Lai of the Breton Werewolf

The 12th century poet Marie de France remains a mystery to us but her writing had a strong and lasting influence on the development of medieval literature. Adapted from traditional Breton folklore, her tales are recognised as a treasure of European culture.

One of the most intriguing figures in medieval literature, Marie de France is among the first recorded female authors in Europe but we know almost nothing about her despite her exhortation that: “Those to whom God has gifted eloquence of speech, should not hide their gift but display it willingly”. Sadly, for one so eloquent, she offers us very little clues beyond her name being Marie but this could even be a pseudonym; in another work attributed to her she tells us: “Marie is my name, I am of France”.

A few further clues about Marie can be gleaned from an examination of her known texts but they do not allow us to infer very much: she had connections at a royal court and was familiar with the chivalric code and notions of courtly love thus she was most likely a noble and possibly an abbess; she wrote in an Anglo-Norman dialect but also seems to have been conversant with Breton, English and Latin, having declared that she had translated from all three languages. So, possibly she was from Normandy or Brittany and had followed her family to England where many Breton and Norman lords had secured fiefdoms for services rendered to William the Conqueror and his house.  

Not only are we unable to fully confirm the identity of the mysterious Marie but dating her work is also not without difficulties. We can be fairly confident that some of her work was known before circa 1180 as that is the approximate date of a manuscript that provides the only contemporary reference of her; a Life of Saint Edmund written by Denis Pyramus, a Benedictine monk from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, who talks in his prologue of “the Lady Marie who composed in rhyme, lines from lais, which are not in the least true, indeed she is highly praised for them and the rhyme is appreciated everywhere.”

Marie de France manuscript

These lais are fairly long narrative poems written in rhyming verse composed sometime between 1155 and 1175. Marie also produced a collection of the fables of Aesop and a long poem, the Purgatory of Saint Patrick, and it is generally believed that these were composed after the lais. Only one extant manuscript is known to contain all the twelve lais attributed to Marie although some scholars argue that another two, including one featuring King Gradlon, should rightfully be attributed to her.

In her prologue, Marie tells us that she had been looking for a work to translate into “the common tongue” and could find nothing suitable that had not already been done, so she decided to set down the stories that she had heard sung as lais by Breton minstrels. We know that the bards of Brittany and other Celtic nations performed narrative tales to music and the latter day Breton minstrels would have been heir to that ancient tradition. Sadly, no confirmed written examples have survived the years and it is therefore quite prescient of Marie to have committed the stories contained in the old lais to parchment, as she mentions in her prologue her earnest desire that they should “not perish and be forgotten”.

Marie herself notes that her compositions are not translations of the original lais; they are new works based on them, creating a new direction for a long established genre of story-telling. Marie effectively took the lai from the oral tradition and its delivery as a musical performance to a written poem designed to be narrated to an audience. The story at the heart of the old lai having been retold and recast in a world that her audience would find both seemingly exotic and ancient but also quite familiar. Marie weaves her tales of great heroes and marvellous beings from the Celtic tradition with the contemporary motifs of Christian virtue, marriage, courtly love and Anglo-Norman feudalism.

Medieval minstrels

It was said that William the Conqueror had been passionately fond of Breton lais since his youth and this might help explain the continued popularity of the genre in the Anglo-Norman court at the time of Marie. Like the tales performed by the Celtic bards of old, these Breton lais were sang aloud, usually accompanied by a harp or hurdy-gurdy, as memorials of noteworthy men and events. In the romanticised, courtly world of the medieval minstrel, the ideal knight was both a gallant warrior and a talented poet and singer; as the knightly hero was described in Thomas of England’s poem, Tristan: “He sang the air of his lai so beautifully in Breton, Welsh, Latin, and French. So sweetly he sang that no one could tell which was sweeter or more praiseworthy; his harpistry or his singing.”

Whether we agree on twelve or fourteen, the lais of Marie de France, all focus, to one degree or another, on the trials and tribulations of men and women brought on by love. Today we are so used to seeing the idea of love, in all its guises from platonic romance to erotic desire, played out and presented to and for us in popular drama, literature and culture, that we barely register its presence. Indeed, we assume that it was always there, after all love is an intrinsic part of our human nature which all great literature shines a light on but this was not always so. For the most part, the literature of antiquity and the Dark Ages virtually ignored it; focusing instead on heroic deeds and quests, battles, glory and the Divine. The idea of friendship and loyalty was often present but not so love.

The lai’s of Marie de France are amongst the earliest written European literature where the notion of love is central; that love motivates and produces humanity’s best and basest behaviours.  Her tales mix traces of Celtic beliefs and concepts of fate and fortune with themes of life and death, love and loss, fidelity and betrayal. Although her perspectives on these subjects would have been strongly influenced by her courtly upbringing, she presents her themes not as a moraliser but as a storyteller; the lais are peppered with asides to the listener but these serve to emphasise points of fact rather than highlight points of Christian morality. The world of Marie’s Breton lais is therefore a nuanced one and one where female characters play a more central role than typically found in the literature of the period where women were often peripheral figures.

Medieval illustration of courtly love

As mentioned above, despite the lais being squarely set within the framework of the Anglo-Norman courtly worldview, Marie retains strong traces of the Celtic superstitions and belief in the marvellous that would have featured strongly in the lais sung for her in her youth. Her lais feature incredible creatures such as a fairy queen, a talking deer, a weasel who holds the flower of resurrection, a hawk that turns into a man and a man that turns into a wolf. It is this latter tale that I have chosen to illustrate below.

As you can appreciate, the lais of Marie de France have been translated and edited into modern English and French many times, particularly over the last two hundred years, some have even been produced in rhyming verse. However, the translation that I have chosen is drawn from Jessie Weston’s book Arthurian Romances Unrepresented in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1910) which presents lais rendered into English prose from the poems of Marie de France and others that might form the back-story to characters mentioned in Malory’s epic work.

The author notes that a single sentence in Morte d’Arthur suggested this story, namely: “Sir Marrok, the good knight that was betrayed with his wife, for she made him seven year a werewolf.” In Malory’s tale, Sir Marrok features in the roll of knights who attempted to heal the injured knight, Sir Urry. In combat, Sir Urry had suffered seven great wounds, three on the head and four on his body and upon his left hand but a sorceress cursed him so that his wounds would never heal until treated by the best knight in the world. Sir Urry travelled across Europe in search of one who might heal his suppurating wounds and, at length, arrived at the court of King Arthur where all the knights at court tried to help him. Their attempts were in vain until the appearance of that Breton “flower of the world’s knights”, Sir Lancelot.

Sir Marrock

The Lai of the Werewolf

Amongst the tales I tell you, I cannot forget the lai of the werewolf. Such beasts as he are known in every land; in Brittany he is named Bisclavaret whilst the Norman calls him Garwal.

It is certain and we all know it, that many a christened man has suffered this change and ran wild in woods as a werewolf. The werewolf is a fearsome beast; lurking within the forest, mad and horrible to see. All the evil that he may, he does. He hunts about the place, seeking man, in order to devour him. Listen now, to the adventure of the werewolf that I have to tell.

In the days of King Arthur, there lived in Brittany a valiant knight of noble birth and countenance; in high favour with his lord and much loved by all his fellows. This knight was wedded to a fair and gracious lady whom he loved tenderly and she too loved her lord but one thing vexed her sorely: three days in every week would her husband leave her and none knew where he went or what he did while absent.

And every time the lady vexed herself more and more, ‘till at last she could no longer keep silence and when her husband returned, joyful at heart after one of these journeys, she said to him: “My dear lord, there is something I would ask you and yet I scarce dare, for I fear lest you be angry with me.”

Then her lord drew her to him, and kissed her tenderly. “Lady,” he said, “fear not to ask me, there is nothing I would not gladly tell you, if it be in my power.”

“In faith,” she said, “now is my heart at rest. My lord, if you only knew how terrified I am in the days I am alone; I rise in the morning afraid and lie down at night in such dread of losing you that if I be not soon reassured I think I shall die of it. Tell me, I pray, where you go and on what errand, that I who love you may be at rest during your absence.”

“Lady,” he answered, “for the love of God ask me no more, for indeed if I told you evil would surely come of it; you would cease to love me and I should be lost.”

Medieval illustration of wolves

When the lady heard this she was ill-pleased, nor would she let her lord be at peace but day by day she besought him with prayers and caresses, till at length he yielded and told her all the truth. “Lady,” he said, “there is a spell upon me: three days in the week am I forced to become a werewolf; and when I feel the change coming upon me I hide myself in the thick of the forest and there I live on prey and roots till the time has expired.”

When he had told her this, his wife asked him what of his clothes? Did he still wear them in his wolf’s shape? “No,” he said, “I must set them aside.”  His wife pressed him keenly and demanded to know what he did with his clothes. “That I may not tell you, for if I were to lose them, or they should be stolen from me, then must I remain a wolf all my days, nothing could aid me save that the garments be brought to me again. So for my own safety I must keep the matter secret.”

“My dear lord, why hide it from me? Surely thou has no fear of me who loves you above all else? Little love can you have for me! What have I done? What sin have I committed that you should withdraw your trust in me so? You must tell me.” Thus she wept and entreated until, at length, the knight yielded and told her all.

“Dear wife,” he said, “near the forest on the highway, at a cross road, is an old chapel wherein I have often found help and succour. Close to it, under a thick shrub, is a large stone with a hollow beneath it; under that stone I hide my clothes until the enchantment has lost its power and I may turn myself homewards.”

Man and beast

Now, when the lady had heard this story it fell out even as her husband had foretold, for her love was changed to loathing and she was seized with a great dread and fear of him. She was terrified to be in his presence and no longer wished to lie with him, yet he was her lord and she knew not how she might escape from him.

Then she remembered a certain knight of that country, who had loved her long and wooed her in vain before she wedded her lord; and one time when her husband went forth, she sent for him in secret and bade him come give her counsel on a matter that troubled her. When he came she bade him swear to keep secret what she might tell him and when he had sworn, she told him all and prayed him for the sake of the love he once bore her to free her from one who was neither beast nor man and yet both.

The knight, who loved her still, was ready to do all she might desire and she said, “It is but to steal his clothes, for then he can no more become a man but must dwell in the forest as a wolf all his days and someone will surely slay him.” So, he went forth and did after her bidding and brought her husband’s clothes. She hid them away saying, “Now am I safe and that monster can return to terrify me no more.”

When time went on and her husband came not, the lady feigned to be anxious for his welfare and sent his men forth to seek him; they went through all the land but could find no trace of their lord. At length, they gave up the search and all deemed he had been slain on one of his mysterious journeys. When a year had passed and the lady thought the wolf had surely been killed, she wedded the knight who had aided her and thought no more of the husband she had betrayed.

Bisclavret's wife and the knight

But the poor werewolf roamed the forest in suffering and sorrow, for though a beast outwardly yet he had the heart and brain of a man, and knew well what had happened and he grieved bitterly, for he had loved his wife truly and well.

Now it chanced one day that the king of that land was hunting in that very forest and the hounds came on the track of the werewolf and roused him from his lair and gave chase to him. All day he fled before them through the woodland and at last when they were close upon him and he was in peril of being caught and torn in pieces, the king came riding after the hounds, and the wolf swerved aside and ran to him, seizing him by the stirrup, and kissing his foot in sign of submission.

The king was much astonished and called to his companions to come swiftly. “See here, my lords,” he said, “what do you think of this marvel? See how this beast entreats mercy of me; he has the sense of a man! Drive off the dogs, for I will not have him injured. Turn we homewards, I take this beast in my peace and will hunt no more in this forest lest by chance he be slain.”

Wolf hunting

With that they turned their bridles and rode homewards but the wolf followed and would not be driven back, even when they came to the royal castle. The king was greatly pleased, for he thought the matter strange and marvellous; no such tale had he ever heard before and since he had taken a great liking for the beast he bade his knights not merely to do the wolf no harm but to treat him with all care and kindness, on pain of losing royal favour. So all day the wolf roamed the court, free among the knights and at night he slept in the king’s chamber. Wherever the king went, he would have his wolf go too and all the courtiers made much of the beast, seeing that it pleased their lord, and finding that he did no harm to any man among them.

Now when a long time had passed the king had occasion to hold a solemn court; he summoned all his barons from near and far and among them came the knight who had betrayed the werewolf and wedded his lady; he had little thought that his rival was yet in life, still less that he was so near at hand. But as soon as the wolf saw him he sprang upon him savagely, tearing him with his teeth and would have slain him if the king had not called him off and even then twice again he would have seized him.

Everyone in the castle was astonished at the rage shown by the beast, which had always been so gentle and a whisper went round that surely there must be something which no one knew against the knight, for the wolf would not have attacked him without cause. All the time the court lasted the wolf had to be kept in close guard. When at length it broke up, the knight who had been attacked was the first to leave and when the knight had gone the wolf was once more as tame and friendly as he had been from the first and all the courtiers made a pet of him as they had done before and forgot that he had ever shown himself so savage.

At length, the king decided that he would make a progress through his kingdom and at the same time hunt for a time in the forest where he had found the wolf. As was his custom, he took the beast with him. Now the lady, the werewolf’s treacherous wife, hearing that the king would abide some time in that part of the country, prayed for an audience that she might win the royal favour by presenting rich gifts, for she knew well that the king loved not her second husband as he had loved the first.

