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!

Bed and Breakfast in Brittany

If you were looking for a guide to the best Bed and Breakfast establishments in beautiful Brittany, I am afraid to say that this is not it. Instead, today’s post offers a little look at the unique beds and breakfasts that were once commonplace throughout much of rural Brittany until around the time between the two world wars.

a Breton cottage interior
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The main item of furniture in the rural houses and farms of Brittany was once the closed bed, known as the lit clos in French and the gwele kloz in Breton. Made from local oak or sometimes chestnut, these closed beds were, more often than not, intricately carved and well decorated; making them statement pieces and a source of pride for the householder. Often, the bed and associated storage chest would form part of the wife’s dowry upon marriage.

For all intents and purposes, the closed bed was a multi-function piece of practical furniture that combined the functions of bed, wardrobe/cupboard, storage chest and seating bench and was usually the principal item of furniture in a rural dwelling. 

closed bed and fireplace
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As you can see from the illustrations, the closed bed was essentially a small double bed on a raised platform, surrounded on all sides by wooden enclosing walls. Access to this sleeping chamber was afforded by an opening on one of the two main sides which was covered by either one or two sliding doors, a regular hinged door opening laterally or simply a pair of curtains. Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his A Summer in Brittany (1840) described it thus :

“On one side of the ample fire-place was the invariable box bedstead. This is ‘de rigueur’ in a Breton cottage. On the side of the fire-place farthest from the door there invariably stands a huge dark oaken piece of furniture, which would have the exact appearance of a clothes-press, were it not that in the side next the fire there is a square aperture, which discloses a pile of mattresses reaching nearly to the top of the machine. This is the bed of the master and mistress.

Very frequently a similar box on the opposite side, but exhibiting a less monstrous pile of bedding, is the resting-place of the maid, or of any other member of the family.

The aperture, which is left as the sole means of access to the interior of this retreat, is furnished with sliding doors, generally—as well, indeed, as the whole of the front of the bed— handsomely carved. So that the occupant may, if he so please, entirely shut himself in.

This is termed a ‘lit clos’, for which I should think ‘a close bed’ must be a very appropriate translation. Indeed it is marvellous how the owner of a handsomely furnished ‘lit clos’ can breathe in it, or even get into it at all, so great a proportion of the enclosed space is occupied by mattresses and beds, piled one on another.

… In front of this bedstead is seen, almost as invariably as itself, a large oaken chest, the same length as the bed, about twenty inches high and as much broad. This is always the seat of honour and serves also as a step to assist mine hostess in mounting to her exalted couch.”

Decoration and ornamentation were mainly reserved for the sliding panels of the bed with the main decorative features being intricate rosettes on cartwheels formed from carved wooden spindles, often in galleries. Sometimes, brass or copper nails were hammered along the edges of the panels or were arranged to form inscriptions such as the names and the date of marriage of the owners.

Some have suggested – rather fancifully – that the closed bed was born from a need to protect the occupants of the house from predatory animals such as wolves or as protection from the animals that typically shared the domestic living space; neither explanation really holds much water.

The rural dwellings of yesterday’s Brittany usually consisted of just one or two rooms, housing the entire household, and so the closed bed allowed a little privacy and helped keep the occupants warm during the colder months. The beds were either arranged in a row against the side walls near the open hearth or immediately against the wall of the back of the fireplace; this room (where it existed) was known as ‘the room at the end’ and was thus completely separate from the cows and chickens that usually shared the room containing the main fireplace.

The bed was raised in order to avoid the unhealthy dampness of the compacted earth or clay floor which was then common; a linen storage chest of the same length served not only as a bench but also as a step to access the top tier bed. Typically, the beds measured as wide as 1.7m (about five foot, seven inches) inside; a tight fit even allowing for the size of the Bretons of yesteryear! The beds could be on two levels; if this was the case, the children or young people slept on the upper tier.

Pierre-Jakez Hélias recounts, in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars, (The Horse of Pride, 1975), that he himself was born in a closed bed in 1914 and that those who possessed such a bed took a great deal of pride from them:

That box-bed was .. a double-decker crate in which my father and his brothers – all four of them – had slept until they left home. But during family reunions I myself had slept in it with three others. ..The enormous crate would creak all over every time anyone turned in it. You’d also hear the straw crackling and the bales of oats rustling. ..One time the two uncles on top deliberately rammed their backs against the straw mattresses, threatening to make the whole top collapse onto the two occupants below (one of whom happened to be me), who in turn banged their fists up against the boards to make them keep still. I was a bit frightened when it creaked too much but the crate was strong, so on we’d go!

