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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most commonly found creatures in the rich canon of Breton folklore are the korrigans; a race of capricious magical dwarves who now live underground surrounded by vast wealth and are variously described as blonde haired or black haired; benevolent or malicious; as household helpers but also as fiendish abductors of babies.
The world of magical creatures is notoriously inconsistent and irrational; tales about korrigans differ from place to place in Brittany and, as with all tales, the storyteller omits and embellishes thus altering the tale a little more each time. Such fluidity means that defining the nature and role of korrigans is difficult and even the nomenclature is not without issues. Korr is the Breton word for dwarf and ig–ans are diminutive suffixes, so, literally a small little dwarf but the 19th century folklorist Paul Sébillot noted over fifty names given to korrigans and lutins (the French word for sprites) in western Brittany alone. In general, the names given to korrigans vary according to the locale and their particular traits and habitats but distinctions can be blurred further when korrigans and lutins seem interchangeable characters in essentially the same tale.
Some tales claim that korrigans share the same roots as fairies, some that they are the descendants of the giant first men of Brittany and others that they are tormented souls, condemned to wander in the dark through the lonely places of the world.
It is said that in ancient times, mankind and the korrigans shared the Earth and lived together in harmony but the arrival of Christianity upset the balance between mankind and the korrigans and the other mysterious creatures of the country. To the korrigans, the spread of Christianity amounted to their being driven out of their ancestral lands and sacred spaces. Wounded by, what they considered, the betrayal of men who had turned away from them, some took refuge underground while others receded to hide in the remote corners of the world. Scattered and divided, the korrigans became sullen and resentful and now strive to repay man for their exclusion from their lands and seek to reclaim the scared places of the ancient deities.
All tales agree that the korrigans live underground where they guard the treasures of the Earth. Hibernating during the coldest winter months, they emerge with the first warmth of spring and roam abroad between dusk and dawn. Haunting the ancient sites, particularly the megalithic monuments known as menhirs and dolmens, fountains and springs; they amuse themselves by disturbing the peace of the countryside and the sleep of men, playing tricks on passing travellers and mocking the new faith with their raucous dancing around remote chapels and wayside calvaries.
As mentioned above, korrigans can be very broadly divided into several large groupings or tribes and classified according to their habitat.
The desolate moors of Brittany are home to the korrils who are said to live under menhirs and dolmens which serve as a gateway to their underground domain full of gold and jewels. They are usually described as small, unusually strong, lean men who perpetually carry a large stick and wear a mocking grimace. Some stories say that they are garbed in coarse cloth and have small horns, cat’s claws or even goat’s hooves and a long tail. The korrils emerge from their subterranean lair at night when they engage in long frenetic dances accompanied by much noise and revelry until just before dawn’s first light. They are said to be intelligent and mischievous, playing tricks on humans that punish greed and stupidity but often reward intelligence and humility.
The korikaned are the wildest of korrigans and their domains are the ancient forests that once covered most of Brittany. Renowned as marshals and protectors of wild animals, they are never without their sounding horn and are masters of the bow. They are a proud people who consider their culture to be closest to that of the first korrigans which may account for their intense hatred of mankind whom they strive to avoid. Jealous guardians of their domain, they are said to be able to control the weather in order to disperse human hunters. They are also noted shape-shifters!
Korandons live on the sea shore and harbour the same strong feelings of animosity towards mankind as their cousins, the korrils. They are feared because they are said to enjoy provoking storms to create shipwrecks and to light wrecker’s fires at night to lure boats to their doom on the rocks.
At the bottom of the social order of korrigans are the poulpiquets of the marshes. Dark and hairy in appearance with small, gleaming black eyes and with broken voices that sound like old men, they are portrayed as compulsive thieves and notorious tricksters. They are often said to wear a leather purse reputedly full of gold but those who steal it will find nothing within but dirty horsehair and a pair of scissors. They like to prey upon human greed by showing travellers golden rings and shimmering jewels on the water’s glistening surface but when a person leans-in to pluck their unearned trophy, they are promptly seized and pulled down into the korrigans’ domain.
Some korrigans who originally dwelt in the meadows have long since put themselves in the service of men; cleaning houses, scouring cooking pots, rocking restless babies and finding lost objects. In some areas of Brittany these creatures are called teuz. It was once customary in some parts of rural Brittany to leave a small flat stone in front of the hearth for the korrigan to sit upon to enjoy the warmth after his day’s work was done. While these korrigans work without reward, they are said to swiftly quit a house if they are mistreated or unappreciated.
At night, like the fairies of other Celtic traditions, the korrigans love to dance, particularly the circular dance which, in the morning, leaves a ring of mushrooms to mark the presence of their dancing circle. When the moon is clear, they are said to gather near the ancient standing stones and at crossroads and calvaries; never missing an opportunity to entice a passing man to join them. If he happens to be a good−natured sort and enters into their dance heartily, they treat him well and may even do him some good turn but if he is disagreeable they will make him dance until he collapses with exhaustion. Should the man offend them, then he might be forced to dance to his death or be consigned to an underground dungeon without any hope of deliverance. Other tales tell that only if a man carries a plough-stick – a stick that has been used for scraping the clods of earth from a plough – can he enter this dance with impunity.
There is a tale of a musician who, despite the protestations of his friends, decided to teach the korrigans a new dance and took his biniou (Breton bagpipe) to a particular dolmen one Saturday night. His friends feared to approach the dolmen and hid behind a gorse bush several hundred metres away and soon heard the joyful accents of the biniou drifting on the night air. However, the music became melancholic not long after midnight and as the night wore on, steadily descended into a confused series of inconsistent notes and incoherent frenzy, slowly dying out to sound like a fly trapped in a bottle. At dawn, his friends approached the dolmen and there on the moor, lay the cold dead body of their companion and it was, they said, impossible to pull the pipe of his biniou from his teeth.
The nocturnal dancing of the korrigans is often said to be accompanied by singing; a particularly favourite song being the days of the week: ‘Di Lun (Monday), Di Meurzh (Tuesday), Di Mercher (Wednesday), Di Iaou (Thursday), Di Gwener (Friday).’ It is claimed that they are unable to recite all the days due to the sacredness of the full week and there are many tales involving hapless men who have added days to the korrigans’ song with tragic consequences. In one such tale, the keen man is seized and thrown into the sky with such force that he lands on the moon where he is cursed to remain until his place is taken by another victim. There is even a tale of an over-excited korrigan adding ‘Di Sadorn’ to the song himself and being instantly cursed with a hunchback for his eagerness.
It is clear from the old tales that the korrigans retain a festering hatred for the Church and this is likely an echo reflecting the strong views of the early evangelising saints of Brittany against the old deities and the difficulties the Bretons had in reconciling their beliefs in mysterious beings such as fairy folk with the new Christian religion. Thus, to some, the malevolent korrigans symbolise the early resistance of Brittany to Christianisation and it is perhaps noteworthy that one of the few ways to repel a korrigan is by the use of holy water.
