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Brittany (French: Bretagne, French pronunciation ▶(?);
Breton: Breizh; Gallo: Bertaèyn) is a former independent duchy, then province of
France. It is also, more generally, the name of the cultural area whose limits
correspond to the old province.
The historical province of Brittany was split between two modern-day régions of
France. 80% of Brittany has become the région of Bretagne, while the remaining
20% of Brittany (Loire-Atlantique département with its préfecture Nantes, the
old capital of the duchy of Brittany) has been grouped with other historical
provinces (Anjou, Maine, and so on) to create the région of Pays-de-la-Loire
(that is "lands of the Loire"). For the reasons behind the splitting-up of
Brittany, and the current debate around a reunification, see the Bretagne
Modern flagBrittany occupies a large peninsula in the northwest of France, lying
between the English Channel to the north and the Bay of Biscay to the south. Its
land area is 34,034 km² (13,137 sq. mi), which is about the same size as Taiwan,
about 60% larger than Wales, and about 70% larger than Massachusetts.
In 2004 the population of Brittany is estimated at 4,200,000 inhabitants. 72% of
these live in the Bretagne région, while 28% of these live in the
Pays-de-la-Loire région. At the 1999 census, the largest metropolitan areas were
Nantes (711,120 inhabitants), Rennes (521,188 inhabitants), and Brest (303,484
History of Brittany - Palaeolithic
Only a few Palaeolithic sites are known from Britanny, like
the rock shelter of Perros-Guirec near Rochworn. The only cave site known so far
is Roc'h Toul in a sandstone promontory near Guiclan (Finistère). The cave
contained about 200 artifacts and was dated to the late Magdalenian by de
Mortillet. Because of the presence of points with curved backs, it is now
connected with the epipalaeolithic Azilian. Other Azilian sites include
Parc-an-Plenen and Enez Guennoc.
The best-known mesolithic sites from Brittany are the
cemeteries on the islands of Hoëdic (10 graves) and Téviec (9 graves) in
Morbihan. The collective graves are placed in shell middens without any
particular order. Some graves show evidence of postmortal manipulations of the
bones. There are single burials and empty graves (cenotaphs) as well. The graves
are covered with stones, a hearth or antlers forming a sort of dome. Rich
funeral gifts, flint tools, engraved bones, shell ornaments and ochre
demonstrate the affluence of these hunter-gatherers, or rather fisher-gatherers.
Certain shells are sex-specific. In Teviec there are stone cist graves. The
bones of an infant have been postmortally ornamented with striations.
The corresponding settlements consist of shell middens. A radiocarbon date of
4625 (uncal.) for Hoëdic places it in the 6th Millennium BC cal, rather late in
the Mesolithic sequence, and indeed there are some indications of contact with
agricultural societies to the East. Their economy was based on marine resources.
Recently, a number of accelerator dates have been published for Hoëdic.
In Beg an Dorchenn in Plomeur (Finistère), domestic dog and cattle were already
present, in Dissignac, micoliths were associated with pollen evidence for
Some scholars speculate that megalithic graves might go back to the Mesolithic,
but this contention is difficult to prove, as most structures have been reused.
Large numbers of Microliths have been found under the chambered tomb of
The westernmost extensions of the Villeneuve-Saint-Germain
culture, based on a linearbandkeramic tradition are found in eastern Brittany
(Le Haut Meé). The use of schist from the eastern edge of the Breton Massif for
bracelets in settlements in the Paris Bassin attests to widespread trade. A
bracelet of polished stone found in a grave in the VSG-settlement of Jablines
Les-Longues-Raies was made of amphibolite from the island of Groix in southern
Morbihan, prooves trade with local Mesolithic communities.
The early passage graves date to between 4000 and 3000 bc, followed by evolved
passage graves between 300-2500 bc. In the later part of the Neolithic, allées
couvertes and simple dolmens became the predominant type of burial monument.
Some passage graves are decorated with incised lines, of which Gavrinis is
probably the best known example.
Some scholars see an influence of the central European Linearbandkeramic culture
in the finds from the longmounds of Mané Ty Ec and Mané Pochat er Ieu (Morbihan),
but this should rather be connected to the la Hoguette tradition, ultimately of
Cardial extraction. Carn-pottery, thin walled round based deep bowls, often with
applied crescents (croissants) is typical for early chambered tombs. It is found
in Finistère, Morbihan and Loire-Atlantique.
Middle Neolithic settlements include La Motte, La Butte-aux-Pierres and Lannic.
They mainly concentrate on the Coast. The pottery shows Chasséen influences.
Bowls are still round-bottomed, but with s-shaped profiles and vertically
perforated lugs. Some geometric decoration occurs, but is rather rare.
