Wha’s Like Us? Brittany


by Paul Kavanagh

The most southernly of the nations with a Celtic language, Brittany juts out into the Atlantic Ocean in the north west corner of France.  The sea shapes and defines Brittany, and has done so for as long as history records.  The ancients knew it as Armorica, a name derived from Celtic words for ‘those who live by the sea’.

The Celts were not the earliest inhabitants of Brittany.  Over 3500 years ago, the people of Brittany were constructing megalithic monuments which dwarf the examples found in the British Isles.  The great avenues of Carnac in southern Brittany contain over 6000 standing stones or menhirs, the biggest concentration of megalithic monuments in the world.  Menhir is itself a Breton word (men hir ‘long stone’), one of the few borrowed into English.  Who the menhir builders were is lost in time, but it’s pretty certain they were not Celtic speakers.

Celtic groups are believed to have arrived in modern Brittany during the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age.  By the time of the earliest records of Brittany, written by Mediterranean authors from Greece or Rome,  the Celts of Brittany were organised into a number of powerful tribal groups, amongst them the Armorici, the Namnetes and the Veneti.  All spoke the Gaulish language which was then widespread across what is now modern France, parts of southern Germany, Switzerland, and parts of northern Italy.

Contacts with the British Isles were strong.  The inhabitants of southern Britain spoke the Brittonic Celtic language, which many modern linguists believe was mutually intelligible with the closely related Gaulish.  There were many and frequent contacts across the sea.  The wealth and power of the Armorican Celts derived from their control of the lucrative metals trade with Britain and Ireland.  The Armoricans dominated the salt trade.  The Namnetes and Veneti in particular were famed for their sailing prowess.

Eventually the expanding Roman Empire turned its attentions to Armorica and in 57 BC the Armoricans were forced to submit to Julius Caesar.  A year later the Veneti rebelled, and in one of the bitterest campaigns of Caesar’s Gallic Wars found themselves subject to the full weight of Caesar’s army.  Much of the campaign was conducted at sea.  The Veneti used their sailing skill to out-maneouvre the Romans, whenever Caesar was close to subduing one of the rebels’ coastal strongholds its defenders evacuated by sea in order to continue the campaign elsewhere.  

Eventually Caesar ordered the constrution of a fleet of Roman ships, who met with the Veneti in the naval battle of Morbihan in 56 BC.  In order to counter the threat from the bigger and faster Celtic ships, the Romans attached long bill hooks to the sides of their ships, using them to cut the rigging on the Veneti’s ships and disabling them.  The power of the Veneti was smashed, and Roman revenge was terrible.  The men were slaughtered, the women and children were captured and sold into slavery.  Armorica and its people were now firmly a part of Roman Gaul, and would remain so for almost 500 years.

As a remote province far from the centres of Roman power, Romanisation came slowly to Armorica.  It is highly probable that even by the end of Roman times, most of the peasantry continued to speak their ancient Celtic Gaulish language instead of abandoning it for Latin as was happening elsewhere in Gaul.  Roman authors tell us of a number of peasant uprisings in the region, including a serious rebellion in the 3rd century which devastated and depopulated the countryside.  Archaeological evidence from the period appears to confirm the historical accounts, and points to the decline of towns and a reduction in population and human activity.

Contacts with Britain and Ireland remained.  Contacts with what are now Cornwall and south-west England were particularly strong.  Around the year 380 AD a large number of Roman troops from Britain were settled in the area.  Their closely related Celtic language was to displace Gaulish locally and evolve into modern Breton.  According to a Welsh legend the soldiers married local women, but cut out their tongues in order that their children would hear only the purity of the Brittonic Celtic speech.  The story probably arose as an attempt to explain the Welsh name for Brittany, Llydaw, which many wrongly thought derived from the phrase lled-taw ‘half silent’.  

Cornwall, Wales, southern Scotland and Brittany are closely tied together in the Welsh myths and chronicles of the post Roman period.  As the Anglosaxons conquered England, large numbers of Brittonic speaking refugees fled from Devon and Cornwall to Armorica where they founded two kingdoms named after their former homes, Devnan and Kernev.  A third British Celtic kingdom known as Broërec became established just to the south.  For a period of time it seems that a single ruler governed territories on both sides of the Channel.

A semi-mythical account of the foundation of Brittany is preserved in the Mabinogion, an ancient collection of Welsh stories and history.  The Dream of Macsen Wledig tells of a Roman Emperor who fell in love with Helen, a British princess.  While courting Helen Macsen Wledig was deposed by an evil rival, but with the help of Helen’s three brothers he invaded Italy and regained his throne.  As a reward he gave Armorica to one of the brothers, Conan Meriadeg who was claimed as founder of the dynasty of Rohan, which later supplied Brittany with many of its rulers.

Macsen Wledig is usually identified with the Emperor Magnus Maximus, who reigned from 383 to 388.  Magnus Maximus was a Roman commander of Britain who managed to gain recognition as Emperor of Gaul and Britain after he deposed the previous emperor.  In his power struggles he invaded Italy with the aid of a large army raised in the Roman province of Britain.  At the end of the campaign many  of these soldiers settled in Brittany.

