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            Region of Brittany 
                Dépts: Côtes-du-Nord [22] | Finistère [29] | Ille-et-Vilaine [35] | Morbihan [56]

 
Introduction to the Region of Brittany [Bretagne]
 

The Location of Brittany
The Region of Brittany [Bretagne] is located on the peninsula, that extends about 150 miles into the Atlantic, in the extreme northwest of France, and separates the English Channel from the Bay of Biscay.  It is almost identical to the historic province of Bretagne, and consists of the départements of Côtes-d’Armor [Côtes-du-Nord], Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan.  The old province also contained the Département of Loire-Atlantique, which is now a part of the Region of Pays-de-la-Loire.  The region is bordered by the English Channel to the north, Basse-Normandie [Lower Normandy] to the northeast, Pays-de-la-Loire [Western Loire] to the east, the Bay of Biscay to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.  Its capital is Rennes

The History of Brittany
People probably lived in the region before 8000 BC.  The first known, but unidentified peoples, built the great prehistoric megalithic monuments, known as menhirs and dolmens, that still stand.  These were probably constructed between 3500 and 1800 BC, and are located near the town of Carnac and at other sites.  When the Celts migrated here they, in all likelihood, intermingled with the prehistoric peoples, and built the region into a confederation of Cymric Celtic tribes

In 56 BC, Julius Caesar conquered the region for Rome.  This addition to the Roman Empire was known by two names: Armorica, a Romanization of the Celtic word for ‘seaside’, and ‘Gallia Lugdunensis.  The name of the Département of Côtes-d’Armor is derived from the Romanized Celtic word.  Although the region’s name was easily Romanized, the region’s inhabitants were not.  They were probably the least Romanized of all of Gaul, especially when it came to the use of the Latin language. 

The Romans withdrew from Armorica in the 5th century.  They were replaced, especially in the northwestern part of Armorica, over the course of the 5th and 6th centuries, by other Celts from Britain who were fleeing the Anglo-Saxon invaders.  During the next 300 years there was a literal ‘invasion’ of Celtic missionaries from the British Isles who came to Christianize the Celts of Brittany.  Thus, from the Celtic migration and the inundation of missionaries, the region became known as Bretagne, the French word for Britain, or Brittany.  The Celts that migrated there were known as ‘Bretons’, the French for ‘Britons’. 

The people of Brittany have always felt apart from the French.  During the Middle Ages, when the French language was hardly spoken in most parts of Brittany, they fought to be an independent duchy.  Over the course of the 7th and 8th centuries Brittany spawned a number of principalities.  Early in the 9th century, these principalities became subjugated to Charlemagne.  In the 846, they were united under their national hero Nomenoë who lead a revolt against the Charlemagne’s grandson, the Carolingian king Charles the Bald, and won their independence.  Later, Nomenoë repelled the Norse invaders.  In the 10th century, his successors located the capital of their duchy at Rennes.  In 922, Geoffrey, count of Rennes, became the duke of Brittany.  During this period, there was great conflict with the Norman dukes to the northeast. 

The duchy of Brittany was annexed into the Angevin Empire in 1171.  This took place due to the marriage dowry received by Geoffrey Plantagenet, the son of Henry II, king of England.  Subsequently, the duchy fell under the control of the French Capetian dynasty.  In the 13th century, control of the duchy reverted to the French dukes who were located at Rennes.  During the later part of the Middle Ages, in the mid 14th century, a civil war broke out in Brittany between the supporters for a French heir and those for an English heir to Brittany.  The Montforts, who won out, tried to keep the region neutral for the remainder of the Hundred Years’ War

In 1491, when Anne of Brittany married the French king Charles VIII, Brittany was temporarily united with France.  She subsequently married Louis XII.  During the reign of Francis I, who had married Anne’s daughter Claude, the union with France became formal.  The treaty of 1532 made Brittany a French province.  It also guaranteed local privileges to the region.  Over the course of the next two centuries, Brittany fought the crown’s attempts to centralize all power. 

In the years of the French Revolution, Brittany was in opposition to the forced reorganization of the Roman Catholic Church.  In both the 19th and the 20th centuries, Brittany had been conservative in maintaining the old religious sentiments.  There is, even today, an ingrained separatist movement in the region.  And today, over a quarter of Brittany’s population speak Breton, a language that is closely related to the Celtic Cornish and Welsh.  The Universities of Brittany, in Brest and Rennes, are centers for Celtic studies. 