Vase-supports of Chassey-type are found as well, the Breton variety has been
named the Er Lannic type and is characterised by triangular perforations, while
the examples found on the Channel Islands show circular perforations. Other
local pottery types include Castellic grooved ware, Souc'h-ware, and Colpo-type
Stone circles like Er Lannic (a double oval of standing stones and a ditch)
sometimes contain settlement material and pottery of Chasséen-type. By the
middle of the 3rd century, the Kerugou, upper and lower Conguel and Rosmeur/Croh
Collé types became preponderant.
SOM-influenced pottery in central Brittany includes the Quessoy and Crec'h
Quille/Le Melus types. Collared bottles can be related to the
Kragenflaschenhorizont of the late TBK. Since the late 3rd millennium, Grand-Pressigny
flint was imported in some quantity. Some type of Breton axes were exported. For
example, dolerite axes made at Plussulien have been found in Britain. The dolmen
Mané-Lud at Locmariaquer is thought to show a picture of a boat.
Beaker material is known from some settlement sites, for example Kastel Koz,
other beakers were found in rivers. Marine beakers predominate, AOC-decoration
is found in Southern Brittany. Small gold plaques are known from beaker graves,
in Kerouaren a diadem has been found. There is no indication that the beaker
people already exploited the Armorican metal deposits.
The early Bronze age culture is commonly believed to have
grown out of Beaker roots, with some Wessex and Unetice influence. In the early
Bronze age, rich individual graves are found under barrows, which indicates a
complete change of the social structure. The Breton barrows have been divided
into two series by Cogné and Guiot, the first dating from 1900-1600 bc, the
second to 1600-1400 bc. The barrows of the first series can be up to 50 m in
diameter and 6 m high. They are found in Western Brittany, along the coast, the
Blavet river and at the southern border of the Monts d'Arrée. A few examples
have been recorded from Normandy. The barrows contain a small cairn over a stone
cist, wooden coffin or dry stone structure containing the burial. Often the
chambers are covered by large stone slabs. Sometimes roofed mortuary houses are
found, for example at St. Jude en Bourbriac. The stone cists can be quite large,
up to 4 m long, but always only contain an single body. Grave gifts include
amber beads, silver cups, gold-hilted daggers (Saint Adrien), tanged flint
arrowheads and stone axes. Because of these rich grave goods, J. Briard sees
them as burials of warrior-priests. Certainly not everybody was buried in this
way, but nothing is known of "commoner-burials", especially as bones are not
normally preserved in the acidic soils of Brittany. The gold-pin decoration of
the dagger hilts and the amber-beads show close connection to the Wessex-culture,
but there are technical differences. The barrow of Kernonen en Plouvorn,
Finistère, provides a good example of a rich burial of the first series.
The barrows of the second series are a bit smaller and show a more
inland-distribution. They do not normally contain metal, but numerous pottery
vessels, high biconical vessels, sometimes with a geometric decoration under the
rim, or single four-handled undecorated pots. There seems to be no division of
the grave goods by gender.
Glass-beads are found in some graves, for example at Mez-Nabat, Plouhinec (Finistère).
The later part of the early bronze age saw the beginning of the exploitation of
the Armorican tin deposits. Numerous hoards contain tools and weapons, but
metalwork is rarely found in burials or settlements, which makes the
synchronisation of hoards and settlements difficult. The Tréboul-group of hoards
is thought to be contemporaneous with the second series barrows. Decorated
spear-heads, flanged axes, palstaves and long daggers are typical. The hoard
from Bignan (Morbihan) contained only bronze jewellery.
Coastal salterns are known from the late Bronze Age onwards as well, for example
at Curnic, Guissény.
Pollen analysis shows that widespread clearance of the beech forests took place
in the early bronze age. Cereal pollen have been found at Porsguen, Plouescat,
for example. Domestic animals included sheep, goats and cattle, but hunting may
have still provided a lot of meat. La Roche, Videlles, has still 60% wild
animals among the animal bones, but it is not clear if this is typical.
Carbonised remains of naked wheat and barley have been found at Plounéour-Trez,
hazelnuts and acorns were eaten as well. Flint still formed an important part of
the tool inventory.
Some standing stones (Menhirs) and stone alignments date to the early bronze
age, for example the Grand Menhir Brisé at Locmariaquer.
The later Bronze age sees only a slight Urnfield influence. Hoards are numerous.
The Saint-Brieuc-des-Iffs phase marks the beginnings of the Atlantic bronze
industries. It is succeeded by the carp's-tongue complex, found in Britain and
Portugal as well.
The square-socketed armorican axes turn up in hoards in great numbers. At
Maure-de-Bretagne, over 4000 axes have been found, ca. 800 at Tréhou and Loudéac.