Female korrigans are a quite distinct group; usually they are simply referred to as korrigans although sometimes the same stories refer to them as groac’h which is a Breton word that is also applied to witches and crones. In some later, French-language, tales they are, at times, referred to as fées. Whatever their appellation, these female korrigans are usually described as standing no more than two feet tall and beautiful, with sparkling red eyes and flowing blonde hair that they brush with a golden comb in the moonlit reflections of the water of the springs and ancient fountains which they inhabit. It is said that they are able to shape-shift into animals, foretell the future, heal any illness and can also travel from one end of the world to the other in the twinkling of an eye. Interestingly, these are all attributes that were once thought to have been possessed by the Gallicenae; the nine Celtic priestesses who dwelt on the Île de Sein.
Lest you start thinking that these are the sweetest of korrigans, be aware that they are given to stealing the babies of men and substituting them with ugly changelings. Paul Sébillot, in his Local Legends of Upper Brittany (1899), recounts how “They [the korrigans] also liked to kidnap children and put in their place ugly little beings who did not grow up, always suckled and had an old-fashioned figure. A woman had taken her son into the fields; the korrigans took him and substituted one of their offspring for him. As he was not growing, the woman went to consult a neighbour who advised her to put a dozen eggshells filled with water to boil in front of the fire. When the little boy woke up, he exclaimed: “I am ninety years old and never have I seen so many boiling pots“.
If disturbed, especially on a Saturday, the day of the Virgin, these female korrigans will not hesitate to breathe their lethal breath on the hapless human trespasser. They are also notorious for their attempts to bewitch and seduce any man who chances to pass by, cursing them to death if their advances are rejected. Lewis Spence in his Legends and Romances of Brittany (1917), tells us:
“Many are the traditions which tell of human infants abducted by the Korrigan. But it was more as an enchantress that she was dreaded. By a stroke of her magic wand she could transform the leafy fastnesses in which she dwelt into the semblance of a lordly hall, which the luckless traveller whom she lured thither would regard as a paradise after the dark thickets in which he had been wandering. This seeming castle or palace she furnished with everything that could delight the eye, and as the doomed wretch sat ravished by her beauty and that of her nine attendant maidens a fatal passion for her entered his heart, so that whatever he cherished most on earth – honour, wife, demoiselle, or affianced bride – became as naught to him, and he cast himself at the feet of this forest Circe in a frenzy of ardour.
But with the first ray of daylight the charm was dissolved and the Korrigan became a hideous hag, as repulsive as before she had been lovely; the walls of her palace and the magnificence which had furnished it became once more tree and thicket, its carpets moss, its tapestries leaves, its silver cups wild roses, and its dazzling mirrors pools of stagnant water.“
These seductive korrigans are also renowned for their hatred of the Virgin Mary and the celibate clergy who serve her. Indeed, their depiction as intractable enemies of the Church is possibly unique across the surviving body of Celtic mysterious beings. Many stories say that the female korrigans were once Celtic princesses who refused the Gospel brought by the early saints and were accordingly cursed by God. This Christianised gloss is, again, likely an echo reflecting the struggle the early Bretons had reconciling the different notions of the nature of the divine feminine inherent in their old religion and their newly adopted Christian faith.
With the notable exceptions of the Lais of Marie de France and 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. It is therefore difficult to definitively establish the age of many of the korrigan legends. Happily, the tales continue to be told and new tales created and today’s weary parents still caution their children against misbehaving with the cautionary refrain that ‘…the korrigans will get you!’
Immortalised by Gaugin and adorning countless postcards, biscuit tins and souvenir plates, the traditional women’s headdresses of Brittany, the c’hoef (or coiffe), are one of the region’s iconic images. Descended from the religiously-inspired headgear of the Middle Ages, the now emblematic knitted embroidered headdresses evolved gradually over time, reaching their apogee in the late 19th and early 20th century.
At its core, the traditional Breton headdress of the 17th century had four main elements created from the two large quadrangular sections of the medieval veil: the visagière surrounding the face and extended by two wings that hung down to the shoulders. At the back, a simple cap which covered the hair and edged at the bottom by the bavolet, a flap designed to cover the neck. Together these formed a shape akin to a monastic hood or camail which adjusted slowly to the demands of practicality and the dictates of fashion. The camail was too heavy for labouring in fields, so, it was cut; the shellfish gatherers of the coastal regions found the wings too often sodden with sand and seawater, so, cut them in half; the shopkeeper and craftswoman, cramped in their working environments, removed the cumbersome wings completely.
The overall similarity of form can be largely attributed to three main factors: similar climatic necessity; the power of cultural norms and the influence of the large number of religious communities amongst the population. Maintaining the religious character of the headdress was important to the pious folk of Brittany, so, changes were slight: a tighter lace; a fold at the base of the cap; the careful application of pins to raise the wings above the head or even to form a rosette at the crown or simply use knots to tighten them to the chin. These were small adjustments that completely changed the character of the wearer’s face while remaining within the traditional style.
This adherence to tradition is key – in the Brittany of yesteryear what you wore was as important a part of one’s sense of identity as the dialect you spoke; proudly anchoring you to your, identifiable, roots. Headdresses differed from region to region and studies have shown that the disposition of each type roughly corresponds to the territories of the old deaneries. The parishes of each of these ancient deaneries share the same basic headdress but, as noted above, subtle differences in design and arrangement meant that your headdress was not quite the same as that sported in a neighbouring parish. This created a uniqueness that was a significant source of local prestige and spurred the development of the headdress as parishes sought to express their distinctiveness by crafting and wearing finer items than their neighbours.
Headdresses were usually made at home either by the family or by a travelling artisan adept at coarse canvas sewing. The use of hemp or finer linen reflected the wearer’s social status but the headdress was also an indicator of the age and marital status of the wearer.
There were generally two types of head wear – a covering for everyday wear and a finer item worn during formal events, such as fetes, church pardons, confirmations and weddings. Often headdresses were handed-down through the generations and it was quite usual for the headdress worn for a girl’s confirmation to be used later for her wedding ceremony. Widows’ periods of mourning were also reflected in their headdress; in some regions bespoke headwear was worn, while in others black ribbons were added to existing head gear.
The late 18th century saw the emergence of more intricate sewing and embroidery techniques and an increased use of lace; likely a result of the abolition of the sumptuary laws after the revolution. It is worth recalling that for centuries before the revolution, modes of dress and adornment had long served in France as one of the most visible indicators of social status so it is not surprising that clothing and dress were profoundly affected by the tide of post-revolutionary changes.
Towards the latter part of the following century, the then fashion for knitted netting was steadily absorbed into the making of headdresses in Brittany. The embroidered knitted net was found to be an ideal material for the caps as it comfortably accommodated various types of embroidery and styles of netting. Many headdresses retained the character of earlier headdresses while others made an ornament of the hair. Some were frequently made in net, such as ‘the sardine head’ from Douarnenez and the Penn Kolvez (named after the town of Corlay) which in the town of Carhaix was paired with a lace collar.
