrim Trails of Brittany

Leaving behind home, loved ones and all that was familiar; undertaking a pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was a serious and often costly affair. It could take several years out of one’s life and involved facing considerable risk while travelling across distant lands; bad weather, wild beasts and brigands accounting for countless ill-prepared or overwhelmed pilgrims over the centuries.

Typically, before embarking on a distant pilgrimage, a pilgrim was required to settle their affairs which involved the payment of all outstanding debts, seeking and granting forgiveness for past wrongdoings and making a solemn vow to complete their journey. Most pilgrimages were undertaken out of religious devotion or to petition for special favours and gather indulgences; pilgrimage as expiation of sins or as an act of anticipatory penance being a key motivator. Sometimes, a pilgrimage was ordered as a public act of penance; the sinner often bound to walk barefoot or even naked, rarely spending more than one night in a particular place and having to beg for food along the way.

Procession Brittany

Pilgrimages can be defined as journeys to holy places such as shrines, undertaken as labours of love for the Divine and spiritual quests for grace. For Christians, this sometimes involved the long, difficult voyage to the Holy Land but other sites of significance such as churches containing the relics of saints were also places of pilgrimage for the pious. Amongst the most notable were the churches of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Rome, the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury cathedral, the relics of the Magi of Bethlehem at Cologne cathedral and the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The Church granted indulgences to those who successfully completed pilgrimages to certain sites, with the amount of merit depending on the distance travelled and hardships endured along with the devotion shown at the sacred shrines met on the pilgrims’ trail and the performance of established rituals at the destination itself. Sometimes, the pilgrimage was undertaken to earn indulgences for the dead and not necessarily by a loved one; pilgrimage by proxy was not uncommon and one professional pilgrim in late 19th century Brittany was noted to have carried out at least 64 pilgrimages on behalf of other people.

Through these indulgences, pilgrims might hope to save their souls from eternal damnation or even escape purgatory; for instance, it was traditionally held that a pilgrimage to the relics of St James in Compostela reduced one’s time in purgatory by half. The medieval pilgrim trail to Compostela across France and northern Spain, known as El Camino de Santiago, was therefore very popular and remains so for the pilgrims of today as well as with religious travellers and hikers.

Pilgrim routes in Brittany

Brittany was an important stage on the journey to Compostela for medieval pilgrims travelling from Ireland and western parts of Great Britain. As you can see in the map above, the main starting points for the Camino de Santiago are near to some of the key ports on the Atlantic and Channel coasts. After disembarking, pilgrims are faced with a further journey of 2,000km (1,250 miles) to Compostela. For an idea of scale, the distance covered by the pilgrim trail illustrated from La Pointe Saint-Mathieu to Clisson is over 500km (325 miles).

One of the starting points for the camino on Brittany’s west Atlantic coast is the former abbey at Pointe Saint-Mathieu. This was built over the remains of a 6th century monastery which was once said to hold the relics of Saint Matthew but accounts differ markedly as to how and when parts were moved to southern Italy. Stripped-out after the French Revolution, it is quite difficult to imagine now how significant the abbey and supporting town of some 40 streets once was; even as late as the end of the 16th century.

The former abbey of Beauport, on Brittany’s the north coast, is the departure point for another important camino route through Brittany. Founded in the mid-12th century, the abbey once held significant holdings in the British county of Lincolnshire. It was spared the ravages of war that often befell other sites, such as the abbey at Pointe Saint-Mathieu, but met the same fate during the French Revolution. Happily, the abbey buildings were not stripped of their stones and the ruins today remain quite substantial.

Most of the routes take you through open land on country lanes, canal tow-paths and graded bicycle trails. The terrain covered is fairly flat and affords the traveller a variety of landscapes predominantly rural in aspect, passing through villages and small towns and crossing just a few historic cities. The Association Bretonne des Amis de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle can provide practical guidebooks for the various routes that traverse Brittany.

Several routes merge at Redon, a small town on the confluence of the Vilaine and Oust rivers, where pilgrims traditionally converged before moving onto Nantes and beginning the long journey south to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and into Spain.

Another long-distance pilgrimage trail in Brittany is that of the Tro Breizh (Breton for through or tour of Brittany) or the Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints; a journey of over 600km (375 miles) connecting the cathedrals and relics of the founders of the first seven bishoprics of Brittany. These early bishoprics are closely linked to the first Christian evangelists who arrived from Celtic Britain in the sixth century and are considered together as the Seven Founding Saints, namely: 

Saint Pol whose shrine is at Saint-Pol-de-Léon; Saint Tudwal’s shrine is at Tréguier; Saint Brioc whose principal shrine is at Saint-Brieuc; Saint Malo at the town bearing his name; Saint Samson whose shrine is at Dol-de-Bretagne; Saint Padarn at Vannes and Saint Corentin whose shrine is at Quimper.

Tro Breizh

In medieval times this journey was expected to be carried out once in a lifetime to ensure entry into Heaven and a Breton legend tells us that whoever does not make the Tro Breizh at least once in their lifetime will be condemned to complete it after death but by advancing only the length of a coffin every seven years.