The importance of the bed was not dimmed by the death of its owner, Hélias notes that, after a death : “The bed was fixed-up for the lying in state. If it was a box-bed, sheets and cloths were hung on the inside of the enclosures, or if not, on the walls around it. It had become what we call a ‘white chapel’.

The closed beds of Brittany fell out of use gradually but were effectively abandoned in the years between the two world wars of the last century. You do not need to visit any of the local museums to see examples of this furniture in Brittany as you will regularly see them for sale in brocantes (second hand shops that usually also sell an assortment of antiques) for about a hundred Euro. Some are still set-up as intended but many have long-since been converted into bookcases or A/V units.

So much for the bed, what of breakfast? Traditional Breton cooking was, and remains, simple and wholesome and most rural dwellers began their day with either a wheat gruel or a humble pancake cooked on a hot plate or skillet over the cottage’s open fire. Typically, these would be cooked in batches once a week rather than each day. Usually made with buckwheat flour, known as sarassin in French, these thick pancakes known as crêpes or galettes (depending on which part of Brittany you were from) were either eaten with butter or stuffed with cooked eggs, or slices of pork sausage or sometimes just some baked apples.

Contrary to what the name implies, buckwheat is not part of the wheat family but of the sorrel family; flowering plants cultivated in Brittany since the 12th century, producing seeds rich in proteins and minerals. Nowadays, the designation crêpe is often applied to sweet-filled pancakes made with white flour while galette is applied to heavier, buckwheat-made savoury filled pancakes. In times past, the distinction was also noted that the former were made with milk and butter, while the latter were made using only water.

crepes from Brittany
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Although a feature seemingly born in medieval Brittany, the closed bed was also found in parts of western Great Britain particularly Wales and similar bed furniture is known in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. As for the breakfast pancake; crêpes have long since moved from the rustic Breton kitchen, becoming a staple and tasty fixture across France and indeed, the world!

Bread and Butter in Brittany

One of the main events in every Breton town is the regular open-air street market which is as much a social event as a shopping experience. The town centre is taken over with every conceivable type of stall – from fresh fruit & vegetables, pâté and cheeses being sold directly by the producer, to beds being sold out of a van or live chickens in cardboard boxes. If you prefer your chickens a little more prepared, there are usually stall-holders selling spit-roasted birds, pork and potatoes.

No market worthy of the name will fail to feature one or two stalls selling artisanal bread, each offering an abundance of fresh loaves and you’ll find such stalls even in small towns with two or three independent boulangeries of their own.

While the number of traditional boulangeries in Brittany, as in the rest of France, has declined markedly over the last decade, thanks, in part, to the relentless march of the national and international supermarket chains; you can still find a boulangerie in most villages. The good ones are usually noticeably busy and fairly easy to spot; in rural villages you’ll notice cars constantly stopping nearby and in towns and cities, there will be queues, sometimes quite long ones.

There are other pointers to look-out for when searching for the best traditional baguettes, rye breads and pastries in Brittany. The best bakers who handle what the French call “the art of bread” will display a sign identifying themselves as an Artisan Boulanger (literally Craftsman Baker). This is a tightly controlled designation with heavy sanctions under French law for those who falsely claim craftsman status.

To be called a boulangerie, a bakery must actually bake the bread on the premises; setting it apart from a Depot de Pain, a shop that simply sells bread that was baked elsewhere. You may find some Depot de Pain have close ties to well-known busy boulangeries but generally most produce bread from frozen dough or by part-baking industrially made frozen loaves.

fresh bread Brittany

Once inside a popular boulangerie, your senses are immediately assaulted with the scent of fresh, crunchy baguettes and often a staggering variety of other freshly baked breads, rich viennoiseries and tempting pastries. It can sometimes feel quite overwhelming deciding what to buy with a lot of impatient customers waiting in line behind you. So, here are a few quick pointers on just some of the most popular types of bread you’ll find in Brittany’s boulangeries.

Staple of most French breakfasts, the baguette classique or baguette ordinaire is a popular cheap and cheerful choice. It’s the bread that most people identify with France and you’ll see these long loaves stacked horizontally on shelves or displayed vertically in large open drums. The classic baguette can contain additives such as ascorbic acid and gluten; preservatives and colouring agents are also permissible in its manufacture.