The headdresses continued to evolve into the 20th century but retained two key elements: the wings and the bottom. Some became smaller, like ‘the wheelbarrow’, the headdresses of Pays Pourleth (around Guémené-sur-Scorff), others went taller, like the Bigoudène from Pays Bigouden (a small area south west of Quimper); some became bonnet-like such as the headdresses of Léon while others remained stylistically close to the shape of the caps of the 19th century.
The materials with which the headdresses were made differed according to the period, the region and the wealth of the wearer. Initially fashioned from a coarse canvas, headdresses were later made from tulle, organdy, fine lace and even synthetic fibres.
The wearing of the headdress fell out of fashion in the years following WW2 and by the early 1960s it was a rare sight. However, the headdress has not been consigned to the history books and can regularly be seen worn at some Pardons and at many folk festivals. Thanks, in part, to the work of the Celtic Circles who have done much in recent years to successfully re-connect younger Bretons with their rich cultural heritage.
Some sources claim that there were once as many as 1,200 distinct regional headdresses worn in Brittany although others put the total closer to 700. Whichever figure you choose, it represents a staggering level of diversity in a region just a little larger than Belgium or the state of Maryland and about half the size of Tasmania.
The gallery of headdresses below are taken from Les Coiffes Bretonnes – 100 Modèles Différents by Maurice Bigot; a work published in limited numbers in 1928.
A wonderful record of the individual grace and rich regional distinctiveness that is now lost to us.
It has been said that most 19th century travellers to Brittany were often struck by three key aspects of the distinctive local culture; an ancient language thriving in daily use, widespread Catholic piety and a notable reverence of the dead. Then as now, one of the most striking and original features of Brittany’s religious heritage was the Parish Close (Enclos Paroissial) an ecclesiastical architectural ensemble unique to Brittany, particularly west of the Saint Brieuc – Vannes axis. Typically, such enclosures consist of a church, a monumental gateway, a calvary, an ossuary and an enclosing wall.
Originally, enclosing walls were built in order to create a marked delineation between the secular and the sacred. This demarcation seems to have begun in the early Middle Ages and allowed for control of access to the churchyard, an area that was very much the social hub of a Breton village where people would meet, play and attend to business. Regular markets were often held in churchyards, some housed communal bread ovens and it was not unknown for people to actually live there. The wall separated the sacred precincts; limiting access for villagers and, importantly, preventing entry by the dogs, pigs and cows that often disturbed the churchyard graves.
Entry to the sacred space was through an ornate monumental gateway styled as a triumphal arch. Use of this gateway was usually reserved for special days in the church calendar and for noteworthy local events such as weddings and funerals. Access to the enclosure was otherwise by means of small, stepped openings in the wall. Some of these gateways, such as that at Sizun were massive structures; the gateway at La Martyre is topped with a calvary, while others like the one in Guengat were rather more modest affairs.
Inside the close was an ossuary where the disinterred bones from the graveyard were housed [futher details on the development of ossuaries can be found here]. In time, some ossuaries developed into funerary chapels such as the one in Saint-Thégonnec which has an altar, while the ossuary in Guimiliau also features an external pulpit.
Another key element of the parish close is the calvary or at least a crucifix or cross. These can vary in style from a simple stone cross such as that at Rochefort-en-Terre, to monumental structures like that at Guimiliau which has over 200 figures carved around its base.
Perhaps the earliest example of one of these monumental calvaries is the late 15th century external pulpit outside the church at Pleubian; a large circular granite structure, richly sculpted with scenes from the Passion and resurrection of Christ, the flight of stone steps leading up to the raised pulpit are flanked by holy water fonts. There is another, albeit smaller and less ornative, across the Jaudy Estuary in Plougrescant. Tradition has it that these calvary pulpits were raised to honour the stay of Saint Vincent Ferrier who preached in these parts at the turn of the 15th century but the towns never enjoyed the wealth needed to subsequently develop a parish close.
Some calvaries simply depict the crucifixion of Christ often flanked on another level by the two robbers crucified at the same time. Others also feature carvings or statues of the Virgin Mary with carved scenes depicting episodes from the life of Christ around the base of the monument. The congregation at Guimiliau must have either been extensive or keen on open-air preaching as its calvary has a bespoke platform allowing the priest to better press home the biblical references in his sermons to his mostly un-educated parishioners.
The churches that became the centrepiece
of these closes almost always display an elaborately sculpted porch with tympanum,
bell towers with lanterns and spires, staircase towers and ornate pinnacles,
sometimes many being grouped together at varying levels for maximum visual
The interior of these churches was not overlooked and the rich ornamentation – highly crafted carved beams, cross beams, pulpits, baptismal fonts and altarpieces – were often highlighted with gold paint with dazzling shades of blue and softer shades of red and green set against brilliant white or blue.
The construction of these parish closes
seems to be concentrated in the 16th and 17th centuries; an era that coincided
with a prolonged period of economic prosperity in Brittany, largely based on
mercantile shipping, commercial fishing and a thriving trade in linen, canvas
and flax. This wealth gave rise to a broader flourishing of ecclesiastical
building activity with new churches built and older ones extended & embellished
and simple crosses replaced by more decorative calvaries.
It was during this period of increased
wealth and religious fervour that the most beautiful parish enclosures were
built and by the end of the 17th century, most parishes in western Brittany
boasted some, if not all, of the features of a parish close.
The development of the parish church in
Guengat offers a useful illustrative timeline typical of so many parishes in
western Brittany at the time. The church itself was rebuilt in the 15th
century, with two further chapels added in the following century. A monumental
gateway and enclosing walls appeared in the second half of the 16th
century, which was further embellished by a calvary and an ossuary towards the
end of the century. We see a similar timeline some 22 miles south in Argol;
here the church was re-built in the mid-16th century, a calvary
raised in 1617, a monumental gateway and walls enclosing the churchyard added
in 1659 and a discrete ossuary in 1665.
Such fine (and expensive) building works
completed to the glory of God were a source of much local prestige.
Unfortunately, pride’s bedfellow is envy and a form of inter-parish rivalry
soon developed with parishes vying with each other to build the finest
enclosure. This de facto competition
for the realisation of the most beautiful architectural ensemble ensured
decades of work for architects, builders, sculptors, glassmakers, cabinet
makers, artists and craftsmen from across Brittany and further afield.
Alas, the decline in the linen trade in
the 18th century effectively ended the development of parish closes
and this helps explain why there appears to be a uniformity of appearance in
the various closes. Unlike churches that move stylistically from Romanesque to
Gothic and Flamboyant Gothic et cetera,
the parish closes were frozen in time; maintained but not re-developed.
Today, Brittany’s parish closes attract visitors from across the world and it’s quite feasible to visit as many as five or six in a day. However, today’s travellers do not enjoy the same visual impact as the visitors of yesteryear but a few towns are now offering tantalising glimpses into the past by measured illuminations. For instance, the calvaries at Guimiliau and Plougastel-Daoulas are treated to coloured lighting, pushing aside the dull granite hues with vivid shades of blue, red and ochre; reminding us that these structures were originally polychrome. After all, these were works that served a pedagogical purpose and were designed to inspire awe amongst the parishioners.
