The Bretons of Brittany, France
Way up in the northwestern section of France is a peninsula that is windswept with a craggy coastline filled high with stone rocks and cliffs. It has its own culture and language much different than French and the people are hearty and work the land.
There are golden beaches along dramatic coastlines as well as mysterious and ancient burial grounds along with medieval chateaus. Here the land and people are steeped in the myths and legends of King Arthur and Merlin.
Also here, the Celtic culture is alive and well with its strong tradition of unique music, dance and traditional costumes from centuries gone past.
The Bretons of Brittany, France or Breizh, as they call their native land, are the last vestiges of the Celtic Britons that migrated from Great Britain and gave their name to this northwest section of France. They speak both their traditional language, Breton or Brezhoneg and also French, the first language of France.
These hearty people have preserved their distinct and different culture and language in France since the fifth century and continue to do so today although the Breton language is becoming an endangered language.
Today, Brittany has a population of approximately four million people. The Breton language is the only Celtic language still spoken on the European continent today with approximately 365,000 speaking Breton of whom 240,000 speaking it fluently. Most speakers are over sixty-five years of age and this is why the language is becoming an endangered one.
Efforts are being made today to keep Breton a living language by teaching it in the French schools, although France does not recognize it as a regional language. French is the first and only official language of France today. Therefore, most Bretons today speak both French and Breton.
The Breton People
This interesting ethnic group traces their heritage to the groups of Brittonic speakers who emigrated from southwestern Britain, including Cornwall, England to avoid the Germanic tribes that were entering Great Britain.
These Britons migrated in two large waves from the third through the ninth century, and most heavily from 450-600 AD, to the Armorican peninsula (as named by the Romans) which was subsequently named Brittany after them.
Breton is part of the Insular Celtic languages from the British Isles, specifically the Brythonic branch or the P-Celtic languages.
Brittany and its people are counted as one of the six modern Celtic nations by the Celtic League:
- Gaelic Scotland
- Cornwall, England
- Isle of Man
- Brittany, France
It is believed by historians that a large number of Britons in the Roman army may have been stationed on this peninsula around 380 AD. During the ninth century, the Historica Brittonum, written by Geoffrey Monmouth, states that Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus settled troops there after they withdrew from Britain.
Then, the British and Welsh authors, Nennius and Gildas, mention a second wave of Britons that settled in Brittany in the the fourth and fifth centuries to escape the Anglo-Saxons and Scoti moving into Great Britain
These Britons gave this region its current name, Brittany, and contributed to the Breton language, a sister language to Cornish and Welsh.
The legends tell us that Conan Meriodoc was the mythic founder of the House of Rohan and is mentioned in several Welsh sources as having led the settlement of Brittany by mercenaries serving Maximus.
Modern French scholars, such as Leon Fleureot, suggest a two-wave model of migration from Britain which saw the emergence of an independent Breton people and established the dominance of the Brythonic Breton language in Brittany.
During the Briton emigration to Brittany, several Christian missionaries and saints, mostly Welsh, came to the region and founded Christian Roman Catholic dioceses. The patron saint of Brittany is St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Brittany has always been the most devoutly of the Catholic regions in France.
By the early middle ages period, Brittany was divided between three kingdoms:
These three kingdoms eventually merged into a single state during the ninth century. King Nominoe (845-851 AD) unified Brittany and he is considered as the Breton pater patriae.
Erispoe, Nominoe's son, secured the independence of the new kingdom of Brittany when he won the Battle of Jenland against Charles, the Bald, son of Charlemagne. The Bretons resisited incorporation into the Frankish Carolingian Empire.
During the 10th century, Brittany was attacked by Vikings. Alan II of Brittany expelled the Vikings from Brittany in 937 AD and recreated a strong Breton state.
However, he paid homage to Louis IV of France and thus Brittany ceased to be an independent kingdom and became a duchy of France. It was united into the Kingdom of
France in 1532 as a province.
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The Breton Language
Most of the Celts living on continental Europe during the Halstatt and La Tene era were Gauls and spoke Gaulish Celtic languages. Because Brittany was inhabited by Britons in the fifth and sixth centuries, they brought the Insular Celtic or Brythonic language to Brittany. The Brythonic Celtic languages are not closely related to Gaulish.