These items are all prohibited in the baguette de tradition. The baguette tradition or pain traditional Français appeared after WW1 and its production must adhere to some strict guidelines, namely: no deep-freezing treatment during preparation; no additives which would facilitate or shorten one or more stages of its creation; only contain water, wheat flour, yeast or natural leavening agent and salt.

This baguette costs more than the classique but you’ll notice the difference in the taste and texture of the bread which takes around five hours to make. Be aware that some boulangeries name their baguette tradition after their baker or locality. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask. Similarly, it is quite acceptable to ask for a crisp, well-done crust (bien cuite) or a soft (pas trop cuite) one.  Both the classic and traditional baguettes are sometimes labelled and sold as a Pain Déjeunette; it’s about half the size of a baguette and often sold with fillings such as cheese and ham.

baguettes from Brittany

You’ll also find Pain Flûte which is essentially a larger version of a baguette and almost twice as weighty.  At the other end of the scale is the Ficelle, a long thin loaf that is shorter than a baguette and half the weight. All these breads are best enjoyed on the day of purchase as their quality deteriorates quite quickly.

Up until the end of WW1 the Boule de Pain or Pain Boule was the bread most closely associated with France in the public consciousness. A rustic round shaped bread that can be made of any type of flour, its ball shape helps retain moisture making it slow to dry out and thus stay fresher longer than elongated breads such as baguettes.

A loaf with a similar shelf-life is the Pain de Campagne sometimes called Pain Paysan. This bread is sold in a great variety of shapes and sizes; it’s a hearty loaf with a thick crust and an airy texture usually made with white or whole wheat flour or a mixture of the two. Some boulangeries add sourdough to their recipe but you will usually see sourdough bread labelled as Pain au Levain. Another type of bread that is widely seen in various shapes and sizes is the Pain Complet; a hearty and tasty whole wheat bread.

There are two other common signs that you will see on the bread shelves of the boulangeries here; firstly, Pain aux Céréales or Pain Campagrain which are fairly generic names covering a broad range of high fibre multi-grain loaves. The mix of ingredients varies according to the whims of the baker but you can usually expect between two to five grains and some seeds, most commonly the grains are wheat, malted wheat, rye, barley and oats with a mixture of sesame, sunflower, brown flax and yellow flax seeds.

bread shop in france

A large number of boulangeries also offer Pains Spéciaux, specially created breads made with walnuts, garlic, olives or even sausage. In parts of north west Brittany, you can find Pain de Roscoff, a bread made with the famous pink Roscoff onions and smoked sausage; this delivers an intense flavour which is heightened by the red wine used to marinate the onions and make the dough. Another speciality bread of the region is often referred to as Pain Breton, made with sel-gris (unrefined local sea salt) and sarrasin (buckwheat flour); a tasty bread which needs only Breton butter for augmentation.

You will not have to spend much time in Brittany before you appreciate how seriously they take their butter here and there are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, Brittany is no stranger to rain, so, the cows have plenty of good grass to eat. 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 and wine. Put another way; it is believed that you can taste what the cows eat as it manifests itself through their milk – rich soil equals rich-tasting dairy butter.

breton salted butter

It is not just the terroir that makes Breton butter so special; it also has a high fat content. Butter is mainly milk, particularly cream and Brittany is a big dairy producer. It needs to be, as it takes over 10 litres (2.6 gallons) of cow’s milk to make 450 grams (almost a pound) of butter. While most countries use 80 per cent butterfat in their butter, the French use at least 82 per cent and while this difference may not seem great it does have a noticeable impact on texture and taste. Additionally, in the past, the region was exempt from the Salt Tax and this fostered a culture where foodstuffs were heavily salted to aid the preservation of foodstuffs.

Today, Brittany’s butter is best when it is heavily salted with large flecks of coarse grains of sea salt that crunch when you bite into them but there are versions that do not contain as much salt and even those than omit it entirely. So, there is something to suit all tastes and all are simply delicious when spread on a baguette still warm from the boulangerie. 

