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Bretagne (Brittany)


A variety of tribes are mentioned in Roman sources, like the Veneti, Armoricani, Osismii, Namnetes and Coriosolites. Strabo and Poseidonius describe the Armoricani as belonging to the Belgae.

Armorican gold coins have been widely exported and are even found in the Rhineland.

Salterns are widespread in Northern Armorica, for example at Trégor, Ebihens and Enez Vihan near Pleumeur-Bodou (Côtes-d'Armor) and the island of Yoc'h near Landuvez (Finistère) of late La Tène date.

An estimated 40-55 kg of salt per oven were produced at Ebihens. Each oven was about 2 m long. The site dates to the end of the early La Tène or the middle La Tène period. Numerous briquetage-remains have been found. At Tregor, boudins de Calage (hand-bricks) were the typical form of briquetage, between 2,5 and 15 cm long and with a diameter between 4-7 cm. At the salterns at Landrellec and Enez Vihan at Pleumeur-Bodou the remains of rectangular ovens have been excavated that are 2,5-3 m long and ca. 1 m wide and constructed of stones and clay. On the Gulf of Morbihan about 50 salterns have been found so far, mainly dating to the final La Téne period.

In 56 BC the area was conquered by the Romans under Julius Caesar. The Venetian notables were killed or sold off as slaves. The Romans called the district Armorica (a Latinisation of a Celtic word meaning "coastal region"), part of the Gallia Lugdunensis province. The modern département of Côtes-d'Armor has taken up the ancient name. After the reforms of Diocletian, it was part of the dioceses Galliarum.

The uprising of the Bagaudae in the 3rd century led to unrest and depopulation, numerous villages were destroyed. Thick layers of black earth in the towns point to urban depopulation as well. The rule of Constantine (307-350) led to a certain renaissance, Numerous coins were minted. At the tractus Armoricanus, new forts were built, for example at Brest, Avranches and Le Yaudet. The Notitia Dignitatum (circa 400AD) mentions a number of local units manning the Tractus armoricanus et nervicanus, for example Mauritanian troops in the territory of the Veneti and Osismii. Frankish laeti were present in Rennes. Christianisation is commonly dated to the late fourth century, but material evidence is rare.

After the Roman withdrawal, Some British authors (Nennius, Gildas) mention Britons fleeing to Armorica to escape the invading Anglo-Saxons and Scoti. However, modern archaeology would place the beginnings of the British migration to Armorica in the Roman period, perhaps from the end of the 3rd century. These Britons gave the region its current name and contributed to the Breton language, Brezhoneg, a sister language to Welsh and Cornish. (Brittany used to be known in English as Little Britain to distinguish it from Great Britain - the street in London called Little Britain was the location of the embassy of the Duchy of Brittany).

The earliest text in the Breton language, a botanical treatise, dates from 590 (for comparison, the earliest text in French dates from 843) [1].

Conan Meriadoc, the mythic founder of the house of Rohan is mentioned by medieval Welsh sources as having led the settlement of Brittany by Welsh mercenaries, who married native women after cutting out their tongues to preserve the purity of their language. Geoffrey of Monmouth presents this legend to explain the Welsh name for Brittany, Llydaw, as originating from lled-taw or half-silent.

In the Early Middle Ages, Brittany was divided into three kingdoms — Domnonia, Cornouaille, and Bro Waroc'h — which eventually were incorporated into the Duchy of Bretagne. Waroch is one of the first known Breton rulers.

The first unified Kingdom of Brittany was founded by Nominoë in 845 when the Breton army defeated the forces of Charles the Bald, King of France, at the Battle of Ballon, in the eastern part of Brittany near Redon and the French border.

The French army was defeated once again in 851 at the Battle of Jengland by the Breton army of King Erispoë and consequently King Charles of France recognised the independence of Brittany.