There is some debate about the age and importance of this pilgrimage in medieval times; some scholars trace the Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints back to the time of King Nomenoë who, through a series of political, religious and military actions, split the Breton Church away from the ecclesiastical province of Tours in the 9th century. Other historians argue that the collective cult of the Seven Saints probably dates from the end of the 10th century. The first documented reference to this pilgrimage is found in the canonization inquiry for Saint Yves in 1330.

The Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints was traditionally completed in one journey which typically took a month to complete. Pilgrims walked from one saint’s shrine to another, essentially making a circuitous pilgrimage through the heart of Breton Brittany, passing neither of the big cities of Rennes or Nantes. There is no final destination or order to respect – you can start and stop anywhere – although it was once the custom to follow the course of the sun.

Pilgrimage of the Seven Saints Brittany

In the modern era, not many people can devote an entire month to a pilgrimage and so, in 1994, when the pilgrimage was officially re-launched with the full support of the Vatican, it was suggested by the association Les Chemins du Tro Breiz, that it be limited to one week annually and thus completed over the course of seven years. Each summer, the association organises a walk of one stage of the Tro Breizh covering about 150km (90 miles) over the course of a week. Additionally, the association handles the Tremen-Hent, a pilgrims’ passport or credential, whose completion is necessary in order to apply for the Certificate of Pilgrimage. These organised pilgrimages attract over two thousand participants each year; a combination of devout pilgrims and casual hikers.

According to Breton tradition, there were three pilgrimages that the devout had to complete at least once during their lifetime. The first was to the troménie at Locronan but it was not considered completed if you looked, even briefly, in any direction other than straight ahead and deviated, even slightly, from the route supposedly taken by Saint Ronan. The second pilgrimage was to the Pardon of Saint-Servais; if one failed to make this pilgrimage during one’s lifetime, they were doomed to do it in the afterlife, carrying their coffin on their shoulders and advancing only the length of the coffin each day. The final obligatory pilgrimage was to participate in the Pardon of Notre-Dame de Bulat in Bulat-Pestivien.

Participation in the extended processions of two other Pardons were also widely regarded as obligatory pilgrimages: that of Notre-Dame du Yaudet near Lannion and the troménie known as ‘the tour of the relics’ in Landeleau. It was said that whoever failed to accomplish the pilgrimage to Yaudet was condemned to go there three times after death, while those who missed ‘the tour of the relics’ were condemned to undertake this troménie after death, carrying their coffin but advancing only its length each day.

Pilgrimage in Brittany

It was believed that announcing one’s intention to undertake a pilgrimage constituted a sacred vow; if you had died before fulfilling your vow, you would honour your obligation in death. However, the dead were said to have been unable to go on a pilgrimage alone; they needed to be accompanied by at least one living person. This was why, sometimes, those performing their pilgrimages often heard, without seeing anything, a rustling in the hedgerows or the sounds of footsteps upon the path; the souls of the dead fulfilling their vows of pilgrimage.

In Brittany, most pilgrimages commenced, with prayers, from the steps of a calvary. This was not necessarily one associated with the local church or even one dedicated to the particular saint being invoked by the pilgrimage; the nearest roadside calvary was thought sufficient. However, if the pilgrimage was being undertaken in order to intercede for the soul of a dead loved one, the journey began with prayers at the grave of the deceased.

It is possible to follow the established pilgrimage routes, in whole or in part, at any time of the year. The routes are mostly marked and will lead you, via the most beautiful cathedrals in Brittany, to historic chapels, sacred fountains, remarkable calvaries and across wonderful and varied landscapes. Whether hiked or biked, travelling even a part of the old pilgrimage routes, affords a special opportunity to connect with the past and to discover today’s Brittany in peace.

Some Lost Christmas Traditions from Brittany

Each country marks Christmas in its own way; even countries that are geographically close such as France and the UK have very varied traditions surrounding the celebration of this festival but there are also notable regional differences too. The folk customs and traditions regarding the celebration of Christmas differed from region to region in France, as elsewhere, and those in Brittany were once quite distinctive.

One tradition that was once widespread across much of Europe was that of the Yule Log. In Brittany, this was known as the “Kef Nedeleg” (literally, the Christmas trunk in Breton). As the name suggests, this was usually a massive log or even a stump of oak or some other slow-burning local hardwood such as beech or chestnut that had been specially selected and set aside for the purpose. Once hauled into the hearth, a prayer was said before the log was sprinkled with grains of salt and a little water taken from a sacred spring. A few 19th century accounts note that some families embellished the log with branches of evergreens but this does not appear to have been a custom widespread in Brittany.

Dragging the Yule Log - Christmas traditions - Brittany
The Yule Log

In households that contained children, the fireplace was usually scrubbed clean in honour of the anticipated nocturnal visit by the Infant Jesus who was believed to descend the chimney in order to leave a gift rewarding good behaviour over the previous year. It was believed that Jesus entered the house via the chimney because the doorway was habitually used by those stained with sin whereas the chimney was constantly purified by fire. It is worth noting that the figure of Santa Claus was almost unheard of in Brittany until around the time of the Second World War.