The old walled city of St Malo is home to the Museum of Butter but the real attraction here is the attached Creamery and Cheesemonger, La Maison du Beurre, owned by Jean-Yves Bordier, one of France’s most renowned artisanal butter makers.

flavoured butter from Brittany

If you do find yourself in St Malo, it’s worth visiting just to try some of his flavoured butters such as smoked salt or seaweed and garlic & chili.  There are also butters with vanilla and raspberries and even butter with chocolate and shards of cocoa beans but the one to take home is surely Beurre de Baratte a l’Oignon de Roscoff – hand-made butter infused with the tasty pink onions from Roscoff. A wonderful combination delivering great texture and taste especially if spread generously on a slice of fresh bread!

The Pilgrim Trails of Brittany

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

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

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

The Church granted indulgences to those who successfully completed pilgrimages to certain sites, with the amount of merit depending on the distance travelled and hardships endured along with the devotion shown at the sacred shrines met on the pilgrims’ trail and the performance of established rituals at the destination itself. Through these indulgences, pilgrims might hope to save their souls from eternal damnation or even escape Purgatory; for instance, it was traditionally held that a pilgrimage to the relics of St James in Compostela reduced one’s time in Purgatory by half. The medieval pilgrim trail to Compostela across France and northern Spain, known as El Camino de Santiago, was therefore very popular and remains so for the pilgrims of today as well as with religious travellers and hikers.

Pilgrim routes in Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phantom Washerwomen of the Night

In a land rich in legend, myth and fable, the phantom washerwomen of the night stand out as one of the most striking and baleful characters in the folklore of Brittany; spectral women doomed to spend eternity labouring over their laundry from sunset to sunrise, terrifying unfortunate and unwary souls in the darkness.

Across the length and breadth of rural Brittany, there are many tales that feature the washerwomen of the night (known as kannerezed noz in Breton or lavandières de la nuit in French) and there are often quite marked differences in the, sometimes contradictory, characteristics attributed to them.

All accounts agree that the washerwomen – there are usually three of them, all tall and unnaturally strong – are condemned to forever haunt the washing places and wash their linen at night to atone for past misdeeds. Sometimes the washerwomen are the spirits of women once known in the locality, at other times, anonymous ghosts. Depending on the tale, they work noisily in silence or sing loudly, stopping only to address a passer-by, often by name, to ask for help in wringing out the washing. Although the women toil every night, some tales say that they can only be seen during the nights of the full moon or just on the night before All Hallows’ Day.

The washerwomen of the night mainly appear only to men, particularly the drunkards who meander their way home from the tavern at night following the path which runs alongside the river or past the wash-house. If an unwary man stops to help these washerwomen wring their sheets, they are inevitably found in the morning with broken bones and enveloped in this white shroud.

Phantom Washerwomen of the night
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Anne Plumptre (Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in France, 1810) relating some superstitions prevalent in Brittany during her stay, recounted that:

There are a set of washerwomen called ar cannerez noz, the nocturnal singers, who wash their linen always at night, singing old songs and tales all the time: they solicit the assistance of people passing by to wring the linen; if it be given awkwardly, they break the person’s arm; if it be refused, they pull the refusers into the stream and drown them.”

Rural washing points and communal wash-houses, known as lavoirs in France, were, of necessity, sited near a river or spring at the periphery of a village, sometimes at quite a distance from the nearest house. The lavoir was an important part of women’s lives and carried a significant social function; a woman-only domain, each with its own traditions and hierarchy. For instance, the spot nearest the captured water source was customarily reserved for the oldest washerwoman.

Washerwomen in Brittany
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Pierre-Jakez Hélias (The Horse of Pride, 1975) recounts in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars : “For the women, the big wash was a chore of great importance. Like all the really serious jobs, it lasted for three days, which corresponded to Purgatory, Hell and Paradise, in that order.” Soaking and drying were usually done at home but the hard tasks of scrubbing, paddling, rinsing and wringing took place in the communal lavoir.

Most of the structures that remain today were built between the 17th and early 20th centuries although some are hundreds of years older. With the coming of piped mains water and drainage, the lavoirs gradually fell into disuse in the 1960s but the structures remain a familiar sight throughout rural Brittany today.

an abandoned wash house in Brittany
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In some tales the washerwomen of the night are harbingers of death as the time and manner of one’s death is always known to the washerwomen, others imbue them with the power to grant wishes but only to those who answer the three questions they pose truthfully. If a question is answered dishonestly, the washerwomen will know and strangle the liar with their wet sheets.

Most commonly, the phantom washerwomen are held to be the spirits of women expiating at night, the sins committed during their lifetime.  Such sins seem to vary by locality and encompass a very broad range of socio-religious transgressions, from working during the sacred days of rest to murdering children.

