Wolf and Werewolf in Brittany

There is currently some speculation that wolves are once again roaming wild in parts of rural Brittany. After an absence of over a century, their presence is now being greeted with a measure of acclaim but it was not always so. For centuries, the wild wolf was regarded as a figure of dread throughout the land and there are countless accounts of wolves destroying livestock and attacking horses, dogs and people.

In the 17th and 18th centuries it was often reported that wolves hunted men into the towns and villages of central Brittany, keeping the inhabitants virtual prisoners at night. The menace posed by wolves is frequently mentioned in the government records of the time; in 1796 the Commission of the Executive Directory noted that in southern Brittany: “The countryside is infected with ferocious ravenous animals. They already appear in bands of fifteen to twenty wolves. What will this winter be like during the snow?” Similar concerns were raised in central Brittany where, in 1807, the prefect of the Department reported of “the presentation by the mayor of Rostrenen where wolves frequently show up in large packs in the vicinity of the town, threatening cattle and even the people.”

Wolves were regarded as a dangerous menace to everyday life and official bounties were offered to those who killed a wolf; this had been the case since a capitulary of Charlemagne in 813 ordered the creation of official wolf hunters who were charged with eradicating wolves and rewarded with a modus of grain for each wolf pelt submitted. By the late 15th century the French Court included a position known as the Wolfcatcher Royal and in 1520 François I revisited and formalised the old Charlemagnian bounty system but it would still be almost a generation before the laws of a French king held sway in then independent Brittany.

Wolf devouring a man
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In 1676, Louis XIII offered two denarii for each wolf and the records of these bounty payments provide a useful insight into the presence of wolves in Brittany at that time; for instance, in 1685, some 42 bounties were distributed in the town of Quimperlé alone.  Abuses to the bounty system saw its abandonment in 1787 only for it be resurrected after the Revolution; in 1790 twelve new francs was set as the new bounty and in 1794 free powder and shot were also added as an incentive. However, the scarcity of firearms at the time meant that take-up was very small, prompting the authorities to exhort to the regional prefects: “There are a thousand ways to capture wolves in the traps that are set for them; research these means, publish them, so that your fellow citizens’ profit and the territory will be purged.

Some well-documented wolf attacks in western and central Brittany around this time include: in September 1773, near Rosporden, a wolf devoured two children and several head of cattle; in the same year, thirteen people in the village of Saint-Caradec were bitten by a rabid wolf. Twelve died, the thirteenth survived thanks to the bite not penetrating her heavy canvas clothes. In 1777, wolves were reported ravaging charcoal-makers in the woods of Plounéour-Ménez; in Châteaulin in 1797 a wolf attacked three young men, opening the skull of one and permanently disfiguring another. Thankfully, the other man was able to hold the beast until the arrival of a fourth man armed with an axe. Near Bannalec in the same year, an eight year old cowherd was viciously attacked and maimed. At Huelgoat, in January 1811, a wolf attacked a labourer; a fierce struggle ensued in which the man was only saved thanks to his sickle and the energy of his brother. Later the same month and just a few miles away, a young shepherdess had her face lacerated by a wolf who attacked her after killing one of her sheep.

At the time, many people believed that a rabid wolf only attacked livestock but records show that this was not the case. In 1715 a rabid wolf wreaked havoc around Concoret, biting over twenty five people, several of whom died. In 1849, a fourteen year old boy from Châteaulin was attacked by a rabid wolf whose bite had already resulted in the deaths of two neighbours; fortunately he subdued the animal with an axe. A few years later, in 1851, hunters managed to capture and kill a wolf thought to have been responsible for up to forty attacks in the woods around the town of Quintin. In 1872 in Plouguerneau, four cows were attacked by a rabid wolf, one of whom was almost completely devoured. When rabid wolves bit people it was popularly thought that they had only done so under the spell of a witch or sorcerer.

Wolf hung from a tree
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In 1811, the bounty was increased to 18 francs, payable upon presentation of the carcass or simply the head to the local Mayor; some forty years later the bounty increased to 30 francs for a male and 50 francs for a female. It was then still common practice for a dead wolf to be paraded around the streets on a cart or wheelbarrow before being hung from a suitable oak tree near a forest away from town.

At times, the carcass of a wolf was depredated; paws were popularly nailed to doors as charms to keep the wolf at bay and teeth carried for good fortune. Other parts of the carcass were also of value. In 1702, a man from Concoret was condemned as a sorcerer and sentenced to public humiliation for having cast the spell of ‘knotting the needle’. This curse was widely held to prevent the consummation of a marriage and required the penis of a freshly killed young wolf. For the spell to work it was necessary to call out the name of the intended victim and once acknowledged, a tight knot of white twine was tied around the wolf’s member, leaving the new groom unable to perform.

By the late 19th century packs of seven or nine wolves were rare; groups of two to five being most commonly reported but the wolf menace was still keenly felt. The Welsh clergyman Edward Davies, in his account Wolf Hunting and Wild Sport in Lower Brittany (1875), noted: “It is only during a long-continued season of snow that the wolf, pinched by hunger, hardens his heart and becomes at once both a daring and destructive brute. At such a time it has been found necessary to light fires nightly at all the road entrances into Carhaix, Callac, Gourin, Rostrenen and other small towns in that vicinity, in order to save the cattle and even the dogs from the rapacity of the hungry wolves.”

18th century wolf attack
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In the year 1879, almost a third of the 555 wolves reported killed in France were slain in Brittany where local priests often blessed the pitchforks and guns of those setting out to kill wolves. While the popular perception might be of images of intrepid hunters armed with simple slow-loading firearms stalking the countryside, the more popular means of capturing wolves was by a covered pit trap and poisoned bait. However, from around 1880, the systematic use of strychnine in those areas known to be home to wolf dens precipitated a sharp decline in wolf numbers leading to its effective disappearance within a decade or so. Changes to the animals’ natural habitat such as deforestation and the construction of more and more roads helped seal the wolf’s fate in Brittany.

The last wolf bounty here was awarded in March 1891 to three hunters from the town of Milizac but it seems that the last wolf killed in Brittany was captured and destroyed around Ménez Hom in January 1903.  However, a hanged man was allegedly devoured by wolves near Plouay in 1905 and a three-legged wolf was sighted near Brasparts in 1906 while other sightings were reported near Molac and the forest of Loudeac in the years leading up to WW1.

Although wolf attacks were far from commonplace (just 81 deaths recorded from wolf attacks in Brittany since 1600), the threat to life and livelihood was very real for the rural farmer surviving on subsistence agriculture. Children, who were usually used as cowherds and shepherds, were unable to offer any useful defence against a determined wolf thus many cattle were lost; an expensive asset for a Breton farmer. To keep the cattle or sheep secure in the summer months, it was therefore necessary for the men to sleep outside or to look after the cattle themselves thus diverting much needed labour away from the crucial seasonal tasks. However, the loss of a horse was often the farmers’ greatest worry and there are several pitiful accounts of people forced to become townsmen due to the loss of a horse. In 1796, authorities in the town of Retiers were asked to provide “a few pounds of powder and lead … to continue hunting these destructive animals which, in one year, destroyed in a single neighbouring commune over forty foals.”

17th century wolf
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Given the real dangers to rural lives and livelihoods posed by wolves it is not surprising that this animal occupied a unique place in people’s imagination. For centuries, the wolf was the anti-hero or villain of countless folktales and legends which were passed down through the generations and the beast’s victims of choice were seemingly always young lambs: innocent children watching-over their sheep and cattle or virtuous young girls travelling through the woods after nightfall.

The wolf therefore had accumulated the diffuse fears of the rural folk to become the most terrifying of animals; a beast that dominated the land that man himself claimed dominion over. In yesteryears’ Brittany, most rural dwellers even feared to acknowledge a wolf (bleiz in Breton) by name, referring instead to Yann, Guillou or Ki Noz (the night dog in Breton) which was sometimes used as a synonym for the Devil. The wolf was therefore seen as evil incarnate and was often depicted in the region’s folklore as cruel, cunning, voracious and violent.

This same folklore was rich in tales of shapeshifters; magical beings who could turn themselves into domesticated animals such as cats or pigs but when there was talk of a metamorphosis of a man, it was often into a wolf or man-wolf. The werewolf (Den Bleiz in Breton or loup-garou in French) superstition was once as prevalent in Brittany as in other parts of France but the region was, thankfully, spared the werewolf hysteria that gripped eastern France in the 16th century.

Wolfman
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The notion that a man, and it was usually a man, could be temporarily or permanently transformed into a wolf stretches back to antiquity and probably beyond but it was the Roman poet Ovid who provided the image that took root in the popular imagination. In the first book of his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells how Lycaon, King of Arcadia, was turned into a wolf by Zeus as punishment for feeding him the roasted flesh of his murdered son:

His clothes changed into bristling hairs, his arms to legs and he became a wolf. His own savage nature showed in his rabid jaws and he now directed against the flocks his innate lust for killing. He had a mania for shedding blood. But, though he was a wolf, he retained some traces of his original shape.”

This image of a man-wolf full of cunning and savagery resonated through the ages amongst the rural folk of Europe. In Brittany, where there existed many superstitions surrounding the power of a name, the werewolf was sometimes known as Bleiz Garv (cruel wolf in Breton).  A central element in European folktales featuring werewolves is usually the destruction of innocence – the murder of a child, not with thoughts of self-preservation but out of sheer blood lust. The image of the werewolf was one of a ferocious fiend, a cold-blood killer who tasted human flesh for pleasure.

Such traits were little changed since the myth of Lycaon and, like Lycaon, it was believed that the transmutation from man to werewolf could only be achieved through divine of demonic intervention. Only through powerful supernatural forces could man alter so profoundly, thus werewolves were usually linked to witchcraft and were pursued and prosecuted as wicked sorcerers.

Wolf-man
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Witches and sorcerers were said to be able to transform themselves into animals such as bees, cats, dogs, hares, mice and wolves. Such transformations were regarded as an innate capacity of the witch but it was also believed that such powers were the gift of the Devil; a reward for entering into a solemn pact with him. Thus werewolves were intrinsically linked to witchcraft, practicing the dark arts solely for the power of metamorphosis itself.

The metamorphosis from man to wolf was thought to be most commonly done by shedding their human clothing and putting on a girdle or belt made of wolf-skin but other methods were spoken of, such as applying a special lotion over the body or drinking rain-water from a wolf’s footprint or eating the brains of a wolf. Donning the wolf’s girdle or rubbing oneself with an ointment was viewed as a wilful act; man thus volunteered to become a werewolf.

In addition to the voluntary werewolf, there were also believed to be involuntary ones too. These were typically men who had been transformed into a wolf as a punishment for their sins, particularly thievery, and condemned to pass a certain number of years as a wolf or until the curse was lifted. One tradition in central Brittany held that werewolves were men who had been turned into wolves for not having confessed their sins for more than a decade. Involuntary werewolves were popularly believed to revert permanently to their human form if they bled from a wound inflicted by an iron sickle or a black-hafted blade.

After roaming the countryside at night, a werewolf had only to throw off his wolf skin to return to human form, taking pains to hide their wolf skin with care. In Brittany, it was said that if this skin was placed in a cold place, the man actually felt the chill. Conversely, there is a tale of a man who had hidden his skin in the communal bread oven; his wife having lit a fire there, discovered her husband shrieking and struggling as though he was really surrounded by flames. Burning the wolf skin was thought to forever sever the link between man and werewolf, while destroying or hiding the werewolf’s human clothes made it impossible for him to regain his human appearance.

Werewolf
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The werewolf superstition was at its height in France during the 16th century and numerous records attest to the trials of people, predominantly men, who were accused of being a werewolf. One of the first celebrated werewolf trials occurred in 1521 in Poligny, a town some 300 miles (485km) east of the then Duchy of Brittany but it is worth highlighting as an indicative example of the typical charges levied and the subsequent investigation and prosecution of the accused.

While travelling near a forest outside Poligny, a group of men were attacked by a wolf but successfully managed to beat off their assailant, injuring him in the process. The injured wolf was tracked to the hovel of Michel Verdun who was found inside dripping with blood; he was promptly seized and subsequently arrested. Under torture, he confessed to being a werewolf and implicated two friends; Philibert Montot and Pierre Bourgot, the latter likewise confessed to being a werewolf but also told of having once made a pact with a mysterious black-clad man to protect his sheep. Bourgot claimed there had been a hailstorm when he was collecting his sheep and that the stranger, likely a demon, told him that he would not have missed gathering a single sheep if he but served the demon as his lord.

Bourgot’s testimony describes how he agreed the pact the following night: “kneeling before the demon in homage, vowed to obey him, renouncing God, Our Lady, all the Company of Heaven, his baptism and chrism. He swore also never to assist at Holy Mass nor to use Holy Water. He then kissed the demon’s left hand, which was black and cold as the hand of a corpse.” He alleged that Verdun gave him an ointment that turned him into a wolf and together they killed at least two children: …they killed a woman who was gathering peas. They also seized a little girl of four years old and ate the flesh, all save one arm. Several other persons were murdered by them in this way, for they loved to lap up the warm flowing blood. … Another time they killed and ate raw a goat belonging to Maître Bongré. It is unclear if Montot also confessed but he was executed along with the others.