Lit just before the family set off to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the Kef Nedeleg would burn over several days; some traditions here claimed that it should burn until the Solemnity of Mary or, even longer, until the Feast of the Epiphany. The embers of the burnt log were subsequently collected as they were believed to hold magical, beneficial qualities including the ability to purify water. Additionally, small bags of ash were placed under beds in order to protect the home from lightning strikes and snakes over the year ahead.

Gathering the faggots in the snow - Jules Breton - Christmas traditions - Brittany

A number of other ancient beliefs and superstitions were once closely associated with Christmas Eve in Brittany:

  • Country folk would place straw wreaths around their apple trees in the hope of ensuring a good year’s harvest.
  • During midnight mass, the animals in the stables were able to speak to each other in the tongues of men. It was also during this time that the bones in the ossuary spoke to each other and that anyone who had the courage to hide in the ossuary during midnight mass would see the Ankou, the Breton personification of death, and learn the names of the people of the parish who were to die during the following year
  • Again, during midnight mass, at the time of consecration, a candle was said to cast light on the spot where a hidden treasure could be found. At the same time, the water in the sacred fountains was changed into wine.
  • As the church bell sounded midnight, it was thought one could hear in the wind, the chimes of the church bells of Ker-Is, the legendary sunken city of Brittany, ringing in the distance.
  • While the bells heralded the start of Christmas Day, standing stones known as menhirs would free themselves from the earth to drink at the ancient sacred springs; returning to the earth with the echo of the last bell. A menhir outside the central town of Pontivy was said to drink at the nearby Blavet River; its momentary absence revealed a hidden treasure. In some areas, the menhirs were said to be raised into the air by birds; revealing a tantalising glimpse of the secret treasure trove they guarded over.
Menhirs on Christmas Eve - Christmas traditions - Brittany
Flying menhirs on Christmas Eve
  • On Brittany’s north coast, the Grand Rocher massif near Plestin-les-Grèves was said to entomb a magnificent lost city which could be glimpsed through a small fissure that only opened-up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. It was said that the city would be resurrected if someone was only bold enough to venture into the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and swift enough to re-emerge before the sounds of the twelfth bell had died away.
  • In western Brittany it was widely believed that the bells of midnight mass on Christmas Eve marked the end of the parish priest’s ability to metamorphose into an animal, most usually some form of black dog; an ability he was often held to possess during the period of Advent.
  • Frustrated by the celebration of Christmas, it was thought that the Devil attempted to collect fresh souls on Christmas Eve by tempting the devout with the lure of treasure. It was said that the verges of the pathways trodden by those attending midnight Mass often glistened; not with reflections of moonlight but with gold scattered by the Devil to enchant the unwary. Deep cracks appeared around the base of the wayside crosses, offering a tantalising glimpse of a stream of gold coins but any who tried to enrich themselves were unable to keep hold of their gold. For each coin collected immediately escaped their grasp, leaving on the fingers an indelible black mark and a burning sensation like that of Hellfire.
  • Upon returning home from midnight mass, the farmer would give a small piece of bread to his animals to ensure their good health over the year ahead and to protect them against the bite of a rabid dog.
A wolf in winter - Christmas traditions - Brittany

In some Breton families, it was customary to have the Christmas meal after returning home from mass on the night of Christmas Eve; this feast usually consisted of a thin pork stew that had been steadily gaining flavour in the cauldron set-up in the open hearth.

The sanctity of Christmas night was considered so sacred that no evil spirit could act with impunity but it was also a time for the dead; Christmas Eve being one of the three solemn festivals (the others being the night of Saint John’s Day and the eve of All Saints’ Day) where the community of the dead, the Anaon, of each parish gathered. This was a night when the veil of separation between the living and the dead was particularly vulnerable; a time when the dead wandered freely in the land of the living.

The Wayside Cross at Rochefort en Terre - Christmas traditions - Brittany

The Breton ethnographer Anatole Le Braz in his book La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (1893), described it thus:

“On Christmas night, we see them parading by the roads in long processions. They sing with soft and light voices the song of the Nativity. One would think, to hear them, that it is the leaves of the poplars that rustle, if, at this time of the year, the poplars had leaves.

At their head walks the ghost of an old priest, with curly hair, white as snow, with a slightly hunched body. In his emaciated hands, he carries the ciborium. Behind the priest comes a small altar boy who rings a tiny bell. The crowd follows, in two rows. Each dead man holds a lighted candle whose flame does not even flicker in the wind. This is the way to some abandoned chapel in ruins, where no more masses are celebrated than those of dead souls.”

Father Christmas Brittany - Christmas traditions - Brittany
Father Christmas in Brittany

While the beliefs of yesteryear may have died away there is one old Christmas tradition that is still observed in many Breton households today; on Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes by the fireplace in the hope that Père Noël (Father Christmas or Santa Claus) will fill them with gifts. An echo of a practice noted just a few generations ago when children left their heavy wooden clogs by the open hearth where blazed the Yule Log in hopes of the gift of a little sugared sweet.

Nedeleg Laouen ha Bloavezh Mat!  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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