The five most well-known parish closes
are ranged in a relatively small area south of the town of Morlaix, namely at Guimiliau,
Lampaul-Guimiliau, Saint-Thégonnec, Plougonven and Pleyben.
Each is well worth visiting as each boasts its own unique features. For instance, at Guimiliau, the massive calvary contains 200 figures, many clad in 16th century garb. The glory beam at Lampaul-Guimiliau features a striking procession of gilded & painted carvings enacting scenes from the Passion of Christ. The calvary at Saint-Thegonnec features a caricature of King Henri IV, while the church contains stunning ornamental carvings. However, experts have identified a further hundred parish closes across Brittany ranging from the smallest forgotten sites with a demolished ossuary and just a small wall and simple cross to the highly elaborate and oft visited places.
The parish closes are unique to Brittany and offer a fascinating testament of an artistic tradition at the service of religious fervour in the 16th and 17th centuries. Travellers to Brittany should make a point of exploring the great closes in the Élorn Valley south of Morlaix but there are also hidden gems to discover.
With under six weeks to Christmas, towns across Brittany are starting to hang their festive decorations and many are gearing-up to host Christmas markets; there certainly seems a lot planned this year. With so many to choose from, it can be difficult deciding which ones to visit as some can be a little underwhelming, especially if you’ve travelled from afar. So, to help you avoid the turkeys, here are 12 Christmas markets & outings that will give you a wonderful festive experience.
: 22 November to 31 December 2019
As you would expect from the largest town in Brittany, there are several Christmas markets taking place in the run-up to Christmas this year. The largest of which, with about 45 stalls, is on the Mail François Mitterrand and runs from 22 November to 31 December. There are a range of great dining options here and a special gourmet market every Wednesday.
For a great view of the Breton capital, take a ride on the illuminated Ferris wheel that dominates the market. A quick stroll through the bustling town centre bedecked with festive lights & decorations takes you to the Place du Parlement de Bretagne where you’ll find the monumental Palace Carousel; a unique ten meter high, two-storey carousel open from 30 November to 5 January. This year, the Town Hall’s facade will be brought to life by a Sound & Light show inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The Son et Lumiere runs every evening from 20 December through to 5 January.
Domaine de Trévarez :23 November to 5 January 2020
The grand Château de Trévarez stages a Christmas spectacle throughout the festive period and this year will transform itself into the palace of a thousand and one splendours as it showcases its take on the Tale of a Thousand and One Nights. The castle along with its beautiful formal gardens will be illuminated with spectacular colours & lights, leading you to discover oases, magical fountains, hidden princesses and genies. Let your imagination roam and expect the unexpected!
: 29 November to 5 January 2020
A picture postcard perfect village regularly ranked among the most beautiful villages of France and recent winner of the coveted title of ‘Favourite village of the French’; this is a village that knows how to display itself to best effect and at Christmastime it does so spectacularly. There seem to be tastefully hung garlands & decorations wherever you look. The streets and alleyways are beautifully illuminated with the sparkling of tens of thousands of pretty lights.
A visit here at Christmas is a feast for the senses. The shop fronts vie for your attention with sumptuous displays that draw even the most jaded eye, enticing you in. Your sense of smell will be bombarded by roasting chestnuts and freshly made Breton delicacies like crepes and kouign amann. Tasty homemade spiced cake and hot mulled wine will ensure your taste buds get a thorough work-out too as you stroll through the ancient streets soaking in the festive spirit.
Saint Malo : 30 November to 5 January 2020
You’ll find St Malo’s Christmas market at Le Jardin des Douves, set out at the base of the impressive ramparts of this historic old walled town. There will be about 35 chalets selling handmade toys and local handicrafts and food stalls selling tasty festive goodies such as fresh pretzels, roast chestnuts, gingerbread and nougat. Don’t worry about the calories as you’ll be able to burn them off on the large outdoor ice rink across the road!
Vannes: 1 December to 5 January
If you like your Christmas illuminations set against a stunning backdrop then the medieval city of Vannes will deliver; from the projections on the massive ramparts to the curtains of light spread over the cobbled streets of the old town. It’s a wonderful time to visit this beautiful city. A large ice rink, along with a smaller ice garden set aside for toddlers, will be set-up in Place Maurice Marchais from 20 December to 5 January. On this same square, there will be stalls cooking fresh crepes & waffles and serving hot chocolate and mulled wine. Take Santa’s Little Train down to the marina where you’ll find the Christmas market, featuring about 25 stalls. If you visit on 15 December then you’ll be well placed to greet the arrival of Santa Claus’ boat!
: 6 December to 24 December 2019
The pretty medieval town of Dinan exudes seasonal charm at Christmas and the switching on of the Christmas lights on 29 November heralds a month of festive activities. The Christmas market at Place Duclos will have about 30 chalets as well as a range of food stalls. This year, there will be an outdoor ice rink set-up in the centre of the market.
On 14 December, children will love the fairy
show ‘the Dream of Herbert’ while a pyrotechnic show on the following evening
is sure to entertain older children. The following weekend sees a spectacular ‘fairy
parade’ through the historic centre of the town on 21 December and a fireworks
display from the castle on 22 December.
: 7 December to 5 January 2020
One of the real beauties of Brittany, the picturesque small medieval town of Locranon is decked with lights and festive illuminations guaranteed to envelop you in seasonal cheer. The narrow cobbled streets, courtyards and town centre buildings are adorned with lights and decorations creating a delightful atmosphere in which to wander around this beautiful town. This year, a monumental 45m² crib, previously on display at Notre-Dame-de-Paris, will also be on show.
The Christmas market is expected to have 30 chalet-style stalls selling handicrafts, handmade toys & games and local produce. There will also be crepe stalls, roast chestnuts, mulled wine and cider to keep out the winter chill. Street performances and horse-drawn carriage rides will also add to the festivities.
Saint Brieuc : 7 December to 26 December 2019
This year, the town boasts a staggering 6km of garlands, 220 street decorations and over 190,000 Christmas lights. Follow the illuminated pathways to the Polar Village at Parc des Promenades, here amongst the illuminated firs you’ll find a magical realm of ice where igloos, penguins and polar bears surround Santa’s Grotto. Take a carriage ride as dusk falls and take-in the festive lights as you browse the food stalls. Towards the pedestrianised centre of town, you’ll hear the sound of music coming from one of many planned performances and discover creative illuminations, Sound & Light shows and a 25m toboggan run!
Street bands will be performing around the town centre on 15, 16 & 22 December before reaching the Polar Village. On 15-16 December, don’t be surprised if you come across two massive, fully articulated Indian cows. Part puppet, part machine, these massive creatures seem alive thanks to the talents of their team of manipulators. Enjoy the spectacle as they sway to the music or interact with each other and the public! As if two crazy machines were not enough, the afternoons of 22-23 December will see the Mekanibulle (imagine a steam-punk velocipede driven by Chaplin & Keaton and you’re about there!) loose in the town centre.