Werewolf and his victims
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Another well documented werewolf trail took place in the Breton border town of Angers in August 1589. Jacques Roulet, a local vagabond, was accused of having been found, hiding amongst some bushes, in the form of a werewolf, half-naked with matted hair, his hands covered in blood and fingernails sunk in the remains of human flesh. The mutilated body of a 15 year old boy was discovered nearby. Roulet confessed to the murder and claimed “to have attacked and devoured with his teeth and nails many children in various parts of the country whither he had roamed.” Furthermore, he claimed to have been a werewolf ever since using an ointment that his parents had given him some years earlier.

Roulet’s confessions during the trial were often contradictory and improbable; he was prone to convulsions and most likely mentally ill. The tribunal sentenced him to death but he appealed to the Parlement of Paris, which commuted the death penalty, probably due to the lack of evidence, to two years confinement at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés asylum “with instruction in the faith and fear of God, which he had forgotten about in his huge poverty.” Roulet was perhaps fortunate that his appeal was heard at the time the Parlement of Paris was stamping its authority over local tribunals, requiring all capital sentences of witches be appealed to them.

Due to their renouncement of God and their alliance with the Devil, werewolves were regarded as damnable sorcerers and like those of their female counterpart, the witch, trials focused on the diabolical pact, confessions were gained through torture and punishments were severe. In the same year as Roulet’s trial, Peter Stubbe was convicted of being a werewolf just over the French border in Westphalia; he was sentenced to “have his body laid on a wheel and with red hot burning pincers to have the flesh pulled off his bones in ten places, after that, his legs and arms to be broken with a wooden hatchet, afterward to have his head struck from his body, then to have his carcass burned to ashes.”

The notion of a pact with the Devil, freely entered into, and the renunciation of God were at the very heart of werewolf trials. Under torture, many hapless unfortunates also confessed to having worshiped the Devil at a sabbath and it was the demonic implications of these two key acts that were the focus for prosecutors. In Brittany, it was believed that the sorcerer who agreed to the Devil’s covenant was bound to it for seven or sometimes nine years; the contract being automatically renewed if the werewolf was seen by anyone other than fellow werewolves. If the werewolf died before being released from the contract he could expect to descend to hell without hope of redemption.

Witches as shapeshifters
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While many scholars of the day argued that human to animal transformation was impossible. Others, such as the 16th century French jurist, Jean Bodin, stressed that such damnable witches should be sentenced to death since “it is a vile belief the Devil puts into the hearts of men in order to make them kill and devour each other and destroy the human race.” A position echoed by Jean Beauvois de Chauvincourt, in his 1588 Discours de la Lycanthropie, who described werewolves as “men so denatured, that they have made bastards of their first origin, leaving this divine form and transforming themselves into such an impure, cruel and savage beast.”

The official position of the Church was that any human to animal transformations did not happen in the physical body but through diabolical illusions in the spirit only. A position the Church had held for centuries, condemning as illusory those vestiges of pagan superstitions and beliefs in magic, animal transformations and night-flights which were contrary to the true faith. Lycanthropy was something induced by evil spirits that created a delusion in some men, culpability therefore lay with the Devil rather than the weak-willed but the culpability of witches and sorcerers for striking a bargain with the Devil was a heresy that demanded a vigorous response.

While the demonic element was usually the key feature of a werewolf trial, the charge was closely followed by accusations of murder and sometimes even cannibalism. The accused were usually said to have a predilection for young children and especially little girls and the lewd sin of lechery, sexual assaults and acts of incest were commonly found in such trials. With very few exceptions, it was men that were accused of werewolfism and no matter the physical attributes of the accused, in wolf form he was usually described as strongly-built with sharpened teeth and claws. These were crucial elements in the popular image of a werewolf during the 16th and early 17th centuries; a lustful, lecherous and savage predator.

Werewolf in popular imagination
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Without straying too far into pop-psychology it does not take a giant leap to consider that the werewolf might have served as a useful medium for the people in small rural communities to accept how a seemingly rational neighbour could also, for a moment, act as a completely irrational creature. Even if the metamorphosis is always supernatural, the werewolf remains partly human, thus is would have been understandable to dehumanise the image of the man who threatened the stability of the community. The emphasis on the sexuality of the werewolves likely reflects the anxieties felt within the community surrounding the issue of safety. Mutilated livestock, murders and disappearances of children and young women would naturally spread alarm and feed the collective fear of a wicked sorcerer at large. An active sexual deviant could easily destroy the equilibrium in a small village and so, in their fear, the community would turn to God and the local magistrates for help and so the witch-hunt would begin!

The accused in most werewolf trials had three things in common: they were poor, male, rural peasants, depicted as evil but weak-minded men who were easily tempted by the Devil and his promises of reward. Some modern scholars have focused heavily on the extreme poverty faced by many of the accused and questioned whether these men were simply social outcasts without means and thus, as the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, easily chosen as scapegoats for society’s ills. However, it is important to recall that, at the time, most rural dwellers lived in poverty and outbreaks of plague and famine were quite common in 16th century France.

Werewolves were widely held to only roam freely at night, particularly when there were violent winds; in some areas this was thought to be only on the nights of a full moon but in other areas, all nights belonged to the werewolf. The werewolf as symbol of storm, of night and of winter is a vivid one and some tales add to this sense of otherworldliness by taking the werewolf out of the forest and placing him on the heath or at a crossroads; both locations rich in symbolism – the transition between the wild and the cultivated and of paths chosen.

Werewolf at the crossroads
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There are few Breton tales that involve a werewolf attacking people or even other animals; often the werewolf is portrayed as a forlorn creature and many stories contain strong religious connotations surrounding the notion of sin and penance. Curiously, werewolves were believed never to attack musicians and were even said to flee upon hearing the binioù or Breton bagpipe; likely a superstition which had its roots in the 17th century when Jesuit missions in Brittany cursed musicians in their efforts to stamp out music and dancing.

The belief in Wolf Leaders (meneurs de loups in French) was quite widespread in Brittany; men who directed wolves and were obeyed by them. They were also believed to command werewolves. Such men were not always werewolves themselves but sorcerers who had made a pact with the Devil and received something other than the ability to metamorphose as their reward. In some parts of the region, tales tell of men who secretly raised bands of wolves to ravage the land and destroy the flocks and herds of those that were pointed out to them.

In western Brittany, the role of wolf leaders was said to be handed down from father to son. These men were believed to stay for extended periods in the forests, where they were served by their wolves whilst sat on armchairs formed of intertwined oak branches trimmed with grass. It was even said that sometimes they ordered their wolves to lead lost travellers back home. Some stories emphasised the need to give bread as thanks to these nocturnal guides as they might be werewolves seeking to obtain the key to their return to the world of men by a good deed; the gift of bread would allow the involuntary werewolf to break his curse.

The Christian undertones are clear and further examples can also be found scattered throughout Breton werewolf lore stretching back as far Saint Ronan, an early 6th century evangelist in Brittany, who was once famously accused of killing a child and of being a werewolf. The legends of other Breton saints tell how they changed unrepentant sinners into wolves. In western Brittany, priests were once thought to possess the power to transform unbelievers into werewolves and to be able to take on an animal form themselves during Advent. Divine assistance was also called upon to slay a werewolf who it was believed could only be killed by being struck three times in the forehead by a dagger made of silver melted from a crucifix or shot by a ball moulded from the same silver source. Sometimes, it was said that it was also necessary for the firearm itself to have been blessed or its stock rubbed with wax from a Paschal candle.

George Sand werewolf
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Adolphe Orain in his Picturesque Geography of Ille-et-Vilaine (1882) tells of another way to lift the werewolf curse in eastern Brittany:

The charcoal burners will tell you that the garou, that is to say the poor devil on whom a spell has been cast, and who is forced in spite of himself to run every night, can only foil the spell which undermines him by kissing a cross located in a forest clearing. But his efforts are in vain, a force keeps him at a certain distance from the cross, before which he crawls on the ground, screaming in rage. He can only reach it if someone spills his blood, either by hitting him with a stone or with a whip. If the blood does not flow before the sun rises, he will have to start again the following night and return to the same place to try to reach the cross.

Despite the confessions – given under torture – of the so-called werewolves, it is likely that many of the fatal attacks blamed on them during the werewolf trials of the 16th century were simply wolf attacks. Others were certainly brutal murders and would have been tried as such were it not for the superstitions surrounding the demonic element of a man-wolf. Some of the accused may well have suffered from lycanthropy, a psychiatric illness in which the sufferer imagines himself to have been transformed into an animal. By the middle of the 17th century confessions of werewolfism were no longer credited; the question of bodily transformation having lost its significance in natural philosophy and science.

Many men who confessed to being werewolves claimed that they used an ointment rubbed on their bodies to effect the transformation.  Such an ointment could have had hallucinogenic qualities that fooled a man’s mind into believing that he had actually changed into a wolf.  Other wolf hallucinations may have been accidental, for instance, a man’s diet might have included bread made from ergot-infected grain (the ergot fungus can cause hallucinations and irrational behaviour) as was quite common in France in the Middle Ages. We will now never know the truth of the matter.

kill a werewolf

Few of the folktales collected by folklorists and ethnographers in the 19th century deal with werewolves and this perhaps reflects the decreasing importance of wolves in the Breton countryside by then but werewolves continue to remain in the imagination and old legends are still reworked in popular fiction and contemporary films and dramas. The demise of the wolf as a millennia-old adversary effectively made the werewolf redundant; a notion nicely summed up by the English antiquary Algernon Herbert, who said “where there is no natural wolf there is no werewolf”.

Brittany’s Best Festivals

Summer in Brittany is always very lively, being home to a diverse range of events and festivals. Take your pick from rock, jazz, opera, food, boats, Celtic music, literature, photography or traditional cultural events. There is sure to be something to suit everyone’s mood and taste here.

Brittany is home to many of France’s biggest and best-known festivals and celebrations. The Breton calendar is packed with local events and fêtes which draw international stars and spectators, so whenever you visit, you are likely to find something of interest going on. You will find detailed listings of forthcoming events online and in the listings magazines, so, this post will simply offer a brief run through of 25 festivals that are definitely worth your time exploring while in Brittany.

Panoramas Festival in Morlaix : 10-12 April 2020

Top names sit side-by-side with up and coming bands, making this a great event to attend if you want to dive into the French contemporary music scene. This year, the beautiful town of Morlaix sees some 50 acts coming together to deliver a festival packing a mix of rock, rap and electro. However, due to the social restrictions imposed as part of the efforts to control the spread of coronavirus some concerts have been cancelled while others remain in doubt.

Panoramas Festival Morlaix
Panoramas Festival, Morlaix

Fête de la Coquille Saint‑Jacques in Erquy : 18-19 April 2020

The Bay of Saint-Brieuc lays claim to some of the best king scallops in Europe. To celebrate the end of the scallop fishing season, the ports of Saint-Quay Portrieux, Erquy and Paimpol take it in turns to organise this annual festival. This event is always a lot of fun; there is much to see and do, including boat trips, bustling arts and craft markets and cooking exhibitions. There’s lots of diverse music across a number of outside stages and, needless to say, there are tons of fresh scallops to enjoy! Sadly, this year’s event has just been postponed.

Scallops Festival Brittany
Fête de la Coquille Saint‑Jacques, Erquy

Classique au Large in Saint-Malo : 30 April-3 May 2020

A well-established festival focused on classical music with many free performances to enjoy in various venues both indoors and outdoors across the charming coastal town of Saint-Malo. Unfortunately, this year’s event, the twelfth edition, has now been cancelled.

Classical Music festival Saint Malo
Classique au Large, Saint Malo

Fête de la Bretagne (Festival of Brittany) : 15-24 May 2020

Over 300 events organised across Brittany and beyond showcasing Breton culture, from the most traditional of customs to the latest youth trends. There are a range of concerts, exhibitions, walks, street entertainments and artisan markets to dip into. Regrettably, this year’s event was cancelled earlier this week but next year’s festival will take place from 14 to 24 May 2021.

Festival of Brittany
Fete de la Bretagne, Festival of Brittany

ArtRock in Saint-Brieuc : 29-31 May 2020

Not your standard music festival but an artistic celebration with dance, video, theatre, circus and contemporary arts sharing the limelight with the music. This year’s festival – the 37th edition – in the coastal city of Saint-Brieuc features over fifty concerts, several special exhibitions, and many dance shows, street art displays and new screenings.

A food festival – Rock’n Toques – runs concurrently, with the big names of Breton gastronomy offering visitors an amazing take on street food. As well as Michelin-starred chefs and other great cooks, the participation of so many pâtissiers, artisan boulangers and creative crêpe makers make this a real gourmet fest.

