Travel and Leisure

A Guide to the Breton Culture of Brittany in France

The origins of Breton Culture

Between the 4th and 6th centuries missionaries from Wales travelled to the region, then known as Armorica by resident Romans, and set up monasteries. These missionaries became known as the ‘Seven Founder Saints’ of Brittany;

Saint Pol Aurelian, at St Pol de Leon
Saint Tudwal, at Treguier
Saint Brioc, at St Brieuc
Saintt Malo, at St Malo
Saint Samson of Dol, at Dol de Bretagne
Saintt Patern, at Vannes
Saint Corentin, at Quimper

During this time the region of Armorica was transformation into ‘Brittany’ when the Brythonic, people of British Celtic origins, settled in the areas around these monasteries. This is seen as the birth of Breton culture.

This wave of migration resulted in the emergence of an independent Breton people and established the Brythonic Breton language, Brezhoneg a sister language to Welsh and Cornish, as the main language of the region.

A number of Brythonic kingdoms formed which were defeated by the Franks in AD799. The Franks leader Charlemagne installed his own governor Nominoe to control the region, however, in the 840s Nominoe united the numerous Brythonic kingdoms as a defence against Frankish control.

Shortly after Brittany gets its first King, King Erispoe, who was Nominoes son. This forms the first independent Duchy of Brittany.

Nowadays Brittany and its people are included as one of the six Celtic nations.

Breton Symbols

Breton has its own distinct black and white flag ‘Gwenn Ha Du’ which was designed in the 1920s and incorporates two earlier flags;

Kroaz Du, the black cross, which was the reverse of the traditional Cornish flag and was the national flag until 1532.
Ar Banniel Erminigaouet, which was part of the arms of the Dukes of Brittany and dates back to 1316

The Breton national anthem ‘Bro Gozh ma Zadou’ is based on the Welsh song ‘Land of My Fathers’ whilst the traditional motto of the former Dukes of Brittany is ‘Kentoc’h mervel eget bezan saotret’.

The Breton national day is 19th May, the feast day of Saint Erwann (Saint Yves).

Breton – Language

Although there are over 4 million people living in Brittany it is thought that the Breton language, Brezhoneg, is only spoken by around 365,000 of them and only 240,000 of these speak it fluently.

There are four main Breton dialects, Gwenedeg, Kerneveg, Leoneg and Tregerieg. From 1880 to the mid-20th century Breton was banned from the French school system and children were punished for speaking it. This changed in 1951 when the Deixonne Law allowed the Breton language and culture to be taught 1-3 hours a week in school. Nowadays many schools in Brittany have bilingual French Breton classes.

There are several media sources in the Breton language available;

Newspapers and magazines – Al Lanv, Al Liamm, Louarnig-Rouzig and Breman
Radio stations – Arvorig FM, France Bleu Armorique, France Bleu Breizh-Izel, Radio Bro Gwened, Radio Kerne and Radio Kreiz Breizh
Television – France 3 Breizh, France 2 Iroise, TV Breizh and TV Rennes

It is also now common to find bilingual, French Breton, road signs in Brittany. Nowadays you can tell the original Breton parishes as the modern town or village names start ‘plou’, ‘ple’, or ‘plu’ or if a monastery was originally at the site the modern name starts ‘Lan’. If a village name ends in ‘ac’ then the village was already there before the Breton people arrived but the area would have still been heavily influenced by them.

Breton – Religion

The Breton people are predominantly Roman Catholic and the region is seen as one of the most staunchly Roman Catholic regions in all of France. The religion is considered as a symbol of Breton heritage and culture.

Breton religious tradition places great emphasis on the Seven Founder saints as well as religious practices such as pilgrimages like the ‘Tro Breizh’. The Tro Breizh, or tour of Brittany, involves pilgrims walking around Brittany from the grave of one of the Seven Founder Saints to another. Nowadays pilgrims complete the circuit over the course of several years. According to tradition whoever does not make the pilgrimage at least once in his lifetime will be condemned to make it after his death, advancing only by the length of his coffin each seven years.

Every village in Brittany holds a ‘Pardon’ every year. A Pardon is the patron saint’s feast day of the parish which begins with a procession followed by mass in honour of the saint. These are a day of celebrations for local residents and a Pardon will often be followed by a village fair. The three most famous Pardons are;

Sainte Anne d’Auray
Treguier (in honour of St Yves)
Locronan (in honour of St Ronan)

Breton – Costume

There is not a set standard Breton traditional costume as the colours and cuts can vary from town to town. However generally;

Men wear black trousers, black jackets and a wide brim hat.
Women can be found in dresses with tiered skirts and elaborate bodices. All women wear aprons embroidered or decorated with lace – the more extravagant the wealthier the family. Similarly womens lace headwear, the Coiffe, varies from small piece of lace over a hair bun to an elaborate towering creation.

Breton – Music and Dance

Music and dance feature heavily in Breton culture and is often celebrated at a ‘Fest Noz’ which is a traditional nighttime festival.

There are many traditional Breton dances such as the gavottes, the an dro, the hanter dro and the plinn. During a fest noz most dances are performed in a chain or in a circle whilst holding on to the next persons finger. However there are also dances in pairs and choreographed dances with sequences and figures.

The two main types of Breton music are chorala cappella which is accompanied by music or purely instrumental music. Traditional instruments include the bombarde which is like an Oboe and the Breton bagpipes. Other instruments often found are the diatonic accordion, the clarinet, the violin as well as the hurdy-gurdy.

Nowadays modern Breton music has been fused with a range of more modern styles such as rock and jazz.

Why not also check out the Guide2Brittany guide to ‘The History of Brittany’.

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