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Région Bretagne
Blason de la Bretagne
Capital: Rennes

 - Total

 - Density

2 972 700 (2003)

107 /km²
Area 27 208 km²
Censored pages 15
Cantons 201
Communes 1 268
President of the
regional council
Jean-Yves Le Drian
Localisation de la Bretagne en France
Historical Brittany
Historical Brittany
This is about the region in France; for other meanings of Brittany and Bretagne, see Brittany (disambiguation).

Brittany (French Bretagne, Breton Breizh, Gallo Bertaèyn) is a peninsula in north-west France, bordering the English Channel on the north and the Bay of Biscay on the south. It is also an administrative région of France. The historical capital was Nantes, but the modern capital of the region of Brittany is Rennes.

The département Loire-Atlantique (including the city of Nantes) was historically part of Brittany, but is now part of the Pays de la Loire region. A movement exists to transfer Loire-Atlantique back to the region of Brittany.



main article: History of Brittany

Human habitation in the area now called Brittany goes back to the late Paleolithic or Epi-Palaeolithic. Megaliths erected in the 5th millennium BC are the best known Neolithic remains. Roman sources record a number of tribes, the Veneti, Armoricani , Osismii , Namnetes and Coriosolites as inhabiting the area in the iron age, though there is plenty of evidence of earlier settlement.

In 56 BC the area was conquered by the Romans under Julius Caesar. The Romans called the district Armorica (a Latinisation of a Celtic word meaning "coastal region"), or Gallia Lugdunensis. The modern département of Côtes-d'Armor has taken up the ancient name. The uprising of the Bagaudae in the 3rd century AD led to the destruction of villages and to depopulation.

By the 4th century AD Romano-British tribes from across the English Channel started to settle. This flow of Britons increased when Roman troops and authority were withdrawn from Britain, and raiding and settling by Anglo-Saxons and Scotti into Britain increased. The immigrant Britons gave the region its current name and contributed to the Breton language, Brezhoneg, a sister language to Welsh and Cornish. The name Brittany (from "Little Britain") derived to distinguish the region from "Great Britain" in this time.

In the early Middle Ages, Brittany was divided into three kingdoms - Domnonia , Cornouaille, and Bro Waroch - which eventually were incorporated into the Duchy of Brittany.

The Kingdom of France defeated the Breton army in 1488 and the last Duke of independent Brittany was forced to submit to a treaty giving the King of France the right to determine the marriage of the Duke's daughter, 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. The duchy kept specific laws and taxes until 1790, when the French revolutionnaries withdrew all the "privilèges" (specific rules for certain communities or regions).


Brittany is famous for its megalithic monuments, which are scattered over the peninsula, the largest alignments are near Carnac. The purpose of these monuments is still unknown, and many local people are reluctant to entertain speculation on the subject. The words dolmen and menhir come from the Breton language, even though they are not used in Breton.

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

Besides the two historic capitals, significant urban centres include:

The walled city of Saint-Malo, a popular tourist attraction, is also an important port linking Brittany with the United Kingdom and the Channel Islands. The town of Roscoff is served by ferry links with the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

The island of Ushant (French Ouessant, Breton Enez Eusa) is the north-westernmost point in France, and marks the entrance of the English Channel. Besides Ushant, Brittany is encircled by other islands. The major ones are:

  • Bréhat
  • Batz
  • Molène
  • Sein
  • Glénan islands
  • Groix
  • Belle-Ile
  • Houat
  • Hoëdic
  • Ile-aux-Moines
  • Ile d'Arz


French, the official language of the French Republic is spoken all over Brittany, but the region has two regional languages.

A Celtic language, Breton, is still spoken in some parts of Brittany - traditionally in the west. In the east, Gallo, a langue d'oïl which is still spoken, was the traditional language until the French language came to dominate in the second half of the 19th century. Gallo now finds itself under pressure not only from the dominant Francophone culture, but also from the Breton language revival which is gaining ground not only in traditionally Gallo-speaking territory that was anciently Breton-speaking, but also in territory that was never part of the Breton-speaking area.

In some villages, an influx of English-speaking immigrants and second-home owners is adding to linguistic tensions.

The privately funded Diwan ["Seed"] schools, where most classes are taught in Breton by the immersion method, play an important part in this revival. The issue of whether they should be funded by the State has long been and still remains controversial.

Some bilingual road signage may be seen in some areas.


Traditional costume in Brittany around 1900
Traditional costume in Brittany around 1900

Since the 1970s Breton music has been revived and has become popular even outside the region. Alan Stivell revived 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 which 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 Celtic festivals are held in Summer in towns around the region - the biggest is the Festival Inter-Celtique of Lorient, whereas Quimper hosts the Festival de Cornouaille, one of the oldest. There exist also numerous rock and pop festivals ; the biggest (and biggest all over France) is the Festival des Vieilles Charrues (held in late July in Carhaix , Finistère), others are the Route du Rock (mid-August, Saint-Malo) and the Transmusicales of Rennes, held in early December. Every four years, the town Brest makes place for a giant contest of Vieux Gréements (Old Ships), which concentrates the world's best of wooden sailing ships.

Inspired by the Scottish pipe band tradition, in the early second half of the 20th century an analogous movement was founded in Brittany, and now the bagadoù (pipe bands) with their bagpipes (called binious), bombardes and drums are 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 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. There is a popular pan-Celtic festival in Lorient


The first Christian missionaries came from to the region from Ireland and the British Isles. With more than 300 "saints" (only a few recognized by the Catholic Church), the region is strongly Catholic, influenced by earlier pagan traditions. The proportion of students attending Catholic private schools is the highest in France. As in other Celtic countries, the legacy of Celtic Christianity has left a rich tradition of local saints and monastic communities, often commemorated in placenames beginning Lan, Lam or Loc. The patron saint of Brittany is 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 whose life was devoted 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 most famous pardon is from Locronan, with its troménie (a 12 km-long procession around the hill) 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. There are 7 founder saints of Brittany :

  • St Pol Aurelian (sant Paol), at Saint-Pol-de-Leon,
  • St Tugdual (sant Tudwall), at Tréguier
  • St Brieuc (sant Brieg), at Saint-Brieuc,
  • St Malo, at Saint-Malo,
  • St Samson of Dol (sant Samzun or Salaün), at Dol-de-Bretagne
  • St Patern, at Vannes
  • St Corentin (sant Kaourintin), at Quimper

Historically, the tour was made in one go (circ. 600 km). Nowadays, the pilgrims make the tour over several years. In 2002, the Tro-Breizh went on pilgrmage in Wales, symbolically making the reverse journey of the Welshmen Saint Paol, Saint Brieuc and Saint Samson.


As for eating and drinking, although some white wine is produced near the Loire, the traditional drinks of Brittany are:

  • cider - Brittany is the second largest cider-producing region in France;
  • a sort of mead made from wild honey called chouchen;
  • an apple brandy called lambic.

Some beers are also now produced, although the region does not have a strong tradition of brewing. 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 and called galettes are eaten with ham, eggs and other savoury fillings. 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.


The Breton national anthem Bro Goz ma Zadoù is set to the same tune as the Welsh anthem.

A number of independence groups exist and they enjoy increasing support in elections.

The Onion Johnny from the Roscoff area of Brittany was, ironically, for the British, the image of the stereotypical Frenchman.

See also

Last updated: 02-07-2005 04:03:30
Last updated: 02-11-2005 17:47:38