Art Rock festival Saint Brieuc
ArtRock, Saint Brieuc

Hellfest in Clisson : 19-21 June 2020

This is one of the biggest heavy metal music festivals in Europe, boasting consistently impressive line-ups. Over 130 acts are set to appear this year.  Although no longer, strictly speaking, in modern administrative Brittany, Clisson is at the heart of historic Brittany. Be warned, this is a very busy festival and the campsites for it are massive!

Hellfest festival
Hellfest, Clisson

Lieux Mouvants (Festival of Moving Places) in Lanrivain : 14 June-30 August 2020

This quirky festival takes place over a dozen weekends in the heart of Brittany around Lanrivain and combines innovative shows, major performers and artists, naturalists and pop-up exhibitions. Events are staged in villages and gardens that are off the beaten track and quite magical. You can expect thought-provoking art installations and shows that have been created on-site or exhibited in highly unusual ways. The artists are most often present and are happy to discuss their works.

Lieux Mouvants festival central brittany
Lieux Mouvants, Lanrivain

Fêtes Historiques (Historical Festival) in Vannes : 13-14 July 2020

A great opportunity to soak up the medieval atmosphere at the heart of a city full of character (there are almost 300 listed buildings within the town’s ancient ramparts). Enjoy the performances and side-shows as you meander through the rampart gardens and the cobbled streets of the old town. There’s also a vast range of medieval living-history on show, including smithies, cobblers, coopers, coin-makers, falconry displays and artillery demonstrations. As dusk settles, enjoy the spectacle as dancers, acrobats and fire-eaters take to the streets.

National Day : 14 July 2020

Known simply as ‘le quatorze juillet’. On France’s National Day you will find all manner of celebrations taking place, even in the smallest villages, and usually ending with a fireworks display and a Fest Noz (a night-time party with lots of live music).  Or for something a little different, you might wish to head across to Mahalon for the World Wheeled-Bed Racing Championships.

Temps Fête Festival in Douarnenez : 15 to 19 July 2020

A great array of tall ships and other traditional vessels from all parts of the world form the backdrop to this long-running biennial festival. The quaysides of the town’s four ports are packed with entertainers and musicians, artisanal markets and food stalls, creating a convivial and cosmopolitan atmosphere. There are plenty of activities to get involved in such as tying sailors’ knots or climbing sail rigging.

In the years that this festival is not staged, a similar and equally impressive one, La Semaine du Golfe Morbihan, is mounted around the myriad of charming ports, islands and islets in the Gulf of Morbihan; the next event will run from 10 to 16 May 2021.

Maritime Festival Brittany
Temps Fete Festival Maritime, Douarnenez

Les Vieilles Charrues in Carhaix-Plouguer : 16-19 July 2020

Now in its 29th year, this is France’s largest music festival. This friendly festival consistently boasts an array of international star names and bands just breaking through into the big time. The organisers seem to have the knack of creating a melting pot of musical styles and generations that suit the cosmopolitan audience.

Les Vieilles Charrues festival Brittany
Vieilles Charrues, Carhaix

Fête des Remparts (Festival of the Ramparts) in Dinan : 18-19 July 2020

Held every other year, this colourful festival takes in the pretty medieval town of Dinan.  Lots of locals and visitors dress in quite elaborate medieval costumes adding to the fun atmosphere. It is a packed weekend with a big medieval market, jousting tournaments and a spectacular grand parade.

Medieval Festival Brittany
Fete des Remparts, Dinan

Jazz en Ville in Vannes : 20-25 July 2020

This is largely a free music festival with concerts and performances staged amidst the ancient town ramparts and in clubs and venues in the city centre. While the focus of the festival is strongly on jazz music, it also includes a line-up of folk, blues, soul and rock performers.

Festival Le Cornouaille (Festival of Cornwall) in Quimper: 21-26 July 2020

This is probably Brittany’s most important cultural event and certainly the most well-established. Some 180 concerts, shows and events featuring performers from all over the world, celebrate Breton music and culture. For the duration of the festival, the beautiful city of Quimper is filled with street performances, art exhibitions, market stalls and artisanal food & drink vendors.

Festival of Cornwall Quimper
Festival Cornouaille, Quimper

Fest Jazz in Châteauneuf-du-Faou : 23-26 July 2020

This is a rather laid-back festival that attracts artists and spectators from across the world.  The performances are usually stretched across five venues on the banks of the River Aulne; all of which are within easy walking distance of each other. The festival programme places emphasis on young musicians and lively, danceable jazz but other styles are well represented.

Jazz Festival Brittany
Fest Jazz, Chateauneuf-du-Faou

Festival Lyrique en Mer in Belle-Ile-en-Mer : 28 July-19 August 2020

Brittany’s answer to Glyndebourne takes place in the beautiful setting of Belle-Isle-en-Mer. Now in its 22nd edition, the festival grows from strength to strength and attracts the best international talents to its line-ups. This year’s varied programme is centred around Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Le Son et Lumière de Bon-Repos in Laniscat : 29 July-8 August 2020

Over two hours, the history of Brittany from the Roman invasion to the French Revolution is brought to life in eight vignettes. Projected onto a two hectare stage using the historic abbey walls as its backdrop, this state-of-the-art sound and light show uses almost 400 actors, 2,300 costumes and hundreds of chariots, carriages, horses and farm animals; accompanied by pyrotechnic special effects and music to deliver an amazing spectacle complete with jousting, battle scenes and the burning of a village!

Sound and Light show Brittany
Son et Lumiere de Bon Repos, Laniscat

Au Pont Du Rock in Maelstroit : 31 July-1 August 2020

The longest-running summer rock festival in Brittany is now in its 30th year. Staged in the historic town of Maelstroit, the event’s focus is on rock music but rap, reggae and electro also feature.

Pont du Rock music festival
Au Pont du Rock, Malestroit

Festival du Chant de Marin (Sea Shanty Festival) in Paimpol : 13-15 August 2021

This is a biennial festival celebrating seafaring traditions and values. Hundreds of traditional sailing ships descend on the harbour, providing a backdrop for art and craft exhibitions, food and drink, music and dancing. There’s more than just sea shanties to be heard – the last event featured about 150 bands and international stars such as Marianne Faithfull have performed here previously.

Sea Shanty Festival
Festival du Chant de Marin, Paimpol

Festival Interceltique (Celtic Festival) in Lorient : 7-16 August 2020

One of the biggest annual festivals in France – expect around 200 events and shows (over half of these are free!) and up to 5000 performers celebrating the best of Celtic culture. There’s truly something for everyone here, from bespoke harp workshops to a grand parade which regularly attracts over 50,000 spectators.

Inter-Celtic festival Lorient
Festival Interceltique, Lorient

Fête du Bruit in Landerneau : 7-9 August 2020

Now in its 12th year, the young gun of the Brittany music festivals scene has quickly established a history of staging strong international line-ups alongside emerging talent. The organisers also run a sister festival in Saint Nolff, near Vannes, which this year runs from 10 to 12 July 2020.

Fete du Bruit music festival
Fete du Bruit, St Nolff & Landerneau

Festival de la Saint-Loup in Guingamp : 18-23 August 2020

This is one of the oldest traditional festivals in Brittany with origins stretching back to the early 19th century. You can expect a real celebration of Breton dance and music featuring some 2,500 artists from across Brittany and the Celtic nations. There is a lot to see and do – Breton dance workshops, Breton games, parades and concerts run throughout the week, with the National Breton Dance Competition a real highlight.

Guingamp festival
Festival Saint Loup, Guingamo

Festival des Filets Bleus in Concarneau : 12-16 August 2020

Named after the blue sardine-fishing nets that once covered the quays of picturesque Concarneau, this vibrant and colourful festival has been around for over a hundred years. Wandering around, you can soak up the atmosphere of the performances, parades and food stalls. The music concerts are free and The Stranglers are performing this year. If you are feeling adventurous try a bout of gouren (Breton wrestling), a game of palets (boules Breton-style) or learn a few Breton dance steps. Be warned, parking is challenging at this town centre festival.

Route du Rock in Saint-Malo : 19-22 August 2020

Now in its 29th year, this is an internationally acclaimed alternative music festival staged in the picturesque town of Saint-Malo where big names and breakthrough acts share several stages. Kraftwerk 3D will feature on this year’s programme.

Fête de l’Oignon de Roscoff in Roscoff : 22-23 August 2020

The beautiful coastal town of Roscoff celebrates its famous pink onions every summer with a two-day festival. There will be food and music until the early hours and an interesting market spread along the quayside selling many different onion flavoured products, from tarts and sausages to chutney and beer.

Onion Festival, Roscoff

Yaouank (Youth Festival) in Rennes : 6-21 November 2020

Now in its 22nd year, this festival continues to grow and evolve but its core aim remains to inject fresh blood into traditional Breton music. You should therefore expect lots of musical fusions! A fortnight of events and concerts culminate in the biggest Fest Noz in Brittany – from 5pm on Saturday to 5am on Sunday. It’s a great reason to visit the Breton capital, Rennes – a town which enjoys a wonderfully vibrant nightlife.

If you prefer to take the road less travelled, you could live like a local and drop-in on a village get-together. Signs you are likely to see on your travels around Brittany include Repas Jarret-Frites (usually roast pork shank and chips), Repas Moules-Frites (bowls of muscles with chips), Jambon-Frites (farm fresh ham and chips), Soirée Crêpes (often offering a wide choice of crêpes) and Fest Noz (a night-time party with plenty of food, drink, live music and dancing). These are friendly, convivial evenings where visitors are welcome. 

If you should find yourself headed to a Jarret-Frites for the evening, be prepared. Some events include a cri du cochon, or pig-squealing championship, where contestants have to make different pig noises from the various stages of the pig’s life. Be warned – some folks take this quite seriously and there is even a national championship to aim for!

Brittany In Brushstrokes

In the latter part of the 19th century a small picturesque village on the south coast of Brittany between Concarneau and Quimperle became a home for artists from across the world seeking to draw inspiration from the rich colours and distinctive landscapes of a region then still relatively unknown.

The arrival of the railway, in 1862, opened-up the remote west of Brittany to travellers and artists keen to explore this wild periphery of France. One of the first artists to be seduced by the region’s charms was the American, Henry Bacon (1839-1912), then studying in Paris. In 1864 he spent much of the summer in the village of Pont-Aven and was so taken by its charms that he encouraged fellow artists Robert Wylie (1839-1877) and Charles Way to return with him the following year. With a growing reputation amongst the young artistic crowd, more and more artists sought to spend their summers in Pont-Aven; taking advantage of the fine scenery and the lower cost of living while the Paris studios were closed for the summer.

The variety of natural light, the diverse coastal and pastoral landscapes along with the Bretons themselves with their customs, superstitions and beliefs were a big draw for artists, particularly landscape artists and impressionist painters. Soon, the village would be a temporary home to artists from the USA, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, France, Great Britain and Ireland. Not all artists were seasonal visitors; some stayed for a season while others, such as Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895), stayed for several years; Robert Wylie lived in Pont-Aven for the eleven years prior to his death there in 1877.

Robert Wylie in Brittany
Robert Wylie : The Postman (1869)

There was thus a well-established artist colony in Pont-Aven when, in the summer of 1886, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) made his first visit to the area. Disillusioned with impressionist painting, Gauguin became revitalised during his spell in southern Brittany, he noted: “I love Brittany; I find wildness and primitiveness there. When my wooden shoes ring on this granite, I hear the muffled, dull and powerful tone which I try to achieve in painting.” When he returned for an extended stay in 1888-89 he was no longer content to reproduce reality but eager to explore the expression of sensations and emotions through painting. Shortly after his arrival in Brittany, Gauguin wrote to friend and fellow artist, Émile Schuffenecker: “Don’t copy nature too closely. Art is an abstraction; as you dream amid nature, take art from it and concentrate more on creating than on the outcome.

Other artists in search of fresh ideas, including Émile Bernard (1868-1941) who had first encountered Gauguin in Pont-Aven in 1886, are drawn to Gauguin and his new thoughts on art. Quite quickly, a new post-impressionist concept, subsequently known as synthetism, was developed. This was characterised by a focus on colour as an emotional expression rather than as a portrayal of reality, simply drawn contours and two-dimensional forms where detail and perspective were unimportant. The boundaries between synthetism and the style most attributed to Bernard, cloisonnism, are so minimal that the two names are often used interchangeably but the latter style is noted for the thick black outlines that surround forms and large swathes of vibrant colour in the composition. The Pont-Aven style of painting was therefore distinguishing itself as something radically different from the norm.

There is some controversy surrounding which artist initiated this new Pont-Aven style of painting; the well-known and well-established Gauguin took the credit but the unknown 20 year old Bernard considered the tribute rightfully his. Whatever the truth, the artists collaborated closely for a time and 1888 was a breakthrough year for them both; a year that they revolutionised contemporary art.