Medieval king's progress

The king granted an appointment but when the lady entered the meeting hall the wolf suddenly flew upon her and before any could hinder had bitten the nose from off her face. The courtiers drew out their weapons and would have slain the beast, when a wise man, one of the king’s councillors, stayed them. “Sire,” he said, “listen to me, this wolf has long been with us, there is not one of us here who has not been near him and caressed him, over and over again; yet not a man of us has he ever touched or even shown ill-will. But two has he ever attacked, this lady here and the lord, her husband. Now, sire, consider, this lady was the wife of the knight that you once held dear and who was lost long ago, no man knowing what became to him. Take my counsel, put this lady in guard and question her closely as to whether she can give any reason why the wolf should hate her. Many a marvel has come to pass in Brittany and methinks there is something stranger than we know here.”

The king agreed the old lord’s counsel; he caused the lady and her husband to be put in prison and questioned separately with threats if they kept silence; till at length the lady confessed how she had betrayed her first husband by causing his clothes to be stolen from him when he was in a wolf’s form. Since that time he had disappeared; she knew not whether he was alive or dead but she thought that perhaps this wolf was he. When the king heard this he commanded them to fetch the clothes belonging to the lost knight, whether it were pleasing to the lady or not; and when they were brought he laid them before the wolf and waited to see what would happen.

However, the wolf made as if he saw them not and the wise councillor said, “Sire, if this beast is a werewolf he will not change shapes while there are any to behold him; since it is only with great pain and difficulty he can do so. Bid them take wolf and garments into your chamber and fasten the doors upon him; then leave him for a while, and we shall see if he becomes a man.”

The king thought this sound counsel and he himself took the beast into his chamber and closed the doors fast. Then they waited for a time that seemed long enough to the king, and when the old lord told him he might do so, he took two nobles and unlocked the doors, and entered, and lo, on the king’s bed lay the long lost knight in a deep slumber!

The king ran to him and embraced him warmly. When the first wonder had somewhat passed, he bade him take back all the lands of which he had been robbed, and over and above he bestowed upon him many rich gifts.

The treacherous wife and her husband were banished from the country; many years they lived in a foreign land and had children and grandchildren but all their descendants might be known by this, that the maidens were all born without noses.

Born without a nose

The old books say that this adventure is verily true and that it was in order that the memory of it should be preserved for all time that the Bretons put it in verse and called it ‘The Lai of the Werewolf.’

I will make no attempt to analyse the tale but let you take from it what, if anything, you will. Some scholars have made much of the idea of transformation in the story and the notion of man as beast. Others have seen the key theme as one of innate nobility or the importance of courtly hierarchy. While some call it a protofeminist tale, others call it misogynistic and some declare that it is really about the struggle for homosexual acceptance. I will leave the last words to Marie herself, who wrote almost 800 years ago: “He performs his task poorly who lets himself be forgotten”.

The Lost City Of Brittany

One of the most beautiful in Europe, the large horseshoe Bay of Douarnenez on Brittany’s western Atlantic coast boasts some stunning coastal scenery; from towering cliffs to secluded sandy coves. Just five miles (8km) offshore lies the Île de Sein, reputed birthplace of the legendary wizard Merlin and sacred burial place of the druids but said to lie in the waters of the bay itself is the magnificent but damned sunken city of Ker-Is.

Douarnenez Bay
The Bay of Douarnenez

As with any story, we should start at the beginning with the semi-legendary fifth century Breton warlord, Gradlon or Grallon, who held sway over a large part of southern Brittany; a territory known as Kernev (Cornwall in English, Cournouaille in French).

Reputed to be the son of Cynan Meriadoc, founder of Brittany, King Gradlon was said to have been something of an adventurer, renowned for capturing vessels at sea and raiding coastal settlements in the lands to the north. During his last marauding expedition, he was abandoned by his warriors, who had become weary and homesick after fighting for so long in the harsh northern lands; thus Gradlon found himself alone. That night, in the depths of his anguish, he was startled by the appearance of a woman whose radiance was reflected by the light of the northern stars that illuminated her long red hair. This was Malgven, a northern Queen and sorceress who tells him: “I know you; you are a courageous and skilful warrior. My husband is old and his sword is rusty. Let us therefore be rid of him and return together to your country of Kernev.”

Enchanted by Malgven, Gradlon happily slays the old king and loots his treasury for a chest full of gold. The couple make good their escape by mounting Malgven’s horse, Morvarc’h; a powerful beast, black as night, who breathed fire from his nostrils as he galloped to the sea and raced on the crests of the waves. No sooner had they caught up with Gradlon’s home-bound fleet than a violent tempest flared which scattered the ships until the horizon was empty, leaving their vessel the only sign of life.

Gradlon and Malgven were destined to spend a year together at sea; during which time Malgven gave birth to a baby girl they named Dahud. Some versions of the story have Malgven dying in childbirth while others have her casting a spell that will ensure her daughter grows up looking exactly like her, shortly before being set-down on a small island so that she might return home. All tales agree that Gradlon and his daughter reached Kernev safely, whereupon he quickly re-established control over his lands after being so long absent. In his grief over the loss of Malgven, Gradlon became a virtual recluse within the walls of his castle, seeing only Saint Guénolé, while Dahud was usually to be seen wandering close against the sea to which she thought she belonged, having been born on the waves.

Dahud grew jealous of what she perceived to be Saint Guénolé’s influence over her father and spent more of her time at the seashore to avoid the preacher’s visits to the castle. She was so possessed by the sea that she begged her father to build for her a city on the shore. To her delight, Gradlon conceded to his dear daughter’s wish and ordered the construction of this new city and several thousand workers came from across the land to help build this pearl of the ocean and its formidable dyke that would shield it against storm and surf. Some tales attribute the construction of this massive defensive wall to the magic of the korrigans.

Finally, the city was complete; viewed from afar, Ker-Is seemed to rise from the depths of the very ocean itself. To control the water level in the enclosed harbour, a set of monumental bronze gates were set into the encircling wall; the keys to which only Gradlon, as king, took guardianship of and wore from a chain around his neck.

City of Ker Is

The new city, esteemed for its magnificence and splendour, quickly attracted the notables of the land to live within its stout walls. Although King Gradlon transferred his capital to Ker-Is, he remained as reclusive as ever and so Dahud fell easily into the role of the beating heart and soul of the city. However, the luxurious living within the city walls steadily led to all manner of debauchery and soon the city was renowned as a den of iniquity and vice. The exhortations of the priests, preaching repentance and reformation, made no impression upon the townsfolk; even Saint Guénolé, one of the mightiest among the saints, preached in vain, being thwarted at every turn by Dahud.

Princess Dahud set an example of depravity that none in the city could match; she adhered to the old religion, she feasted and drank to excess every day, and every night would take a new lover. Each morning, her discarded lover would be given a mask to wear before quitting Dahud’s tower. Ostensibly this was to allow him to leave the castle unnoticed but the grim reality was that it was an enchanted mask that quickly suffocated the wearer and each morning another dead body was thrown into the cold sea. Amidst the city’s debauchery, only King Gradlon preserved his soul; untainted by the vice surrounding him, he lived a modest life of the stoutest virtue.

One evening, a handsome stranger captivated Dahud and later, when they were alone in her chamber, he persuaded her to display her desire for him by bringing him the keys her father always wore. Dahud obligingly stole the keys from her sleeping father and proudly presented them to the stranger who now revealed himself to be the Devil. The gates that protected the city ​​were opened and the sea began to rage in. As the water spread through the streets, the king was roused and quickly made plans to flee. He summoned his horse and, with Dahud seated behind him, raced from the city. Powerful though he was, Morvarc’h struggled in the water and floundered as though being ridden by a group of heavily armed knights and it seemed as though Gradlon and his daughter were doomed to destruction. When all hope seemed lost, a voice like thunder was heard above the waves: “King, if you would save yourself, shake off the demon that you carry behind you.”  

As Morvarc’h wrestled with the water, so too did the good king with his conscience – should he obey and cause the death of his beloved daughter or disobey the command of God and face the fearful judgements that might overtake the country through his guilt? Suddenly, the Devil leapt out of the sea and seized Dahud; he carried her away and made her his servant; a mermaid. Freed of the burden of Dahud, Morvarc’h surged to shore, the king was saved but his daughter and her treasured city were lost forever.

King Gradlon and Saint Guenole
The Flight of King Gradlon

As you can imagine, there are many versions of this tale; some make no mention of the Devil at all and say that Dahud herself opened the city’s gates in a state of drunkenness and that Gradlon voluntarily yielded up his daughter to the waves. Others tell that she nobly resigned herself to her fate to save her dear father.

The heavy religious undertones of the story offer us an example of divine wrath provoked by unvirtuous living reminiscent of the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah and it is worth noting that, until the story was significantly embellished in the last century, the religious element was even more to the fore. Substituting the last two paragraphs of the above account for the following two will give you a flavour of the earlier tale:

One day, while the king was attending Divine service, he was approached by Saint Guénolé who addressed him urgently, saying “Oh king, the sickness of your city is at its height; the arm of the Lord is stretching out for it; the sea begins to rage and the city shall soon disappear! We must hurry and leave this place of sin!” Gradlon, trusting implicitly the words of the wise saint, called for his daughter and together they mounted his horse; and in the company of Saint Guénolé left the city with the utmost speed. The waves immediately began to rise and the city was soon overwhelmed.

Due to the weight of her sins, the horse carrying Dahud and her father made slow headway in the water and it seemed as though both were doomed to destruction. Seeing their plight, Saint Guénolé shouted at Gradlon: “King, if you would save yourself, shake off the demon that you carry behind you.”  However, the king could not countenance consigning his only daughter to the waves and even if he had the mind to do so, Dahud’s grip on him was too strong for him to have shaken her loose. Understanding this, Saint Guénolé manoeuvred his horse closer and touched Dahud with his staff whereupon she was immediately propelled backwards and cast into the deep. The king and saint finally reached the shore together; they looked back but no trace of the city could be seen.

Saint Guenole and King Gradlon cast Dahud to the Devil
Saint Guenole and King Gradlon leave Dahud to the Devil

Legends generally survive the centuries because they are adapted and retold to suit the audience of the day and the story of the lost city of Ker-Is is no exception. Interestingly, we are able to trace the modifications to the tale since it was first set down on paper; at least in the papers that survived the Viking raids of the 10th century.  The 9th century cartulary of the monastery at Landévennec – founded at the end of the 5th century by the first-generation British immigrant, Saint Guénolé – which is itself believed to be a copy of a more ancient document, mentions Gradlon Meur (Gradlon the Great). He is also a key character of one of the 12th century lays often attributed to Marie de France but Ker-Is does not feature in either text although there is no reason why it should.

To date, the earliest mention found of Ker-Is is from La Compillation des Cronicques et Ystoires des Bretons written by Pierre le Baud in 1480: “The great city of Is, located near the sea, was, for the sins of the inhabitants, submerged by the waters issuing from this sea. King Grallon who at the time was in this city, miraculously escaped by the merit of Saint Guénolé.” Another 15th century manuscript, L’Eloge de la Bretagne, refers to Ker-Is as a “formerly considerable city that was utterly engulfed by the sea’s jealous and ravenous wrath.” A history of Brittany, produced in 1582, adds nothing to these few lines beyond a note of scepticism: “… is not this city of Is (if it was), named of old, for some legends?”

There is another early reference in Canon Moreau’s Histoire de ce qui s’est Passé en Bretagne Durant les Guerres de la Ligue (circa 1605) which notes of a “very famous and fabled city, called Is in the vulgar tongue of the country, which they say was located where the bay of Douarnenez is presently and which was successively conquered by the sea around 1200 or 1300 years ago. Knowledge is from the time of the holy characters Corentin, Guénolé, Tadec, reigning at that time in Brittany, the King Grallon the Great … and everything happened by a just punishment from God for the sins of the people of the said city.” It is essentially the same bland reference but now two additional saints have been associated to the city and the notion of Divine intervention is offered as an explanation for the city’s submergence.

The Lost City

The hagiographer, Albert Le Grand, wrote his monumental Les Vies des Saints de la Bretagne Armorique (1636) based on ecclesiastical manuscripts that are no longer extant, so we are unable to verify his sources but within his account of the life of Saint Guénolé he adds some new details:

After having appointed Corentin bishop and lord of Quimper, King Grallon transferred his court to a big city on the coast. This city was called Is. … Guénolé often went to see the king in his superb city of Is and preached very highly against the abominations which were committed in this city all absorbed in luxury, debauchery and vanity.  … God revealed to him the just punishment he wanted to make of it and the hour of retribution. He said to the king: ‘Sire, let us get out of this place as soon as possible because the ire of God is going to overwhelm it now!’  …

Grallon immediately packed up his luggage and, having had his most expensive items removed, mounted his horse with his officers and servants, and, at the point of a spur, fled from town. No sooner had he left the doors than a violent storm arose with winds so impetuous that the sea, throwing itself beyond its ordinary limits and rushing into fury on this wretched city, drowned several thousand people; the main cause of these deaths was attributed to Dahud, immodest daughter of the good king, who perished in this abyss and almost caused the loss of the king. … History assures us that she had taken from her father the key he wore hanging on his collar as a symbol of his royalty. ”

The King of Ys opera

The character of Dahud and the key as a symbol of royalty are now added to the tale; the implication being perhaps that Dahud had attempted to usurp her father as ruler. Almost 150 years later, the first seeds were sown that would, over time, lead to confusion over the role of Dahud.

