Context of Brittany

Brittany (; French: Bretagne [bʁətaɲ] (listen); Breton: Breizh, pronounced [bʁɛjs] or [bʁɛx]; Gallo: Bertaèyn [bəʁtaɛɲ]) is a peninsula, historical country and cultural area in the north-west of modern France, covering the western part of what was known as Armorica during the period of Roman occupation. It became an independent kingdom and then a duchy before being united with ...Read more

Brittany (; French: Bretagne [bʁətaɲ] (listen); Breton: Breizh, pronounced [bʁɛjs] or [bʁɛx]; Gallo: Bertaèyn [bəʁtaɛɲ]) is a peninsula, historical country and cultural area in the north-west of modern France, covering the western part of what was known as Armorica during the period of Roman occupation. It became an independent kingdom and then a duchy before being united with the Kingdom of France in 1532 as a province governed as a separate nation under the crown.

Brittany has also been referred to as Little Britain (as opposed to Great Britain, with which it shares an etymology). It is bordered by the English Channel to the north, Normandy to the northeast, eastern Pays de la Loire to the southeast, the Bay of Biscay to the south, and the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Its land area is 34,023 km2 (13,136 sq mi).

Brittany is the site of some of the world's oldest standing architecture, home to the Cairn of Barnenez, the Tumulus Saint-Michel and others, which date to the early 5th millennium BC. Today, the historical province of Brittany is split among five French departments: Finistère in the west, Côtes-d'Armor in the north, Ille-et-Vilaine in the northeast, Morbihan in the south and Loire-Atlantique in the southeast. Loire-Atlantique now belongs to the Pays de la Loire region while the other four departments make up the Brittany region.

At the 2010 census, the population of historic Brittany was estimated to be 4,475,295. In 2017, the largest metropolitan areas were Nantes (934,165 inhabitants), Rennes (733,320 inhabitants), and Brest (321,364 inhabitants). Brittany is the traditional homeland of the Breton people and is one of the six Celtic nations, retaining a distinct cultural identity that reflects its history. A nationalist movement seeks greater autonomy within the French Republic, or independence from it.

More about Brittany

Basic information
  • Internet domain .bzh
Population, Area & Driving side
  • Population 4687381
  • Area 34022
  • Prehistoric origins
    Prehistoric origins
    The Carnac stones

    Brittany has been inhabited by humans since the Lower Palaeolithic. This population was scarce and very similar to the other Neanderthals found in the whole of Western Europe. Their only original feature was a distinct culture, called "Colombanian".[1] One of the oldest hearths in the world has been found in Plouhinec, Finistère.

    Homo sapiens settled in Brittany around 35,000 years ago. They replaced or absorbed the Neanderthals and developed local industries, similar to the Châtelperronian or to the Magdalenian. After the last glacial period, the warmer climate allowed the area to become heavily wooded. At that time, Brittany was populated by relatively large communities who started to change their lifestyles from a life of hunting and gathering, to become settled farmers. Agriculture was introduced during the 5th millennium BC by migrants from the south and east. However, the Neolithic Revolution in Brittany did not happen due to a radical change of population, but by slow immigration and exchange of skills.[2]

    Neolithic Brittany is characterised by important megalithic production and sites such as Quelfénnec, it is sometimes designated as the "core area" of megalithic culture.[3] The oldest monuments, cairns, were followed by princely tombs and stone rows. The Morbihan département, on the southern coast, comprises a large share of these structures, including the Carnac stones and the Broken Menhir of Er Grah in the Locmariaquer megaliths, the largest single stone erected by Neolithic people.[citation needed]

    Gallic era
    The five Gallic tribes of Brittany

    During the protohistorical period, Brittany was inhabited by five Celtic tribes:[4]