The axes are mainly unused and may have been a form of ingot of primitive
currency. They contain a high amount of lead or consist of pure lead and are
distributed from the Iberian Peninsula to eastern Germany, Ireland and Southern
Britain, with some pieces from Scotland, Poland and Switzerland. Different
regional types are known: Brandivy in Morbihan, Dahouet and Plurien on the North
coast, Tréhou in Finistère. The miniature types of Maure-de-Bretagne,
Ille-et-Villaine and Couville are typical of Upper Brittany.
Copper was imported from Spain as plano-convex ingots, as found in the hoard of
Settlements have rarely been excavated, Ploubazlanec at the mouth of the Trieux
is an example of a fortified village.
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
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 Tene date.
An estimated 40-55 kg of salt were per oven were produced at Ebihens. Each oven
was about 2 m long. The site dates to the end of the early La Tene or the middle
La Téne 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.
Early Middle Ages
Around 500 AD, the Roman troops were withdrawing. Some
British authors (Nennius, Gildas) mention Britons fleeing to Armorica to escape
the invading Anglo-Saxons and Scoti. 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) .
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
In the Early Middle Ages, Brittany was divided into three kingdoms – Domnonia,
Cornouaille, and Bro Waroch - which eventually were incorporated into the Duchy
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, near Redon, in the eastern part of Brittany, near the French
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 the Bald 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.
The Breton War of Succession was fought 1341-1364.
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 François 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 François I incorporated the duchy into the Kingdom of France in 1532.
Brittany was a hotbed of resistance to the French Revolution
and its accompanying anti-clericalism.
Like the rest of the French state, Brittany came under Nazi occupation during
the second world war.
Brittany has its own secessionist movement which has experienced varying success
The removal of Loire-Atlantique, which contains Nantes (the traditional Breton
capital) from the Breton region has also been a matter of much controversy.
French, the official language of the French Republic, is spoken all over
Brittany, but the region has two other languages: Breton, a Celtic language
related to Welsh; and Gallo, a Romance language related to French.
In rural areas, Breton was traditionally spoken in the west (the "Basse-Bretagne"),
and Gallo in the east. The dividing line stretched from Plouha on the north
coast to a point to the south-west 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 not only
from the dominant Francophone culture, but also from the Breton language revival
which is gaining ground in territory that was never part of the Breton-speaking
area. A large influx of English-speaking immigrants and second-home owners in
some villages sometimes adds to linguistic tensions.
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
A few bilingual (Breton and French) road signs may be seen in some areas,
especially in the traditional Breton-speaking area. Signage in Gallo is much
Since the 1970s Breton music has undergone a revival and has
become popular even outside the region. Alan Stivell resuscitated the Celtic
harp tradition, and folk rock groups such as Tri Yann, Sonerien Du (the "black
musicians") and others paved the way for younger groups who now offer a range of
Celtic-influenced rock, rap, and dance music.
A popular tradition is the fest noz -- best described as a Breton céilí.
Large-scale Celtic festivals are held in the summer in towns around the region.
The biggest of these is the Lorient's Festival Inter-Celtique, while Quimper
hosts the Festival de Cornouaille, one of the oldest. There are also numerous
rock and pop festivals; the biggest in Brittany (and indeed all France) is the
Festival des Vieilles Charrues (held in late July in Carhaix, Finistère). Others
include the Route du Rock (mid-August, Saint-Malo) and the Transmusicales, held
in Rennes in early December. Every four years, the city of Brest is the venue
for a giant contest of Vieux Gréements (Old Ships), which brings together some
of the world's finest wooden sailing ships.
Inspired by the Scottish pipe band tradition, an analogous movement was founded
in Brittany in the early second half of the 20th century, and the bagadoù (pipe
bands) with their bagpipes (known as binious), bombardes, and drums are today a
common phenomenon at festivals and public occasions.
Also to be seen at festivals are the traditional coiffes -- elaborate lace
headresses worn by women. The traditional costume is most often black and white,
which is one of the reasons for the choice of colours for the Breton flag (known
as the gwenn ha du the "white and black").
The 19th-century Pont-Aven school of Post-impressionist painting included Paul
Gauguin. The Surrealist Yves Tanguy was a Breton.
Breton folklore includes the legend of King Arthur, the legend of Ys, sprites
called korrigans, and Ankou -- the traditional figure of death whose job it is
to collect the souls of freshly dead people in his cart.
There is a well established Inter-Celtic cultural and musical link, and Brittany
is also represented in the Celtic Congress. The Bretons have their own Gorsedd,
and regularly attend the national Gorseddau of Cornwall and Wales. A popular
pan-Celtic festival is held in Lorient.
The bigouden is a Breton head-dress, which can reach to as high as 4 feet tall!