In Jean-Baptiste Ogée’s Dictionnaire Historique et Géographique de la Province de Bretagne (1780) the author notes recent conjectures on the origin of the town of Keraës (Carhaix): “several have gone so far as to regard Keraës as the Ker-Is of the ancients, and, by a slight transmutation of Ker-Is into Keraës, have endeavoured to re-establish on the surface of the globe, a city that seemed to be missing for centuries. … This city, famous in the idea of people who like to feed on fables, was swallowed up according to vulgar tradition in the time of King Grallon for punishing the crimes of its inhabitants.”  The etymological association has long since been discredited but linking Keraës with Ker-Is also linked the person after whom the town was then thought named; the fairy Ahès.

Writing of his tour of the province in the mid-1790s, Jacques Cambry in his Voyage Dans le Finistère (1799) noted of Carhaix that “It has been claimed that it got its name from Princess Ahès daughter of Conan Mériadec or King Grallon, she had it built.” Perhaps he thought that Grallon had two daughters rather than the one son listed in the genealogies, as less than thirty pages earlier, when describing the west coast, he talks of “The waters of the raging sea engulfed the opulent city of Is and drowned the immodest Dahud, daughter of King Grallon.”

Ahès seems to have first become the villain of the piece in Pierre Bruno’s Histoire de Bretagne (1826):  “The city was only defended from the invasions of the ocean by a dyke in the middle of which, ingeniously arranged locks, delivered passage to the volume of water necessary to supply the numerous canals. King Grallon had the keys to these locks carefully kept and himself presided over the entry of the waters into the city. The intrigues and crimes of Ahès having finally wrested power from the king, she seized the keys. However, in the frightful uproar which arose in the midst of this frantic license which she herself had excited, she could not keep this precious talisman; it fell into ignorant and barbarous hands and the locks were opened.”

This passage not only replaces Dahud with Ahès but also introduces the protective dyke, the floodgates or locks and the keys that open them into the narrative. These motifs were also present in a traditional Breton ballad noted by Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué in 1840. The tale now has the foundations upon which Pitre-Chevalier will elaborate in his La Bretagne Ancienne et Moderne (1844) in which he talks of “beautiful Ahès or Dahud” and “… The town of Is … occupied a very low beach, constantly threatened by the waves; it had ramparts, dykes and locks, the keys to which were placed in an iron casket; the king alone opened this casket with a golden key hanging from his neck. Now Dahud who had promised this golden key to one of her lovers, stole it from her sleeping father…”


The legend of Ker-Is reached a wider audience under the pens of two of the 19th century’s most prominent Breton folklorists; as a consolidated folk tale in Emile Souvestre’s Le Foyer Breton in 1844 and as a folk song in La Villemarqué’s 1845 edition of Barzaz Breiz. Souvestre’s account contains several new features: Saint Guénolé is replaced by Saint Corentin; the dykes and floodgates were constructed by the magic of the korrigans; Dahud is a powerful witch and the holder of the key rather than her father; an enchanted mask strangles Dahud’s lovers and their corpses are taken away and hurled into a pit near Carhaix.

The ballad included by La Villemarqué, in the second edition of his work, ends with some verses depicting Dahud as a mermaid or morgane, having been transformed into one by God as punishment for her wickedness: “Did you see, fisherman, the mermaid, combing her gold hair by the shore, when the sun shone bright? I saw the white girl from the sea, I even heard her sing, her song was sad like the waves.”

The author Pierre-Jakez Hélias in Bretagne aux Légendes (1967) also recounts a legend depicting Dahud as mermaid: “… Ker-Is had been submerged and when the sea was calmed, Saint Guénolé wanted to say a mass for the salvation of the city. As he raised his chalice, he saw the white torso of a copper-haired girl, arm raised to the sky, rise from the waters. A heavy tail of blue scales ended her body. It was Dahud, who had become a mermaid. Guénolé’s hand trembled so hard that his chalice escaped him and broke on the rocks. Mass was not consummated and for this reason, Ker-Is remained cursed and Dahud trapped in her mermaid form. Each time she appears, a terrible storm soon breaks.”


Both La Villemarqué and Souvestre claimed that their stories about Ker-Is were authentic transcriptions from an oral tradition, stretching back to antiquity, of poems, songs and tales collected by them in Brittany. It is difficult to say how ancient some of the tales associated with Ker-Is are and perhaps some stories contain fragments from a number of different traditions. The ethnologist Anatole Le Braz also collected several folktales related to Ker-Is which he published in La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (1893). The tales he collected are rich in purgatorial symbolism; Ker-Is and its inhabitants are awaiting salvation:

Two young men from Buguélès had gone to cut seaweed at Gueltraz overnight, which, as everyone knows, is severely prohibited. They were busy with their work when a very old woman came to them, stooping low under the weight of the wood she carried on her back. ‘Young people,’ she said, pleadingly, ‘you would be very kind to carry this burden to my home. It is not far away and you would be doing a great service to a poor woman.’

‘Go away!’ replied one of the men, ‘we have better things to do.’ ‘Besides,’ added the other, ‘you would be able to report us to the Customs.’

‘Cursed are you!’ cried the old woman. ‘If you had answered me but yes, you would have revived the city of Ker-Is.’ On these words, she disappeared.”

The legend received a comprehensive re-working by Charles Guyot in his La Légende de la Ville d’Ys, d’Après les Textes Anciens (1926) although the ancient texts actually consisted of flights of his imagination and pieces of other, un-associated, legends. It was his work that introduced the northern enchantress Malgven, ascribing to her the horse Morvarc’h that had previously been associated in a legend concerning another fabled king of Kernev. Guyot’s work is far from the last major re-telling of the legend – there have been over half a dozen major historical novels about Ker-Is published since the 1960s and the story of the city has featured in comic books and even an opera.

Dahud is the most interesting character in the legend of Ker-Is and many see in her the last echoes of the Celtic myth of the woman of the Other World or the White Lady, albeit one totally debased from the Celtic tradition to such an extent that she is often depicted as some kind of pagan pantomime villain. Her name is derived from the old Breton words for good magic and her transformation into a mermaid or morgane seems appropriate given that the word is Breton for sea born. Her metamorphosis into a mermaid is sometimes attributed to God as a punishment or to the Devil as a reward, while another version tells how Saint Guénolé took pity on her as she fell from her father’s horse saying: “You will live as one of the merfolk, living in the sunken palace of Ker-Is for eternity.” This ties-in neatly with another tale which says that Ker-Is was not destroyed by the sea but merely submerged and that it is now populated entirely by merfolk.

In Breton folklore, mermaids are usually portrayed as small, mischievous creatures versed in the arts of magic and spells. There are no firm differences between them and the sirens of other legends but they are often depicted taunting young fishermen with their amorous solicitations. If an unwary fisherman submitted to their advances, he would be dragged under the waves never to be seen again. The captive would not be killed but was thought to live a happy, pampered life at the bottom of the ocean, forgetting his earlier life. Merfolk were held to be able to unleash the storm but also to calm the wind.

Medieval engraving of mermaid

To some people, the legend of Ker-Is is an allegory marking the end of an era when the ancient Celtic deities were supplanted by Christianity from the 6th century onwards. However, the legend forms part of a wider Celtic tradition regarding sunken cities; others exist in the mythology of Cornwall, Ireland and Wales. The Welsh tales possess many of the same elements as the legend of Ker-Is; transgression, a guilty woman, judgement, the opening of the floodgates/uncovering of a well due to drunkenness, a chieftain fleeing the surging water. Perhaps the water itself, primeval source of life, is the real hub of the earliest story; we know water was a crucial element of Celtic spirituality and it could serve in the tale as an illustration of the cycle of life along with its power to destroy as well as create. Then again, it could simply be the remnants of a medieval religious homily designed to show the consequences of immoral living.

Intriguingly, the legend could even be the embellished folk memory of a genuine cataclysmic event which was exaggerated and developed by the Breton bards of old. Since the 1930s, many scholars have propounded the theory that the fabled city of Atlantis lies off the coast of Brittany and that the megalithic monuments that constitute the great Carnac Alignments, the largest collection of megalithic standing stones in the world, are connected to Atlantis in some way. However, perhaps we are looking at an echo of something a little less grand. The name Ker-Is means low town in Breton but the word ker can be applied to any habitation from a city to a village or even a single dwelling. It is therefore entirely plausible that there was once a small hamlet located on the edge of the Bay of Douarnenez that was destroyed by a monstrous storm that raged in from the Atlantic Ocean.


It is said that when the wind is blowing in the right direction over the Bay of Douarnenez, that you can, if you listen keenly, hear the peal of the submerged church bells of Ker-Is and that the one who first sees the church steeple will become king of the city. If you are tempted to look, be careful what you wish for as there is an old Breton proverb that prophesies “When Ker-Is rises again, Par-Is will be consumed”.

The Bloody Baron of Brittany

Born into an illustrious and wealthy family, accomplished knight and brother-in-arms to Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais, was appointed Marshall of France at the age of just 25 but his meteoric rise was mirrored by a ghastly fall. He is best remembered today as probably one of the most depraved and prolific serial killers in history.

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval was born into a powerful aristocratic family at the Château de Machecoul in eastern Brittany towards the end of 1404, although his place and date of birth cannot be confirmed. He could claim kinship with two of Brittany’s most renowned medieval knights, Bertrand du Guesclin and Olivier de Clisson. His father, Guy II de Laval, Baron of Rais, was doyen of the barons of Brittany and owned extensive lands in Brittany, the Breton Marches and in France. Orphaned at ten years of age, de Rais and his younger brother René, were sent, against the express wishes of their father, to live with their maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon, a wealthy feudal lord and Lieutenant General of the Duchy of Anjou. It seems that de Croan was not a good role model for the young boys; he indulged their whims and tantrums and fostered a conviction that might was right.

The young de Rais seems to have seen his first action at 15 years of age when he joined the de Montfort faction in supporting John V’s position as Duke of Brittany against the rival house of Penthievre and was rewarded for his role in laying siege to the Penthievre castles thus helping secure the release of the kidnapped Duke in 1420. At 16, he kidnapped and married his cousin, Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, heiress of La Vendée and Poitou but the marriage was declared incestuous and annulled. However, a few months later they were absolved and legally married; a union that markedly increased his already substantial landholdings, making him one of the richest men in France.

Gilles de Rais
There are no contemporary images or physical descriptions of de Rais; this is an artist’s flight of fancy!

Political alliances in medieval Brittany were constant only in their inconstancy and in 1426 de Rais seems to have followed John V’s brother, Arthur de Richemont, into the service of Charles VII of France and the following year is placed at the head of an Angevin army. With seven companies of men-at-arms maintained at his own expense, de Rais distinguished himself in the ongoing war against the English, notably recovering the castles of Lude, Rainefort and Malicorne-sur-Sarthe. With the appearance of Joan of Arc, de Rais was charged with ensuring her safety and fought alongside her at the relief of Orleans, the subsequent battles of Jargeau and Patay and was with her when she was injured in the trenches before Paris in September 1429.

The esteem in which de Rais was held is evidenced by his being amongst the favoured nobles chosen to bring the Holy Ampulla to Reims cathedral for the anointment of Charles VII in July 1429; a coronation which saw him honoured with the appointment of Marshall of France, one of the Great Officers of the French crown and a position he could reasonably expect to retain for life. Thus, at the age of just 25, de Rais seemingly had the world at his feet.

The year 1429 also saw the eight year old Henry VI crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey; he was subsequently crowned king of France at Notre-Dame de Paris in 1431. Although the war against the English would continue until the end of 1453, de Rais effectively withdrew from court and campaigning not long after the death of his grandfather in 1432.

The Hundred Years War

Having expended a great deal of money in the service of the French king, a reasonable man might have taken stock of his finances but now in complete control of the family estates whose revenues were estimated at some 800,000 livres and without the moderating influence of his grandfather, de Rais indulged himself and made a point of publicly flaunting most of his excesses.

He maintained a permanent military retinue of 200 knights, along with their attendant squires, grooms, heralds and pages, who accompanied him wherever he went; his arrivals being announced by fanfare. From his private chapel at the Château de Machecoul he founded a chapter of canons and maintained a full choir and music school that was said to be fit for a cathedral and commissioned organs that could be carried on the shoulders of six men, so that he might enjoy music whenever it pleased him; in all, an ecclesiastical entourage of more than 50 people and as many horses. Such grand assemblies were more suited to royal rather than baronial status but these projections of grandeur and prestige were clearly important to de Rais’ image of himself.

Drama was another area of interest to de Rais and he would stage costly spectacles featuring hundreds of actors clad in bespoke armour or in the finest garments adorned with threads of gold and silver; such productions were usually followed by lavish banquets. In the summer of 1435 in Orléans, where his retinue filled every inn in the city, he was said to have spent 80,000 gold crowns while staging a series of elaborate re-enactments of the famous battle and his role in it.

Marshall of France de Rais

With such enormous expenditure proving unsustainable, de Rais soon found himself having to sell some family treasures, estates and seigneurial rights, usually reserving for himself a right of redemption within six years. However, he spent money faster than he could generate it and he is estimated to have taken under two years to completely exhaust the 200,000 gold crowns he had raised from the sale of half a dozen estates to the Duke of Brittany. By 1436, his family appealed to Charles VII to reign in the profligate baron and while the king acquiesced and ordered that no one should enter into future contract with de Rais, the edicts of the French king held no sway in Brittany. Indeed, the following year the Duke of Brittany paid 100,000 gold crowns for two of de Rais’ most important estates.