Emile Bernard in Brittany
Emile Bernard : Breton Women in the Meadow (1888)

In that year, Bernard produced Breton Women in the Meadow; a striking composition featuring a background of an almost incandescent green which serves to emphasise the figures of the women.  A little later in the year, Gauguin completed his now famous work, Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) in which he depicted the Biblical struggle of the prophet and the angel as a vision shared by a group of Breton women looking down upon a world where the grass is red.

Paul Gaugin in Brittany
Paul Gauguin : Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) (1888)

It was not until 1893 that the term “Pont-Aven School” started to be used by critics and dealers but this neat catch-all encompasses a broad range of artists with markedly differing styles, such as Charles Filiger (1863-1928), Meijer de Haan, Henry Moret, Maxime Maufra and Paul Sérusier amongst others.

However, we can identify some principles common to the artists of the Pont-Aven School. They generally opted for the representation of an almost primitive Brittany, far from urban or refined motifs. They did not apply themselves to accurate depictions of reality, choosing instead to express emotions and imagination. Many of these artists also experienced art as a spiritual journey and drew inspiration from Brittany’s rich religious and cultural heritage. It was, according to Charles Filiger, a land of magic.

A few of the most well-known examples of the celebrated works of the Pont-Aven group during this time include: The Talisman by Sérusier, The Yellow Christ by Gauguin, The Landscape at Pouldu by Filiger and Pont-Aven Under A Red Sky by Maufra.

Paul Serusier in Brittany
Paul Serusier : The Talisman (1888)
Gaugin at Pont Aven
Paul Gauguin : The Yellow Christ (1889)
Maufra in Brittany
Maxime Maufra : Pont-Aven Red Sky (1892)
Charles Filiger in Brittany
Charles Filiger : Landscape at La Pouldu (1892)

Frustrated by the increased numbers of tourists, partly drawn to visit Pont-Aven due to his notoriety, Gauguin left for a new billet in the summer of 1889, settling just 14 miles (22km) along the coast at Le Pouldu where he was subsequently joined by Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) and others. It was here that Gauguin profoundly influenced the young Sérusier who recounted one discussion with Gauguin whilst painting: “What colour do you see in these trees?” asked Gauguin. “They are yellow,” replied Sérusier. “Well, put on yellow. And this shadow?“; “Rather blue“; “So, don’t be afraid to paint it as blue as possible. What about those red leaves? Put some vermilion.”

Gauguin left La Pouldu in November 1890, leaving for Tahiti a few months later, but he returned for the summer of 1894 before finally quitting France for good. His time in Brittany may only have encapsulated a few years but it was a productive one; seeing the creation of well over a hundred new paintings and the art world turned upon its head.

Impressed by his experiences in La Pouldu, Sérusier regularly returned to Brittany before settling in Châteauneuf-du-Faou in 1893 when he declared “I feel more and more attracted by Brittany, my true country since I was born there of the spirit“. He lived in central Brittany until his death in 1927 and became renowned for his scenes of rural life and his religious paintings and frescos.

Charles Filiger first visited Pont-Aven in 1888, returning each summer before settling permanently in La Poludu in 1890 but after Gauguin’s departure became increasingly isolated from the remaining group of artists. Gauguin visited him during his return to Brittany in 1894 and found a man struggling with alcoholism. Filigier’s work was regularly exhibited in Paris but the removal of a monthly stipend from his patron put the artist in dire straits; he left La Pouldu in 1905 and after a spell in an asylum, settled at an inn in Gouarec for many years before eventually settling at another in Plougastel-Daoulas in 1915. He was found one winter’s day on the street with his writs slashed and died shortly thereafter on 11 January 1928. Thankfully, his corpus of work was re-discovered in the early 1990s and this talented artist has now been rescued from oblivion.

Andre Jolly in Brittany
Andre Jolly : Augustine (1907)

It was a visit to Pont-Aven in 1900 that inspired André Jolly (1882-1969) to abandon his studies and his father’s hopes to take over the family business and become a painter. He moved there permanently in 1904, declaring that the area boasted “a thousand patterns of landscapes, in all seasons.” Jolly produced a large number of portraits, rural scenes, landscapes and still-lives with a vibrant intensity, delineating his subjects with clear lines.

The artist colony of Pont-Aven survived until the outbreak of WW1 and saw a brief resurgence in the 1920s but never recaptured its late 19th century prestige. At one time of another, other towns in Brittany also hosted small artist colonies, such as Camaret, Concarneau, Douarnenez and Pont-Croix although these were relatively modest and short-lived groupings compared to Pont-Aven. The work of Henri Barnoin (1882–1940), who lived in Concarneau for many years, is particularly fine with its focus on some of the iconic scenes of Brittany.

Henri Barnoin in Brittany
Henri Alphonse Barnoin : Quimper Market (circa 1926)

The neo-impressionist painter Paul Signac (1863-1935) was not enamoured with Pont-Aven, describing it as “a ridiculous country of small corners with waterfalls for English watercolourists. A funny nest for pictorial symbolism.” He was, however, captivated by Brittany and spent half a dozen summers there, taking inspiration from the area around Saint-Briac, Saint-Cast and other ports and harbours such as Lézardrieux that he would often visit from his boat.

Paul Signac in Brittany
Paul Signac : Portrieux (1888)

Indeed, many locations across northern Brittany have long been popular with artists such as Camille Corot (1796-1875), John Sargent (1856-1925) and Jean-Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940).

John Sargent in Brittany
John Sargent : Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (1878)

The influential Maurice Denis (1870-1943) drew inspiration from the colours and striking forms found in the Ploumanac’h region and even bought a property in the then small fishing village of Perros-Guirec in 1898.

Maurice Denis in Brittany
Maurice Denis : Bacchus and Ariadne (1907)

In 1924, Marc Chagall (1887-1985) spent the summer just a few miles along the coast on the Île-de-Bréhat.

Marc Chagall in Brittany
Marc Chagall : Window on the Ile de Brehat (1924)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) spent three summers in Brittany in the 1920s and produced dozens of paintings during his stays at the up-market seaside resort of Dinard, being particularly drawn to the theme of women playing on the town’s beaches. As you can see, his style changed markedly between 1922 and 1928 when such abstract forms were, for the time, revolutionary.

Pablo Picasso in Dinard
Pablo Picasso : Two Women Running on the Beach (1922)
Pablo Picasso in Brittany
Pablo Picasso : Bathers With Ball (1928)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) spent two summers on the north coast of Brittany, producing over a dozen canvasses during his visits and while Renoir was first painting on the north coast, Claude Monet (1840-1926) was working on the island of Belle-Île off Brittany’s southern coast, where he produced almost forty paintings that explored water and light. Fascinated by the wild landscape, Monet sought to capture the atmospheric effects of a storm at sea.

Renoir in Brittany
Pierre-Auguste Renoir : In Brittany (1886)
Monet in Brittany
Claude Monet : Rocks at Port-Coton (1886)

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) went there to paint in 1895 but was so overwhelmed by the colours that he came away after ten days without painting anything. He subsequently found the softer hues he was seeking further west along the Breton coast and returned to paint in Brittany several times.

Matisse in Brittany
Henri Matisse : A Village in Brittany (1895)

Following these well-trodden footsteps, this part of Brittany was also visited and explored on canvas by renowned artists as diverse in style as Charles Cottet, Jean Hélion, Henry Rivière, Marcel Gromaire, Victor Vasarely and Lucien Simon (1861-1945) who maintained a summer house in south west Brittany.

Lucien Simon in Brittany
Lucien Simon : The Potato Harvest (1907)

Some other painters fascinated by the riches of Brittany who, through their art, expressed their love of the region include naturalist painters such as Jules Breton (1827-1906) and Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929).

Jules Breton in Brittany
Jules Breton : Washerwomen of the Breton Coast (1870)
Dagnan-Bouveret in Brittany
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret : Breton Women at a Pardon (1887)

The artist often proclaimed as the father of the renowned Newlyn School, Stanhope Forbes (1857–1947) spent the summer of 1881 in Brittany and produced some fine work whilst here.

Stanhope Forbes in Brittany - Newlyn School
Stanhope Forbes : A Street in Brittany (1881)

Similarly, the versatile Czech artist Tavík František Šimon (1877-1942) visited Brittany several times in the years preceding WW1.

T F Simon in Brittany
T F Simon : Breton Clog Sellers (circa 1911)

There are, of course, countless Breton painters whose work has been inspired by the landscapes, seascapes, heritage and folklore of their region. I will highlight a mere half a dozen whose accomplished work deserves serious consideration in any discussion of the art of Brittany.

Rostrenen born Olivier Perrin (1761-1832) was perhaps the first artist to produce quality, objective drawings of everyday peasant life in Brittany. A noted painter, much of his work was engraved and published posthumously between 1835-39, providing subjects and motifs subsequently explored by other artists.

Olivier Perrin in Brittany
Olivier Perrin : The Fair at Quimper (1821)

The landscape artist from Nantes, Prosper Barbot (1798-1877), is now perhaps better known for his images of Italy and North Africa but he painted this atmospheric masterpiece before heading to sunnier climes.  

Prosper Barbot in Brittany
Prosper Barbot : The Breton Calvary (1829)

Jean-Édouard Dargent (1824-1899), also known as Yan’ Dargent, was born in Saint-Servais; a skilled and prodigious book illustrator whose wonderful oil paintings, whether created from the imagination or reality, deliver an impact on the viewer. He also painted frescos in many Breton churches and cathedrals which can still be viewed today. Before his death he had asked to be buried in the town of his birth and that his skull be placed in the ossuary alongside the bones of his mother and grandparents. By law, disinterment could only take place five years after burial and in October 1907, with full ecclesiastical approval, his body was exhumed. However, the body was not sufficiently decomposed and the supervising abbot had to cut the head off himself; leading to a legal dispute with Dargent’s surviving relatives.

Yan Dargent in Brittany
Yan’ Dargent : Saint Houardon (1859)

Born in Châteaugiron in the east of Brittany, Jules Ronsin (1867-1937) was a widely exhibited artist who spent most of his working life in and around the city of Rennes.

Mathurin Méheut (1882-1958) was a prolific artist from Lamballe who was not just an accomplished painter but also a skilled engraver, sculptor, illustrator and designer; he even collaborated with the renowned Henriot pottery in Quimper as a decorator. His work is highly praised for its striking and authentic depiction of daily life in Brittany in the first half of the 20th century.

Meheut in Brittany
Mathurin Mehuet : Seaweed Gatherers on their Drômes (1957)

A wonderful example of how artistic influences inter-weave can be seen with Jeanne Malivel (1895-1926) from Loudeac. Malivel was one of the founders of Seiz Breur (the Seven Brothers), a movement that revolutionised Breton arts and crafts between the two World Wars. Multi-talented, she was a skilled designer of furniture, upholstery and ceramics but is perhaps best known for her skills as a woodcut engraver and illustrator where she took inspiration from Celtic art and the synthetism of Gauguin, who himself had been influenced by the naïve style of English illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) whose drawings in an 1880 guidebook to Brittany were well regarded by the artists of Pont-Aven.

Jeanne Malivel in Brittany
Jeanne Malivel : The Union of Brittany with France (1922)

Simone Le Moigne (1911-2001), from Magoar, did not seriously start painting until she was almost sixty years old but left a legacy of several hundred naïve, tender paintings that shine a light on life and rural society in central Brittany between the World Wars; a rural lifestyle that was rapidly disappearing when she began to paint in the 1960s.

Le Moigne in Brittany
Simone Le Moigne : The Weddings of Yesteryear (1986)

For over two centuries, Brittany has been a great source of inspiration for artists from across the world drawn to the beauty of its landscapes and unique quality of light. Today, it remains one of the regions of France most visited by painters and art lovers; you can discover the same magical places and see the same vistas that inspired so many famous artists during their time in Brittany. Drop into one of the many quality fine art museums across Brittany, such as those in Brest, Landerneau, Pont-Aven, Quimper, Rennes or Vannes and admire the work of some of these iconic artists for yourself.

Randolph Caldecott in Brittany
Randolph Caldecott drew the artists of Pont-Aven in 1881

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 not always affordable to the local populace. Traditional healing treatments and remedies were therefore widely used; one of the local healers most commonly consulted was the Bonesetter or Aozer in Breton, Rebouteux in French.

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 generally 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 commonly used.

blood-letting
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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
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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 (or Ventôse – the month of winds – year XI, as styled in the Republican calendar then in use) 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 Batchelor-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.

bonsetting
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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 inhabitants 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.

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 over 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.”

sacred fountain
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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 kind of collodion. Incantations, charms, amulets and sachets containing bespoke concoctions were also prepared and administered to those seeking relief and cure.

un-bewitcher
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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 specialised in a limited number of afflictions such as removing warts and 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
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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 eminently affordable.

bonesetter re-setting a bone
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“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 put on 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
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“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.

bonesetter at work
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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
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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.

magnetiser
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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.