    The Curiosolitae, who lived around the present town of Corseul. Their territory encompassed parts of Côtes-d'Armor, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan départements. The Namnetes, who lived in the current Loire-Atlantique département (in today's administrative région of Pays de la Loire), north of the Loire. They gave their name to the city of Nantes. The south bank of the river was occupied by an allied tribe, the Ambilatres,[5] whose existence and territory remain unsure.[4] The Osismii, who lived in the western part of Brittany. Their territory comprised the Finistère département and the western extremity of Côtes-d'Armor and Morbihan. The Redones (or Rhedones), who lived in the eastern part of the Ille-et-Vilaine département. They gave their name to the city of Rennes (Roazhon in Breton language, in the center of the département) and to the town of Redon (in the south of the département, bordering the département of Loire-Atlantique in the administrative région of Pays de la Loire, where its suburb town of Saint-Nicolas-de-Redon is located; however the city of Redon was founded around AD 832 under the initial name of Riedones, long after the Redones people were assimilated to Bretons; the cultural link between Riedones and the former Redones people is highly probable but difficult to recover and the name of Riedones may have been written from a local usage preserving the name of the former people in the vernacular oral language from a reading of an ancient Greek orthography). The Veneti, who lived in the present Morbihan département and gave their name to the city of Vannes. Despite confusion by the classical scholar Strabo, they were unrelated to the Adriatic Veneti.

    Those people had strong economic ties to the Insular Celts, especially for the tin trade[citation needed]. Several tribes also belonged to an "Armorican confederation" which, according to Julius Caesar, gathered the Curiosolitae, the Redones, the Osismii, the Unelli, the Caletes, the Lemovices and the Ambibarii.[6] The last four peoples mentioned by Caesar were respectively located in Cotentin (Lower-Normandy), pays de Caux (Upper-Normandy), Limousin (Aquitany) and the location of the Ambibarii is unknown. The Caletes are sometimes also considered as Belgians and ″Lemovices″ is probably a mistake for ″Lexovii″ (Lower-Normandy).[citation needed]

    Gallo-Roman era
    The temple of Mars in Corseul

    The region became part of the Roman Republic in 51 BC. It was included in the province of Gallia Lugdunensis in 13 BC. Gallic towns and villages were redeveloped according to Roman standards, and several cities were created. These cities are Condate (Rennes), Vorgium (Carhaix), Darioritum (Vannes) and Condevincum or Condevicnum (Nantes). Together with Fanum Martis (Corseul), they were the capitals of the local civitates. They all had a grid plan and a forum, and sometimes a temple, a basilica, thermae or an aqueduct, like Carhaix.

    The Romans also built three major roads through the region. However, most of the population remained rural. The free peasants lived in small huts, whereas the landowners and their employees lived in proper villae rusticae. The Gallic deities continued to be worshiped, and were often assimilated to the Roman gods. Only a small number of statues depicting Roman gods were found in Brittany, and most of the time they combine Celtic elements.[7]

    During the 3rd century AD, the region was attacked several times by Franks, Alamanni and pirates. At the same time, the local economy collapsed and many farming estates were abandoned. To face the invasions, many towns and cities were fortified, like Nantes, Rennes and Vannes.[7]

    A French map of the traditional regions of Brittany in Ancien Régime France. The earlier state of Domnonia or Domnonée that united Brittany comprised the counties along the north coast
    Immigration of Britons

    Toward the end of the 4th century, the Britons of what is now Cornwall on the South-Western peninsula of Great Britain began to emigrate to Armorica.[citation needed] Hence the Breton Language being more closely related to Cornish.

    The Romano-Britons

    The history behind such an establishment is unclear, but medieval Breton, Angevin and Welsh sources connect it to a figure known as Conan Meriadoc. Welsh literary sources assert that Conan came to Armorica on the orders of the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus,[a] who sent some of his British troops to Gaul to enforce his claims and settled them in Armorica. This account was supported by the Counts of Anjou, who claimed descent from a Roman soldier[b] expelled from Lower Brittany by Conan on Magnus's orders.[citation needed]

    The refugee Britons

    Regardless of the truth of this story, Brythonic (British Celtic) settlement probably increased during the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries.[citation needed]

    Scholars such as Léon Fleuriot have suggested 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 Armorica.[8] Their petty kingdoms are now known by the names of the counties that succeeded them—Domnonée (Devon), Cornouaille (Cornwall), Léon (Caerleon); but these names in Breton and Latin are in most cases identical to their British homelands. (In Breton and French, however, Gwened or Vannetais continued the name of the indigenous Veneti.) Although the details remain confused, these colonies consisted of related and intermarried dynasties which repeatedly unified (as by the 7th-century Saint Judicaël) before splintering again according to Celtic inheritance practices.[citation needed]


    The area was finally consolidated in the 840s under Nominoe in resistance to Frankish control.[9] Among the immigrant Britons, there were some clergymen who helped the evangelisation of the region, which was still pagan, particularly in rural areas.[citation needed]

    The Brythonic community around the 6th century. The sea was a communication medium rather than a barrier.
    Battle of the Catalaunian Plains

    The army recruited for Flavius Aetius to combat Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains included Romans, Visigoths, Franks, Alans and Armoricans, amongst others. The Alans were placed front and centre, opposite the Huns. The Armoricans supplied archers who attacked the Huns' front lines during the main battle and thwarted Attila's night assault on the Roman camp with a hail of arrows "like rain". After the battle was won, Aetius sent the Alans to Armorica and Galicia.