In 1439, de Rais sold the Chateau de Saint-Étienne-de-Mermorte to Geoffroy Le Ferron, the Treasurer of Brittany, but by the following year was intent of regaining this estate. However, Le Ferron refused to sell and in May 1440 de Rais resolved to take back the castle by force with a company of about 60 men-at-arms. The un-garrisoned castle was under the care of Le Ferron’s brother, a tonsured cleric, who was at his devotions in the local church when a bellicose and armed de Rais burst in, threatening to take his head if he did not cede the castle. The frightened cleric surrendered the castle to de Rais who thereupon had him clapped in irons and imprisoned in the castle’s dungeon.

Having violated ecclesiastical privilege and encroached on the rights of his sovereign, the Duke of Brittany, de Rais’ world began to unravel. He must have hoped to extricate himself from the inevitable reaction by the Church and Duke by exploiting the jurisdiction of powers; transferring his prisoner from Saint-Étienne-de-Mermorte in the Duke’s territory to his own stronghold at Tiffauges in the Breton Marches outside the Duke’s control. However, the Duke quickly captured the former and his powerful brother, Arthur de Richemont, obligingly besieged the latter thus forcing de Rais to come to terms.

Tiffauges Castle
Artist’s impression of Tiffauges castle in its heyday. This was one of several castles owned by de Rais and was part of his wife’s dowry.

Upon hearing of the fall of Tiffauges towards the end of August, several of de Rais’ closest confederates deserted him and it seems that he either did not hear, or simply did not care, of the investigations that the Bishop of Vannes was making into him, following the sacrilege he committed at Saint-Étienne, as he travelled home to Machecoul from sojourns in Josselin and Vannes.

On 29 July, Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes and Chancellor of Brittany, issued a declaration stating that he and his commissioners had found that de Rais was publicly defamed for murdering many children, and was guilty of invoking demons with horrid rites, of entering into compacts with them and of other enormities. The seriousness of these allegations eventually prompted enquiries to be made by emissaries of the secular court in the following month.

Confident in their case, on 13 September, the ecclesiastical tribunal sitting in Nantes, indicted de Rais and nine of his followers for murder, sodomy, the invocations of demons, heresy and the offending of Divine Majesty. He was arrested at his castle in Machecoul two days later and, along with four confederates, brought to Nantes where he was housed in an upper chamber of the castle; his confederates being consigned to the dungeon. Proceedings were begun, with an initial focus on heresy, before the ecclesiastical tribunal, over which the Bishop of Nantes and the Inquisitor of the Faith presided; the secular court overseen by Pierre de l’Hôpital, President and Chief Justice of Brittany, would run concurrently. Perhaps de Rais initially thought that he had a reasonable chance of beating the charge of heresy as he paid the trail scant attention until forced to appear on 8 October when all 49 articles of the 15 page bill of indictment were presented to him.

The trial of Gilles de Rais

Violating the sanctity of the Church at Saint-Étienne was now the least of his troubles; he was accused of being a “heretic, a relapsed heretic, a magician, a sodomite, a conjuror of evil spirits, a seer, a cutter of the throats of innocents, an apostate, an idolater, having deviated from the faith and being hostile to it, a diviner, and a sorcerer.” De Rais’ air of disdain for the proceedings quickly erupted into rage, he now refused to acknowledge the authority of the court, challenging and insulting the judges declaring that he would rather be hanged by the neck than acknowledge such scoundrels as his judges.

When he next appeared before the court just two days later, de Rais appeared a broken man; he was contrite and resigned. He tearfully asked the judges to forgive his insults, he admitted to the charges levied against him excepting the invocation of demons and begged to be allowed to enter a monastery. Over the next few days, de Rais sat in court and heard the testimonies of distraught parents and other numerous witnesses, even some given by his own confederates including his Italian alchemist and necromancer, Francesco Prelati.

According to his own testimony, de Rais turned his attention to sorcery and alchemy after the death of his grandfather; he sought the philosopher’s stone which would place unlimited wealth and power in his hands and revive his fortune. He devoted large rooms in his castles to the succession of sorcerers and charlatans that he hired from France, Germany and Italy. In May 1438, Prelati was brought to him from Florence but had no more success than his predecessors despite his claims to having a special link to a demon named Barron, whom he had no difficulty in evoking when alone but who stubbornly refused to appear in de Rais’ presence.

de Rais conjuring the Devil

Attempts were made to invoke the demons Barron, Beelzebub, Belial and Oriens by means of fire, incense, aloes, myrrh and other aromatics but they refused to appear. After many failed invocations, Prelati eventually suggested making an offering to the demons of the blood and limbs of slain children and de Rais duly provided him with a child’s hand and heart in a glass in another futile attempt to secure his demonic pact for wealth and power. The court noted that de Rais “was never able to see the Devil or speak with him, although he did everything he could, to the point that it was not his fault if he could not see the Devil or speak with him.” Damning though such revelations were, after he and Prelati had corroborated each other’s confessions and were about to part, de Rais embraced his former sorcerer, earnestly hoping that they would, by Divine Grace, meet again in Paradise.

Although the charges brought against him claim that his murderous activities began in 1426, de Rais asserted that his first killings were not committed until after his grandfather’s death towards the end of 1432. He admitted the charges brought against him and that he acted “according to his imagination and ideas … solely for his pleasure and carnal delight.” However, Pierre de L’Hôpital was unsatisfied by this and demanded to know, in open court, why de Rais had killed so many innocents without reason but de Rais would not be drawn and refused to submit to the humiliation of a public confession, saying “Truly, there was no other cause, no other end nor intention, if not what I’ve told you: I’ve told you greater things than this and enough to kill ten thousand men.”

Gilles de Rais victim

The court considered sanctioning the use of torture to encourage de Rais to offer a complete and frank confession but it was not necessary. Whether he was overwhelmed by the testimonies railed against him or overcome with a genuine desire to confess and secure redemption; whatever the reason, de Rais began to talk at length of his crimes. Only parts of the official record of the ecclesiastical trial have survived the centuries but what remains is harrowing. I will detail only a small proportion here from Georges Bataille’s account, Le Procès de Gilles de Rais (1965), who quotes directly from the official court transcript written in French and Latin:

“… these children had had their throats cut inhumanly, had been killed and finally dismembered and burned, and in other respects shamefully tormented; that the same Gilles de Rais, the accused, had sacrificed the bodies of these children to demons in a damnable fashion; that according to many other reports the said Gilles de Rais had evoked demons and evil spirits and sacrificed to them, and that with the said children, as many boys as girls, sometimes while they were alive, sometimes after they were dead, sometimes as they were dying, had horribly and ignobly committed the sin of sodomy and exercised his lust on the one and the other, disdaining the girls’ natural vessel.”

“… he stated and confessed that to prevent the children from crying out when he intended to have intercourse with them, the said Lord de Rais had a cord put around their necks beforehand and had them suspended about three feet off the ground in a corner of the room, and before they were dead he let them down or had them let down, asking them not to say a word, and he rubbed his penis in his hand, after which he spilled his seed on their belly; that done, he had their throats cut, having their heads separated from their bodies, and occasionally, after they were dead, asked which of these children had the most beautiful heads.”

“… occasionally the said Lord chose little girls, whom he had sex with on their bellies in the same way as he did with the male children, saying that he took greater pleasure in doing so, and had less pain, than if he had enjoyed them in their nature; thereafter these girls were put to death like the male children.”

“… he loved to see the children’s heads cut off after having had sex with them on their bellies, their legs between his own; and sometimes he was on their bellies when the heads were separated from their bodies, other times he cut them behind the neck to make them languish, which he delighted in doing; and while they languished it happened that he had intercourse with them until their death, occasionally after they were dead, while their bodies were still warm; and there was a braquemard with which to cut off their heads; if sometimes the beauty of these children did not conform to his fancy, he cut their heads off himself with a cutlass, whereupon he occasionally had intercourse with them.”

Gilles de Rais evoking the Devil

According to his valet, Henriet, de Rais “delighted in looking at their severed heads and showed them to him, the witness, and Étienne Corrillaut …, asking them which of the said heads was the most beautiful of those he was showing them, the head severed at that very moment, or that from the day before, or another from the day before that and he often kissed the head that pleased him most, and delighted in doing so.”

De Rais had boasted to him of taking “greater pleasure in murdering the … children, in seeing their heads and limbs separated, in seeing them languish and seeing their blood, than he did in knowing them carnally … and he gave way to contemplating those who had the most beautiful heads and members and he had their bodies cruelly opened up and delighted at the sight of their internal organs.”

There is no agreed figure for the number of children butchered by, or on the orders of, de Rais although the ecclesiastical indictment stated “one hundred and forty, or more, children, boys and girls” and the civil court spoke of over two hundred victims. However, some historians have argued that the figure could have exceeded 700 while others have even tried to argue that he was innocent. De Rais himself was unable to ascribe an accurate tally but he did not dispute any of the testimonies against him and confessed that “he killed children and had them killed in large numbers – how many he is uncertain”.

For the most part, de Rais’ victims were chosen from amongst the poor urchins who begged for charity around his castles. Often his servants would lure away a boy from his parents with the promise of employment and he even engaged two women who actively procured children for him from the neighbouring countryside. According to the testimony of his servant, when de Rais “was unable to find more children at his convenience, boys and girls on whom to practice his execrable debaucheries, he practiced them on the children in his chapel”, another servant added “but he did not kill them or have them killed, because they kept these things secret.”

Gilles de Retz and the bones

At first, the victims’ bodies were dumped in rooms in the towers of whichever castle they met their sad end and witnesses’ spoke of once having to hastily remove the bones of some 40 children from one castle before the new owners arrived to take possession. Subsequently, de Rais had the bodies burned in the fireplace of his chamber and the ashes scattered in the castle’s rubbish pits and moats. The bodies of those children slain while de Rais was travelling were, more often than not, burned or dumped in cesspits.

During his public confession, he spoke of sometimes having wished to renounce his wicked ways and of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but did not know how to carry out his resolution and returned to his depravity “as a dog returns to its vomit.” De Rais also repeatedly addressed the onlookers, urging parents to strictly instruct their children in the ways of virtue and faith, for it was, he claimed, his unbridled youth that had led him to crime and a shameful end. He implored God’s pardon and that of the parents and friends of the children whom he “so cruelly massacred” asking all to pray for him.

On 25 October, de Rais was summoned for sentencing by the ecclesiastical court; two sentences were read. The first, in the name of both judges (the Bishop of Nantes and the Inquisitor of the Faith), condemned him guilty of “perfidious apostasy as well as of the dreadful invocation of demons”. The second sentence, rendered by the bishop alone as the Inquisition had no cognizance of these offences, judged him guilty “of committing and maliciously perpetrating the crime and unnatural vice of sodomy on children of both sexes”. For these acts and for his sacrilege and violation of the immunities of the Church, de Rais was excommunicated and told he had incurred other lawful punishments. However, before he is sent to hear his fate at the civil court, the judges asked if he wished to be reincorporated into the Church. On his knees, de Rais pleaded tearfully that “he had never known what heresy was, that he did not know that he had lapsed into and committed it” and begged re-admittance to the Church; the judges lifted his excommunication and appointed a confessor for his absolution.

The judges must have been very impressed by de Rais’ seemingly profound contrition as they also allowed his request for his body to be spared the purification of fire and even to choose his place of burial – the auspicious church of the Carmelite convent of Notre-Dame in Nantes. A location that was close to the Duke’s heart and one that benefitted handsomely from the Duke making good on a vow he made in captivity in 1420 to give his weight in gold to the convent once freed. Perhaps even more remarkably, the judges also agreed to de Rais’ request that the Bishop of Nantes and the men of his church arrange a general procession in order to ask God for his salvation.

The execution of Gilles de Rais

At the civil court, de Rais was fined 50,000 gold crowns (appropriated in property), for having taken the castle at Saint-Étienne and sentenced to be hanged and burned for his other crimes; the sentence to be carried out on the following day. A day that witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of the city’s clergy, followed by a mob of thousands who had once bayed for his blood, earnestly marching through the streets of Nantes to the field of execution, singing and praying for de Rais’ salvation.

As he and his servants, Henriet and Poitou, had committed the crimes together, de Rais asked that they face death together and that he should die first to show them the example of a good death and so that they would not think he had escaped and thus be cast into despair. Gathered at the gallows, all three expressed profound regret and contrition for their evil deeds and it is recorded that de Rais “made beautiful speeches and prayers to God, recommending his soul to Him”. As they swung from the gallows, the piles of wood were lit under them but when de Rais’ rope was burned through and his body fell, several ladies rushed forward to save it from the flames for burial. Henriet and Poitou’s bodies were allowed to burn and their ashes were scattered to the winds.

Several years after de Rais’ death, his family erected a propitiatory shrine some way from the field of execution which, over time, acquired a reputation for helping mothers produce milk for breastfeeding their children. One of the shrine’s statues was venerated as la Bonne Vierge de Crée-Lait and was often visited by expectant mothers until its destruction during the French Revolution; the remains of the shrine itself were extant until the late 19th century. The Revolution also saw the destruction of de Rais’ tomb but his terrible legend lives on.

Gilles de Rais shrine in Nantes

The Best Beaches in Brittany

Brittany, the westernmost part of France, can lay claim to having some of the country’s best beaches. The peninsula is surrounded by sea on three sides; to the north by the English Channel, to the west by the Atlantic Ocean and to the south by the Bay of Biscay. The beauty and drama of the natural environment and ecosystems change markedly as you meander along the region’s 1,800 miles (2,900km) of coastline. Follow any of the coastal hiking routes or roads and you will encounter innumerable picturesque estuaries, moody dramatic cliffs, historic maritime towns, little fishing ports and pretty small harbours. Offshore, a large number of the region’s 800 islands are accessible to visitors.