Brittany in a Glass

As with its food, Brittany has a wide range of distinctive local drinks that you really should try during any visit to this beautiful part of France. The Bretons are a most hospitable people and whether you spend an evening in a small local bar or enjoy a few drinks after a lazy dinner at a seaside restaurant, you will be sure to enjoy a convivial experience with good opportunities to explore the many wonderful local beverages.

The wines of Brittany, such as Muscadet, are covered in an earlier post, so, I will not cover them again here.

Almost half of all the cider made in France is produced here in Brittany, a region that has a long association with apples and cider making. Perhaps not as well-known as Norman cider outside France but it was only in the wave of post-revolutionary changes that cider was legally allowed to be exported from Brittany. Almost all the published accounts of 19th century travellers to the region make a point of noting the Breton affinity for cider. This historical attachment to cider is as much a question of geography as of taste. Apples grow well in this climate and, unlike hops, were widely cultivated; most farms maintained a modest apple orchard to provide the family with fruit and drink throughout the year.

jug of Breton cider
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Despite the rural exodus and changes in habits and tastes over the last century or so, hundreds of different varieties of apples still flourish across Brittany. Those cultivated specifically for cider making are tended in an ideal climate for apples and grow well in the rich Breton soil. While domestic production of cider is nowhere near as widespread as it once was, the principles that applied to home-made cider in years gone by are still upheld by those farms that produce cider commercially today. The cider here is made using only freshly pressed apples with no additives, preservatives or concentrates at all. This passionate attention to terrain and tradition, key to the French concept of terroir, produces cider with a quite distinct character; enjoying a light sparkle and a deep, rich flavour with the subtle aromas of fruits and flowers.

Rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins and mineral salts, the local ciders that you are likely to find in the bars and restaurants here are characterised by their slightly sharp but fruity taste; the producers work hard to create a drink with the optimum balance between bitter, acidic and sweet flavours and you will find colours that can range from pale gold to rich tawny brown.

Farm cider from Brittany
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Unfortunately, the local industry has seen a massive decline in output over the last five years, probably linked to the rise in popularity of artisanal beers but cider remains a very popular drink here. There are many great tasting local ciders to tempt you but do try a bottle of traditional or farm cider while you are in Brittany; you will see it noted as cidre fermier on the menu and bottle. The cidre fermier designation can only be used by ciders made exclusively from apples grown on that producer’s farm.

There are a few other differences that might particularly strike visitors from North America or the UK about the cider here. Cider is classed more subtly than simply dry or sweet. A dry cider (Brut) contains little sugar and therefore contains the most alcohol by volume, typically between 4 to 7 per cent, and its slightly bitter taste makes it a good accompaniment to seafood dishes; semi-dry (Demi-Brut) is fairly sparkling with an alcoholic volume of around 3.5 to 5 per cent and popularly drunk, it also goes well with chicken; sweet cider (Doux) contains the least amount of alcohol, less than 3 per cent by volume, and is a sparkling, sweet and fruity drink well suited to complement crêpes or desserts.

Sometimes, you will see a cider described as ‘bouché’ on a menu, if you order this then you can expect a bottle that is firmly blocked with a strong cork and securing metal wire. Typically, this will be a cider that was bottled into a champagne-style bottle soon after its first fermentation and corked. The little residual sugar in the cider allows a secondary fermentation to take place within the bottle. More often than not, you will receive your glass of cider served at your table in a terracotta or china bowl akin to a broad tea cup known as a bolée. This is the traditional way of drinking cider in Brittany and harks back to the days when glass was uncommon and expensive in the countryside.

a bolee of cider
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While production levels might have dipped in recent years, connoisseurs point out that Breton cider has continuously improved in quality over the last decade, with some cider runs coming together like a rare champagne for certain vintages. Of particular note is the Cidrerie Nicol’s Royal Guillevic, the only cider in France to wear the coveted Red Label. The Label Rouge is only awarded to those products that consistently deliver an item that consumers can expect to have a higher level of quality compared to similar products. On the other side of Brittany, the Domaine de Kerveguen produce organic ciders that grace the cellars of the Elysée Palace and are highly praised by Michelin starred chefs and celebrities.

Apples are the very essence of Pommeau de Bretagne, an alcoholic drink, about 17 per cent by volume, which enjoys an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée granting Brittany’s producers a little protection in using and marketing the name – and guaranteeing the buying public that the Pommeau’s terroir is really that of Brittany. Pommeau de Bretagne is a blend of two-thirds freshly-pressed unfermented apple juice and one-third local cider brandy, aged in oak casks for a minimum of 14 months. The drink, usually served as an aperitif or digestif, has a long tradition in Brittany and today there are 15 or so professional producers working with some 75 varieties of apples to help make their particular blend stand out. Try one of the offerings from Cidrerie Kerloïck. Depending on its age, you can expect an amber coloured liquid with a strong floral scent and an aromatic palette that fluctuates between baked apples or dried fruits and hints of almonds, caramel or honey.

Honey and apples are married together in another Breton speciality, Chouchen; a type of mead produced from the fermentation of honey in water and apple juice. Traditionally, buckwheat honey is used and this helps develop the strong rich colour and pronounced flavour found in chouchen. This ancient drink was known by many different names across Brittany, the name chouchen actually started out as a brand name after WW1 but quickly gained popular acceptance before becoming synonymous with the beverage. A distinction is sometimes made if the honeycomb is fermented in cider only, it is then usually known as chufere a word derived from chug ferv, the Breton for strong juice.

chouchenn or Breton mead
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Chouchen was once renowned as a drink that caused people to fall over and the old stories always attribute this to over-indulgence and inevitable intoxication. However, careful analysis of Breton honey in the 20th century showed high concentrations of wax, dead bees and bee venom. Traditionally, the hives in use on Breton farms were the basket hives that necessitated smothering a lot of bees in order to access the honey. It was the presence of bee venom, which attacks the cerebellum (the part of the human brain controlling movement and balance) which caused some drinkers to lose their balance although I am sure that intoxication might also have played a part. Nowadays, there is a wide degree of conformity in the production of chouchen which now typically contains between 12 to 15 per cent of alcohol by volume and is drunk as an aperitif or digestif. There are many options for buying a good bottle of chouchen but I would recommend that you support the local artisan producer and choose one that has been made as close to you as possible.

Undoubtedly, one of the finest local drinks that you will come across in Brittany is Lambig which is sometimes labelled as Fine de Bretagne. This is a rich cider brandy that enjoys an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designation and is produced locally by a traditional process of distillation in a retort (lambig being the Breton word for a retort). Today’s lambig is a direct descendent of the ‘farm brandy’ of yesteryear; a time when only a limited number of people had permission to operate stills and neighbours would smuggle in their home-made cider to use the still covertly, beyond the eyes of the prying excise man!

a rural still
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As in times past, today quality local cider is heated until the alcohol evaporates, the vapours are condensed, recovered and diluted until the alcohol content is reduced to about 40 per cent by volume. The brandy is then aged in oak barrels for several years. During this aging process, the brandy’s interaction with the wood of the barrel develops the lambig’s unique character; its aromatic complexity developing a subtle balance of fruity and woody fragrances.

Lambig can be found clear or amber coloured but it is a drink that always delivers a smooth, fruity and satisfying taste and is an ideal digestif. As with most brandies, the bottles are marked to indicate the age and thus degree of refinement that you might expect from your bottle: VS for lambig aged for at least two years; Old/Réserve for that aged at least three years; VO/Vieille Réserve to indicate at least four years of aging and Very Old Reserve/Hors d’Age for lambigs aged at least six years. Personally, I would recommend Fine Bretagne Gilles Leizour but there are about twenty fine producers to choose from here in Brittany.

Lambig and Pommeau Bretagne
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It may surprise you to learn that there are some decent Breton whiskies worth looking at. To be able to use the designation “Breton Whisky”, the whisky must adhere to certain quality standards surrounding the raw ingredients and production methods. While malted barley, smoked barley, wheat, buckwheat and rye are all permissible, the water used can only be drawn from Breton springs and the whisky fermented, distilled and aged in Brittany. The resultant whisky must be matured, in oak barrels, for at least three years and contain a minimum 40 per cent alcohol by volume.

There are currently eight distillers producing over 400,000 bottles of whisky a year in Brittany. A few of the more notable ones include Armorik, a highly regarded and award winning single malt whisky made with barley; Eddu, the only whisky in the world made from buckwheat; and Kornog, a peated single malt whose Roc’h Hir manifestation, aged in bourbon barrels and bottled at 46°, is a much sought after tipple and priced accordingly.

Whiskies from Brittany
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That most French of aperitifs, pastis, does not seem to have the same strong following here as in the rest of France but there is even a Breton pastis, Brastis, to try if you are feeling adventurous. Kir Breton is a popular aperitif in Brittany and consists of one part crème de cassis mixed with four parts of cider.

As for cocktails, you will find that the Spritz and Monaco are very popular here in the summer months but there are two distinctly Breton cocktails worth looking at.  A relative newcomer is the Cidrito; a Breton take on the classic Cuba Libre cocktail – local cider is added to a decent measure of Bacardi rum over ice and garnished with a little fresh mint. Brittany’s most famous cocktail must be the Godinette; macerated local strawberries marinated in lambig for a day before being mixed with Muscadet wine and left overnight to develop and served chilled in a glass with a drop of strawberry liqueur.

a Breton cocktail
A Godinette

Although Bretons have historically been cider drinkers, beer has been brewed commercially in Brittany since the early 17th century with production peaking in the late 19th century with thriving breweries spread across the region in places such as Saint-Brieuc, Morlaix, Brest, Landerneau, Quimper, Pontivy, Nantes and Rennes. Improved transport links and business consolidations saw the number of Breton breweries gradually decline until the last closed in 1985. By coincidence, this was also the year that the first micro-brewery was opened in France – in Morlaix, Brittany.

This brewery, Coreff (the Breton word for beer), was inspired by British real ales and soon developed a loyal following. Their early beers were amber, richly malted, unfiltered, unpasteurized and marketed as distinctly Breton. The brewery, now based in Carhaix, has expanded its range considerably and now offers over a dozen beers; white, blond, amber, red and brown, each with a distinctive taste. Still fiercely Breton, the brewer’s beer tents are ubiquitous at fetes and festivals across the region. If you attend a festival in Brittany, even a small local event, you will be almost certain to see them.

Established not long after Coreff, the Lancelot Brewery is another Breton brewer that started with a distinct offering – a honey beer flavoured with plant extracts and a beer brewed with barley and buckwheat – and now brews well over a dozen different types of beer, available in draught or bottles in bars and restaurants across Brittany.

Since the mid-1990s, Brittany has cemented its position as the centre of French craft beer and now boasts about 160 active micro-breweries producing over a thousand different Breton beers. There are now over half a dozen breweries who offer a range in excess of twenty beers; the brewery with the most extensive range is Saint-Brieuc’s La Guernouillette which offers around thirty different beers.

Craft beer from Brittany
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With so many local beers to choose from, you can either play safe and go with a type of beer that you are familiar with or try something a little different such as Lancelot’s La Blanche Hermine, an IPA with a strong taste of hops; or Brasserie La Belle Joie’s Gamme 56, a dark rich beer brewed with buckwheat; or Coreff’s Dramm Hud is a strong blond beer with a malty flavour.

If you prefer to enjoy soft drinks then you may be surprised to see that the multi-national corporations get a real run for their money here in Brittany. While bottled water from Perrier is, of course, widely available, you are just as likely to be offered the local bottled water from Plancoët. Similarly, lemonades and colas are not the sole preserve of Coca-Cola Co and PepsiCo as both face strong competition from Breizh Cola, France’s first regional cola, a tasty refreshing beverage that has built up a strong following and decent market share over the last 18 years.

Whatever your taste and preference, you will be almost certain to find something to enjoy that gives you a taste of Brittany in any visit here. Please drink responsibly and raise a glass to the Breton saying that translates along the lines of : “A glass is fine, three glasses … it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine”.

Breizh Cola

Tastes of Brittany

Brittany is quite unlike other parts of France, its distinctiveness extends beyond the cultural and linguistic and manifests itself strongly in its culinary traditions. So, what are the flavours that a visitor really should sample in order to enjoy a true taste of Brittany?

Seafood

With almost 1,800 miles (2,860km) of stunning coastline, it is not surprising that seafood should feature on any list of Breton culinary specialities and there are a few to look out for when you are here. Although, if truth be told, you will not have to look very hard!