    The late 5th century Brittonic leader Riothamus received correspondence from the eminent Roman jurist Sidonius Apollinaris and was called "King of the Britons" by Jordanes. Some suggest that he was a Breton, though others believe that he was from Britain, pointing to the passage that he arrived in the land of the Biturges "by way of Ocean", which would hardly have been efficient or required for a Breton. Both historians describe Riothamus's losing battle against King Euric of the Visigoths at Déols around the year 470.

    In response to a plea from the Roman Emperor Anthemius, Riothamus had led twelve thousand men to establish a military presence in Bourges in central Gaul, but was betrayed by Arvandus, the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, and subsequently ambushed by Euric's army.[c] After a long battle, the Armorican survivors escaped to Avallon in Burgundy, after which they are lost to history. According to Breton king-lists, Riotham survived and reigned as Prince of Domnonia until his death sometime between 500 and 520, though this may have been a different person.

    Middle Ages The Kingdom of Brittany
    A 1922 nationalist engraving of Nominoe, first king of Brittany
    Battle of Ar Roc'h-Derrien during the War of the Breton Succession

    At the beginning of the medieval era, Brittany was divided among three kingdoms, Domnonea, Cornouaille and Broërec. These realms eventually merged into a single state during the 9th century.[10][11] The unification of Brittany was carried out by Nominoe, king between 845 and 851 and considered as the Breton Pater Patriae. His son Erispoe secured the independence of the new kingdom of Brittany and won the Battle of Jengland against Charles the Bald. The Bretons won another war in 867, and the kingdom reached then its maximum extent: It received parts of Normandy, Maine and Anjou and the Channel Islands.

    Viking occupation

    Brittany was heavily attacked by the Vikings at the beginning of the 10th century. The kingdom lost its eastern territories, including Normandy and Anjou, and the county of Nantes was given to Fulk I of Anjou in 909. However, Nantes was seized by the Vikings in 914. At this time Brittany was also called Lydwiccum.[12]

    The Duchy of Brittany

    Nantes was eventually liberated by Alan II of Brittany in 937 with the support of his godbrother King Æthelstan of England.

    Alan II totally expelled the Vikings from Brittany and recreated a strong Breton state. For aiding in removing the problem, Alan paid homage to Louis IV of France (who was Æthelstan's nephew and had returned from England in the same year as Alan II) and thus Brittany ceased to be a kingdom and became a duchy.

    Norman allies

    Several Breton lords helped William the Conqueror to invade England and the Bretons formed over a third of the landing force in 1066. They received large estates there (e.g. William's double-second cousin Alan Rufus and the latter's brother Brian of Brittany). The Bretons helped to liberate the Cornish, replacing Anglo-Saxon land owners. Some of these lords were powerful rivals.

    Internal disputes

    Medieval Brittany was far from being a united nation. The French king maintained envoys in Brittany, alliances contracted by local lords often overlapped and there was no specific Breton unity. For example, Brittany replaced Latin with French as its official language in the 13th century, 300 years before France did so, and the Breton language didn't have formal status.

    The foreign policy of the Duchy changed many times; the Dukes were usually independent, but they often contracted alliances with England or France depending on who was threatening them at that point. Their support for each nation became very important during the 14th century because the English kings had started to claim the French throne.

    The Breton War of Succession, a local episode of the Hundred Years' War, saw the House of Blois, backed by the French, fighting with the House of Montfort, backed by the English. The Montforts won in 1364 and enjoyed a period of total independence until the end of the Hundred Years' War, because France was weakened and stopped sending royal envoys to the Court of Brittany.

    English diplomatic failures led to the Breton cavalry commanders Arthur, Comte de Richemont (later to become Arthur III, Duke of Brittany) and his nephew Peter II, Duke of Brittany playing key roles on the French side during the deciding stages of the war (including the battles of Patay, Formigny and Castillon and the Treaty of Arras).