Bretons took part in the Revolt of 1173-1174, siding with the rebels against Henry II of England. Henry's son Geoffroy II, then heir apparent to the Duchy of Brittany, resisted his father's attempts to annex Brittany to the possessions of the English Crown. Geoffroy's son Arthur did likewise during his reign (1186-1203) until his death, perhaps by assassination under John Lackland's orders.

In 1185, Geoffroy II signed "Count Geoffrey's Assise" which forbade the subdivision of fiefs, thereby reinforcing the Breton feudal system.

In 1213, with the aim of strengthening his power in Brittany, king Philip August of France introduced the Capetian prince Peter Mauclerc of Dreux as administrator of the duchy and tutor of his son, duke Jehan of Brittany. It was Peter Mauclerc who introduced the use of ermines in the Breton coat of arms and came to espouse the cause of his fief's independence with respect to France.

The Breton War of Succession was fought 1341-1364. The parties were the half-brother of the last duke, John of Montfort (supported by the English) and his niece, Joanna of Penthièvre, who was married to Charles of Blois, nephew of the king of France. This protracted conflict, a component of the Hundred Years' War, has passed into legend (see for example Combat of the Thirty and Bertrand de Guesclin). Its outcome was decided at the Battle of Auray in 1364, where the House of Montfort was victorious over the French party. After the first Treaty of Guérande, Joanna of Penthièvre abdicated her claims to the dukedom in favour of John the Conqueror. A modified form of Salic law was introduced in Brittany as a result.

In the midst of the conflict, in 1352, the États de Bretagne or Estates of Brittany were established. They would develop into the Duchy's parlement.

Deserted by his nobles, duke John IV left for exile in England in 1373. The higher nobility of that time, like the house of Coetmen-Penthievre, or the house of Rougé, descendants of the former kings of Brittany, strongly supported the Penthievre side and nearly extinguished in the repeated fights between Montfort and Penthievre's troops. The king of France Charles V named as lieutenant-general of Brittany his brother, the duke of Anjou (also a son-in-law of Joanna de Penthièvre). In 1378, the king of France sought to annex Brittany, which provoked the Bretons to recall John IV from exile. The second Treaty of Guérande (1381) established Brittany's neutrality in the Anglo-French conflict, although John continued to swear homage to Charles VI.

In 1420, duke John V was kidnapped by the count of Penthièvre, son of Joanna of Penthièvre. John's wife, duchess Joanna de France besieged the rebels and set free her husband, who confiscated the Penthièvre's goods.

In 1464 the Catholicon, a Breton-Latin-French dictionary by Jehan Lagadeuc, was published. This book was the world's first trilingual dictionary, the first Breton dictionary and also the first French dictionary.

The army of the Kingdom of France with the help of 5000 mercenaries came from Switzerland and Italy defeated the Breton army in 1488 and the last and old Duke of independent Brittany Francis II was forced to submit to a treaty giving the King of France the right to determine the marriage of the Duke's daughter, a young girl 12 years old, the heir to the Duchy. The Duchess Anne was the last independent ruler of the duchy as she was ultimately obliged to marry Louis XII of France. The duchy passed on her death to her daughter Claude, but Claude's husband Francis I of France incorporated the duchy into the Kingdom of France in 1532 through the Edict of Union between Brittany and France, which was registered with the Estates of Brittany.

After 1532, Brittany retained a certain fiscal and regulatory autonomy, which was defended by the États de Bretagne despite the rising tide of royal absolutism. Brittany remained on the whole strongly Catholic during the period of the Huguenots and the Wars of Religion, although Protestantism made some headway in Nantes and a few other areas. From 1590-98, during the War of the Catholic League, Philippe-Emmanuel, Duke of Mercoeur (governor of Brittany and husband of the countess of Penthièvre) sought to have himself proclaimed Duke of Britanny and allied with Philip II of Spain. The latter, on the other hand, considered establishing his daughter Isabella at the head of a reconstituted Brittany. Henri IV, however, brought Mercoeur to an honourable surrender.