You will also discover hundreds upon hundreds of wonderful beaches; some stretch for miles into the distance while others are just 800 yards (730m) of picture perfect soft white sand and turquoise sea. With such a diversity of seascapes and landscapes; from grand La Belle Époque resorts to secluded coves visited only by seabirds and intrepid travellers, any list of Brittany’s best beaches can only be subjective and ephemeral.

With that important proviso, here is a brief run-through of what, I believe, are currently some of the best beaches in Brittany worth exploring. To make the journey easy to follow on a map, I have grouped the beaches within a short drive from the nearest main town.

Brittany coast
The coastal footpaths of Brittany, courtesy of FFRandonnée Bretagne


Located in an area of the north coast known as La Côte de Penthièvre, the area around Erquy boasts some great beaches and I would highlight Plage Saint-Michel and Caroual Plage as worth visiting; both offer miles of soft white sand and are great for children. At low-tide, it is possible to walk from Caroual around the headland to the nearby beach at Saint-Pabu.  The neighbouring beaches of Lourtuais, Portuais and Guen have a wilder, more secluded, feel and are also worth visiting. Towards the end of the large beach at Lortuais, there is a 550 yard (500m) strip (if you pardon the pun) where nude bathing is permitted.

Caroual beach

To the north of Erquy, the stretch of coastline heading towards the dramatic cliffs at Cap Fréhel offers the visitor a series of beautiful, broad sandy bays to discover and, depending on tides, it is possible to explore a few from Sables D’Or Les Pins.

Sables d'or beach
Near Sables D’Or Les Pins

Also worth a visit are the beaches around Pléneuf-Val-André just a few miles south of Erquy but before you leave the seaside town, do take the time to enjoy the panoramic view from the Cap d’Erquy.


Along the coastline known as La Côte de Goëlo and just south of the historic town of Saint-Quay Portrieux is the beach at Binic and the picturesque Plage du Moulin, a soft sand beach that is ideal for children. North of the town, you will discover the beautiful La Plage du Palus, Plage Bonaparte and Plage Bréhec. These are large and usually uncrowded beaches.

Bonaparte beach
Plage Bonaparte

A little further south along the coast is Rosaires beach which stretches for almost 1.5 miles (2.3km), it is a wide sandy beach which turns to shingle as you get closer to the abutting cliffs and is another beach that is popular with those with children.

Rosaires beach
A cove near Rosaires beach

North of Saint-Quay Portrieux, the north coast headed west towards the seaside town of Perros-Guirec possesses some stunning soft sandy beaches with beautifully clear sea and small bays peppered with picturesque islets and unique rock formations.

Turquoise sea at Plougrescant


The stretch of coast between Plougrescant and Perros-Guirec will delight you with some wonderful beaches such as that at Port Blanc.

Port Blanc beach
Port Blanc

The resort town of Perros-Guirec sits on a scenic stretch of coast known as La Côte de Granit Rose after its unusual and striking pink rock formations and has three stunning child-friendly beaches that offer sea views that are just as pretty as the actual beaches themselves: Trestrignel, Trestraou and Porz Garo are particularly worth singling out. 


Several miles to the south west are the great and often empty Plage de Maez-an-Aod and Plage de Goas Lagorn both of which are worth visiting. Naturists can enjoy an area to the right hand side of the former beach but be aware it can get rather windy on this stretch of coastline.


The historic medieval town of Roscoff boasts some beautiful beaches around it, in an area known as La Côte des Sables and the beach in the crescent bay at Pointe de Perharidi just west of town, looking over towards the Île de Batz, is a real delight. The Île de Batz is only a 15 minute ferry ride away and will reward you with several good, sandy beaches.

Dossen beach

Continuing westward from Roscoff, the two main beaches at Cleder – La Plage de Kervaliou and La Plage de Kéradennec are well worth visiting, as is Dossen Plage at Santec which boasts beautiful soft white sand looking across at the Île de Sieck. From here, the coast westwards offers miles and miles of sand dunes, beaches and ocean colours that dance between the lightest blues and emerald-turquoise. The beach at Keremma is a particular gem.

The beach at Keremma

The Atlantic coast is littered with beautiful coves and sandy beaches from La Plage Plougouri near Quistillic down to La Plage des Blancs Sablons near Le Conquet.

Aber beach
Kerlouan on the Atlantic coast


On the far west of Brittany, the Crozon Peninsula offers forests and forts aplenty as well as some beautiful coastal scenery.  The area has dozens of picturesque beaches for you to explore, some only accessible on foot or at low tide.

La Plage de Kersiguénou is an impressive expanse of sandy beach as is La Plage de Lostmarc’h just a little further south. If you do not mind traversing a rather poor pathway, I would definitely recommend a trip down to La Plage de l’île Vierge; a secluded picturesque gem of a beach where you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in the Mediterranean or Caribbean rather than Brittany. 

Île Vierge

Heading back east along the southern part of the peninsula, the oft-photographed beach at Morgat offers over a mile (1.5km) of soft, white sand that children and grown-ups will love. A few miles east is Raguénez and another sweeping sandy beach, La Plage d’Aber.  The footpaths here give you a great view of Douarnenez Bay and the Île d’Aber. This small island is accessible on foot at low tide and is home to an abandoned 19th century fort.


Just under 2.5 miles (4km) away is La Plage de Trez Bellec; a wide sandy beach about a mile long with an area set aside for water sports and sand yachting. Similar sporting opportunities are available at the nearby La Plage de Pentrez, just outside the small town of Saint-Nic, which offers a 2.5 mile (4km) stretch of soft sand.

Heading further south, La Plage de Kermabec is a good place to access a stretch of sandy beach over six miles (10km) long; it is contiguous with the beaches known as La Torche and Tronoën and predominantly backs onto sand dunes.


Turning east along La Côte de Cornouaille on Brittany’s southern coast, La Plage de Kermor is a popular sandy beach; the first of a series of noteworthy beaches dotted around the resort of Concarneau with its quaint walled old town. While the town’s main beach, La Plage des Sables Blancs, is wonderful, it does get very busy particularly during the summer holidays. Unless vying for a car parking space and threading through crowds of sunbathers is your thing, I suggest that you explore the much larger and far less crowded beaches at Mousterlin to the west or Kerouini to the east.

Concarneau is one of the gateways to the Îles de Glénan, a stunning archipelago of islands about 10 miles (16km) off the coast which you can visit during the summer only.

The Glenans

Continuing eastwards, the 10 mile (15km) stretch of coast between the beach resorts of Guidel Plages and Larmor-Plage is very popular with surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers. Just across the Blavet estuary from Larmor-Plage is the resort of Gâvres which it the start of over 16 miles (26km) of sandy beaches that continue to Quiberon. About half-way down this strip of coast is la Plage de Kerminihy, a 1.5 mile (2.5km) stretch of beach where nudism is allowed.


Located on La Côte des Mégalithes, the Quiberon Peninsula offers the visitor a swathe of good scenic beaches to choose from, particularly on the western Côte Sauvage.  Beaches that are perhaps more child-friendly, such as La Plage du Porigo and La Plage du Fort Neuf can be found on the southern and eastern coasts. The Grande Plage in Quiberon is a useful stopping point for lunch or for taking the ferry over to the wonderful Belle-Île and its many beautiful sandy coves and beaches, most notably Plage de Port-Donnant.

Quiberon Peninsula
Penthièvre on the Quiberon Peninsula

Although many people visit the south coast town of Carnac for a day out at one of its great sandy beaches, the town is better known as the home of the renowned Carnac Alignments and other megalithic monuments. Indeed, the main sites at Carnac contain over 3,000 menhirs arranged in about a dozen rows over 2.5 miles long.

Under eight miles east is one of the gateways to the Gulf of Morbihan, Locmariaquer. A small town with several beaches and another great megalithic site. It is worth visiting to see the remarkable Table des Marchands (a large dolmen with prehistoric decorations) and the Great Menhir (70 feet high and weighing 280 tons, this was the largest monolith ever erected by humans at this time – now, sadly, broken into four pieces). Excursions by boat are available to allow you to explore the Gulf of Morbihan; you can choose between cruises around the Gulf and its 42 islands or strike out to sea and on to the beautiful islands of Belle Île or Houat and Hoëdic.


If you are a fan of therapeutic body treatments or perhaps thinking of an unconventional day out while on vacation, you might wish to try one of the many thalassotherapy treatments that use seawater and seaweed to revitalise the skin and body. Thalassotherapy in the modern era was invented and popularised in Brittany and the region boasts the highest concentration of thalassotherapy facilities in the world.

Whatever your attraction to the sea and the beach, in Brittany you can be guaranteed to find one to match your every mood and to break open a smile on even the moodiest of days. Best of all – it is unlikely to be crowded!

House built between rocks

Buccaneers of Brittany

Bounded to the north by the English Channel, to the south by the Bay of Biscay and to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, Brittany has some 2,900km (1,800 miles) of coastline peppered with estuaries, busy ports, small harbours and naval bases. The sea has always played an important part in the life and soul of Brittany; from the arrival of the early Christian saints in their stone boats to the departure of hundreds of vessels carrying men to join the Free French Forces in England in the final days of June 1940.

Maritime activities such as fishing and international trade were always key parts of the Breton economy. The peninsula was located on the main sea routes between the big trading nations of Spain, Portugal, England and the Netherlands; in the 16th century, there were 123 significant working ports in Brittany and many, such as those of Saint-Brieuc and Brest expanded into international hubs. The region also benefited from the expansion of France’s colonial empire and navy: the ports and shipyards at Saint-Malo, Brest, Nantes and Lorient were constantly improved; the latter was also headquarters of the French East India Company. A significant proportion of Brittany’s non-agricultural workforce were thus employed building, servicing and victualling its shipping industry.

With such a strong mercantile heritage, it is not surprising that Bretons came to constitute a leading component of the French navy and also played an important role in the colonisation of New France and the West Indies. Some of these Breton sailors – women and men – have left their mark on history.

The Lioness of the Sea

An element of the Hundred Years’ War, the Breton War of Succession (1341–1364) saw the House of Montfort, supported by the King of England, battle against the House of Blois, supported by the King of France, for the right to rule Brittany. The chief claimants were Jean de Montfort, half-brother of the last Duke of Brittany and his niece, Joanna de Penthièvre, who was married to Charles de Blois, the French King’s nephew. After a protracted conflict, de Montfort emerged victorious after winning the decisive battle of Auray in 1364.

Battle of Auray

However, one of the war’s early battles took place under 14km (10 miles) away in the city of Vannes. Having declared for de Montfort within weeks of his brother’s death, control of the city changed hands through four devastating sieges in 1342. During the final siege, the Breton commander of the de Blois garrison, Olivier IV de Clisson, was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for the Earl of Stafford and a relatively modest ransom which was seized upon by the de Blois camp as indicative of de Clisson having intrigued with the besiegers. Towards the middle of the following year, de Clisson and a dozen other Breton nobles were invited to attend a tournament in Paris; here they were seized and imprisoned. De Clisson was accused of ‘several treasons and other crimes perpetrated against the king and the crown of France’ and summarily executed. To add insult to injury, his body was publicly humiliated; his corpse hung from a gibbet in Paris and his head displayed on a pike in the city of Nantes – outrages usually reserved for low-born criminals.

Execution of Olivier de Clisson

The treachery of the King of France, Philippe VI, consumed de Clisson’s widow, Jeanne de Belleville, who swore revenge. Selling her estates before they could be confiscated by the French, she raised a small army and began attacking French forces in Brittany; her wrath first falling on Château Thébaud whose occupants, including women and children, she slaughtered, leaving just two men alive to tell of the stronghold’s fate. The forces of France pursued her vigorously, forcing her to flee eastern Brittany and after a brief sojourn in the north west of the region, eventually re-group with loyal Bretons in England.

Finding land attacks impractical, she acquired and outfitted three ships; painted deathly black and carrying blood red sails, and would personally lead her Black Fleet from her flagship, My Revenge. Her fleet scoured the Channel and the north coast of France in search of targets; all French vessels whether warships or traders, were fair game but de Belleville did not play fair. She became renowned for her ruthlessness; killing entire crews and beheading nobles and anyone linked to the exercise of French authority, sometimes she was said to have wielded the axe herself. It seems she always left at least one survivor who was charged to tell the French king of her revenge. Her exploits clearly affected French maritime trade along is northern coast and it is said that, at times, she even sacked coastal settlements. At the request of the King Philippe VI, Pope Clement VI unsuccessfully petitioned England’s King Edward III to put an end to the actions of this “Breton tigress”. 

Some authors claim that de Belleville’s violent vengeance spanned some 13 years and that she continued to attack French shipping after the death of King Philippe IV in August 1350. However, this is unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, in late 1344, her flagship was wrecked after a battle with a French warship and in 1348 she married one of King Edward III’s military commanders, Sir Walter Bentley. Bentley had served in Brittany since 1342 and famously staged a night-time raid on the French forces besieging Vannes that year.

Jeanne de Belleville

In September 1350, Bentley was appointed Governor or King’s Lieutenant in Brittany. During his tenure he forbade pillage and to help prevent the potential attraction to it, he secured increases to his soldiers’ pay. An active commander, he lifted the sieges of Ploërmel and Fougeres in 1351 and took the war into France, raiding along the Loire valley and later led an outnumbered Anglo-Breton force to a bloody victory in the battle of Mauron where he was severely injured in August 1352.