    Brittany importantly lost the Mad War against France in 1488, mostly because of its internal divisions that were exacerbated by the corruption at the court of Francis II, Duke of Brittany. Indeed, some rebel Breton lords were fighting on the French side.

    Union with the French Crown and modern period
    Anne of Brittany is regarded in Brittany as a conscientious ruler who defended the duchy against France.

    As a result of the Mad War, the Duke Francis II could not have his daughter Anne married without the king of France's consent. Nonetheless, she married the Holy Roman Emperor in 1490, leading to a crisis with France. Charles VIII of France besieged Rennes and had the marriage cancelled. He eventually married Anne of Brittany. After he died childless, the duchess had to marry his heir and cousin Louis XII. Anne unsuccessfully tried to preserve Breton independence, but she died in 1514, and the union between the two crowns was formally carried out by Francis I in 1532. He granted several privileges to Brittany, such as exemption from the gabelle, a tax on salt that was very unpopular in France.[13] Under the Ancien Régime, Brittany and France were governed as separate countries but under the same crown, so Breton aristocrats in the French royal court were classed as Princes étrangers (foreign princes).

    From the 15th to the 18th century, Brittany reached an economic golden age.[d] The region was located on the seaways near Spain, England and the Netherlands and it greatly benefited from the creation of a French colonial empire. Local seaports like Brest and Saint-Brieuc quickly expanded, and Lorient, first spelled "L'Orient", was founded in the 17th century. Saint-Malo then was known for its corsairs, Brest was a major base for the French Navy and Nantes flourished with the Atlantic slave trade. On its side, the inland provided hemp ropes and canvas and linen sheets. However, Colbertism, which encouraged the creation of many factories, did not favour the Breton industry because most of the royal factories were opened in other provinces. Moreover, several conflicts between France and England led the latter to restrain its trade, and the Breton economy went into recession during the 18th century.

    The centralisation problem

    Two significant revolts occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries: the Revolt of the papier timbré (1675) and the Pontcallec conspiracy (1719). Both arose from attempts to resist centralisation and assert Breton constitutional exceptions to tax.[14]

    Breton exodus

    Many Bretons crossed the Atlantic to support the American War of Independence.[15] These included many sailors such as Armand de Kersaint and soldiers such as Charles Armand Tuffin, marquis de la Rouërie.

    The French Revolution of 1789 – Division of Brittany into five departments
    Province of Brittany (1789) - showing internal borders of five new departments: Côtes-du-Nord (now Côtes-d'Armor), Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine, Loire-Inférieure (now Loire-Atlantique) and Morbihan.

    The Duchy was legally abolished with the French Revolution that began in 1789 - and in 1790 the province of Brittany was divided into five departments: Côtes-du-Nord (later Côtes-d'Armor), Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine, Loire-Inférieure (later Loire-Atlantique) and Morbihan. Brittany essentially lost all its special privileges that existed under the Duchy. Three years later, the area became a centre of royalist and Catholic resistance to the Revolution during the Chouannerie.

    During the 19th century, Brittany remained in economic recession, and many Bretons emigrated to other French regions, particularly to Paris. This trend remained strong until the beginning of the 20th century. Nonetheless, the region was also modernising, with new roads and railways being built, and some places being industrialised. Nantes specialised in shipbuilding and food processing (sugar, exotic fruits and vegetables, fish...), Fougères in glass and shoe production, and metallurgy was practised in small towns such as Châteaubriant and Lochrist, known for its labour movements.

    The mutineers of Fouesnant arrested by the National Guard of Quimper in 1792

    The region remained deeply Catholic, and during the Second Empire, the conservative values were strongly reasserted. When the Republic was re-established in 1871, there were rumours that Breton troops were mistrusted and mistreated at Camp Conlie during the Franco-Prussian War because of fears that they were a threat to the Republic.[16]

    A Royal Air Force attack on Saint-Malo in 1942

    During the 19th century, the Breton language started to decline precipitously, mainly because of the Francization policy conducted under the Third Republic. On one hand, children were not allowed to speak Breton at school, and were punished by teachers if they did. Famously, signs in schools read: "It is forbidden to speak Breton and to spit on the floor" ("Il est interdit de parler Breton et de cracher par terre").[17]

    The Amoco Cadiz oil spill in 1978 significantly affected the Breton coast

    At the same time, the Celtic Revival led to the foundation of the Breton Regionalist Union (URB) and later to independence movements linked to Irish, Welsh, and Scottish and Cornish independence parties in the UK, and to pan-Celticism. However, the audience of these movements remained very low and their ideas did not reach a large public until the 20th century. The Seiz Breur movement, created in 1923, permitted a Breton artistic revival[18] but its ties with Nazism and the collaborationism of the Breton National Party during World War II weakened Breton nationalism in the post-war period.