During the era of Colbert, Brittany benefited from France's naval expansion. Major ports were built or renovated at Saint-Malo, Brest, and Lorient, and Bretons came to constitute a leading component of the French navy. Bretons played an important role in the colonization of New France and the West Indies (see French colonisation of the Americas).

In 1675, insurgents in the diocese of Cornouaille and elsewhere rose up in the Revolt of the Bonnets Rouges. The rebels, in contact with Holland, were expecting assistance that never came. Sébastian Ar Balp, the leader of the rebellion, was assassinated by the Marquis de Montgaillard whom Ar Balp was holding prisoner. The rebellion was repressed by the duc de Chaulnes, and hundreds of Bretons were hanged or broken on the wheel. Madame de Sévigné claimed that French soldiers garrisoned in Rennes had roasted a Breton infant on a spit. A whole street in Rennes, suspected of seditiousness, was demolished leaving the inhabitants homeless.

In the conspiracy of Pontcallec of 1720, members of the petty nobility in contact with Spain led a tax revolt against the Regency. The marquis de Pontcallec and six others were tried and executed in Nantes for the uprising.

During the 18th century, Nantes rose to become one of the most important commercial centres of France. The backbone of Nantes's prosperity was the Atlantic slave trade.

On 4 August 1789, the National Constituent Assembly in Paris unanimously proclaimed the abolition of feudal privileges. These included the privileges of the provinces such as Brittany. Brittany thus lost the juridical existence, autonomy, Parlement, and administrative, fiscal and legal peculiarities guaranteed since the Edict of Union of 1532. Although the Breton Club in Paris had initiated the move to abolish feudal distinctions, the decision proved increasingly unpopular in Brittany, where the loss of local autonomy and the increasingly anti-clerical character of the Revolution were resented. Many Bretons took part in the Chouannerie, the royalist insurgency assisted by Great Britain and allied with the revolt in the Vendée. Brittany thus became a hotbed of resistance to the French Revolution.

The territory of Brittany was divided in 1789 into five départements, partially on the basis of earlier divisions called présidiaux which in turn had issued from mediaeval bailliages.

Nineteenth-century Brittany acquired a reputation for timeless autarky, as Romantics developed an image of the province as a bastion of peasant traditionalism, religious festivals, and wild landscapes. At the same time, Breton life became increasingly integrated with that of the rest of France, particularly under the Third Republic.

Brittany has had its own regionalist and separatist movements which have experienced varying success at elections and other political contests. Modern Breton nationalism developed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The main body of these movements situated themselves within the Catholic traditionalist current. After 1944, Breton nationalism was widely discredited thanks to the collaboration of a number of prominent nationalists (such as Roparz Hemon) with the Nazis, who occupied Brittany along with most of the rest of the French state during the Second World War. On the other hand, other Breton nationalists took part in the Resistance. Brittany played a particularly important role in the Resistance thanks to its proximity to Great Britain, the relatively rugged landscape, and the presence of important naval installations.

When France was divided into administrative regions, the official Brittany Region included only four of the five departments traditionally understood to comprise the Breton territory. This removal of Loire-Atlantique, which contains Nantes (one of the two traditional Breton capitals) from the Breton region has been a matter of much controversy.

An experimental nuclear power station was constructed at Brennilis in the Monts d'Arrée during the 1960s. This was in operation for about ten years, and since 1988 it has been in the process of being dismantled. This is the first time that a nuclear power station has been dismantled in France.

Since the 1960s in particular Breton nationalism has developed a strong leftist character, alongside the Catholic traditionalist strain. Certain groups such as the ARB, marginal even within nationalist circles, made headlines through sabotage against highly symbolic targets.

In March 1972, workers at the « Joint Français », a factory in Saint-Brieuc, went on strike to obtain a wage increase. The strike lasted eight weeks.