The Geography of Brittany
Brittany’s coast is both rugged and indented, composed of rocky land in the north and sandy, sun swept beaches in the south.  The jagged, 750 mile long coastline, which is twice as long as it would be if it were not jagged, is doted with small and picturesque fishing villages.  Much of the coastline, especially at the western tip of Brittany, is characterized by cliffs, capes, islands, rocks and reefs and by ominous topographical names.  The coast is at its most beautiful at high tide, and the difference between high-tide and low-tide is among the world’s greatest – up to 49 feet at the Bay of Saint-Michel and 43 feet on the Bay of Saint-Malo.  And, where the tides are the greatest, the distance between the high-tide mark and the low-tide mark can be the greatest – up to 12 miles at the Bay of Saint-Michel.  The visual effect of the incoming tides’ height and speed is awesome.  The waves can reach 100 feet in height and the sound is deafening.  Its shock can be felt up to 18 miles away. 

The peninsula’s interior is set on the Argoat [country of the wood] plateau where small farm fields are surrounded by hedgerows.  This is a landscape known as bocage.  The region is known for its scenic villages and towns and its picturesque landscapes.  However, it is no longer a ‘country of wood’.  Since Roman times, the once immense forests of beech and oak have been cut so that only scattered strips of trees are left.  These are mostly found near the banks of the rivers. 

Brittany is characterized by a large number of small villages, several small towns, one city and no large urban areas.  Rennes, the capital, is the region’s only city.  Brest, which is located at the far western tip of the peninsula, is a French naval base.  Lorient, which is located along Brittany’s southern coast, is a major fishing port. 

The Culture of Brittany
Brittany developed a unique culture due to its long isolation from the rest of France.  Until the first part of the 19th century, the vast majority of its inhabitants spoke Breton and their everyday dress consisted of distinct local costumes.  This Breton culture can be seen today during church festivals and other events when the old costumes with their “coiffes” [hats of lace] – a different hat in each area – can be seen.

The differential between Brittany, and the rest of France, was reduced after the last half of the 19th century.  Today, most Bretons speak French and wear modern Western-style clothing, while only one-forth of the population can speak Breton.  Only a small fraction of the population still wears traditional costumes on a daily basis, and most of them are older women.  Traditional costumes are now only common on special occasions. 

Catholicism has been a strong regional influence since the 4th and 5th centuries, with most Bretons being Roman Catholics.  Brittany has conserved its social structure most in the rural areas where families are large and under paternal authority and the nobility still has influence.  Most holidays are also church festivals and mark the foundation of the region’s religious and social life. 

The BLF, the Breton Liberation Front, is an illegal organization to which only a small number of Bretons subscribe.  It advocates absolute independence for the region, and its members have carried out terrorist bombing with the object of calling attention to their cause.  However, the vast majority of Bretons advocate French rule, with the majority of those calling for more local control of their political affairs.  A common thread, between all groups, is dismay over the decline of the Breton culture and a desire to restore its importance. 

The Language of Brittany
Breton is spoken principally in the Brittany départements of Cotes-d’Armor, Finestere and Morbihan.  It is a subclass of the Brythonic group of Celtic languages.  It is spoken in Brittany, having been introduced there by the Brythonic Celtic refugees that settled there after fleeing southern England in the 5th and 6th centuries.  Since the 17th century, the language has been subgrouped into the four major regional dialects of Cornouaille, Léon, Tréquier and Vannes.  All four are more closely related to the Welsh than to the Cornish Celtic language.  Breton has been greatly influenced by both the preexisting Celtic language of Brittany and by the French language. 

The Cornish and Welsh versions of the language absorbed a vast number of English loan words during a time that Breton’s vocabulary was substantially increased by the French.  More recently, during the mid-20th century, two standardized forms of Breton were developed for the express purpose of encouraging the language’s literary development.  The French government has not been sympathetic to this goal and officially encourages the French language, which is mandatory in school.  Breton cannot be taught in primary and secondary schools.  It is consequentially not surprising that the number of speakers of Breton is decreasing.  Today, very few children are being raised in the Breton language and the vast majority of Breton speakers are only literate in French. 

The Economy of Brittany
Fishing, farming and tourism are the important sectors of Brittany’s economy.  Of the three, fishing is the mainstay.  Brittany accounts for both the greatest number of tones, and the greatest monetary value of the catch, about a third of France’s fishing catch.  Over the years, many farms have consolidated and, although they continue to raise fodder, many concentrate on animal husbandry.  Brittany is a leading producer of milk products.  Chickens and pigs are raised in feedlots to produce meat that is sent to the rest of France.  Due to a lack of energy and raw materials, its industries have remained relatively undeveloped, with the exception of space and telecommunications industries that have grown rapidly in the Département of Cotes-d’Armor.  These industries have fueled the development of related industries in Brest and Rennes.
 

The Gastronomy of Brittany

  • The Wine
  • The Cheese
  • The Cuisine
 
 
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 © Copyright 1999 - 2014 by Sharon Atchley.  All rights reserved.  Updated:  07/13/2014