It was not just the French that Bentley battled against; he and his wife had to deal with the machinations of Ralph of Cahors, the King’s Lieutenant in the adjoining province of Poitou, who had wrested control of de Belleville’s estates from the French and now considered them his. In 1349, the King ordered that the estates be returned to Bentley but after he was replaced as Governor in April 1353 he was instructed to transfer his wife’s estates as part of a treaty with the new Duke of Brittany. This Bentley refused to do and he was consequently imprisoned in the Tower of London while the King considered his case; eventually finding in his favour.

The Bentleys enjoyed great estates in Brittany and settled in the castle at Hennebont, west of Vannes. The Duke of Brittany seems to have borne no grudges against this medieval power couple because in January 1357, he granted them the barony of La Roche-Moisan. Sir Walter died in December 1359, followed weeks later by his wife; a rather comfortable end for a pirate whose actions had once earned her the sobriquet ‘Lioness of the Sea’.

Medieval pirates

Throughout the Middle Ages, the sea was widely regarded as an area beyond rules and treaties; a wilderness outside the law. As such, the concept of piracy was vague and ill-defined and became especially opaque when rulers granted official sanction authorising men to raid the shipping of an unfriendly nation or recalcitrant noble.

The Governor of the Sea

Jean de Coatanlem, from the north coast town of Morlaix, is perhaps the most well-known Breton privateer of the late medieval period although his services at sea were licenced in support of the King of France rather than his nation’s sovereign. He seized a number of well laden English and Flemish merchant vessels in the English Channel from 1475 onwards and invested his prize money in new ships. Within a decade, his flotilla included about ten ships of between 150 to 250 tons and a large number of smaller boats from 30 to 80 tons.

There are stories that claim he mustered his forces to save his town when the port was raided by three English pirate ships in 1484 and that after defeating the raiders, he launched a punitive attack on the English port of Bristol, destroying large parts of the city and taking several notable hostages.

Unfortunately, contemporary records are unable to confirm these events as they are first noted in a family deposition to a French tax investigation in 1539, claiming exemption from taxes due to the noble status inherited from a grandfather, Nicolas de Coetanlem. We do know that 1484 was the year that de Coatanlem entered the service of the King of Portugal whom he served with great distinction until his death in Lisbon in 1492; his exploits defending Portuguese shipping against the pirates of the Barbary Coast having earned him the title ‘Governor of the Sea’.

De Coatanlem’s nephew, Nicolas, was one of the Breton ship-owners most frequently employed by King Henry VII of England to transport men, weapons and supplies to his forces supporting Duchess Anne of Brittany in her battles with France in 1489-91. De Coatanlem’s services were rewarded with a licence to import, under Crown protection, goods into England duty free.

de Coatanlem

The 15th century voyages of exploration and discovery, coupled with advances in navigation and cartography, quickly brought about vast changes to the fortunes and outlook of many nations. For the kingdoms of Europe, command of the sea was now no longer a case of protecting borders but of projecting influence and expanding opportunities for profitable trade. The distances and natural hazards involved in transacting such endeavours were great and many men, of all nations, saw opportunities for personal enrichment by helping themselves to the fruits of others.

The nomenclature surrounding such adventurers is rich and varied, particularly when the words thief or robber are all that are really required but a whole range of other descriptors have been used, such as Gentlemen of Fortune, Privateers, Freebooters, Corsairs and Filibusters to describe men, and it was usually men, who attacked and plundered targets with the approval of a state’s authority. Sometimes, that approval was deliberately vague and sometimes was conferred by a minor official completely out of touch with his government’s wishes; but it was nonetheless approval of sorts.

Pirates were essentially outlaws who attacked the shipping and settlements of all nations with no real pretence of serving under any flag but their own and risked the gallows in the event of capture. The term buccaneer was often used to describe both pirates and privateers. Often, the differences between pirates and privateers were, at best very subtle, and, at worst, a matter of subjective interpretation. Distinctions are further clouded by the fact that many men drifted between legitimate privateering and outright piracy and vice versa.

The practice of manning and arming private vessels to attack rivals’ ships is an ancient one and continues, in parts of the world, to this day. In Europe, over time, this practice was formalised with the awarding of privateering commissions or ‘letters of marque and reprisal’ that granted named individuals licence to seize the king’s enemies at sea and share the proceeds between the privateers and the Crown. Vessels and cargo seized by the privateers were sold at officially sanctioned auctions, with the Crown typically taking between 10 and 20 per cent of the proceeds and the ship’s captain and his investors receiving the remainder. It could therefore be a highly lucrative enterprise. For the ship-owners and the men who financed such expeditions, fitting out privateers was an expensive business; the ship had to be supplied with stores of victuals, powder, shot and other equipment. It was also crucial that the captain could be trusted to declare all his plunder and not trade too much on his own account.


The Golden Age of Pirates of the Caribbean

Born into a minor noble family in central Brittany in August 1661, Anne Dieuleveult is one of the very few reputed female pirates. It is not known how she came to end up in the Caribbean; some have suggested that she was taken there from Morlaix by the man she subsequently married, while others believe that she was one of the contingent of Filles de Roi or ‘Daughters of the King’ – mainly impoverished young women who were provided with paid passage to New France in order to marry settlers and increase the population of the colonies. 

Dieuleveult is thought to have arrived on the island of Tortuga, off the northwest coast of Hispaniola, sometime before 1680. This was a settlement that owed its very existence to pirates and privateers who had, time and again, wrested it from Spanish over-lordship over the previous fifty years. From being a hideaway to careen ships, replenish fresh water supplies and hunt for game, the island was now home to a motley assortment of multilingual and multinational pirates, privateers, hunters, planters, traders, indentured servants and African slaves. The island gave birth to the word buccaneer as we now understand it and was an important base for pirates and privateers, being the home of the notorious confederation of buccaneers knows as the Brethren of the Coast. The majority of the island’s buccaneers were men from France, England and the Netherlands but there were also sizeable numbers of escaped slaves in their ranks. Life in 17th century Tortuga was not for the fainthearted; deaths from disease and violence were commonplace and women, particularly those of European descent, were very scarce.

We do not know how Dieuleveult fared in her early years in the colony but she married another Breton, the former buccaneer Pierre Lelong in 1684. Lelong seems to have given up his career in piracy when he and a dozen adventurers settled Cap François (now known as Cap-Haitien), on the north coast of Hispaniola, in 1670, subsequently establishing successful plantations. (His settlement flourished and later became the capital of the colony of Saint Domingue which in the 18th century was the world’s leading producer of sugar cane and an important hub in the slave trade.) In July 1690, just six years into the marriage, Lelong was killed in a brawl and Dieuleveult soon married another buccaneer, Joseph Chérel. The couple survived the capture and plunder of Cap Francois by Spanish forces in January 1691 but Chérel died during a brawl a few years later, leaving Dieuleveult a wealthy widow with two children to raise.

Legend has it that she made quite an impression on the man who would become her next husband, notorious former Dutch pirate, Laurens de Graff. It was said that de Graff insulted Dieuleveult who promptly challenged him to a duel of honour; de Graff unsheathed his sword only to find himself facing a cocked pistol whereupon he remembered his chivalry and declared that he could not fight a woman. He was apparently so impressed that he made an immediate proposal of marriage. We will never know what truth lies in this legend but we do know that the couple married in July 1693.

Laurens de Graff pirate

De Graff was described by no less a judge than Henry Morgan as “a great and mischievous pirate” and seems to have enjoyed a long and lucrative career on the Spanish Main, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. References to his exploits span over two decades: in March 1672 he was one of the leading figures in a pirate raid on Campeche in Mexico, taking the town and a merchant ship loaded with over 120,000 silver pesos. De Graff was known to often change his flag ship by upgrading to a stronger captured vessel and by 1679 commanded 200 men aboard his 28-gun frigate, Tigre. This he surpassed in 1682 with the bloody capture of the 240-ton Spanish Armada de Barlovento frigate, Princesa, along with the payroll for the Spanish garrisons on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico; over 120,000 silver pesos.

The following year, de Graaf, now in possession of a privateering licence from the Governor of Saint Domingue, joined forces with two other privateers for an attack on the Mexican port of Veracruz; the combined party amounted to five large ships and eight smaller vessels with over 1,300 men. The town fell to the pirates after just thirty minutes and was plundered over the following days. Many of the townsfolk were tortured to reveal their treasures and a sizeable ransom was demanded for the freedom of the town’s 6,000 inhabitants. A few months later, de Graaf led another joint enterprise preying on coastal traffic around the busy Colombian port of Cartagena. The Spanish Governor sent out three heavily armed ships to see off the pirate flotilla but the pirates chose to fight rather than flee and their audacity and superior seamanship saw them prevail in a bloody four hour battle. De Graff now transferred his flag to the newly captured, 40-gun vessel, San Francisco.

In July 1685, de Graaf joined his forces with another veteran pirate to create a flotilla of ten ships, six sloops and over a dozen smaller craft for a raid on the Mexican port of Campeche. After a protracted battle, including seeing off two Spanish relief columns that arrived five days after the initial assault, the town was taken but the spoils were disappointing. Over the next two months, troops of pirates ravaged the surrounding countryside in search of plunder while a hefty ransom was demanded for the town and its inhabitants but this time the Spanish Governor refused to pay. In their frustration, the pirates set the town ablaze and threatened their hostages. Met with another refusal to accede their demands, the pirates began their executions but de Graaf halted the slaughter before the death toll reached double figures. A strong Spanish squadron was despatched to bring de Graff to justice and after hunting for over six weeks finally tracked him down in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, de Graff managed to outmanoeuvre and outshoot his pursuers in a battle that lasted all day.

Capturing a ship

Having become a French subject in 1685, de Graaf seems to have moved away from outright piracy to mixing privateering with an official position on the Governor of Saint Domingue’s staff and the outbreak of the Nine Years War in May 1689 found him serving at Cap François. This is likely the time that he first met Dieuleveult. In December 1689, de Graff began a five month blockade of the northern cost of Jamaica, capturing many English ships and plundering plantations along that coast. 

At the end of June 1694, de Graff, with the dual role of buccaneer chief and King’s Lieutenant, was appointed Second in Command of a fleet of 22 ships, including naval warships and 3,200 men assigned for the invasion of Jamaica. At the end of the following month, he commanded the landing party of 1,500 men who overran the 250 men defending Carlisle Bay and plundered the area.

In retaliation, a joint Anglo-Spanish force crossed into French Saint Domingue towards the end of May 1695 and quickly brushed aside de Groff’s defenders, capturing Cap Francois and plundering the town and its surrounding plantations. In June, Port-de-Paix was blockaded and the town fell the following month; amongst the captives taken were Dieuleveult and her children. The invaders did not press their advantage and take the colony; international cooperation disintegrated over quarrels about the division of the spoils.

De Graff now seems to disappear from the records and is not noted in the massive French invasion force that captured Cartagena in April 1697. Perhaps there were questions about his role in the defence of Cap Francois or the terms of ransom for his wife forbade action against her Spanish captors? Dieuleveult and her children were released in 1698 and returned to Saint Domingue. Upon the death of de Graaf in May 1704, his wife inherited a sizeable estate and successful sugar plantation and died at home in January 1710.

Anne Dieuleveult

There are stories that claim Dieuleveult accompanied de Graaf on his buccaneering raids, fighting by his side and sharing command of his ship. Some elaborations even go so far as to say that she took part in the invasion of Jamaica in 1694 and that she took command of de Graaf’s flagship after he was killed during an attack on a Spanish ship, fiercely leading the crew in an ultimately unsuccessful fight. Alas, these stories are likely fictional; by the time of their marriage, de Graaf was no longer a buccaneer but an officer of the Crown and an independently wealthy one at that.

Duguay-Trouin privateer

Licensing privateers during periods of war was widespread in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, representing a cheap and low-risk way of striking at your enemy. It also carried the benefit of gnawing away at their foreign trade and perhaps forcing them to divert resources into protecting their merchant ships or actively patrolling for privateers.

From Teenage Corsair to Vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy

Born into a wealthy ship-owning family in the major privateer port of Saint-Malo in 1673, René Trouin aka Duguay-Trouin turned his back on the career in the Church that had been marked out for him and took to sea aboard a local privateering vessel at the age of 17. He was obviously a natural sailor and was given his own command the following year and successfully plundered many English cargo ships plying the Channel during the ongoing Nine Years War. 

His skill in naval warfare brought him to the attention of the navy who gave him command of a 36-gun frigate in 1692 but his luck ran out when he was captured by English warships off the Scilly Isles in April 1694. However, the resourceful officer escaped and was home in Saint-Malo by the end of June. The following year and in command of a 48-gun warship he captured an English warship after a two day running battle. A feat he surpassed in 1697 with the capture of a 15-ship Dutch convoy off Bilbao, earning himself a commission as a captain in France’s Royal Navy just as the Nine Years War concluded.

There was precious little peace in Europe at this time and five short years later the conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession broke out. It was during this period that Duguay-Trouin enjoyed his greatest successes; his scattering of a great Portuguese convoy in 1706 and the seizure of hundreds of vessels over the next few years saw him ennobled in 1709.

In September 1711 he led an expedition of 15 ships, a mixture of naval warships and privateers, against Rio de Janeiro. His fleet stormed into Rio’s harbour and after a series of engagements, secured the town nine days later. After looting the city and the 60 cargo ships at anchor within the bay, Duguay-Trouin demanded a large ransom to spare the city’s buildings, eventually receiving 610,000 cruzados. When his fleet, now augmented by two captured Portuguese warships, departs in November, they leave behind a devastated city but the expedition proves a disappointment for his investors, particularly as two of his largest and most heavily laden ships were lost with all hands (over a thousand men) on the journey home. Further promotions followed his return and Duguay-Trouin successively commanded the naval forces at Saint-Malo and Brest, being appointed Lieutenant-General of the Naval Armies in 1728.