It is believed by historians and linguists that the Gaulish inhabitants of the interior of Brittany adopted the Brittonic language. The demarcation line of the Breton language is west of a line of the cities of Alet, Corseul and Vannes.
Breton is most closely related to Cornish and distantly related to Welsh as both are southwestern Brittonic languages where the Breton people emigrated from. Breton derives from the P-Celtic languages of southwestern Britain as opposed to the Q-Celtic languages of Ireland and Scotland. Breton is most distant from the Irish and Gaelic Scottish languages.
Many Breton surnames derive from the word ker (meaning house) plus another syllable based on a Christian name. Some examples:
- Kerjean (house of John)
- Kerbol (house of Paul)
- Kerber (house of Peter)
Syllables commonly found in Breton place names are:
- plou - meaning parish
- lann - maning church
- gui - meaning town
- bihan - meaning small
- braz - meaning large
- men - meaning stone
- mar - meaning sea
Another regional language of Brittany is Gallo, a Romance language descended from Latin. It is unlike Gaulish also. Gallo is closer to French although not mutually intelligible. However, Gallo does share certain points of vocabulary, idiom and pronunciation with Breton.
Breton is spoken in Lower Brittany (western) and Gallo is spoken in Upper Brittany (eastern. See map)
The history of the Breton language can be divided into three parts:
- Old Briton - before 1000 AD. The oldest surviving manuscript in the Breton language comes from this period. It is a botanical manuscript kept in Leyden, the Netherlands and it predates by more than a century the oldest text referenced in French.
- Middle Breton - 1000AD to the 17th century. Catholican of Jehan Lagadeuc, the first to write a multi-lingual dictionary in 1477. It lists and defines words in Breton, French, and Latin.
- Modern Breton - 19th century. The publicatiuon of Barzaz Breiz of Barzaz Breiz of La Villemarque (1849)
Old Breton, therefore, has been attested to from the late ninth century. It was the language of the upper classes until about the 12th century, after which, it became the language of the commoners of western Brittany.
By the 12th century, the nobility followed by the bourgeoisie adopted the French language. The written language of the Duchy of Brittany was Latin and switched to French around the 15th century.
Old Breton extant words are glosses in Latin manuscripts from the ninth and tenth centuries that are now scattered in libraries and collections throughout Europe. Historians and researchers believe that Old Breton literature inspired much of Arthurian literature. The story of Tristan and Iseult and the romances of French historian and writer Cretien de Troy are believe to have come from the Bretons during the Old Breton language period.
According to historians, Broceliands is located in Brittany and is considered today to be the Paimpont forest. Ruins of a castle around the lake are associated with the Lady of the Lake and a dolmen is said to be Merlin's tomb and a path is presented as Morgan le Fay's Val sans Retour.
The Bretons had a highly verbal tradition during the Old Breton period and passed their history, culture and customs down word of mouth from generation to generation.
The oldest surviving manuscript form the Old Breton period has even predated any of the French manuscripts that have survived over the centuries.
This botanical manuscript is the most ancient text in a continental Brythonic language and was studied by the late professor Leon Fleuriot (1923-1987). The manuscript is a fragment of medicinal recipes composed of plants, suggesting that the Breton language may well have been used by people of learning at the turn of the 11th century.
Another Breton manuscript on display at the British Library in London, is the Breton Gospel, which dates from about the ninth century. Although mostly written in Latin it is an important work in terms of the wider scope of Breton culture. This manuscript attests to the high degree of learning and monasterial wealth in Brittany comparable to that of the Lindisfarne Gospels (England) and the Book of Kells (Ireland).
The Breton Gospel contains the Latin text of the Four Gospels from the New Testament of the Bible, along with prefatory material and canon tables. The Breton Gospel is written in the similar form of Carolingian minuscle (lower case letters) developed at Tours, France one of the classic centers of the Carolingian Revival or Renaissance.