The local oysters are world renowned and deservedly so; they are fleshy, delicious and deliver a pleasant subtle aftertaste. While oysters are widely farmed around the coast, the three best sites are widely regarded to be around Cancale near St-Malo on the Côte d’Émeraude in north-east Brittany, Prat-Ar-Coum near Lannilis on the Côte des Légendes in the north-west and Riec-sur-Bélon near Quimperlé on the Côte de Cornouaille in the south. Native flat oysters (huîtres plates) are a speciality of the two latter locations where many oyster farms also benefit from a combination of fresh and saltwater, giving them an enjoyable flavour with a light nutty taste. They can be eaten all year round but are probably at their best between September and June. Enjoy them with bread and a splash of lemon or red wine vinegar.

oysters from Brittany
Oyster beds on the Côte des Légendes

Mussels are very popular here and you will be sure to see them on the menus of bars and restaurants throughout Brittany. The two main types cultivated locally are the Edulis and Gallo mussels; the latter having a much larger shell containing a larger sized mussel with flesh that varies in colour from yellow to deep orange as opposed to the rich orange typically found with an Edulis. Some local mussels are farmed in the open sea in the Bay of Lannion, reared on a network of submerged ropes suspended from longlines several metres underwater. Growing while constantly submerged and feeding in the open sea gives their flesh a distinct iodised flavour. However, the majority of Breton mussels are bred on ropes entwined around large wooden stakes, called bouchots, driven into the foreshore, most significantly in large sites around the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel and the Bay of Saint-Brieuc on the north coast and the Vilaine estuary on the south coast. Feeding and growing with the tides gives these bouchot mussels a dense mellow flesh, rich in flavour.

You can expect to find fresh mussels between April and the end of October and while you will no doubt see them listed as a starter, you’ll see them most often on menus here as a main dish listed as moules marinière or simply moules frites; essentially, mussels steamed and served in a little broth made from shallots, herbs, butter and Breton Muscadet wine. More often than not, they will be delivered hot to your table in a large pot with a plate of fried chipped potato and an extra pot for the empty shells.

Mussels from Brittany
Moules Frites

You’ll also find cooking à la marinière applied to another local delicacy, langoustines (sometimes also known as Norway Lobster or Scampi).  The ports of Brittany are some of the biggest landers of langoustines in Europe and there is plenty of opportunity to see them unload the catches in the ports of Penmarc’h, Le Guilvinec, Lesconil and Loctudy on the south coast. The old maxim that fresh is best applies to all seafood, particularly langoustines and you will find lots of stalls selling offerings from the day’s catch if you fancy cooking some yourself. They are easy to prepare and can be pan-fried, poached, grilled or roasted; provided they are not overcooked, they deliver a delicate but tasty flavour of the sea.

Langoustine
Langoustines

Langoustines are fished all year round but they are mostly caught between April and October which, by happy coincidence, dovetails nicely with the scallop season here that runs from October to April. The particular scallop fished for off the Breton coast is the king scallop, known here as Coquilles Saint-Jacques. The largest reserves in France are today found in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc with the main catches brought ashore at the ports of Erquy, Saint-Quay-Portrieux and Loguivy and quickly auctioned. These auctions handle some 6000 tonnes of scallops a year and are open to the public although only as spectators. If you want to buy scallops direct from the boats you will need to head a little further west to Plougasnou on the neighbouring Bay of Morlaix, an area that produces less than 300 tonnes of king scallops a year. To conserve stocks, fishing – or more accurately, dredging – is tightly managed with the number of fishing boats and allocated fishing times (just 45 minutes twice a week!), both strictly regulated. This means that Coquilles Saint-Jacques are highly prized by restaurants and the wider public alike; the scallops of Brittany being renowned for their sweet, delicate flavour and meaty texture, and therefore best enjoyed simply pan-fried in a little butter.

King Scallops
Coquilles Saint-Jacques

An expensive delicacy in the early 19th century, demand for sardines surged with the improvements in canning technology which followed the opening of the world’s first large-scale sardine canning factory in Brittany in 1824. Almost two centuries later, Brittany remains by far France’s largest producer of sardines. For a long time, the west coast town of Douarnenez was the world’s foremost sardine fishing port and at the vanguard of industrial canning practises. While the numbers of fishing boats and canning factories have declined markedly from their early 20th century heights, the sardine is still an important catch here.

Small sardines, typically up to about six inches (15cm) long, are one of the most affordable fish you will find here and you’ll discover a range of fresh sardine dishes to choose from in lots of restaurants. Most sardines are landed between May and October but whether you choose to buy them fresh or canned, they are delicious when grilled or pan-fried.

In supermarkets, dedicated seafood shops and tourist boutiques, you will not fail to see shelves full of sardines canned in all manner of oils. It is worth noting that the expression “dressed in white” refers to sardines in extra-virgin olive oil whose silver belly is visible when the can is opened, while the term “dressed in blue” refers to sardines in vegetable oil whose blue-green back is visible.

sardines from Brittany

Canned sardines keep for years, some connoisseurs insist that their taste improves over time, although many of these highly colourful decorative cans are bought never to be opened; purchased as a vacation souvenir or by an interested puxisardinophile. Yes, there’s a word for a collector of tinned sardines.

Sardines and their larger cousin, mackerel, are also available locally as a rillette, a type of rough textured pâté. A rillette made with either of these two healthy fish is usually eaten as an aperitif and served on tartines (small pieces of bread) or blinis. Whether you prefer yours lightly seasoned or flavoured with peppers, chili or mustard, these fish rillettes usually do not fail to impress; packing-in a lot of flavour within their rich texture and certainly worth trying if you enjoy fish.

Fish rilette
Rillette

Brittany, like other coastal regions of France, has its own traditional fish stew known as cotriade or kaoteriad. This is a fairly simple stew which is thought to have remained close to its origins from a time when trawlermen received a few bits of various fish from the day’s catch. Unlike Provençal’s bouillabaisse stew, cotriade did not traditionally contain shellfish, although they are often added nowadays, only fish such as eel, mullet, hake, mackerel and sardine were used together with garlic, onion and potato. So that each fish is properly cooked, care is taken to ensure that the different textures of fish are introduced into the pot at the right time. Once cooked, the stew is separated; the broth is taken first and then the fish.

Andouille de Guémené-sur-Scorff

The Guémené andouille is a smoked pork sausage that has escaped its roots in central Brittany and lost a lot of its character in its dalliance with the national supermarket chains and the industrial meat processing plants that tend to supply them. The lack of a protected geographical origin designation allowed the name to be applied to sausages that sometimes just do not quite match the texture and flavour of the artisanal original.

Recognisable by its black skin with contrasting beige/pink meat and its concentric rings, the result of a means of assembly which involves threading pigs’ intestines on top of each other, from the narrowest to the widest. Once assembled, the sausage is traditionally smoked over a beech wood fire for two days, losing half its weight; it loses another half of its weight while hung to dry for a further three weeks. If you are interested in tasting the andouille formerly made on farms in times past, there is one available that has been dried for nine months which should give you that “it’s been hanging in the fireplace for months” authenticity! The Guémené andouille is a smoky, salty sausage best eaten in very thin slices as a snack or a starter and hot, in thick slices, if served as a main dish.

Andouille
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Hénaff Pâté

While it may be surprising, I make no apologies for inserting a tinned meat into this list. Hénaff Pâté is sometimes described as ‘Brittany in a Box’ and like the crêpe, it has long since broken out of Brittany and conquered French hearts. Hénaff Pâté is made from the choicest pieces of pork such as tenderloins and hams, Guérande sea salt, pepper and a secret blend of spices, using a recipe unchanged in over a hundred years. The meat, which makes up 95% of the tin’s contents, is sourced exclusively from local farms and helps deliver a mature pâté that is high in taste and low in fat.  A versatile food, Hénaff Pâté can be enjoyed on bread or toast, as a sandwich or snack but can also be cooked and eaten hot with rice or fried potato or diced into a salad. You will sometimes even see it sold in a pastry casing as a savoury pie. It’s worth trying just so that you can taste for yourself why this Breton product is the most popular pâté in France.

Henaff pate
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Crêpes & Galettes

You will be hard-pressed to find a town in Brittany that does not boast at least one Crêperie, serving up freshly made thin pancakes in a wide range of sweet and savoury forms. Crêpes are made with white flour and usually have a sweet filling such as sugar and butter, jam or Nutella and while often served for breakfast or dessert, they can be enjoyed at any time of day. Galettes are made with buckwheat flour and are usually served with a savoury filling such as cheese. They are a more substantial pancake and a galette complète, featuring ham, cheese and a fried egg, is a filling and tasty meal in itself. If you really get the taste for these treats, you will notice a difference in how the two pancakes are folded when served: galettes into rectangles, crêpes into triangles. However, if you buy from a street vendor or food stall, you will likely receive both crêpes and galettes folded into paper cones. Whether sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice or wrapped around a sausage or oozing with cheese; the crêpe is an omnipresent staple on the Breton menu.

crepes and galettes from Brittany
Galette

Salted Butter Delights

Much of Breton cuisine is built upon the region’s creamy, rich butter made with coarse grains of natural sea salt harvested from the marshlands on the south coast of Brittany. I’ll not repeat an earlier post dedicated to this Breton icon but instead highlight in this list a few of Brittany’s most mouth-watering delicacies derived from its fabulous butter.

Firstly, salted butter caramels known as caramel au beurre salé in French. Possibly inspired by the Niniches de Quiberon (a popular caramel lollipop stick), a chocolatier from the same small Breton town of Quiberon perfected his recipe for salted butter caramel in the 1970s. Today, it is difficult to remember a time without this tasty treat whose heart of caramelized sugar, salted butter and cream is now enjoyed worldwide. Its versatility allows us to indulge our taste for salted butter caramel as a soft or hard candy, as a spread or as a sauce or even a pastry filling. Whether as confectionery or spread on a hot crêpe or crusty baguette or simply drizzled over a summer ice cream, do try some artisanal creations while you are here in the home of salted butter caramel.

salted butter caramel from Brittany
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Salted butter is also one of the key ingredients in two very popular Breton pastries; the Kouign Amman and Farz Fourn. The kouign amman (literally, butter cake in Breton) is hard to describe; layers upon layers of pastry are built up and folded-in, each smothered with salted butter and sugar and baked until very well caramelised. The result is a dense, sticky puff pastry-like cake with a crunchy golden crust, each flaky yet sticky bite delivers an intense salty, sweet, buttery flavour. Rich in texture, taste and calories! As if more flavour were needed, you will also find kouign amman made with apples, raspberries, cherries and all manner of other ingredients. Most good bakeries will make their own version of this cake which is best enjoyed warm.

kouign amman Brittany
Kouign Amman

You will see Farz Fourn (literally, baked far in Breton) often labelled under its French name Far Breton and you can often buy it by the slice in bakeries here. It is popularly made at home, as a dessert, and each family has its own ideas about what makes for a good far. As its heart, it is a rich, tasty thick-set creamy custard flan which is often found with prunes or apples added to the mix.

Plougastel Strawberries

Plougastel in western Brittany has been producing strawberries since the 1740s when the South American white strawberry was first successfully cultivated in European soil. In time, this strawberry was cross-bred with the local wild strawberries to create the ‘garden strawberry’ that we know today. A thriving industry developed, Plougastel became the strawberry capital of France and one of the country’s wealthiest areas thanks to high-value exports to London and, following the arrival of the railway, Paris. Even up until WW2, about a quarter of all the strawberries grown in France came from this small area. While strawberry production in Plougastel, as across France, has fallen by half in the years since WW2, the town still produces about 2,400 tonnes of sweet berries each year.

Probably the tastiest variety of strawberry picked in Plougastel these days is the gariguette, a wonderful strawberry with an elongated body that smells as good as it tastes; a tender, juicy fruit with a sweet and ever so slightly tart taste. It’s sweet tasting enough to not need a dip into the sugar bowl, instead dip it into a bowl of fresh Chantilly cream.

Plougastel strawberries
Gariguettes

This post was, of necessity, just a small taste of the unique and delicious fresh flavours that Brittany has to offer, so, there may well be a follow-up post one day.

Celebrating Mardi-Gras in Brittany

The origins of what we now know as Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi-Gras in France, most likely stem from pagan celebrations that marked the end of winter and heralded the coming of spring. Long standing and widely observed seasonal celebrations that morphed with the Matronalia feasts of the Roman Empire before later becoming Christianized to mark the start of Lent.

Lent, the forty days before Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday and recalls the forty years spent in the wilderness by the people of Israel under Moses and the forty days that Christ spent in the desert after his baptism, before the commencement of his mission. For Christians, it was and remains for many, a period of introspection, where one abstained from meat and rich foodstuffs such as fatty or sweet foods.

The day immediately preceding Ash Wednesday marks the end of the period of excess or ‘seven fat days’ before the Lenten fasting period begins, it is thus ‘Fat Tuesday’, literally translated as Mardi-Gras. Today, it is customary to eat crêpes, pancakes, doughnuts or waffles on Mardi-Gras or Pancake Day as it is known in many parts of the world. Such an indulgence is a relic from the times when these dishes were made to purposefully exhaust the scarce reserves of eggs and butter that were not going to be used during Lent. This was a genuine sacrifice during a time when most common people enjoyed, at best, a simple and relatively poor diet.

carnival scene
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In anticipation of forty days of austerity, the festivities associated with the period before Lent were an opportunity for people to let their hair down, to release and revitalise, ahead of the hard work brought with the arrival of spring. They were informal, relaxed opportunities to gather together in shared fellowship with friends and neighbours; to dance, to sing, to tell tall tales, to feast and make merry.