Walter Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911) quotes a description of the washerwomen given to him by Goulven Le Scour:

The lavandières de nuits were heard less often than the korrigans but were much more feared. It was usually towards midnight that they were heard beating their linen in front of different washing-places, always some way from the villages. According to the old folk of the past generation, when the phantom washerwomen would ask a certain passer-by to help them to wring sheets, he could not refuse, under pain of being stopped and wrung like a sheet himself. And it was necessary for those who aided in wringing the sheets to turn in the same direction as the washerwomen; for if by misfortune the assistant turned in an opposite direction, he had his arms wrung in an instant. It is believed that these phantom washerwomen are women condemned to wash their mortuary sheets during whole centuries; but that when they find some mortal to wring in an opposite direction, they are delivered.”

In many accounts from Lower Brittany, they are the ghosts of women who were once washerwomen who skimped on cleaning agents and instead used rough stones to scrape clean the laundry in their charge, damaging the clothes and linen of those who mostly had little enough to spare. To punish them for their greed, they were sentenced to eternally wash clothes that remain forever dirty.

Some versions of the old tales say that the washerwomen of the night were the souls of washerwomen who had contravened the religious precepts surrounding Sunday rest, an observance that was followed quite strongly in the wake of the Catholic Counter-Reformation; as a result they were sentenced to work for eternity. Such prohibitions against working also applied to Childermas, New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Ascension Day; defying these prohibitions was said to bring death upon oneself within the year.

In central Brittany, the horrifying washerwomen were often thought of as the damned souls of women who had murdered their own children. To the author George Sand (Rustic Legends, 1858) they represented the ‘most sinister of visions of fear’, and she described them thus:

The real washerwomen are the souls of infanticide mothers. They incessantly beat and twist something that looks like wet linen but which, when seen closely, is nothing but a child’s corpse. Each has their own, if she has been a criminal several times. We must beware of observing or disturbing them; for, even if you were six feet tall with muscles in proportion, they would seize you, beat you in the water and twist you no more and no less than a pair of stockings.

the washer-women of the night
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While some stories identify the washerwomen of the night with the souls of the dead who were buried in a dirty shroud, others claim that they are in fact the spirits of widows who had buried their husbands in a filthy shroud; consigned to wash these shrouds until the appearance of a Christian saviour. It was sometimes believed the washerwomen were souls trapped in Purgatory undergoing penance for having wilfully brought on an abortion by their work or for having strangled their own baby and it is interesting to note that the belief that the washerwomen had no power over mothers with young children was quite widespread.

Muttering a prayer and making the sign of the cross were said to offer protection for those people that ventured abroad at night and happened across the washerwomen. Ignoring them, even if one was the tormented spirit of a close relative, was sometimes not enough to avoid their deathly clutches; they were known to give chase but were unable to do so over freshly ploughed fields.

The origins of the tales of the phantom washerwomen of the night are lost to us but we should guard against immediately jumping to the assumption that they were merely Christian homilies about the need to respect the Holy Days, being dutiful to one’s family or not staying overlong in a tavern et cetera. In some tales, the washerwomen serve as both a warning and a lament but other tales are simply spooky fireside stories, perhaps first told to explain the unfamiliar nocturnal noises carried on the wind.

The concept of ghostly night-women exists in other parts of France as well as in the old folklore of many Celtic nations. Whatever their genesis, they are perchance another reflection of water’s timeless association with the mystical.

Christmas Traditions of Yesteryears’ Brittany

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

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

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

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

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

  • Country folk would place straw wreaths around their apple trees in the hope of ensuring a good year’s harvest.
  • During midnight mass the animals in the stables were able to speak to each other in the tongues of men.
  • Again, during midnight mass, at the time of consecration, a candle was said to cast light on the spot where a hidden treasure could be found. At the same time, the water in the sacred fountains was changed into wine.
  • As the church bell sounded midnight, it was thought one could hear in the wind, the chimes of the church bells of Ker-Is, the legendary sunken city of Brittany, ringing in the distance.
  • Upon returning home from midnight mass, the farmer would give a small piece of bread to his animals to ensure their good health over the year ahead and protect them against the bite of a rabid dog.
  • While the bells heralded the start of Christmas Day, menhirs would free themselves from the earth to drink at the ancient sacred springs; returning to the earth with the echo of the last bell. In some areas, the menhirs were said to be raised into the air by birds; revealing a tantalising glimpse of the secret treasure trove they guarded over.
  • The bells of midnight mass on Christmas Eve marked the end of the parish priest’s ability to metamorphose into an animal; an ability he was often held to possess during Advent.
  • Le Grand Rocher massif near Plestin-les-Grèves was said to entomb a magnificent lost city which could be glimpsed through a fissure that only opened-up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. The city would be resurrected, if someone was bold enough to venture into the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and swift enough to re-emerge before the twelfth bell.