The large illuminated letters of the Breton Gospel are like those found in the Carolingian manuscripts; however, the decoration is far more similar to the insular manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels and suggests a continuum of this cultural tradition. The decoration in the Breton Gospel is simpler and more geometric than in the insular manuscripts.
Before the 20th century, most of the Breton literature consists of religious writings. Jean-Francois Le Gondec (1775-1838) played an important role in Breton literature by initiating a reform of the Breton orthography. He produced an orderly Breton grammar and wrote the first Breton translation of the New Testament of the Bible.
Today, there are four traditional dialects of the Breton language that correspond to the medieval bishoprics rather than linguistic divisions:
- leong (county of Leon)
- tregerieg ( of Tregor)
- kerneveg ( of Cornouaille)
- gwenedeg ( of Vannes)
There are no clear boundaries between the dialects because they form a dialect continuum varying only slightly from one village to another.
The French constitution states that the French government does not provide official recognition rights or funds to support the use of regional traditional languages, so French is taught in schools and is the official language of the country.
Modern Breton culture/language
Since the 19th century, Brittany and its people began a revival of the Breton literature that continues to flourish today. The Breton language over the years has borrowed quite a lot of French vocabulary and some of the Gaulish language vocabulary into Breton.
From 1880 to the mid - 20th century, the Breton language was banned from the French school system and students were forbidden to speak it. France, today, does not recognize any local or regional languages. French is the only recognized language of France.
By 1951, however, the forbidden language situation changed with the Deixonne Law. This law allowed Breton language and culture to be taught in French schools on a part-time basis. A modern standard orthography of Breton was devised in1908, but the dialect gwenedeg or Vannetais was not included. That was changed in 1941 with a reformed orthography that finally included Vannetais.
But, because Breton is not recognized by the French government as an official or regional language, it is now endangered. Breton, today, is mostly spoken in western Brittany. Eastern Brittany is where Gallo and French are spoken with a little Breton thrown in.
Since the 1990's, the Bretons are focusing on preserving their unique culture and language rather than on political separation from France, which they once considered doing. Since this time there is only a small number of people who speak Breton as a first language and they are mostly sixty-five years of age.
Today, there are several newspapers and magazines written in the Breton language. There are also Breton radio and television stations that broadcast in the Breton.
The Fest-noz, a Breton festival which began in the Middle Ages, was revived around the 1950's and is the traditional festival dance in Brittany. Other traditional Breton dances are gavottes, an dro, hanter dro and the pinn.
During the Fest-noz most of these dances are done in a chain or circle while holding the finger of the persons next to them. There are also pairs dancing and choreographed dances.
Of course, the traditional dress has continued and is worn during festivals and for tourism reasons. The men wear what I call the 'balloon pants' from the medieval and renaissance periods, with tights and wooden shoes.
The women wear long dark dresses adorned with much embroidery and lace. Their lace caps, called coiffes (pronounced kwaffs) are white lace with ribbons and each village or area has a different coiffe. Different types coiffes tell where the woman is from and if she is single, married or widowed.
The most unusual of the coiffes is the 'coiffe of Bigouden.' It is a thirty to forty cm high cylinder of starched lace perched on top of the head like a tower. It is an icon of folkloric Brittany.
It is named for the city of Bigouden, a city in Brittany, historically known as Cap Caval, along the Bay of Audierne in the most southwestern area of Brokernev, southwest of the city of Quimper, France. (Kemper)
The Breton cuisine is basically French, but has local specialties. The Bretons have their own version of the crepe called a krampouezh-crepe which is a large thin pancake, filled with ham and a sunny-side up egg, and then folded at the corners. It is the only crepe in France that is eaten as a main meal.
They also serve their crepes as desserts with a variety of fruits, jellies and jams to fill them. They are exquisite.
The Bretons also make a beverage called chouchenn which is a type of Breton mead. Another beverage is chistr, a cider drink. Farsforn is a sweet suet pudding with prunes and Kouign-amann is a meat butter pastry. Lambig is an apple eau de vie.
The Bretons are successfully continuing with their culture and customs today. Although, the Breton language is endangered, it is still being taught part-time in the French schools, so hopefully, enough Bretons will keep the language alive and spoken.