: 7 December to 31 December 2019
Historic Quimper is a beautiful setting for a traditional Christmas market set-up amongst the half-timbered buildings surrounding the Place Terre au Duc. Festive lights and decorations form the backdrop for wandering carol singers, street entertainers and vendors of hot chocolate, mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. An ice rink, located in the Espace Évêché, will be open from 13 December to 5 January and there’s a Christmas circus staged between 11 and 15 December.
: 8 December to 31 December 2019
Under the shadow of Morlaix’s landmark 62m high viaduct will be found the Christmas market at Place des Otages. Featuring a range of stalls selling a variety of handicrafts & local produce, the market is the centre for a host of activities and games such as making Christmas wreaths, fir decoration contests and treasure hunts. Entertainment for children is the main focus here with readings of Christmas fairy tales and Santa’s Grotto. Next to the market will be a small children’s fun-fair and an outdoor ice rink suitable for all ages. Carriage rides and circulating carol singers are guaranteed to add to the festive feel. On 22 December, a Christmas tale for children will be projected onto giant geometric structures, nicely setting-up the main event – the arrival of Santa Claus, abseiling from the top of the viaduct!
: 13 December to 31 December 2019
On the south coast, Auray is offering
visitors and locals a range of festive treats centred around a Christmas
Village, including: animated displays, games, musical performances, an outdoor
ice rink, horse-drawn carriage rides and even a special Escape-Game. The
Christmas market runs from 13 to 31 December and about 80 stalls are
Santa Claus will arrive, by boat, at the picturesque harbour of St Goustan on the evening of 13 December, just in time to join the grand parade the following day! There’s also a fireworks display on 21 December.
de Bon-Repos : 22 December to 5 January 2020
Renowned for its spectacular summer Sound
& Light shows, the 12th century Abbey of Bon Repos showcases the
year’s main artistic installations; the captivating 7 metre high Celtic ‘Wish
Tree’ sculpted out of wicker branches and ‘Stellar Dreams’, a re-imagining of
the legend surrounding the founding of the Abbey crafted with over 30km of strained
yarn. There will be special exhibitions, readings, puppet shows and childrens’
workshops between 26 December and 4 January. As dusk falls, wander the grounds
as the abbey is transformed with lights and effects.
This is, of necessity, just a tiny snapshot of the many Christmas markets and fairs being staged here throughout the festive season; most are beautifully paired with delightful festive illuminations. So, keep your eyes out for signs to a ‘Marché de Noël’ and drop in; some of the small village markets are great fun and very welcoming to visitors.
Containing the bones of the dead within
an ossuary – a receptacle which could range from a simple stone casket to an
entire elaborate chapel – was an ancient practice once quite widespread in the
Near East and Europe; the role and nature of an ossuary being heavily influenced
by a combination of social factors and religious beliefs. In Europe, they were
a simple solution for handling the problem faced by having limited burial space
for the dead and served as a useful marketing tool for the teachings of the Church.
In the early Middle Ages, burial grounds
were established against and around parish churches but inevitably, given the
relatively short life expectancy of the time, these plots, most of which
contained large common graves, were soon filled. Sometime around the 14th
century, it became common practice for local churches to clear their burial
grounds to create much needed space for new burials.
Typically in the western European
tradition, bodies in these places would initially be interred for several years
to allow the body sufficient time to decompose. The skeletal remains would then
be exhumed, the bones cleaned, dried and sorted according to type; skulls, small
bones & long bones, before being placed
in an ossuary where they were stored together in stacked groups. These could be
sited in a crypt or in the loft inside a church but spaces here too were
limited and usually reserved for the clergy or privileged nobles, so, other
solutions were needed.
Some parish churches chose to create special niches set within or against their churchyard walls which, over time, often developed into quite elaborate affairs. Some created annexes contiguous to the south wall of the church whilst others constructed discrete purpose-built buildings close to the church or graveyard with window openings faced to the east.
Stone-built monumental ossuaries (known
as garnals in Breton) began to appear
in Brittany in the 15th century and were relatively widespread within a hundred
years or so.
‘..over one half of the surviving ossuary monuments were constructed between 1550 and 1600. After a period of slow but persistent monument construction in the first third of the seventeenth century, a second notable phase of ossuary building occurred between 1630 and 1680. After 1700 there was little new construction; of the ossuaries erected in the eighteenth century, some were second or third ossuaries for the same churchyard or the reconstruction of existing structures.’ The Changing Face of Death (1997), P C Jupp & G Howarth (Editors)
This boom in construction in the 16th and 17th centuries coincided with a prolonged period of economic prosperity in Brittany, largely based on mercantile shipping, commercial fishing and a thriving trade in canvas, linen & flax. This increased wealth gave rise to a broader flourishing of ecclesiastical building activity with new churches built and older ones extended and embellished. It was during this period of increased wealth and religious fervour that arguably the most beautiful parish enclosures were built and by the end of the 17th century, most parishes in western Brittany boasted some, if not all, of the features of a monumental parish enclosure.
Whether also serving as a funerary chapel or not, many ossuaries benefited from the same degree of architectural richness and detail as their associated churches, becoming ecclesiastical masterpieces in their own right, perhaps most notably at Ploudiry, Pleyben, Saint-Thégonnec and Sizun. The ossuaries at Guimiliau and Kermoroc’h are particularly noteworthy as both contain external preaching pulpits.
It is the abundance of such well-designed and strongly built stone structures within a relatively small region that sets the ossuaries of Brittany, particularly to the west of the Saint Brieuc-Vannes axis, apart from those seen elsewhere in Europe. While the use of ossuaries was widespread throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages, the practice was in terminal decline by the end of the 17th century.
However, this was not the case in Brittany where 18th century moves by Church and State to shift burials from churchyards to edge-of-town cemeteries were resisted; the use of ossuaries remained widespread here long after such practices had died out elsewhere, much to the consternation of some visitors.