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

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

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

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

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

The abandoned Chapel of SaintMathurin

While the beliefs of yesteryear may have died away there is one old Christmas tradition that is still observed in many Breton households; on Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes by the fireplace in the hope that Père Noël (Father Christmas) will fill them with gifts. Just a few generations ago, the children would have left their heavy wooden clogs by the open granite hearth where blazed the Yule Log.

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

Sacred Springs of Brittany

In ancient times, the sources of that most important of elements – water – were widely venerated by peoples across the world, including the Celts of antiquity. To what extent the ancient Celts actively worshiped streams, fountains and springs is a matter of some conjecture but early writings and modern archaeological discoveries of votive offerings in and around such sources indicate that these were indeed places of significance for the Celts.

We know very little of the religious beliefs of the Celts but the evangelising saints of the 6th and 7th centuries found a pagan, mainly polytheistic society with an established water cult involving sacred springs and wells, each possessing its deity or nymph. These early Christian evangelists seem to have tolerated some of the native convictions and were careful not to abrogate all the ancient beliefs of Brittany immediately.

a sacred spring in Brittany
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The importunate foreign priests recognised that establishing the Christian faith necessarily needed to precede teaching Christian doctrine and, over time, cleverly subsumed the natives’ traditional religious sentiment towards springs and fountains, attributing to them protective Christian saints. Often these saints were assigned the powers of the ancient deities who inhabited those sacred water sources that were traditionally held to hold curative powers. A Christian statue or symbol added to the rude structures that collected the water would emphasise that the power of the waters was due solely to the grace of God. The ancient deities were recast by the new religion as maleficent creatures and eventually reduced to the realm of stories and superstition.

The belief in the power of the water from springs and fountains remained so strong that in 743 the Council of Leptines ordered all bishops to see to the complete abolition of pagan beliefs, explicitly highlighting the oblations made to fountains; a charge reinforced by a capitulary of Charlemagne promulgated in 789.

Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die completely. Jesuit missions to Brittany in the first half of the 17th century were pained by the extent that distortions of the faith and primitive superstitions held sway; prayers were addressed to the moon and sacred springs considered the sources of healing.  A contemporary of the Jesuit evangelist St Julian described faith in Brittany at that time as being “as in the primitive age of the Church.” It must have seemed as if Christianity had adapted itself to a pagan mentality and strenuous efforts were therefore made to revive a purer Christian faith and mould a suitable Christian lifestyle in tune with the realities of rural life.    

It was around this time that small structures were built or re-built over the basins where water appeared. These edifices are quite charming and often took the form of a stone porch, some took on the air of small open chapels with carved decorations and a niche to hold a statue of the patron saint. Sometimes an oratory or a chapel was built nearby.

There is some uniformity in the architectural characteristics of those structures erected in the 17th and 18th centuries. In rural districts, it was common for the fountain to be reached by one or more sets of descending stairs. A large stone basin received the water, usually directly from the spring but occasionally via a spout. This basin was covered by a small porch with, at times, moulded arches and sculptured figures and escutcheons. This kind of fountain is frequently seen decorated with figures of the Virgin Mary or of saints and sometimes with the coat of arms of the local nobility.  Very often, the water itself provided the only ornament of the structure. A large number of these fountains are to be found in Brittany and indeed throughout most of France.

A form more common in the towns was that of a large open basin with a column at the centre, from the lower part of which were arranged channels or spouts that would flow into other basins. The columns took various forms, from that of a simple geometrical block, with plain or grotesque water spouts, to very ornate Gothic structures with elaborate carvings and religious statuary.

Many sacred fountains have long been ascribed miraculous powers that can be broadly categorised into three main groups which sometimes overlap.