    Brittany lost 240,000 men during the First World War.[19] The Second World War was also catastrophic for the region. It was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940 and freed after Operation Cobra in August 1944. However, the areas around Saint-Nazaire and Lorient only surrendered on 10 and 11 May 1945, several days after the German capitulation. The two port towns had been virtually destroyed by Allied air raids, like Brest and Saint-Malo, and other towns, such as Nantes and Rennes, had also suffered.

    In 1956, Brittany was legally reconstituted as the Region of Brittany, although the region excluded the ducal capital of Nantes and the surrounding area. Nevertheless, Brittany retained its cultural distinctiveness, and a new cultural revival emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. Bilingual schools were opened, singers started to write songs in Breton, and ecological catastrophes such as the Amoco Cadiz oil spill or the Erika oil spill and water pollution from intensive pig farming favoured new movements to protect the natural heritage.

    ^ Nathalie Molines and Jean-Laurent Monnier (1993). Le " Colombanien ": un faciès régional du Paléolithique inférieur sur le littoral armoricano-atlantique. Vol. 90. Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française. p. 284. ^ Thomas, Julian (1 December 2004). "Current debates on the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Britain and Ireland". Documenta Praehistorica. 31. p. 117. doi:10.4312/dp.31.8. ISSN 1854-2492. ^ Mark Patton, Statements in Stone: Monuments and Society in Neolithic Brittany, Routledge, 1993, p.1 ^ a b Venceslas Kruta (2000). Les Celtes, Histoire et Dictionnaire. Robert Laffont. p. 427. ISBN 2-7028-6261-6. ^ Giot (P. R), Briard (J.) and Pape (L.) (1995). Protohistoire de la Bretagne. Ouest-France Université. p. 370. ^ Julius Caesar. Commentarii de Bello Gallico. VII. p. 75. ^ a b Université de Rennes II (ed.). "Archéologie classique". Archived from the original on 31 May 2004. Retrieved 26 February 2013. ^ Léon Fleuriot, Les origines de la Bretagne: l'émigration, Paris, Payot, 1980. ^ Smith, Julia M. H. Province and Empire: Brittany and the Carolingians, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 80–83. ^ Christian Y. M. Kerboul (1997). Les Royaumes brittoniques au très haut Moyen Âge. Éditions du Pontig/Coop Breizh. pp. 80–143. ISBN 2-9510310-3-3. ^ Joël Cornette (2005). Histoire de la Bretagne et des Bretons. Seuil. ISBN 2-02-054890-9. ^ Lewis, Stephen M. "Óttar's Story – A Dublin Viking in Brittany, England and Ireland, A.D. 902-918". ^ Constance De La Warr, A Twice Crowned Queen: Anne of Brittany, Peter Owen, 2005 ^ Joël Cornette, Le marquis et le Régent. Une conspiration bretonne à l'aube des Lumières, Paris, Tallandier, 2008. ^ "Breton American History". Archived from the original on 26 February 2015. Retrieved 26 February 2015. ^ "Rennes, guide histoire" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 July 2011. Retrieved 3 May 2011. ^ Annales de Bretagne et des pays de l'ouest, (Anjou, Maine, Poitou, Touraine). Université d'Angers. 1976. ^ J. R. Rotté, Ar Seiz Breur. Recherches et réalisations pour un art Breton moderne, 1923–1947, 1987. ^ Jean Markale and Patrice Pellerin (1994). Une histoire de la Bretagne. Éditions Ouest France. p. 46. ISBN 2-7373-1516-6.

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    When swimming in the sea, watch out for rips and undercurrents, like in the Golfe du Morbihan. Be mindful that the tide can come at a very fast pace so watch out or you might be stranded on an outlying island! Check the tides (marées) in your local tourist office. Ask for a table of the tides.

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