‘A very strange practice reigns in Brittany. The kinfolk of the deceased unearth the dead after several years, when they believe that the soil will have absorbed all of the decomposed flesh. The recovered bones are then placed in a small building constructed near to the church, the ossuary. Sometimes one takes the head of the dead, puts it in a box and places it in the church inscribed “Here lies the skull of N.” It is impossible to imagine nothing more repulsive …. Often, great zeal does not allow time for the complete de-fleshing of the corpse and shreds of putrefying flesh attract dogs which no-one cares to chase away.’ Notes d’un voyage dans l’Ouest de la France (1836), P Mérimée
The author Gustave Flaubert toured
Brittany with Maxime Du Camp in 1847 and, noting a very crowded village
cemetery near Quiberon, observed the ossuary ‘contains skeletons that have been
exhumed in order to make room for other corpses. Who has said: “Life is a
hostelry and the grave is our home?” But these corpses do not remain in their
graves, for they are only tenants and are ejected at the expiration of the
lease.’ He continues:
‘Around this ossuary, where this cluster of bones resemble a jumble of faggots, is arranged, man-high, a series of small black boxes, six inches square, covered with a roof surmounted by a cross and pierced in front in the shape of a heart to reveal the skull inside. Above the heart are painted letters: “This is the head of –, died such year and such day.” These heads did not belong only to persons of a certain rank and he would pass for a bad son if, after seven years, he did not give his parents’ skulls the luxury of one of these little chests. The rest of the body is sent to the ossuary and 25 years later the head is thrown in. Some years ago they wanted to abolish this custom. A riot ensued and it remained.’ Par Les Champs et Par Les Grev̀es (1886), G Flaubert & M Du Camp
It is difficult to pinpoint when the practice of placing skulls in decorated boxes began in Brittany, although the earliest written references are from the late 18th century and the practice seems to have continued up until WW1. The procedure began, at least five years after burial, with the exhumation ceremony which was usually a collective affair with the procession to the ossuary accompanied by prayers and song ; ‘Let us go to the charnel house, Christians! Let us contemplate the relics! Of our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers! Here, no more nobility, neither riches nor beauty. The earth and death have confused all.’
The skull would then be separated from the other bones and placed in a wooden box, known as a ‘boîte à chef’ (skull box), decorated with the individual’s name and age at death. These boxes were then placed in the church or ossuary, often on special ‘Étagères de la Nuit’ (Shelves of the Night), or sometimes in a niche in the churchyard wall but always in view.
Aside from providing a long-term storage solution for the remains of the dead, the ossuaries of Brittany were designed to provide the people with a visible display of the dead. Ossuaries attached to the wall of a church were usually colonnaded or arcaded and the windows of the grand chapel ossuaries left unglazed for the same purpose – the illumination and exhibition of human remains. The sight of such earthly remnants was meant to serve as a vivid reminder of the inevitably of death the leveller and to encourage the faithful to reflect on the transience of human life and the consequent need to commit to a permanent Christian existence to secure salvation through the Church.
The iconography associated with Breton ossuaries shared the same themes and designs as other parts of Catholic Europe such as portrayals of death, judgement, repentance and salvation but there were quite distinctive Breton elements too, such as the depiction of the Ankou – the Breton personification of death who guides the souls of the dead to the Otherworld. A figure also sometimes seen on and inside churches in western Brittany.
The ossuaries of Brittany are a key part
of the region’s unique religious heritage; they are distinct, in part, due to
their abundance and the sheer longevity of their functional use by the people.
Hundreds of these buildings, of all sizes, survive to this day and can be visited
Most ossuaries were cleared of their bones during the last century but you can still encounter ones that have clung tightly to their precious charge, for instance at Lanrivain, Trégornan, Gouarec and the half a dozen skulls in the ossuary at Plouzélambre. Similarly, most skull boxes have been removed from the churches and ossuaries or are now hidden away in vaults but you may still chance to happen upon some on display such as those in Saint-Pol-de-Léon, Saint-Fiacre, Kermaria-an-Iskut and La Méaugon.
The ornate ossuary at Pleyben dates from around 1560, making it one of the oldest monumental ossuaries in Brittany, and serves as a useful example of how some of these buildings were used over time. After restoration in 1733, it was used as a mortuary chapel and subsequently to house a school, the Town Hall and a Post Office. It now serves as a museum, as does the beautiful, two-storey ossuary at Sizun – both are well worth visiting by those keen to explore Brittany’s heritage.
In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, All Saints’ Day is known as la Toussaint and is widely celebrated as both a religious holiday and a secular Public Holiday. Although All Souls’ Day, more formally known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, falls on the following day, the majority of people here tend to honour their dead relatives on the day before. Thus, la Toussaint is the day when dispersed families gather together and visit the cemeteries to tend graves, pray and lay flowers (usually chrysanthemums or heather) on the graves of their loved ones. Consequently, the distinction between All Saints’ Day, which is dedicated to those who are in Heaven, and All Souls’ Day when prayers are offered for the dead who have yet to reach Heaven, are blurred.
Having been observed on different days in various places, the precise origin of All Saints’ Day can not be agreed definitively. During the 7th century it was celebrated on 13 May which has caused some to suggest its origins are pagan and hark back to the Roman festival of Lemuria which was held to pacify the dead. In the 8th century, the date was fixed to 1 November and some see this as an attempt by the Church to co-opt the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which marked the shift from summer to winter and celebrated the harvest.
If it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of All Saints’ Day, establishing the roots of All Souls’ Day is doubly so. What is known is that around the turn of the 11th century, Odilo, the Benedictine Abbot of Cluny, established 2 November as an especial date for prayers of intercession on behalf of the faithful departed undergoing purification in Purgatory; a convention that was steadily embraced and adopted throughout Europe. In addition to putting the Church’s stamp on the importance of honouring the humble dead, this day was significant as it endorsed the link between the living and the dead, in the prayers of the former for the latter.
Of course, the broader practice of celebrating the dead stretches back thousands of years before Odilo and transcends geographic and cultural lines but this conflation of the celebration of All Saints and All Souls allowed plenty of scope for the ancient traditions associated with death and ancestor worship to survive in a Christian world-view as le Jour des Morts (Day of the Dead) or, in Breton, Gouel an Anaon (Festival of the Dead).
At the turn of the 20th century, ethnographers noted a number of traditional beliefs relating to death then prevalent in Brittany. They found that, to some, earthly life was only a passage between an earlier eternal life and a subsequent eternal life. There was a significant absence of separation between the living and the dead, both seen as existing or living in two discrete worlds. In the Breton tradition, the world after earthly death – the Otherworld – is called Anaon and is a word for both the dead and the place where they reside.
The community of the dead were always close. Those buried in the cemetery were thought to live there under the protection of Saint Yves, retaining their earthly personalities, sympathies and aversions for their fellow dead. Earthly feuds and disputes would continue beyond the grave, so, care was taken not to bury two quarrels side-by-side. As for the living, they would help or harass according to the love or disdain brought to them.
‘The graveyard is as truly the centre of the commune as the dolmen was of the prehistoric tribe. The dead who lie there are by no means cut off from the world; the voices of the living reach them in muffled tones; they know that they are not forgotten; they are associated with every event of importance in the family. Nowhere else, and at no period, have people lived in such familiarity with death. The consciousness of the presence of the dead never leaves the people. The evening of a wedding is like a funeral wake. The betrothed meet at the graves of their dead to seal their vows over the tombs.’ A Book of Britanny (1901), Rev. S Baring-Gould
The dead were thought to return to their villages after midnight to see their homes and watch their families but – importantly – not to plead with or to frighten them. Thus, it was customary to let a little fire burn under the ashes overnight, just in case the dead were to visit the hearth of their former home. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, the fire would be kept burning overnight by a large log known as the log of the dead. The dead were always considered to be cold!