Since the 1940s, use of the Breton language has declined precipitously. In most Breton-speaking communities, it has become uncommon for children born since 1945 to acquire much of the language as French becomes universalized. On the other hand, Breton has enjoyed increasing support among intellectuals and professionals since the 1970s, and the relatively small, urban-based Diwan movement has sought to stem the loss of young Breton speakers through bilingual immersion schools.

On 16 March 1978, the supertanker Amoco Cadiz ran aground a few hundred metres from the shores of the small port of Portsall in Ploudalmézeau. The result was the fifth-largest oil spill in world history which severely affected the north and northwest coasts of Brittany.

In February and March 1980, the population of Plogoff, the commune containing the Pointe du Raz, demonstrated to prevent the construction of a nuclear power generator in their commune, despite the paratroopers and helicopters sent by the government. They received a wide support from the media. The power station project was abandoned after the presidential elections of 1981, which brought François Mitterrand to power.


Brittany is famous for its megalithic monuments, which are scattered over the peninsula, the largest alignments are near Karnag/Carnac. The purpose of these monuments is still unknown, and many local people are reluctant to entertain speculation on the subject. The words dolmen (from "daol" table and "maen" stone) and menhir (from "maen" stone and "hir" long) come from the Breton language, even though they are hardly used in Breton.

Brittany is also known for its calvaries, elaborately carved sculptures of crucifixion scenes, to be found in churchyards of villages and small towns, especially in Western Brittany.

Significant urban centres include:

* Nantes
* Rennes
* Brest
* Lorient
* Quimper
* Vannes
* Redon
* Saint-Brieuc
* Saint-Nazaire

The walled city of Saint-Malo (Sant-Maloù), a popular tourist attraction, is also an important port linking Brittany with England and the Channel Islands. It also was the birthplace of the acclaimed author Chateaubriand, famous corsair Surcouf and explorer Jacques Cartier. The town of Roscoff (Rosko) is served by ferry links with England and Ireland.

The island of Ushant (Breton: Enez Eusa, French: Ouessant) is the north-westernmost point of Brittany and France, and marks the entrance of the English Channel. Other islands off the coast of Brittany include:

* Bréhat / enez Vriad
* Batz / enez Vaz
* Molène / Molenez
* Sein / enez Sun
* Glénan islands / inizi Glenan
* Groix / enez Groe
* Belle Île / ar Gerveur
* Houat / Houad
* Hoëdic / Edig
* Île-aux-Moines / Enizenac'h
* Île d'Arz / an Arzh

Following the successful example of the Cornish-Viking alliance in 722 at the Battle of Hehil (modern day Padstow) which helped stop for a time the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Cornwall, the Bretons made friendly overtures to the Danish Vikings to help contain Frankish expansionist ideas, and in 865 AD the Vikings and Bretons united as one to defeat a Frankish army at the Battle of Brissarthe, near modern day Le Mans. Two Frankish kings, Robert and Ranulph were killed by the Vikings, and the Franks were forced to acknowledge Brittany's independence from the Frankish kingdoms. As with Cornwall in 722, the Vikings tactically helped their Breton allies by making devastating pillaging raids on the Frankish kingdoms.


French, the only official language of the French Republic, is today spoken throughout Brittany. The two regional languages have no official status with regards to the state, although they are supported by the regional authorities within the strict constitutional limits: Breton, strongest in the west but to be seen all over Brittany, is a Celtic language most closely related to Cornish (Breton has in fact slightly more in common with Cornish than Welsh), and Gallo, which is spoken in the east, is one of the Oïl languages.