Surcouf corsair
Robert Surcouf

King of the Corsairs

Like Duguay-Trouin, Robert Surcouf was also born into a ship-owning family in Saint-Malo who hoped that he would enjoy a life in the Church but young Surcouf had other ideas and ran away to sea. At 16, he enlisted aboard a slave ship that plied the routes between the Horn of Africa, Pondicherry, Mauritius and Madagascar; surviving a shipwreck in the Mozambique Channel in 1790 in which 400 slaves, chained below decks, perished. Despite the 1792 ban on slave trading, Surcouf continued his ghastly activities until 1795 when he took command of a privateer in Mauritius, capturing five British merchant vessels over the course of the year even though he had been refused a letter of marque by the Governor of Mauritius.

After a brief sojourn in France, in February 1798, Surcouf left Nantes in command of a 14-gun privateer and an official letter of marque. After re-supplying in Mauritius, he set out to hunt on the busy trade routes of the Indian Ocean, capturing some 17 British, Dutch, Portuguese and American merchant vessels before returning to Mauritius in February 1800. He set out again in April and, over the course of a year, captured a further 8 British, American and Portuguese merchant ships. Surcouf returned to France in April 1801 where his exploits were much acclaimed; in May 1802, he was awarded the Legion of Honour upon the founding of the Order.

In March 1807, he once again set out from Brittany in pursuit of prey and prizes in the Indian Ocean, capturing 13, predominantly British, merchant vessels during this, his final cruise. In July 1808, his ship was requisitioned into naval service and he was forced to purchase a damaged de-commissioned naval frigate for the journey home to Saint-Malo. He arrived safely, along with an estimated haul of 8 million francs, in February 1809 but his ship sank at harbour the day after he arrived. Surcouf never put to sea again but used his considerable fortune to expand the family business, outfitting almost a dozen privateers and, after 1815, a score of merchantmen. He died peacefully at home in 1827.


For over three centuries we have been entertained by the adventures of fictional and fictionalised pirates and privateers from John Silver to Jack Sparrow but the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero would not have welcomed such romanticism; to him “a pirate is not included in the list of lawful enemies but is the common enemy of all; among pirates and other men there ought be neither mutual faith nor binding oath“.

Plague and Pestilence in Brittany

Unprecedented is a word that we have all heard many times since the scale of the current coronavirus disease pandemic became apparent. The authorities and the media talk of an “exceptional situation” a “unique threat” that is “unheard of in our country”. However, throughout our recorded history, contagions, epidemics and pandemics have been a regular feature of all human societies and often a source of instability and catalyst for change therein. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of the magnitude of some earlier disease events and the resilience of societies when confronted with biological catastrophe.

Pandemics, such as the one we are currently enduring, have always been part of humanity’s lot; it is simply that it has, mercifully, been some time since we last experienced such a deadly outbreak. Perhaps the most infamous pandemic event and one that still holds a place in the popular imagination is the Black Death of the Middle Ages; a pandemic of bubonic plague that swept across the Near East, North Africa and Europe between 1347 and 1352. This was the first of a number of recurring plague epidemics between the 14th and 18th centuries known as the Second Plague Pandemic; the First Plague Pandemic having occurred in the 6th through to the 8th centuries.

Bubonic plague is a devastating disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulates among wild rodents. Plague among humans arises when rodents, such as black rats, become infected. Once infected, it can take up to a fortnight before plague has stricken off an entire infected rat colony, making it difficult for the large number of fleas gathered on the remaining dying rats to find new hosts. After three days without blood, the hungry fleas turn to whatever hosts they can find and the infection is transmitted after a flea that has fed from an infected rat then bites a human.

Bubonic plague

From the bite site, the contagion spreads through the bloodstream to the lymph nodes, where the bacteria replicate, causing the nodes to swell to form buboes or painful tumours as big as an egg in the armpits, groin, neck or thighs. Victims initially manifested symptoms similar to influenza but the appearance of these buboes, which often suppurated and haemorrhaged, would typically have been quickly followed by gastro-intestinal problems, continuous vomiting of blood, gangrene of the extremities and the severe pain brought on by necrosis. The plague delivered a truly terrible way to die; delirium and death finally overtaking the victim within another three to five days. Estimates vary as to the mortality rates of those that caught the plague in the Middle Ages but even a figure of 75 per cent might be an understatement.

The plague was a very virulent and fast moving disease; from the introduction of plague contagion among rats in a human community, it could take just over three weeks before the first human death. The infected fleas travelled great distances, relatively swiftly, on rats aboard ships that plied the trade routes of the Mediterranean littoral and northern Europe. Once ashore, the fleas could find a host travelling inland and so the disease quickly spread exponentially. Even once the initial host had died, the fleas could live for up to a year, transmitting the disease from one generation of fleas to the next and laying up to fifty eggs per day, every day. Additionally, plague bacteria can sometimes spread to the lungs and cause a variant of plague (pneumonic plague) that is spread by infected droplets inhaled from the cough and sneezes of victims.

The plague first reached France, via the southern port of Marseilles, towards the end of September 1347 and quickly spread from this important commercial hub; northwards up the Rhône valley to Lyons and westwards along the coast to Spain. Ships from Bordeaux likely carried infected rats to Normandy where the plague arrived in April 1348 before reaching Brittany towards the end of that year.

At the time of the arrival of the Black Death in Europe, it is believed that some 90 per cent of the continent’s population were rural dwellers, powerless to act in the face of the deadly onslaught of the plague. Accounts regarding the impact of the Black Death in Brittany are very scarce as its arrival coincided with the Breton War of Succession (1341–1364) but historians have discovered a remarkable consistency in mortality levels across Europe during the plague years. Recent estimates suggest that between 50 to 60 per cent of the population of Europe died as a result of the Black Death – a staggering 50 million people. After centuries of land clearance and population growth, hundreds of villages suddenly became virtual ghost towns and were abandoned to be reclaimed by nature.

The Black Death

The plague seems to have gradually diminished after 1353, spreading east of the Volga river and towards the Caspian Sea where it likely originated seven years earlier. However, the plague did not extinguish itself completely, the causal bacteria continued to leap across to humans and strike the people of Europe and beyond once or twice a generation for centuries. Few of the later outbreaks in this Second Plague Pandemic were as devastating as the Black Death but nonetheless are thought to have killed between ten to twenty per cent of the population with each deadly revisit.

The plague (vossen in Breton) returned to Brittany in 1404 and every decade of that century saw periodic outbreaks across the country with over a hundred outbreaks recorded between the years 1478-84 alone. In 1485, the last undisputed ruler of independent Brittany, Duke François II, created the post of Médecin des Épidémies (Doctor of Epidemics) based on the earlier models of specialist doctors created by the Pope and the King of France; the disease was still poorly understood and the medical establishment of the day struggled hard with how best to prevent its arrival and spread in their communities.

In time, the people became accustomed to living with the menace of the plague; it was now the new reality, the new norm. Prayers were widely offered to the 3rd century martyr Saint Sebastian who was held to possess the power to intercede to protect people from plague and special processions seeking his favour are recorded in several Breton towns particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries. The 14th century Saint Roch was also popularly prayed to here in times of plague.

Periodic epidemics of the plague remained a constant feature of life in Brittany throughout the 16th century; in 1501-02 over 4000 people fell mortal victims in the city of Nantes alone and there were further outbreaks recorded in 1514-19, 1522-23, 1529-30, 1563-65 and 1567-70. In 1582-84, the plague made a deadly appearance in both the northern and southern parts of the region with the areas around the towns of Dinan, Dol-de-Bretagne, Nantes, Rennes and Saint-Malo being particularly hard hit. Towards the end of 1583, the authorities closed the busy port of Saint-Malo to shipping and banned foreigners from the city.

Medieval plague

At the same time, in the southern city of Nantes, the authorities ordered, under penalty of a fine, that inhabitants clear the pavement outside their dwellings daily. The city authorities also ordered the establishment of new latrines and a more systematic clearing of the old cess pits. Other public heath ordnances were also issued: regular fires were lit at crossroads to purify the air; plague-stricken houses would be cleaned; the sick were instructed to always carry a white stick to mark their presence and their clothes marked, front and back, with a white cross. Doctors and surgeons were also required to carry a white stick warning of their presence while out in the streets visiting the sick. Initially, the sick were taken to the lazarette or quarantine station, established outside the city walls during the previous epidemic in 1569, but this became too over-crowded even by 16th century standards. The white cross was also used in the city of Saint-Malo in 1584 and was daubed on the doors of contaminated houses as a sign prohibiting anyone from leaving or entering in order to limit the contagion.

The plague continued to spread through Brittany in the early 17th century; in June 1598, the north coast town of Morlaix was struck; in July and August over 300 people died in the central Brittany town of Pontivy. In September 1598 the people of the city of Saint-Brieuc were prohibited from trading with the nearby (just 7 miles/10km) town of Châtelaudren in an effort to stop the disease reaching their city. However, the city’s attempts at self-isolation ultimately failed and the city was ravaged in 1601-02, as was Lannion. At the time, many people thought that the plague was caused and spread by a miasma or bad air thus many people left their homes once the plague struck their city. Such a movement of people, of course, accelerated the spread of the disease and with the benefit of hindsight we should not be surprised to note the plague’s return in less than five years.

The south of the region was also hit by small localised outbreaks of the plague in the same year; the town of Quimper, still recovering from the loss of 1,700 people to an epidemic in 1594, was struck again in 1598 when about a third of the population were thought to have perished.  There followed a relative respite for some twenty years before the plague re-appeared with an increased intensity.

the plague doctor
17th century Plague Doctor

In 1622, the Parlement of Brittany imposed a state of quarantine on Saint-Malo and three weeks of isolation were imposed on all people suspected of contracting the plague; it also ordered a ban on children from Saint-Malo, Saint-Brieuc, Dinan and Dol from entering the Breton capital Rennes (itself ravaged by plague from 1624 to 1632). An outbreak of plague in the south coast town of Port Louis in 1623 resulted in the nearby and more populous town of Auray imposing a state of quarantine; fishermen were banned from visiting or trading and people arriving by land were firstly held in isolation for three weeks. The authorities ordered the destruction of all stray animals; pigs and pigeons being specifically subject to strict confinement (previously pigs had been free to roam the streets foraging for scraps). Citizens were also ordered to keep the pavement outside their dwellings clean with harsh punishments for the lackadaisical.

Despite these efforts, records show that the plague struck two of the communes surrounding the town in 1630 before later breaking into the town and striking into all surrounding communes. As in other towns hit by the plague, large bonfires were regularly lit in the streets in an attempt to purify the air. This was also done in nearby Vannes where, in the same year, the authorities levied a small tax to pay for the removal of the city’s rubbish and transport it to offshore mudflats. In Auray, a lazarette was established outside the town and a rudimentary medical service organised by the local Capuchin community. Records indicate that the sanitary cordon around Auray was still in force in 1633.

Further along the east coast, the people of the city of Vannes also suffered significantly during the plague epidemics of this time, particularly in 1625, 1634 and 1638. To the west, the town of Quimper recorded scores of deaths in 1639; while, still further along the east coast, Nantes was hard hit by the disease in 1625-26 and 1631 and by this time, plague victims were no longer allowed to be buried within the precincts of the city.

One of the last appearances of the plague in Brittany was in Pontivy in 1696. Attesting to the importance of river traffic at the time, it is possible to track the spread of the disease down the course of the river Blavet to its mouth at Hennebont. Here in the summer of 1699, the plague claimed half a dozen people every day. With no medical solution to halt the spread of the disease, the townsfolk sought divine intervention and prayed to the Virgin to end the epidemic; committing to create a silver statue and undertake an annual procession in her honour (they had similarly promised to build a chapel in honour of Saint Roch during the epidemic of the early 1630s but this was never realised!). It has been noted that instances of the disease in the town decreased rapidly after the town’s wish was announced, disappearing entirely by September 1700. To honour their pledge, the people of Hennebont commissioned the statue and inaugurated the public procession of thanks. Unfortunately, the statue was melted-down during the Revolution but it is today possible to see a substitute statue and participate in the procession held on the last Sunday in September.  

The Wish of Hennebont
Henri-François Mulard : The Wish of Hennebont

The plague of Marseilles in 1720-1721, which resulted in some 87,000 deaths, is considered to be the last major plague outbreak in Western Europe but cases are still regularly reported in other parts of the world even today. The impact of almost four hundred years of intermittent but deadly plague outbreaks changed Europe forever; demographically, politically and economically. Equally profound were the changed mentalities brought about by the plague and other infectious diseases; governments and the governed appreciated the importance of public health and hygiene programmes, particularly effective sanitary measures.  

While the plague and its dreadful death toll might have been consigned to history, other diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, measles and influenza, were responsible for extraordinary devastation in Brittany. In the 18th and 19th centuries, increases in population density, transport infrastructure and mercantile links were all key factors in giving diseases spread by cross-infection between humans powers of spread far greater than those seen in previous centuries.