In some areas of Brittany, this veil of
separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those
feast days when the dead congregated, namely; Christmas Eve, the night of Saint
John’s Day (Midsummer) and the evening of All Saints’ Day. At these times, some
believed that the dead wandered freely in the land of the living; they were to
be avoided and placated by the living.
‘.. on November Eve the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them (the dead) of curded-milk, pancakes & cider, served on the table covered with a fresh white cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors.’ The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911), W Y Evans-Wentz
‘On November Eve milk is poured on graves, feasts and candles set out on tables and fires lighted on the hearths to welcome the spirits of departed kinsfolk […] The poor who live on the mountains have only black corn, milk, and smoked bacon to offer but it is given freely. Those who can afford it spread on a white cloth, dishes of clotted milk, pancakes and cups of cider.’ Book of Hallowe’en (1919), R E Kelley
The Breton scholar and folklorist Pierre-Jakez
Hélias recounted that in his childhood some twenty years after Kelley’s book: ‘On
the evening of All Saints’ Day, we prepared food (cake, bread, milk, cider), to
welcome the neighbours of the cemetery and we left for them in the hearth, a
big log’. People would also leave food outside for the dead without a home to
After Vespers on the eve of All Saints, people
would visit the cemeteries to kneel, bare-headed, at the graves of their loved
ones to pray and anoint the hollow of the gravestones with holy water or milk (small
cup-like holes can be found in many old gravestones) before hurrying home. Interaction
with the Anaon was to be avoided at all costs. Once at home, people would go to
bed early so that they would not chance to see the dead feasting. Go to bed too
early and you might be awakened by neighbours urging you, in song, to pray for
the souls of the dead. Others would fear to go outside at all during Allhallowtide.
Yesterday’s Bretons did not fear death, for it was seen as simply part of the natural order of things and the beginning of a new and better life but they did fear An Ankou – the Breton personification of death. Master of the afterlife, the Ankou is omnipotent. He is portrayed as a skeletal figure, sometimes draped in a shroud, holding an arrow, spear or very occasionally a scythe whose blade faces outwards.
Standing on a cart whose axles creak, the Ankou roams at night, gathering souls to guide into the Otherworld. He is often spoken of as being accompanied by a screeching owl and attended by one or more assistants. To hear the squeak of Ankou’s chariot signified that someone close to you would soon die. In coastal areas, the Ankou was said to steer a black boat.
‘The Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths over which they travel in great sacred processions; the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve….’ The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) W Y Evans-Wentz
In some parts of Brittany, the Ankou’s persona was more fluid – the first or last death of the year would become Ankou. Thus, he would be renewed each year and could be imbued with some of the characteristics of the soul once living – if he had been an evil character in life then, as Ankou, he would search relentlessly for fresh souls to gather. In these traditions, the Ankou is assisted by the second on the list of the deceased of a parish. It is he who guides the Ankou’s skinny black horse by the bridle, opens the gates and loads the dead souls onto the cart. Rather than draped in a shroud, the Ankou of the 19th century was often depicted as dressing contemporaneously while hiding his face under a black felt hat with a wide brim; a style then popularly worn in Brittany.
In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living. It was more than being at ease with the idea of death it was almost a comfortable familiarity with it; death and birth were commonplace, natural happenings. But by the mid-1980s, anthropologist Ellen Badone (The Appointed Hour: Death, Worldview, Social Change in Brittany, 1989) discovered that, due to the rapid social and cultural changes in Brittany since WW2, the customs and traditions associated with death highlighted just fifty years earlier had all but disappeared. She found that repression of the idea of death and marginalisation of the act of dying were increasingly evident and postulated that this culture change was likely a result of a complex mix of factors. Particularly the shift from an agricultural economy based on shared labour to one of mechanisation & solitary working; the rise of retirement homes and the migration of young Bretons to jobs in the cities creating a rarity of multi-generational families; and the growing prestige of science with its opposition to the supernatural.
As the passage of time dims the old traditions, the relentless Ankou warns us against forgetting him. His image, carved deep into timeless granite edifices, continues to adorn countless churches and ossuaries throughout Brittany. These are well worth visiting and, if you do, take time to contemplate his words at the church in La Roche-Maurice: Remember You, Man, That You Are Dust!
A distinctly Breton tradition that has survived into the 21st century is the Pardon. In this context, a religious Pardon is perhaps best described as a communal expression of devotion to a particular saint, from whom grace or a pardon is requested. Since the 15th century, these annual festivals, celebrating and honouring local saints, witness the gathering together of worshippers; some local and others who have made a special pilgrimage from further afield.
It may be difficult to imagine today, as you travel on well-maintained tarmac roads across Brittany in a matter of hours, that the roads of rural Brittany only received serious attention from the government in the second half of the 20th century. Even as late as the turn of the last century, taking part in a Pardon not in your commune required dedication, time and effort. Indeed, participation at a particular Pardon was often undertaken as an act of penance.
Nowadays, usually observed more in the west of Brittany than elsewhere, the Pardons predominantly begin in March and end in October. Held on a Saint’s feast day, each occasion has a character of its own but generally features two or more masses (some churches repeat their masses in Breton) followed or preceded by a formal procession that sees banners, relics, statues and crosses carried by a cortège of worshippers, sometimes dressed in traditional costume, around the church or chapel and often culminating at a calvary or sacred fountain associated with the saint.
The Pardon is not always tied to an ecclesiastical building as it is the saint who is being venerated and whose presence is invoked during these ceremonies, thus you may find Pardons taking place at sacred fountains which would have been cleaned beforehand by the parishioners and decorated with flowers for the occasion. Some fountains had particular rites attached to them and these traditional practices often bemused 19th century visitors such as this instance, related by Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his A Summer in Brittany(1840) :
“Many [fountains to which marvellous qualities are attributed] are situated in villages where Pardons are held; on those days, in the midst of the crowd, women may be seen rushing to the fountain and exposing their persons in the most extraordinary manner, in order to pour the water over every part of them. Nor have the performers of this ridiculous ceremony, or the numerous spectators of it, male and female, the least idea of anything indecent having been done. The scene is watched by the crowd with the utmost gravity and decorum and most perfect faith in the efficacy of it for bringing about the desired result.”
Sacred fountains were a key part of many Pardon traditions; pilgrims would invoke the saint and enjoy the beneficial virtues of the water which, as noted above, sometimes involved far more than simply drinking the water; rituals, some of great antiquity, were important. Perhaps there are still individual and anonymous practices but the rites of collective immersion in the waters of fountains have long disappeared from contemporary Pardons.
As might be expected in a region so reliant on agriculture, several Pardons specifically involved animals, such as those of the dogs and cats at Laniscat or horses at Goudelin and Plérin where the animals are blessed in the water of the fountain. In the early part of the last century, cattle were even brought for blessing to the church in Moncontour whose church is dedicated to Saint Mathurin, patron saint of such beasts.