While some Breton Mardi-Gras favourites, such as craquelines and crêpes are widely recognised, a sweet dish known as the Farz Buen was also very popular; imagine a deconstructed pancake made with a thick crêpe batter and lots of sugar and salted butter, the mixture is fried until the pieces are carmelised and sprinkled with more sugar. In south west Brittany, the Bara Dous was another Mardi-Gras speciality; a soft very sweet bread made with flour, butter, milk, eggs, sugar and a dash of alcohol, sometimes raisins were added too. This region of Brittany also enjoyed another quite distinct Mardi-Gras culinary tradition, the Chotten or pig’s cheek.

In the rural Brittany of yesteryear, it was common for even the most meagre households to raise a pig or two for the purpose of feeding the family and to sell some of the good cuts of meat for money to buy another pig. The pig was therefore a valuable commodity and no part of the butchered animal was wasted; just the offal from one animal alone could keep a large family well-nourished for a fortnight. For those animals slaughtered in the run-up to Mardi-Gras, the pig’s heads, having first been cut in half and well soaked in brine, were brought to the neighbourhood baker or communal bread oven to be baked in the oven, after the bread. Here, they roasted in the pre-heated oven for several hours before emerging steaming and golden brown, to the delight of the salivating spectators.

In some parts of eastern Brittany, a little broth made with andouille, a smoked pork sausage, was saved for Mardi-Gras and a little sprinkled around the farmyard in order to protect hens from attacks by foxes over the year ahead. Another old rural superstition said that it was bad luck to spin on Mardi-Gras lest the mice consume the thread for the rest of the year.

In the more dispersed rural parts of Brittany, Mardi Gras was an opportunity to gather together with family, friends and the wider community. It was a time for merrymaking, feasting, drinking and for playing games. Games such as sack racing, running with ducks, skittles or eating sausages suspended from a line were not just for the children but there were some games that were the preserve of the adult men, such as wrestling, pole-raising, tug-o-war or cutting off the head of a suspended goose with a single blow while riding past on horseback on a cart.  A game known as the Russian Bucket was also popularly played in times past; a tub of water or a concoction of more noxious substances was suspended over a street. At the base of this tub was a board pierced with a hole. Standing in a hand-pulled cart, it was necessary to pass a wooden lance through the hole underneath the tub. If the aim failed, the tub would tip, spilling its contents all over the competitor.

a Breton mardi gras game
Commune de Guerlesquin : Championnat du monde de Boulou Pok

In the picturesque town of Guerlesquin, on the day of Mardi-Gras only, the men of the town play a game known as Bouloù Pok. The men are divided into two teams depending on whether they live north or south of the town square, with the orientation of the main entrance of each house used to settle any disputed cases. The game, which lasts all day, is unique to the town and is best described as a cross between bowls and shuffleboard; the participants must throw the boulou – an individually carved half-cylinder of hardwood with a lead core – as close as possible to the mestr, a cut wooden ball sited on the field of play. A bay leaf is presented to each player on the winning team along with the bragging rights to be called ‘World Champion of Bouloù Pok’.  The origins of this unique game are lost to us but a contribution register from 1856 indicates that the game had been played long before that date and local tradition claims that the contest was invented by the parish priest in the 17th century in order to curb the more aggressive sports hitherto engaged in by his male parishioners.

Mardi-Gras celebrations in the Breton cities were, much like the pagan festivals of earlier times, widely regarded by the locals as a period of license and officially-tolerated disorder. The spirit of carnival prevailed: social conventions were temporarily cast aside, roles were reversed; men dressed as women, the poor in the fashion of the well-to-do, sailors dressed as agricultural peasants and vice versa. Through costume and disguise, one’s station in life could be momentarily overturned and forgotten. The mask of anonymity allowed a mischievous opportunity for people to harangue and poke fun at authority and those who wielded it.

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Parades often gave rise to parodies of religious processions but such outrages were tolerated by the religious and civil authorities, even if they reproached the excesses of the multitude or the ridicule of which they were the victims. In time, these urban parades and celebrations overflowed from Mardi-Gras itself to range over several days of festivities. In the 19th century, some local authorities in Brittany tried to gain a measure of control over these celebrations with the organisation of official cavalcades and approved organising committees.

Some Breton towns continue to host impressive Mardi-Gras celebrations that draw thousands of participants and spectators from far and wide. The biggest carnival in Brittany is Les Gras de Douarnenez which, since 1835, features a succession of parties, costume balls, dances and carnival parades that take place, over five days, every year around mid-February. On the first evening, the Den Paolig (poor man in Breton), symbol of the event, is enthroned as king of carnival. Made of chicken wire and papier-mâché, this ten foot (3m) high effigy is moulded to resemble a local personality, whose identity is kept secret until the last moment.

Sunday is the busiest and noisiest day of the week and features the grand parade which brings together people of all ages in colourful costumes and innovative, if wacky, floats. The celebrations are drawn to a close on Ash Wednesday with the trial and conviction (it is always found guilty!) of the Den Paolig who now serves as scapegoat for all the ills of the townsfolk and is ritually burned on a bonfire on a quay in the town’s port, just before the final firework display. This year’s event runs from 22 to 26 February.

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Although no longer strictly a part of today’s political Brittany, the old capital city, Nantes, stages one of the biggest and oldest Mardi-Gras carnivals in France. This is a large, colourful event with its roots in the Middle Ages and features, over a week, a series of spectacles and events between the Sunday opening parade and the big night parade the following Saturday. This year, the event will be staged from 29 March to 4 April 2020.

If you do happen to attend one of the many Mardi-Gras celebrations in Brittany, you might wish to bear in mind a hopeful proverb from these parts: ‘If the sun is here for Mardi Gras, it will stay throughout Lent’.

Mardi Gras in Brittany

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 unbeliever 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
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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.

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
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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 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
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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 & 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
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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.

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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.

“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
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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 Thousand and One Nights of Brittany

Much has been written about the legends and old folktales of Brittany. Indeed, the region is often still described as a land of myths and legends; a place where the distinction between the natural and the supernatural did not really exist until the last century.

I do not propose to relate these Breton tales here; there are scores of books in French and Breton and dozens available in English that tell well the tales and legends of yesterday. Instead, I hope to offer a brief survey of how and when the rich folklore of Brittany was mined and brought from the Breton hearth before a global audience.

Myths, legends and folk tales are the cornerstones of oral literature; they can, at times, coalesce but are distinct. Legends are usually anchored in a reality whether it is a specific locality, an event or actual person. In the oral tradition, the legend was recounted as a witnessed testimony or told by a trusted source such as a loved one whose sincerity was accepted. Legends often attempt to explain natural phenomena and the world around us, cautioning against particular dangers, or highlighting a way out of a predicament; they provide an easy if simple edification. Thus, it is the theme of the legend that is of more importance than the story wrapped around it. Legends are temporal and, over time, recast with characters and heroes who are more familiar to the storyteller and his listeners.

In a folktale, the listener is transported into the realm of fantasy and fiction but a tale can be far more than mere fireside entertainment and is often a vehicle to express and transmit thoughts and ideas, even ones that might be frowned upon were they not couched within the cloak of fantasy. Other tales possess a strong initiatory character, pointing to the transition from childhood to adulthood, or serve to underpin societal norms. Within tales, we can sometimes glimpse suggestions of long-dead beliefs that have left no other traces.

Tristram and Ysonde
Tristan and Isolde or Tristram and Ysonde of Breton folklore

In recognising the broad scope of legends and folktales, we must not lose sight of the mythic tales which are sometimes dressed as legends or have morphed into common folktales.  Myths are often highly symbolic making no pretence to be anything other than fantastical but grey areas abound. A good example might be the King Arthur and the sage Merlin found in the ancient lore of Brittany, Wales and Cornwall. While there is no firm evidence that these people actually existed, they are alluded to by ancient tradition as genuine historical characters, lingering as real figures in the collective folk memory, rather than obvious characters in a folktale. When hearing stories about people whose historical existence is doubtful we therefore need to consider whether we might be dealing with a veiled folktale or possibly a distorted myth.

Some Breton tales contains characters, plots and motifs found in the old tales of other parts of the Celtic world and far beyond. While such tales might have been collected by folklorists in Brittany, they are not all any more Breton than Welsh or Romanian but the tales do possess a strongly distinctive Breton colour and offer some insights into the customs and manners prevalent in Brittany at the time the tales were set down. If, as some have suggested, there really are no completely Breton tales, certain categories of tales such as religious tales often featuring the deeds of local saints, certain motifs such as the stick of Iann he vaz houarn (more popularly known as John the Bear) and certain characters, such as the Ankou (the Breton personification of death) and the korrigans are uniquely Breton.

Breton folklore
The Ankou and other fantastic creatures of Breton folklore

Perhaps the earliest examples of a collection of tales common in Brittany were collations of the exempla used by medieval preachers, such as St Vincent Ferrer, to emphasise moral conclusions.  While these bear the indelible imprint of their ecclesiastical origin, some examples sit somewhere between common tale and popular legend and feature identifiable characters and distinct locations. Others contain stories, some quite fantastic, about the lives of Breton saints not found in the hagiographies but were clearly commonly known.

The first widely available compilation of common French folk tales was published by Charles Perrault in his 1697 book Histories or Tales from Past Times with Morals or Tales of Mother Goose. A bestseller in its day, the collection, only partly derived from traditional folk tales, included such stories as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Bluebeard. The extent to which these stories are original creations, taken from earlier folkloric traditions or based on stories written by earlier writers such as Boccaccio and Basile remains a matter of some debate. Whatever the genesis of these fantastic tales, the significance of Perrault’s collection is that this was their first appearance in an easily accessible popular form.

However, the popularity of Perrault’s tales did not immediately lead to a wave of imitators or stimulate fresh research into traditional folk tales. In France, interest in such stories waned significantly, particularly in the year’s following the death of King Louis XIV in 1715.  Not until the so-called Celtic Revival of the late 18th century, did people start taking a serious look at popular culture in Brittany. With a nod to Perrault, Jacques Cambry in his Travels in Finistère (1795), briefly notes a few of the Breton folk tales encountered on his tour through Lower Brittany, such as; the lost city of Ker-Is, the malevolent korrigans, King Portzmarc’h with his horse’s ears and even a Bluebeard in the form of Count Conomor.

Bluebeard from Brittany
Bluebeard or Count Conomor?

With the notable exception of an Arthurian romance, the old folktales and legends of Brittany were not really set down in writing until the boom in interest in regional folklore took hold in France in the early 19th century. This was a time when interest in traditional folk tales across Europe was heightened by the publication of Children’s and Household Tales by the brothers Grimm, in ever expanding editions, between 1812 and 1857, and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales in 1837.

It was therefore natural that eyes would fall on Brittany, a relatively isolated part of France (only since 1536) where French speakers were in the minority; a region considered by outsiders as one seeped in mystery and its Celtic past.  There was an expectation that the region’s old folk tales and legends would possibly bear witness to the ancient beliefs of the Celts. However, this interest in examining Brittany’s old beliefs and customs was unwelcome for some who had already faced the anti-Breton prejudices of France’s metropolitan elite such as Jean-Jacques Le Maguérèze who wrote in his Ethologie Bas Bretonne (1840):

“… banish from your mind the superstitions which are the daughter of fear and ignorance … remember well that the time of fairies has passed and that we live in the nineteenth century which must regenerate the world … This harsh truth will no longer be said of you: that the children of Armorica are four centuries behind in civilization.”              

The main difficulty in accurately identifying echoes of past beliefs in folktales lies not only in peeling away the layers that generations of storytellers have added to the core tale but also the neutral veracity of the compiler and collector of such tales. Too much editing or modernising of tales taken from a primarily oral tradition can lead us to infer a past that existed only in the mind of the compiler or even his publisher.

Théodore Hersart, vicomte de La Villemarqué, published a ground-breaking collection of traditional Breton folk tales, legends and ballads in 1839 under the title Barzaz Breiz (Ballads of Brittany); a seminal work that was initially greeted with widespread popular acclaim. However, within a generation, Breton scholars were questioning the legitimacy of much of the collected works, claiming that the language used was not the authentic language of the common people who were said to have provided La Villemarqué with his source material. Further, they accused him of having overly enhanced the original stories and even of fabricating some of the tales and ballads himself.