The first of several deadly outbreaks of cholera that ravaged Brittany in the 19th century was part of a worldwide pandemic that was believed to have started in India in 1826. The seemingly relentless march of this disease westwards saw the French government impose border controls in August 1831 to stop infected people from entering the country. However, the disease reached Paris in March 1832 and the speed which the disease overtook its victims, some dying within a matter of hours, caused widespread panic; some believed that government agents were poisoning the drinking fountains.

Dead lying in streets

It seems that the disease first manifested itself in Brittany in May 1832, carried by a master mariner from Toulon who disembarked at Nantes before falling ill near Vannes. Victims of cholera can start to display symptoms between one to five days after infection, so, it is impossible to know how many fellow travellers this diseased sailor infected on his two day journey to Quimper. Suffering from severe vomiting and diarrhoea, the patient was taken openly through the busy streets from his lodgings to the town’s hospice where he died. He was buried the next day and a little of his blood was diluted in water and given to birds to drink to see if they were affected by it. While the birds showed no negative reactions to the bloody concoction, two members of the nursing staff were already displaying symptoms; the first of more than 200 cholera fatalities in Quimper that summer.

Cholera is essentially a bacterial disease that causes an infection of the small intestine which swiftly leads to fairly brutal diarrhoea (sometimes as much as 10-20 litres or 3-5 gallons per day) and vomiting, resulting in severe dehydration and low blood pressure in the victims. Such acute dehydration shrivels the skin, sinks the eyes and usually turns the skin a shade of blue; the disease is therefore sometimes known as the Blue Death.

The disease is spread mostly by water and food that has been contaminated with human feces containing the bacteria. At the time, people were at a loss to understand the disease as one side of a street could be hit, while the other was spared and it would be another twenty three years before the English doctor, John Snow, identified waterborne microbes as the culprit (it seems he did know something after all).

Some contemporary doctors believed cholera to be a contagion, others thought it was due to a miasma; one doctor in Quimper even advised the town in the grip of the epidemic that the disease was not contagious. While the medical establishment strived to understand the disease, two main but contradictory treatments were espoused; one held that cholera overstimulated the body and prescribed cold drinks, blood-letting and opium-laced enemas; the other advocated hot drinks, hot baths infused with vinegar and camphorated alcohol to stimulate the system. Amidst this confusion, charlatans profited by selling miraculous but bogus remedies to the desperate people with little enough to spare.

Cholera epidemics

Unlike childhood diseases such as measles or influenza which was mainly only fatal to the elderly, cholera killed as many healthy young adults as any other age group; it is estimated that over 100,000 people died of cholera in France in 1832-34 – a shocking mortality rate of 25 to 50 per cent – and well over 5000 in Brittany alone. In many towns it was noted that there were often more female than male fatalities, for example, in Morlaix women represented 65 per cent of cholera deaths. This is likely a reflection of the fact that it was women who traditionally collected the family’s water from the communal fountain; a prospective source of contagion.

Poor hygienic conditions, lack of adequate sanitation, untended rubbish heaps and poorly sited wells were, in the opinion of many visitors, common features of most Breton cities at the time; all factors which contribute significantly to the spread of cholera. All diseases spread by cross-infection between people gain increasing powers of spread with increasing population density and thus cause the highest mortality rates in urban centres compared to the countryside.

There were further major outbreaks of cholera in France in 1848-50 and again in 1853-54; two epidemics that resulted in some 300,000 deaths across the country. In the latter epidemic, eastern Brittany was particularly badly affected early although it seems that the disease ravaged the region on two fronts; from the east and also from the northern port of Morlaix where it spread to other coastal cities. The epidemic reached Brest towards the end of 1854 and many people claimed to have seen the source of the disease, ‘the Red Woman’, sowing the plague in the valleys; harking back to the superstitions of previous centuries regarding the semeurs de peste (plague sowers) who spread the contagion by witchcraft. At the time, knowledge of the nature of epidemic diseases was scant and most Bretons considered the plague and diseases such as cholera as divine punishment for their sins; and responded with prayer, coupled with either penitential acts to redeem God’s favour or with stoic fatalism to accept God’s will.

Praying for deliverance from disease

The region was again badly hit during an epidemic in 1865 (over 2,500 deaths) and only marginally less so by the epidemics of 1873, 1885-86 and 1893. In the fifty years covering these cholera epidemics, progresses in public health and hygiene programmes, improvements to urban planning and sanitation, coupled with advances in medical understanding and technology, greatly increased our ability to organise efficient countermeasures against epidemics.

Tackling the human cost of such diseases was more problematical, as noted in 1866 by Jean-Baptiste Fonssagrives, Professor at the School of Naval Medicine in Brest: “Among all the chronic diseases that eat away at the social body, misery is certainly one of the most hideous, the most inveterate, perhaps even the least curable”.

At the beginning of the 19th century smallpox was a major global endemic disease, responsible for the deaths of between 50,000 to 80,000 people in France each year. During 1773–74, Brittany experienced a particularly deadly smallpox epidemic which helped highlight the importance of inoculation; then a relatively novel practice and pursued with some vigour in Brittany by an Englishman, Simeon Worlock, who had been summoned from Nantes to work in Brest after the death of 600 children in that port.

Innoculation against smallpox

It is therefore not surprising that France was one of the first nations to fully exploit Jenner’s pioneering work on vaccination; teams of doctors spent decades crossing the country inoculating those willing to receive the vaccine, often struggling against public trepidation and hostility.  The vaccination programme quickly succeeded in reducing cases of smallpox across France but this highly infectious disease was particularly virulent in Brittany in 1871, resulting in about 20,000 deaths. The last outbreak in Brittany was centred on the cities of Brest and Vannes in 1955 and involved almost a hundred cases, of whom 20 patients died.

It is difficult to neatly define dysentery epidemics as the disease is of great antiquity and was an ever present feature of daily life. The disease is usually the result of a bacterial infection which works its way through the bloodstream to the gut, manifesting itself in abdominal pain, sickness and bloody diarrhoea (up to over one litre or a quart of fluid per hour), leading to extreme dehydration, anaemia and often the poisoning of vital organs by bacterial toxins. Like cholera, the bacteria that causes dysentery is commonly spread by dirty water or foodstuffs having been contaminated with human waste; it is contagious and can be rapidly transmitted from person to person.

The spread of dysentery was facilitated by the rather basic living conditions of the Breton countryside; people and animals typically shared overcrowded dwellings, folks shared boxed beds while the farmyard was rich in dung-heaps and cess pits. In the towns and cities, the health situation was no better; open sewers, streets cluttered with rubbish and foodstuffs’ markets held on busy public roads. All these elements played a part in the rapid transmission of the contagion especially amongst bodies that were generally undernourished.  Although, at the time, it was believed that the disease, like so many others, was caused by lethal miasmas and the main medical treatments, for those that could afford them, were purges, emetics and blood-letting. Those that could not afford the medical professionals trusted to the recuperative power of a few bunches of elderberry.

Dystentry outbreaks in France

It is no exaggeration to say that epidemic dysentery was one of the worst blights to affect Europe and the wider world throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. There were major outbreaks in Brittany in 1639, 1676 and 1719. The disease was widespread in Brittany between 1738 and 1740, the epidemic of the latter year was especially fatal amongst children but there was an even deadlier outbreak in 1741 which claimed well over 30,000 lives; in some Breton towns, the mortality rate was over 45 per cent. There were smaller outbreaks in 1749, 1765 and 1777 but in 1779 Brittany and other parts of western France were ravaged by an outbreak that took some 175,000 lives with about 50,000 dead in Brittany alone.

The disease continued to take its heavy toll throughout the 19th century with the last notable outbreak recorded in 1900. Scientists have identified more than 330 strains of the bacteria that cause dysentery but it is worth noting that 99 per cent of strains have now developed a resistance to antibiotics and while dysentery may sound to many of us a disease of the past, it remains a major killer in some parts of the world.

Typhus and typhoid fevers were other diseases that ravished the Brittany of yesteryear. The former is a louse-borne disease that thrives on a host’s poor personal hygiene and can survive on its host for some time. A particularly pernicious outbreak of both diseases spread across Brittany in the years 1741-42 and caused an estimated 40,000 deaths; other major epidemics occurred in 1757 and 1779. In 1793-94 an epidemic of typhus in Nantes is estimated to have resulted in the death of 10,000 people.

Typhus outbreaks in France

Many have described typhoid fever as endemic in Brittany by the mid-19th century but focused improvements in public health and basic hygiene, particularly relating to the supply of clean, uncontaminated water and the evacuation of wastewater meant the death tolls from the epidemics of 1874 and 1892-93 were less severe than those seen in earlier years. The western part of Brittany was particularly affected due to the disease spreading on account of the fairly itinerant habits of agricultural labourers and mariners and the migrations of people from the countryside to the towns. As an example of how significant such urban movements were, between 1856 and 1911 the population of the arrondissement (administrative region) of Quimper swelled from 81,000 to 204,000.

Outbreaks of influenza have always left heavy death tolls, particularly amongst the elderly and poorer sections of society but the virulent virus behind the influenza pandemic of 1918-20 caused the most severe pandemic in recent history. This contagious viral infection attacked the respiratory system and was inexplicably most deadly for young adults; it has been suggested that this might be because older people had built-up a degree of immunity as a result of the earlier flu pandemic of 1889-90. Pneumonia or other respiratory complications brought-on by influenza were often the main causes of death. Estimates vary as to the number of deaths caused by the disease but it is believed to have infected a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people; over 240,000 in France alone.

Despite significant advances in medical treatment and care, influenza remains a public health issue today with annual seasonal outbreaks affecting between 2-8 million people in France every year, with influenza-related deaths estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 per year.

Spanish Flu

It is important to view the epidemics and pandemics noted above within the context of their time; these diseases took root and spread thanks to the circumstances then existing. Generally poor living conditions and hygiene; undernourished bodies less able to fight infection; low degree of medical knowledge surrounding the nature of bacteria and the transmission of diseases – all conspired to make it an insurmountable task to moderate the impact of a virulent epidemic disease, despite the best efforts of the medical establishment of the time.

Improvements in living standards, town planning, public health, hygiene and sanitation, coupled with massive advances in medical knowledge and technology have helped to greatly reduce the worst ravages of epidemic mortality that were once an accepted part of our ancestors’ lives. Even as late as 1950, the majority of deaths in Europe were due to infectious diseases. Since then, life expectancy has soared and diseases such as polio, diptheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, whooping cough, smallpox, measles, mumps and rubella have been virtually wiped out. Yet, despite the massive leaps in medicine, infectious diseases have been controlled rather than conquered; they remain a threat that can never be truly extinguished.

It is too early to see where the current coronavirus disease pandemic will sit amongst the long history of pandemics but it is clear that the social and economic impact will be profound.

Wolf and Werewolf in Brittany

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

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

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

Wolf devouring a man

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

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

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

Wolf hung from a tree

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

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

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

18th century wolf attack

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

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

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

17th century wolf

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Witches and sorcerers were said to be able to transform themselves into animals such as bees, cats, dogs, hares, mice and wolves. Such transformations were regarded as an innate capacity of the witch but it was also believed that such powers were the gift of the Devil; a reward for entering into a solemn pact with him.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Werewolf and his victims

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

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

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

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

Witches as shapeshifters

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

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

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

Werewolf in popular imagination

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

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

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

Werewolf at the crossroads

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

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

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

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

George Sand werewolf

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

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

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

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

kill a werewolf

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

Brittany’s Best Festivals

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

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

Panoramas Festival in Morlaix : 10-12 April 2020

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

Panoramas Festival Morlaix
Panoramas Festival, Morlaix

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

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

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

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

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

Classical Music festival Saint Malo
Classique au Large, Saint Malo

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

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

Festival of Brittany
Fete de la Bretagne, Festival of Brittany

ArtRock in Saint-Brieuc : 29-31 May 2020

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

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

Art Rock festival Saint Brieuc
ArtRock, Saint Brieuc

Hellfest in Clisson : 19-21 June 2020

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

Hellfest festival
Hellfest, Clisson

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

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

Lieux Mouvants festival central brittany
Lieux Mouvants, Lanrivain

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

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

National Day : 14 July 2020

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

Temps Fête Festival in Douarnenez : 15 to 19 July 2020

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

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

Maritime Festival Brittany
Temps Fete Festival Maritime, Douarnenez

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

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

Les Vieilles Charrues festival Brittany
Vieilles Charrues, Carhaix

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

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

Medieval Festival Brittany
Fete des Remparts, Dinan

Jazz en Ville in Vannes : 20-25 July 2020

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

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

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

Festival of Cornwall Quimper
Festival Cornouaille, Quimper

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

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

Jazz Festival Brittany
Fest Jazz, Chateauneuf-du-Faou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pont du Rock music festival
Au Pont du Rock, Malestroit

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

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

Sea Shanty Festival
Festival du Chant de Marin, Paimpol

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

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

Inter-Celtic festival Lorient
Festival Interceltique, Lorient

Fête du Bruit in Landerneau : 7-9 August 2020

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

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

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

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

Guingamp festival
Festival Saint Loup, Guingamo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onion Festival, Roscoff

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

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

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

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

Brittany In Brushstrokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andre Jolly in Brittany
Andre Jolly : Augustine (1907)

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

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

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

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

Paul Signac in Brittany
Paul Signac : Portrieux (1888)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bonesetters of Brittany

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

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

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


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

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

bleeding a patient

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

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

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

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


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

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

traditional healer

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

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

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

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

sacred fountain

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

female bone setters

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

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

bonesetter re-setting a bone

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

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

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

bone-setter in brittany

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

bonesetter at work

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

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

bone setter at work

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

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

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

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


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

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

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