The practice of holding a candlelit vigil after or before mass on the night before the Pardon was once commonplace but is less so these days. This might be due to a change in tastes but might reasonably be attributed to the fact that most pilgrims now have ready access to reliable transportation and can schedule their arrival at the Pardon. A noticeable contrast to the weary pilgrims of yesteryear who arrived at the Pardon’s location throughout the course of the preceding day. Upon first sighting the church tower, it was once customary for the pilgrim to pause for prayer before resuming the last leg of the journey in song.
For many, the formal procession is the highlight of the Pardon; in times past it was customary to not take breakfast on the morning of the procession and to complete it barefoot and in silence. These processions are usually quite colourful affairs, featuring a long parade of the young girls of the parish resplendent in white gowns, the local clergy, town notables, the devout and the curious; all giving reverence to the scared relics carried aloft and united behind the timeworn, embroidered community banners and pennants held just as high. It was not uncommon for the carriers of relics to be flanked by two wardens carrying stout sticks to vigorously discourage the hands of pilgrims eager to touch the holy relic or statue.
The procession banners were often, in days gone passed, not immune from similarly robust handling. Typically, when the banners of two processions from different parishes met, the banners were lowered and inclined so as to touch one another in a ceremony known as the Salutation of the Banners. Trollope provides a useful history of the practice:
“The pride of the villagers in their banners and in the splendour of their processions is connected with a spirit of emulation and animosity against those of their neighbours. Thus, when the processions of two rival parishes met, especially if, as is likely frequently to be the case, the meeting chanced to take place in a narrow hollow way, where it was impossible to pass each other, each was unwilling to give way. It became, however, necessary that one should give place to its rival, and retrace its step. This was a degradation to which neither party were willing to submit. Each maintained the superior dignity of its own saint; and where is the Breton who would not die for the united cause of his own saint and his own obstinacy!
The holy persons, whose figures were displayed on the banners, were supposed to be animated with the same passions, the same zeal for their own dignity and the same hatred for the opposition saint of the next parish, which actuated their followers. The most bitter and lasting religious feuds were thus generated. Desperate battles were fought under the banners and for the honour of the saints. Nothing could better deserve indulgences, and protection and favouritism from a saint, than courageous exertions on these occasions, and victory achieved for him over his enemy and rival of the next parish. Bones were broken, and lives sometimes lost, in these obstinate encounters, which never ceased till the figure of one saint was borne in triumph, amid the shouts of his followers, over the prostrate body of the other.
In order to put a stop to these battles, the priests, from time to time, pretended that such and such rival saints had declared their mutual reconciliation; and. it was publicly announced that henceforward they intended to be the best friends in the world. A solemn peace-making took place and, whenever the friends met afterwards, they were held out to each other by their respective bearers to kiss. Hence, the salutation of the banners.”
After the parade, there are prayers and usually a final opportunity for the faithful to see the holy relics before they are returned to their sanctuary. In coastal parishes, the procession often ends at the port where the priest and relics embark on boats in order to bless all the vessels at harbour.
With the serious business of the day done, there usually follows a secular fête, involving a goodly amount of food, dancing and [usually] Breton music. This is not a modern addition to the day, laid-on for the benefit of tourists but a traditional, albeit very secular, climax to the Pardon. In the past, these fêtes featured a great deal of carousing, merry-making and robust competitions of all kinds, with contact sports such as gouren (Breton wrestling) and soule (a loosely structured full-contact game similar to rugby football) being particularly popular; much to the consternation of the local priests. The occasion was and remains, a celebration of fellowship and unity in the profession of faith and an opportunity for an often scattered community to come together.
Over a thousand Pardons continue to be celebrated each year in Brittany. Some are quite modest affairs with just a handful of observers, whilst that of Sainte Anne d’Auray attracts thousands of pilgrims from across Europe. The Pardon of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt (near the north coast town of Morlaix) is another well-attended event with numbers perhaps swelled due to its famous relic and massive bonfire. Bonfires are still lit after the main procession at a number of Pardons these days but the practice is nowhere near as widespread as it once was.
Other notable Pardons include those at Notre-Dame du Roncier in Josselin, Notre-Dame de Rumengol in Faou and Notre-Dame de Quelven in Guern. The latter is one of a number of Pardons that still feature a pyrophoric angel – the statue of an angel (some churches use a carved dove) carrying a flame descends on a zip line from the bell tower of the church to ignite the festival bonfire.
Often known as the grand pardon is the Pardon of Saint Ronan at Locronan where every six years (the last was in 2019) the Grande Troménie is performed, consisting of a 12km pilgrimage over hilly moorland route-ways once sacred to the ancient Celts and marked by twelve stations of the cross.
According to Breton tradition, there were three pilgrimages that the devout had to make at least once. The first was to the Troménie at Locronan but it was not considered completed if you looked, even briefly, in any direction other than straight ahead! The second pilgrimage was to the Pardon of Saint-Servais. Some believed that if one failed to make this pilgrimage during one’s lifetime, they were doomed to do it in the afterlife, carrying their coffin on their shoulders and advancing only the length of the coffin each day! The final obligatory pilgrimage was to participate in the Pardon of Notre-Dame de Bulat in Bulat-Pestivien.
Banned under the revolution, romanticised by 18th century travel writers, sentimentalised by 19th century artists and picked-over by 20th century anthropologists, the Pardons of Brittany remain strong; a harmonious juxtaposition of pious observance and secular celebration that continue to attract pilgrims and curious visitors in large numbers. If you visit Brittany and have the opportunity to attend a Pardon, I recommend that you do so.
It is France but somehow it seems not. It is the same as Wales or Ireland but it is not. It often feels like an independent nation but it is not and has not been for several hundred years. Brittany (Breizh in Breton or Bretagne in French) is different! Lazy comparisons are too easy to cast about and a measured analysis would take a decade or more and still leave us scratching around for an agreeable descriptor. So, let us just agree to say that Brittany is unique.
The traveller to Brittany will see signs of this uniqueness all around, it is not just the (predominantly) bilingual road signs or the omnipresent bigoudène-adorned figure on the backs of cars that make Brittany different from the rest of Metropolitan France or elsewhere. Although both are probably the biggest public manifestation of that especial difference.
So, what else helps contribute to Brittany’s uniqueness? The Breton language certainly, although, for a variety of reasons, it’s quite unusual to hear anyone between the ages of 20 and 70 speaking it in the street. The spoken French, in terms of accent and tonality, is different too but, thanks to television, markedly less so nowadays in the younger generation. The culture is assuredly distinct and there is a strong sense of national identity entwined with this: a shared pride in the uniqueness of Brittany’s rich cultural heritage.
What has, despite the odds, fostered and nurtured a distinct and thriving Breton culture into the 21st century is a fascinating subject but probably unfit for the limited confines of a blog such as this. Instead, I hope to use this blog to highlight some of the noticeable things that, for me, make Brittany interestingly different from other places. You can therefore expect postings on cultural events, festivals, food and drink, folklore and legends, history, geography and landscapes.
I am no expert, so, please feel free to share your thoughts. Let us try and add some real colour to the Brittany travel guides and feature the best of Brittany for today’s inquisitive traveller.