La Villemarqué’s work is now widely accepted to have strong historical legitimacy but it is impossible to accurately affirm precisely how much of his published work is authentic folklore and how much his own creation. Even a comparison with the work of his fiercest contemporary critic, François-Marie Luzel, provides little real illumination as his work contains only a few of the ‘originals’ featured in the Barzaz Breiz. Whatever the degree of artistic licence employed by La Villemarqué, his work on Breton folklore cannot be ignored for there is much to commend it and after all it was he who introduced the legend of the lost city Ker-Is and the antics of the korrigans to the wider world.

the korrigans fairies
Korrigans

Building on his 1835-37 publication, The Last Bretons, the versatile author Émile Souvestre published a collection of Breton folktales in The Breton Hearth in 1844. Containing a large number of local folktales and legends including the phantom washerwomen of the night, the book was a contemporary counterpart to the Breton tales and legends of La Villemarqué’s Barzaz Breiz and, illustrative of Souvestre’s ambitions as a writer, a collection of tales he considered The Thousand and One Nights of Brittany.

The strong groundwork laid by La Villemarqué and Souvestre was built upon by François-Marie Luzel who spent over forty years researching, collecting and cataloguing folk tales and legends in Lower Brittany. Despite his frustrations over the disdain for true popular culture then prevalent in Parisian intellectual circles, he persevered in his efforts to highlight native popular culture as a worthy field of study. His Breton Tales (1870), Christian Legends of Lower Brittany (1881) and Folk Tales of Lower Brittany (1887) have rightly become classics, remaining in print to this day.

A key difference between Luzel and his predecessors was his development and adherence to a systematic and methodical cataloguing and classification of his sources and collection. In his preface to Folk Tales of Lower Brittany (1887) he notes:

“All my tales were collected in the language in which they were told to me, that is to say in Breton. I reproduced them, under the dictation of the storytellers, on the graphite pencil then I ironed them later in ink, finally, I set them down and translated them into French, filling the small gaps of inevitable form and abbreviations, when writing a spoken narrative. I kept all my notebooks, which demonstrate the fidelity that I tried to bring in the reproduction of what I heard, without taking anything away and above all adding nothing to the versions of my storytellers.

Breton storytellers are usually quite verbose and often like to give themselves a career, believing to increase the interest of their stories by introducing episodes borrowed from other tales. I have almost always followed them, in these detours, preferring here fidelity to the pleasure of a literary and well-deduced composition. The critics will later sort out and will be able to restore the elements that belong to each fable.”

This methodological approach was subsequently taken up by others, including his life-long friend, Anatole Le Braz. The two Bretons worked together on Folk Songs of Upper Brittany (1890) before Le Braz focused on fieldwork centred on gathering legends and superstitions surrounding Breton beliefs regarding death, the afterlife and the relationships of the dead with the living. In just a few years, within a narrow geographical region of Lower Brittany, Le Braz collected around a hundred legends, many of which have no parallels in the stories published by Luzel. His book The Legend of Death in Lower Brittany (1893) was met this widespread acclaim and offered the wider world many new insights into the character of the Ankou and the Anaon (the community of the dead).

legends of death

Luzel also influenced another prominent Breton, Paul Sébillot, whom he first met in 1875, encouraging him to collect local folk stories and to employ a methodological approach to their curation. Initial results appeared in The Folk Tales of Upper Brittany (1880), a well-received collection and the first in a long series of related publications such as Traditions and Superstitions of Upper Brittany (1882) and Christian Legends of Upper Brittany (1885). Sébillot’s importance as a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer was cemented by his monumental Folklore of France (1904-7).

Elvire de Preissac, comtesse de Cerny, hailed as the doyenne of French folklore by Sébillot, was one of the first women to collect and publish stories gathered from both Upper and Lower Brittany. Her Saint-Suliac and its Traditions (1861) was one of the first ethnographical works to focus, in depth, on one narrow specific region. Having abandoned her writing during her period of marriage, her most famous work, Tales and Legends of Brittany, was published posthumously in 1899.

For a number of reasons, popular interest in the old Breton tales and legends waned markedly in France and Brittany for much of the last century. However, new collections of folk tales continued to be published in the years prior to WW1 but appetites faded further during the period between the two world wars. In addition to changing tastes, a rather contemptuous attitude from Paris towards Brittany and its language on the one hand and a resistance from the populist Breton movement, who viewed the emphasis on old rural folklore and traditions as perpetuators of an outdated image of Brittany, on the other, being significant contributors.

One of the last collectors of folk tales from the Breton oral tradition was Jean Le Page who published in Breton journals under the pseudonym Yann ar Floc’h until his death in 1936; his tales were subsequently compiled and published as Tales from Ster Aon (a region in Upper Brittany) in 1950. The similarly named Iwan ar Floc’h, a weaver from Carhaix, who knew and could recite some sixty local folk tales, was plucked from obscurity in the early 1980s as ethnographers learned of his tales from Jean Rolland, a man then living in a rest home in central Brittany who recalled clearly the tales told by ar Floc’h before his death in 1925. Iwan ar Floc’h is said to have explained the origins of his collection of Breton tales thus:

“According to the ancients, all these [Breton] tales had been invented by a woman who had married a man who did not want to have a child and had told her that if she expected one, he would kill him. When she realized that she was pregnant, she said to herself ‘I am going to tell him a long story, a little bit each night so that he wants to know the rest and no longer thinks about the child’. In due course, the child was born before the story was completed but the man found his son so beautiful that he no longer wanted to kill him.”

While the parallel to A Thousand and One Nights is clear, it is less clear how and when that collection of stories came into the orbit of a Breton speaking weaver but the absorption and metamorphosis of stories across regions and even continents is quite common, sometimes with little substantive changes to the main characters or locations. Despite its transfer from one area to another, the story remains similar to itself and this can cause problems for the folklorist.

A difficulty highlighted by Paul Delarue in his The French Folk Tale (1957), an unfinished catalogue of folk tales from across the Francophone world, Delarue questions whether many of the tales he has recorded are the original tales that inspired Perrault or are modified versions of Perrault’s. This shows the profound influence of Perrault’s tales on folklore: it is now almost impossible to determine which tales are the original ones and which are Perrault’s own. For instance, the tale of The Sleeping Beauty is now widely considered part of folklore but it was originally a literary tale and, through Perrault and the Grimms, it became part of popular tradition.

Luzel wrote, in 1887: “I was the first to give exact and perfectly authentic versions of our tales; I have searched a lot and found a lot; but there will still remain, after me, many interesting discoveries to be made on the subject, and I can only engage and encourage the young Breton folklorists to try the test by assuring them that their pain will not be lost.”  Luzel felt compelled to write this as, at that time, many thought that there were no new discoveries to be made in mining the rich vein of folklore that runs deep through Brittany and he was proved right. Who knows, despite the intervening years and the demise of popular storytelling there may still be the occasional nugget to be found that is not a fashionable meme or prefaced with a hashtag.

a Breton storyteller

Cheese and Wine of Brittany

One of France’s most important agricultural regions, Brittany is no stranger to rain and sunshine, so, the cows have plenty of good grass to eat. This is just as well, as the region accounts for almost a quarter of France’s total milk production. However, it is not just volume that is important but quality too. The French have a word – terroir – which means something akin to the history of the soil and is a term often heard when discussing wine but this one word sums up a concept that is central to French food. Put another way; it is believed that you can taste what the cows eat because it manifests itself in the quality of their milk. Thus rich soil equals rich-tasting milk, butter and cheese.

While some cheese aficionados may have you believe that there are no Breton cheeses worthy of note, I rather disagree and think that there are a few locally produced cheeses that are well worth trying during any visit to Brittany. 

Firstly, La Trappe de Timadeuc; a rather sweet, pressed cheese of the Port Salut type that has been produced by the Cistercian Trappist monks of Timadeuc Abbey for over 160 years.  Campénéac, also known as L’Abbaye-de-Campénéac is another full fat pressed cheese but with a slightly sourer taste. Petit Breton is a cheese in the same “Abbey” tradition but delivers a more fruity taste. Close to raclette cheese, Merzer is a low-fat cheese with a creamy texture and a pleasing sweet taste.  A local co-operative, Paysan Breton, produce a tasty range of soft cheeses under their Madame Loïk label and their fig with walnut offering or their cheese and sea salt flavours both taste wonderful on fresh bread.

cheese from Brittany

Once made exclusively in monasteries and Abbeys across Northern France, Saint Paulin is nowadays produced on a more industrial scale in several sites across Brittany and is a cheese you will have no problems finding in a supermarket here. It is a decent tasty cheese with a slightly salty taste.

Cheeses made from goat’s milk are abundant hereabouts and locally-produced, great tasting cheeses are easy to find.  Try Petit Billy, made from pasteurised goat’s milk, or the tasty Petit Billy Cendré which is covered in a sprinkling of black ash. Le Ménez Hom is another local cheese often coated with ash. It is made from raw goat’s milk and has a gentle, sour flavour. Another Breton cheese worth tasting is Kailh Breizh, a delicious pure goat’s cheese made with raw milk.

Breton cheese

You will be sure to discover small artisanal producers selling their produce out of a van at most local markets here. Do stop and try something new such as Ty Pavez; a cheese made with seaweed and aged in sea water. Another local cheese worth sampling is Tomme Breton made with fenugreek or cider, both versions are tasty, sweet cheeses that lend themselves well to raclette.

Speaking of the joys of raclette, la Trappe de Timadeuc is wonderful as a raclette or simply melted into a fresh, homemade beef-burger. Other local cheeses that make excellent raclette include Timanoix (refined with nut liqueur) and Ty Guémené, a cheese flavoured with the delicious andouille or sausage of Guémené-sur-Scorff in central Brittany.

Any decent cheese deserves to be accompanied by a decent wine and while Brittany is justly famous for its cider and burgeoning range of artisan beers, wine is not an alcoholic beverage usually associated with the region but this is slowly and steadily starting to change.

Since 2016, changes to the law have allowed winegrowers in France to increase, albeit marginally, the size of their vineyards. This small liberalisation in vine planting rights has also encouraged some people to enter the business of cultivating grapes and producing wine commercially in Brittany.

wine growing in Brittany

Although the region has deep historical links to the production of and trade in wine, a string of political decisions stretching back almost 300 years effectively destroyed winegrowing in Brittany. Some modest vineyards, usually sited around abbeys and monasteries, particularly in the Rance Valley (an area now more known for its ciders), continued producing local wine into the 20th century. Indeed, the vineyard of Clos Garrot near Saint-Sulliac, cultivating white Chenin Blanc and red Rondo grapes, produced over 1,500 bottles of wine last year.

Some wine making was also known in southern Brittany and never quite died out; with local associations and private individuals continuing to cultivate the vine and produce Breton wine right up until the present day. The Association les Amis de la Vigne at Coteau-du-Braden near Quimper have been cultivating Chardonnay and Pinot Gris vines since 2006 and produced around 2,000 bottles last year.

Since 2016, several commercially oriented winegrowing projects have been initiated in this area, particularly around the towns of Quimper and Sarzeau. Vines are also being cultivated offshore, taking advantage of the beneficial micro-climates that exist on the Isle of Groix, Belle-Île and some of the islands in the Gulf of Morbihan.

Brittany wines

Further west, at Treffiagat near Guilvinec, the Treixadura grape, a white Galician grape that is one of the key varieties found in Portugal’s Vinho Verde, has been cultivated since 2015. A vintage of about 1,200 bottles is anticipated this year from last year’s harvest; the wine is said to resemble a Viognier, a dry white wine with a fruity note, and could be the first modern Breton cru.

To the south east, lies the historical Ducal capital of Brittany – Nantes and the Pays Nantais. Although, administratively, it is no longer within the current political boundaries of Brittany, the region is home to the famous light, crisp Muscadet white wine. The Folle Blanche grape is also widely cultivated here, producing the popular Gros Plant du Pays Nantais, a dry, tangy white wine. Made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, more Muscadet is produced than any other Loire wine and with notable cultivation of Grolleau, Gamay and Malvoisie grape varieties, the region remains the largest European producer of dry white wine.

This part of historic Brittany boasts over 800 professional winegrowers and enjoys Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status; an official French standard designed to protect the designation of a product’s origin based on the concept of terroir and reserved for wine, cheese, butter and some other agricultural products.

For the future, the key issue is whether Brittany will ever produce, consistently, high quality wines. At first sight, Brittany does not appear ideal wine-growing country but scientists from Rennes University, who have studied the region’s soil and climate, believe that conditions in Brittany are conducive to the production of good quality grapes. The region has gained one degree Celsius in the past thirty years and is now enjoying the temperatures seen in Angers some fifty years ago. The temperate Breton weather, coupled with long periods of summer sunshine, is ideal for the effective ripening of grapes.

With some sixty vineyards now cultivating over 4,000 hectares of soil, more than thirty different grape varieties are currently established in Brittany. In the years to come, other good Breton wines will certainly appear and the trade body Comité des Vins Bretons are pushing hard for the creation of a “Vin Breton” label which would allow them to market their production under the designation Breton Wines. Try a glass, or two, of these Breton wines with some local cheese when you visit Brittany!

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