The long and intense contacts between south western Britain, Wales and Armorica in the post Roman period, together with considerable migration from Britain and Wales into Armorica and the siezure of local political power by factions of British origin eventually led the local population to come to identify with the Britons.  The prestige of the Britons was such that their language replaced Gaulish and Latin completely in the west of the country, and made deep inroads into the east.  The people of Armorica were now Bretons, and they called their country after their old home, Brittania.  In the modern Breton language the name has evolved into Breizh (pronounced roughly “bryce”).

The name Brittania became Bretagne in modern French.  It was applied equally to the island of Britain and to Brittany.  When there was a need to disambiguate, the French equivalents of the Latin names were used.  The island was Grand Bretagne or Brittania Major. Brittany, founded as a colony of Britons, was Brittania Minor.  Usually in French the name Bretagne by itself referred to Brittany.  In English the name was translated as Great Britain. In Mediaeval English, Britayne could refer equally to Britain or to Brittany.  What originally made Britain great was only the need to distinguish it from Brittany.

The Bretons first became politically united under Nominoe who zealously defended the country’s independence against the Franks, and defeated the Frankish king Charles the Bald at the Battle of Ballon in the year 845.  Nominoe’s son Erispoe continued the struggle, and succeeded in establishing a treaty with the Franks which legally marked the boundaries of Brittany.  The disputed cities of Roazhon (Rennes) and Naoned (Nantes) were henceforth uncontestably a part of Brittany.  The ruler of Brittany adopted the title Duke, and although technically he was a vassal of the King of France – at least in the eyes of the King of France – in practice Brittany was an independent state.

Throughout the Middle Ages the Dukes of Brittany played a precarious game, balancing one neighbouring power against another.  It was a time of shifting allegiences and many wars between the ruling aristocratic familes.  The Bretons allied themselves with the Normans, and soon found themselves caught in dynastic struggles between the ruling houses of England and France.  During the Hundred Years War between England and France, the Dukes of Brittany shifted sides several times, supporting whichever of the rival powers offered the maximum amount of freedom for Brittany, and more especially for the Duke.

Power struggles within the Breton ruling classes led to the outbreak of the long Breton War of Succession of 1341-1364. England and France supported opposing factions.  With the relative weakness of the traditional ruling classes, the emerging towns took advantage of the situation to create the Estates of Brittany.  Although heavily dominated by the minor nobility the Estates contained representatives from the towns, and gradually evolved into a Breton Parliament.

Throughout this period French culture and language grew in strength and influence in Brittany.  The east of the country, Upper Brittany, gradually adopted a distinctive French dialect known as Gallo.  Breton slowly retreated to the west, the region known as Lower Brittany.

When the French finally achieved victory in their long wars with the English and the King of France established his suzerainty over modern France, Brittany remained an obstinately independent irritation.  By now the Breton nobility was largely French speaking and French in culture, and was linked to the French aristocracy through innumerable dynastic marriages and allegiences.  French power within Brittany was growing.

The last independent Duke of Brittany was Frañsez II (Francis II).  After a series of disastrous wars against King Louis XI of France, in 1488 Frañsez was forced to agree to allow Louis to determine who Frañsez’s only legitimate heir, his daughter Anne, would marry. The marriage of Anne to a member of the French royal family would bring Brittany under French control and signal the end of Breton independence.

Frañsez died later that year and Brittany was plunged into crisis.  The Breton Estates arranged for the marriage by proxy of Anne to Maximilian of Austria.   The move outraged the French, and immediately war broke out.  It was to be the last Franco-Breton war, and the last gasp of Breton independence.  After French armies had taken the city of Roazhon in 1491, Anne was married to Charles, son of Louis XI and future Charles VIII of France.  In the treaty between France and Brittany it was specified in the event that Charles died without leaving a male heir, Anne was to marry his successor.  Despite producing four children with Charles, none survived early childhood.  When Anne was 21, Charles died and Anne married his brother the newly crowned King Louis XII.  

The Breton Estates still functioned, and Brittany enjoyed a semi-autonomous status, but the country was now firmly a part of France.  Breton language and culture continued strongly in the west of the country, but in the east the old language disappeared.  There was a small amount of literary production in Breton during this period.  The first trilingual dictionary, a Latin-French-Breton dictionary, was published in 1499.  But even in the west French and not Breton was the usual language of writing and literature, although the vast bulk of the peasantry remained illiterate and stayed faithful to their Celtic language.

As the French monarchy became increasingly absolutist, the Bretons looked to their semi-autonomous Estates and Parliament to protect them from the king’s excesses.  In 1675 one of the most serious revolts against French rule broke out in the Breton speaking heartlands of Lower Brittany.  Known in Breton as Emsavadeg ar Bonedoù Ruz ‘the Revolt of the Red Bonnets’ after the coloured bonnets worn by the rebels.  The immediate cause of the violence was a decree from Paris to increase the tax on the ‘papier timbre’ an official seal necessary to validate documents legally.  The uprising spread to the cities of Upper Brittany, and was only suppressed after a brutal intervention by the French army.  Brittany fell into a sullen compliance.