From the very beginning of its history and despite the end of the independence of Brittany, Breton remained the language of the entire population of western Brittany, if not bishops and French administrators or officers. French laws and economic pressure led people to abandon their language to the one of the ruler, but until the 1960s, Breton was spoken and understood by the majority of the western inhabitants. Since the beginning of the 20th century, it has been very efficiently fought by the French administration and educational system ("It is forbidden to spit on the ground and to speak Breton") in the process of promoting French as the sole language of the country. According to an interview with Erwan Le Coadic, the development officer of the Breton Language of The Breton Language Service, "Over the course of the twentieth century, the policies of the government in Paris were calculated to eradicate the use of Breton completely". While he says that there are signs that the "situation has now stabilized", he points to the "almost catastrophic decline" in the Breton language: "Fifty years ago, there were 1,300,000 people who spoke Breton; today there are just 300,000".[1]

Breton was traditionally spoken in the west (the "Breizh-Izel" or "Basse-Bretagne"), and Gallo in the east (the "pays Gallo" or "Haute-Bretagne"). The dividing line stretched from Plouha on the north coast to a point to the south-east of Vannes. French had, however, long been the main language of the towns. The Breton-speaking area formerly covered territory much further east than its current distribution.

In the Middle Ages, Gallo expanded into formerly Breton-speaking areas. Now restricted to a much reduced territory in the east of Brittany, Gallo finds itself under pressure from the dominant Francophone culture. It is also felt by some to be threatened by the Breton language revival which is gaining ground in territories that were never part of the main Breton-speaking area.

Privately funded Diwan ("Seed") schools, where classes are taught in Breton by the immersion method, play an important part in the revival of the Breton language. The issue of whether they should be funded by the State has long been, and remains, controversial. Some bilingual classes are also provided in ordinary schools.

Despite the resistance of French administration, bilingual (Breton and French) road signs may be seen in some areas, especially in the traditional Breton-speaking area. Signage in Gallo is much rarer.

A large influx of English-speaking immigrants and second-home owners in some villages sometimes adds to linguistic diversity.


Some of the musicians for which Brittany is known are: the most famous, Alan Stivell and Dan Ar Braz, Tri Yann, but also Gilles Servat, Denez Prigent, Brothers Guichen, Carré Manchot, Ar Re Yaouank, Sonerien Du, Loened Fall, Yann Tiersen, etc.


The first Christian missionaries came to the region from Ireland and Great Britain. With more than 300 "saints" (only a few recognized by the Catholic Church), the region is strongly Catholic. Since the nineteenth century at least, Brittany has been known as one of the most devoutly Catholic regions in France, in contrast to many other more secularised areas. The proportion of students attending Catholic private schools is the highest in France. As in other Celtic regions, the legacy of Celtic Christianity has left a rich tradition of local saints and monastic communities, often commemorated in place names beginning Lan, Lam, Plou or Lok. The patron saint of Brittany is Santez Anna Saint Anne, the Virgin's mother. But the most famous saint is Saint Ivo of Kermartin ('saint Yves' in French, 'sant Erwan' in Breton), a 13th-century priest who devoted his life to the poor.

Once a year, believers go on a "pardon", the saint's feast day of the parish. It often begins with a procession followed by a mass in honour of the saint. There is always a pagan side, with some food and craft stalls. The three most famous pardons are:

* from Sainte-Anne d'Auray/Santez-Anna-Wened, where a poor farmer in the 17th century assured the saint give him the order to build a chapel in her honour.
* from Tréguier/Landreger, in honour of St Yves, the patron saint of the judges, advocates, and any profession involved in justice.
* from Locronan/Lokorn, in honour of St Ronan, with a troménie (a procession, 12 km-long) and numerous people in traditional costume,

In Brittany, there is a very old pilgrimage called the Tro Breizh (tour of Brittany), where the pilgrims walk around Brittany from the grave of one founder saint to another. The seven founder saints of Brittany are:

* St Pol Aurelian, at Saint-Pol-de-Leon/Kastell-Paol,
* St Tudual (sant Tudwal), at Tréguier/Landreger,
* St Brieuc, at Saint-Brieuc/S-Brieg,
* St Malo, at Saint-Malo/S-Maloù,
* St Samson of Dol, at Dol,
* St Patern, at Vannes/Gwened
* St Corentin (sant Kaourintin), at Quimper/Kemper