Firstly, the healing fountains where it was necessary to either drink the waters or to splash or rub the water over the body.  While waters from all sacred fountains were regarded as possessing therapeutic or curative properties, many fountains were believed to hold qualities that tackled very specific ailments. For instance, Saint-Fiacre’s Fountain in Le Faouët was considered to heal leprosy and skin diseases, Saint-Mériadec’s Fountain in Pontivy to cure deafness, Sainte-Anne’s Fountain in Plonévez-Porzay cured rheumatism.

Pierre-Jakez Hélias, in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars (The Horse of Pride, 1975), notes that the fountain at Treguennec was considered to cure leg problems such as limps and recalls that “On the day of the Pardon, around 1925, I saw groups of mothers waiting their turn to splash the sacred water over their babies from waist to toe. Still in 1969, some grandmothers rubbed their little children with this water. The last grandmothers who perhaps held the old beliefs and nourished a little of the old hope.”

At Notre-Dame de la Clarté in Combrit, a cloth soaked in the water of the fountain served to heal eye ailments  The fountain of Saint-Bieuzy in Pluméliau-Bieuzy cured headaches (the saint died from an axe wound to the head) and toothaches but only if the fountain was circled three times with one’s mouth full of the sacred water. Rheumatism could also be cured at the Fountain of Saint-Guyomard but it was necessary to rub your body against the great stones nearby immediately after drinking the water. The Fountain of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Fontaine-Blanche in Plougastel-Daoulas cured rickets if the child was immersed in the water three times.

In addition, therapeutic virtues were given to several fountains for healing abscesses, coughs, colic, stomach aches and, at the Fountain of Saint-Colomban at Locminé, even madness. Sainte-Anne’s Fountain in Plonévez-Porzay also remedied madness and warded off evil and others were held to cure haemorrhoids and to ease PMT.

Fountains possessing multiple benefits were not unusual. At the 17th century Fountain of the Seven Saints in Bulat-Pestivien the spring water falls into seven basins, each dedicated to one of the founding saints of Brittany and each with its own distinct beneficial quality. Nearby, the 16th century Fountain of the Rooster (named after a once-present carving) is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and had universal therapeutic properties but it was also said that, after performing the right ablutions, one could read their destiny in the water. Within the parish close is the 18th century Fountain of the Virgin whose waters were prized by expectant mothers and mothers who had difficulties expressing milk.

The 16th century Fountain of Saint-Gilles in Saint Gilles Pligeaux is actually two fountains, fed from the same source, dedicated to three saints; one structure has niches dedicated to Saint-Gilles & Saint-Loup and the other to Saint-Laurent. While the waters were widely regarded for their restorative qualities for rheumatics and epileptics, the saints individually were accorded special powers; St Gilles for protecting children, St Loup to dispel fear and St Laurent for curing burns.

There were also divining fountains, the most well-known being the Fountain of Barenton in the heart of the forest of Brocéliande, famous for its association with Merlin and Viviane, which was said to possess a particular characteristic; whoever drew water from it and sprinkled the stones therewith, produced a terrific thunderstorm accompanied by thick darkness.

Merlin's Fountain of Barenton
Fountain of Barenton

At Saint-Laurent’s Fountain in Ploemel, seafarers and their families would throw pieces of bread upon the water; if they floated, it was taken as a sign of good weather ahead. At other oracular fountains, pins were considered effective mediums: if they floated, one’s wishes were granted. In other fountains, a shirt was dropped into the water: if it floated, the ills of the owner would be lifted. Saint-Diboan’s Fountain in Gourin was thought to foretell the fate of a sick person. For this, it was necessary to empty the fountain and allow it to refill. If the new water gushed gently, the patient would heal but would fatally succumb to their illness if the water level refilled in a convulsive fashion.

If a person was anxious (having not been cured of anxiety at Sainte-Barbe’s Fountain in Gouesnac’h) to know how much longer they were to live, they had only to look into the water of the Fountain of Death at Plouigneau at midnight on the first night of May. If an image of a skull was reflected instead of a face, they knew that death was near. There was another ‘fountain of death’ just five miles away in Plouégat-Guérand.

May Day was also the day to visit these fountains of divination with an infant under one year of age; their feet were immersed in the water, if the child removed their feet it was seen as a sign that they would suffer an early death.