The absolutism of the French monarchy reached its zenith in the late 18th century.  But throughout France the king was making enemies.  By 1789 the country was in open revolt and the king had lost effective control.  In Paris the crowds stormed the Bastille on the 14th of July, and the French Republic was born.

Initially cautiously supportive of the revolutionaries and their aims, the deeply Catholic Breton populace quickly became alienated by the anti-clerical turn the revolution took.  The decision of the revolutionary authorities to abolish all the traditional privileges of the regions of France was ill-received by the Bretons, who saw it as an attack on their traditional autonomy.  Brittany became the centre for a counter-revolution which only finally suppressed after the bloody intervention of the French army.

Brittany’s modernisation lagged behind the rest of northern France.  Outside of Nantes the industrial revolution scarcely made an impact.  But gradually transportation and other links with the rest of France improved and strengthened.  Although proud of their distinctive heritage, most Bretons came to regard themselves as French.

During the 19th century, the Bretons developed a reputation amongst the French ruling classes as being upatriotic and unreliable.  They were suspected of anti-republican sympathies, and their language was regarded as an unfortunate hangover from a primitive past.  In the ideology of the new France, it was the duty of all citizens to acquire the language of the state.  

In reaction, the earliest modern Breton political and cultural movements began to develop towards the end of the 19th century.  Allying themselves mainly with the traditionalist Catholic faction in French politics, a small number of writers began to develop a modern literary variety of the Breton language, no easy task in a language divided into a number of very divergent dialects which are not always mutually intelligible.  

At the beginning of the 20th century, Breton was numerically the strongest Celtic language.  In 1930 it was estimated that there were over 1.3 million speakers of the language, in rural districts of Upper Brittany many people were monolingual in Breton.

One of the leading Breton writers of the early 20th century was Roparz Hemon.  As a young man he founded the literary magazine Gwalarn (‘the Northwest’) and published and authored dictionaries, short stories and poetry.  Slowly the Breton language was establishing a public presence, and blessed as it was with a large number of speakers, it appeared possible that Breton activists could one day achieve their dream of official status for their language.

But the Second World War was to change everything.  The Nazi occupation of France saw a number of prominent Breton nationalists, including Roparz Hemon, collaborate with the Germans.  As part of their plans to dominate and control France, the Germans encouraged the use of Breton, and established the first Breton language radio broadcasts.

Although a significant number of Breton nationalists sided with the Resistance, the association of the most prominent Breton nationalists with the Nazi occupiers was fatal for the language.  After 1945 Breton parents ceased en masse to speak to their children in Breton.  The shame and stigma attached to the language was overpowering.  It was seen as unpatriotic to speak anything other than French, even worse the use of Breton risked your neighbours considering you pro-German.  The use of Breton in schools was punished.  There was a catastrophic demographic collapse in the number of Breton speakers, just at the time its Welsh sister was showing signs of a slight recovery.

One administrative action of the French authorities under the German occupation was not undone.  A new system of regional authorities was established, and the departement of Nantes was removed from Brittany and placed in the new region of Loire-Inferieur.  The loss of Nantes from Brittany remains a bone of contention amongst Bretons today.  

The tiny currents of Breton political nationalism also fell silent.  The Bretons would not start to find a voice again for another 20 years.  Breton political and language activism began again in the 1960s, this time strongly associated with the new counter-culture and with left wing political ideals.  Most reject the label ‘nationalist’ which in France is associated with right wing political views.

The new nationalism was associated with revival efforts aimed at saving the language.  Attempts were made to introduce bilingual education and a successful pre-school project called Diwan was established which soon became popular in urban areas.  However all efforts to protect the language are essentially private matters in France.  The French state refuses to recognise the use of any language other than French by official bodies and institutions.  The number of Breton speakers is not even recorded by the French census.

The most recent estimates suggest that the language is continuing to decline, despite the efforts of the revival.  In 2004 it was estimated that there were around 300,000 speakers of Breton, but alarmingly almost two thirds of these were aged over 60.  Few young people are acquiring the language.  This is in marked contrast to Wales, where thanks to widespread bilingual education and a markedly more positive official attitude towards the language, recent figures show that the number of Welsh speakers is increasing amongst the younger generations.  If present trends continue, the future for the Breton language is bleak.

Breton political nationalism remains weak.  The main party, the UDB Unvaniezh Demokratel Breizh (the Breton Democratic Union), does not officially support independence but rather calls for greater autonomy for Brittany within France and for legal recognition and support for the Breton language.  The UDB currently has four deputies on the Breton regional council out of a total of 83.  The party is allied to the Greens and at a European level is a member of the European Free Alliance along with the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

Brittany is unlikely to achieve independence any time soon.  The overwhelming majority of Bretons are content to remain French. But Breton identity remains strong, even though the language is in possibly terminal decline, and the Bretons take great pride in their cultural and historical links with the other Celtic nations of north-west Europe’s Atlantic coasts.