Historically, the pilgrimage was made in one go (a total distance of around 600 km). Nowadays, however, pilgrims complete the circuit over the course of several years. In 2002, the Tro-Breizh included a special pilgrimage to Wales, symbolically making the reverse journey of the Welshmen Sant Paol, Sant Brieg, and Sant Samzun. Whoever does not make the pilgrimage at least once in his lifetime will be condemned to make it after his death, advancing only by the length of his coffin each 7 year.

Some old pagan traditions and customs from the old Celtic religion have also been preserved in Brittany. The most powerful folk figure is the Ankou or the "Reaper of Death". Sometimes a skeleton wrapped in a shroud with the Breton flat hat, sometimes described as a real human being (the last dead of the year, devoted to bring the dead to Death), he makes his journeys by night carrying an upturned scythe which he throws before him to reap his harvest. Sometimes he is on foot but mostly he travels with a cart, the Karrig an Ankou, drawn by two oxen and a lean horse. Two servants dressed in the same shroud and hat as the Ankou pile the dead into the cart, and to hear it creaking at night means you have little time left to live.


Although some white wine is produced near the Loire, the traditional drinks of Brittany are:

* cider (Breton: chistr) - Brittany is the second largest cider-producing region in France;
* a sort of mead made from wild honey called chouchen;
* an apple eau de vie called lambig.

Some beers are also now produced. Historically Brittany was a beer producing region, however, due to import of wine from other regions of France, beer drinking and production slowly came to an end in the early to mid 20th century. In the 1970s, due to a regional comeback, new beer breweries started to open. Around twenty breweries are now open. Whisky is also being produced, and there is a small handful of distilleries that produce excellent whiskies. Another recent drink is the kir Breton (crème de cassis and cider) which may be served as an apéritif.

Very thin, wide pancakes made from buckwheat flour are eaten with ham, eggs and other savoury fillings. They are usually called galettes (Breton galetes), except in the western parts of Brittany where they are called crêpes (Breton krampouezh). Thin crêpes made from wheat flour are eaten for dessert. Other pastries, such as kouign amann ("butter cake" in Breton) made from bread dough, butter and sugar, or far, a sort of sweet Yorkshire pudding, or clafoutis with prunes, are traditional.

Surrounded by the sea, Brittany offers a wide range of fresh sea food and fish, especially mussels and oysters. Among the sea food specialities is cotriade.


Since Brittany is on the west coast of France, it has a warm temperate climate. Rainfall occurs regularly - which has helped keep its countryside green and wooded - but sunny, cloudless days are also common.

In the summer months, Brittany can reach temperatures of about 30 degrees Celsius, but is still comfortable compared to parts of France south of the Loire. It generally has a moderate climate during both summer and winter, and rain is not uncomfortably common or rare.

The most popular summer resorts are on the south coast (La Baule, Belle Île, Gulf of Morbihan), although the wilder and more exposed north coast also attracts summer tourists.


There are several airports in Brittany serving destinations in France and England. TGV train services link the région with cities such as Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and Lille in France. In addition there are ferry services that take passengers, vehicles and freight to Ireland, England and the Channel Islands.

Brittany Ferries operates the following regular services:

* Plymouth-Roscoff (Pont-L'Abbé, Pont-Aven, certain winter sailings operated by Bretagne)
* Poole-Cherbourg (Barfleur, Coutances, Normandie Vitesse (BF trading name for Condor Vitesse)
* Portsmouth-St Malo (Bretagne with winter service operated by Pont-Aven)
* Portsmouth-Ouistreham (Caen) (Mont St Michel, Normandie, Normandie Express, refit cover provided by Bretagne)
* Roscoff-Cork (Pont-Aven, occasionally Bretagne)


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