Fountains of protection and good fortune were numerous, widespread and popularly frequented but perhaps most keenly by those seeking marriage or children. The power of many fountains was held to work best if pins, or occasionally coins, were dropped into them and they were often thrown into the water to attract the saint’s favour but it was not unheard of for disgruntled visitors to turn the saint’s statue in his niche if favour had been denied them. Pins also had other functions at some sites, for instance in Ploumanac’h, the 12th century Oratory of Saint Guirec is only accessible at low tide but if an intrepid and unmarried girl manages to put a pin into the statue’s nose without it falling out, she would be married within the year.

Probably the most impressive fountain related to those desiring a marriage is the Fountain of Quinipily. This monumental structure is topped by a nine foot stone pedestal on which stands a seven foot high statue of Venus believed to date from 50BC. It possesses a massive water basin hewn from a single block of granite and originally also featured a basin of about 325sq feet where women bathed naked in the hope of securing a marriage. Childless couples also bathed together in the hope that they might be favoured with a child. To be sure of delivering a healthy baby, pregnant women would circle the fountain three times while touching their stomach, bathing in the basin after childbirth. The strong pagan undertones of these rites saw the statue broken down twice by the Church in the 17th century. It was retrieved on both occasions and re-sited on private land some miles away in 1701.

Given the crucial importance of agriculture to the region, it should come as no surprise that there are many fountains that were said to protect the health of animals. The waters of the Fontaine du Daourit in Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem were held to provide good health to both humans and horses. Nearby, the 18th century Fountain of Saint-Gildas in Laniscat preserved the health of cats and dogs, the fountain contains three stone basins; the dog fountain, the cat fountain and that of St Gildas.

The elaborate gothic fountain in Saint-Nicolas-des-Eaux is dedicated to three saints; Nicodème, Gamaliel & Abibon with the Fountain of Saint-Cornely just a stone’s throw away. The water from St Nicodème’s basin guarded against skin diseases but was also considered especially auspicious for protecting the health of horses while the waters from St Abibon’s basin were taken for protection against bad luck and death. Unfortunately, the qualities once attributed to St Gamaliel’s basin have been lost to us but the water from St Cornely’s fountain (built in 1790, almost 200 years after the monumental triple fountain) was given to cows to protect them against disease.

Healing fountain in Brittany
Fountain of St Nicodème

Horses are still blessed in the water of the Fountain of Notre-Dame de L’Isle in Goudelin during the Pardon but since WW1 it has become a rather tamer affair compared to the spectacle recounted by Jean-Baptiste Ogée in his Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Brittany (1778)

Near Plérin is a chapel dedicated to Saint Eloi, whose feast is celebrated in June. The peasants of the surroundings made this saint the patron saint of horses. Every year, on the feast day, the inhabitants of the parishes of ten places around come there on pilgrimage. After their prayers made in the chapel, they go to the fountain which is near, draw water from it with a bowl and throw it in the matrix and on the ears of their mare, and water the testicles of their horse in the persuasion that this water has prolific virtues. This opinion is so engraved in the minds of these good people that it would be impossible to uproot it“.

As illustrated earlier, drinking the water was sometimes not enough; rituals were often required for some healing waters to be effective. The Fountain Notre-Dame des Trois Fountaines in Briec was said to cure problems with breast-feeding; after drinking the water it was necessary to wash one’s breasts in it and empty the basin. As the basin refilled from the spring, the breasts would fill with milk. In Baud, to cure colic, the sick were expected to rub their torso with stones and only then drink the water of the fountain. The water of the Fountain of Notre-Dame du Niver in Edern was thought to enhance a woman’s fertility if she offered three pins to the water before sprinkling it over her stomach and breasts.

Distinguishing a holy fountain from a profane one or a healing fountain from a divining one is only possible through an understanding of the historical foundations of a fountain, its function over time and the traditions surrounding the distinctive qualities of the water and any special rites performed there. The quality of the architecture and the presence or absence of a saint can be misleading determining elements; sometimes the traditional performance of a rite alone can qualify a fountain as special.

To date, there is no definitive list for the numbers of extant sacred or special fountains in Brittany but over 1,500 have been noted by the anthropologist Sylvette Denèflein in the territories of Léon and Cornouaille (roughly the department of Finistère) alone. We can only wonder how many existed just a few centuries ago when the sacred fountain was at the heart of life in Brittany. Unfortunately, thousands of fountains were filled in the 19th and 20th centuries; razed and buried during a period that saw widespread development, land consolidation and a levelling of the landscape. Changes that forever distorted the ancient places; the traditions and practices once so rooted there, slowly sank into oblivion for want of being transmitted and are now lost to us.

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