The Celtic Fringe: Changes in Brittany under Norman Control

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

Brittany, in France, is very important in the study of the Celtic world. When the Celtic fringe was formed, this region, along with others, such as Galicia in Spain, became doubly marginalized. Brittany underwent a series of sociopolitical changes that shaped the way its Celtic identity was perceived and, to a large extent, also shaped the region as it is today. 

Image of Honfleur harbor in the present day, Normandy, France.
Brittanny was under the control of the Scandinavian newcomers, the Normans, for a long period after they drove the Bretons out. (Image: andre quinou/Shutterstock)

The Celtic Fringe

The Celtic fringe was formed when the Celtic languages were overthrown in usage by Latin and, in some regions, by English. Much later, when there was a renewed interest in Celtic heritage, the ‘Celtic core’, which consisted of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, was formed, and speakers began to proudly proclaim their Celtic roots. These were all areas controlled by England and where English had displaced the Celtic languages. As a result of this commonality, a kinship emerged amongst speakers from these regions, who could now discuss the idea of Celtic identity and its oppression by the English, ironically, often using the English language. Now, this binding factor served as a cause of alienation for regions like Brittany and Galicia where English was not spoken, and they became doubly marginalized, even having to work hard to fit in within their image as part of the Celtic fringe.

A Brief History of Brittany

Brittany, which was called Armorica in Gaulish, was an area with a strong Celtic identity. Although it had been a prosperous region, the shift of trade routes from the east–west direction to the north–south direction had brought about a decline in its status. However, the economy seemed to pick up later on, and the region spent a series of fairly prosperous centuries under Roman control. 

But starting in the fifth century, the sociopolitical paradigm of the area changed as it began to experience a lot of migration from the southwest British regions, now referred to as Cornwall and Devon, and Roman power began to ebb. Their culture carried a lot of prestige, which is perhaps why their languages gradually took over in Brittany.

This Breton hegemony continued to push eastwards into France up until the 10th century, which is when the arrival of the Scandinavian newcomers, the Normans, put a stop to the Breton expansion.  After a series of wars, Brittany ended up under Norman control. 

Learn more about Celtic Britain after Rome.

Duke William of Normandy

A portrait of Duke William of Normandy.
Duke William of Normandy brought Brittany under Norman control. (Image: German Vizulis/Shutterstock)

When Brittany came under the control of the Normans, Duke William of Normandy took control. Even though Brittany had its own duke, he was mostly in William’s shadow. 

William was also famous for leading the Norman conquest of England in 1066 which effectively reestablished political ties between Britain and Brittany. A lot of Breton soldiers fought alongside William in the campaign; some even settled in Britain after the battle of Hastings, and some migrated to Wales, which harbored a similar language and culture, though not as close as Cornwall did.

King Arthur and the Proud People of Brittany

These events had repercussions that were felt all over medieval Europe and contributed to the growth in popularity of the story of King Arthur. The story starts in the 1130s, when Geoffrey of Monmouth, a man of mixed Breton and Welsh heritage, set up as a cleric in Oxford. There, he produced a Latin text, the History of the Kings of Britain, claiming it to be a translation of an old, probably Welsh book, which recounted Britain’s history from the earliest days to the reign of King Arthur.

Tapestry of King Arthur wearing the Coat of Arms, c. 1385.
The legend of King Arthur became a symbol for the pride of the Bretons caught under the oppression of their overlords. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Though the book contained stories of many different kings, the most popular segments of the text were those that dealt with Arthur. Interestingly, the text drew on common, centuries-old legends from Wales and other British speaking parts of the British Isles; perhaps there never was a single book from which this one was translated. Regardless, Geoffrey’s book became very popular, perhaps because the story of it being a ‘translation’ made it more prestigious, and it became the basis for the literary sensation of the 12th century: Arthurian literature. 

Geoffrey of Monmouth, together with King Arthur, was a part of the cultural landscape that reintroduced the British speaking world to Brittany. Arthur was adopted as their own by the Bretons, and contributed to fostering a Breton ‘nationalism’. This became an important fact, as Brittany played a key role in the power struggles that France experienced in the 12th century. The English kings at the time were perpetually at war with the French kings, and King Arthur stood as a symbol of a proud people chafing under their overlordship. 

The Breton King Arthur

Then, in the late 12th century, Constance, the heiress to the Duchy of Brittany, gave birth to a boy and named him Arthur. By naming their prince after a famous British ruler, the Bretons proclaimed that they were great in the past, and would be in the future as well. 

However, Arthur’s fate was far from great. He was involved in the politics of the English throne and was pitted against his uncle, Prince John. In 1202, after a struggle over the succession, John captured Arthur, aged 12, and the boy was never seen again. Of course, rumors circulated, and Arthur was thought to be almost certainly dead. This did not end well for John, either, as it pitted public opinion against him. Within a few years, he had lost most of his French land to the French king. Soon afterward, Brittany was able to reestablish its autonomy within France, essentially becoming independent. 

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The Breton Celtic Identity

After becoming independent, the Bretons adamantly defended their status, despite being opposed by two extremely powerful potential overthrowers: England and France. 

They managed to stay independent until the late 15th century, which was when the ducal line had no male heirs, and the Duchess of Brittany, Anne, married two French kings in succession, finally incorporating Brittany within the French empire. 

Although the political autonomy of the region came to an end, the Breton language survived, and was, in fact, the most widely spoken of the Celtic languages until fairly recently, having possibly about a million speakers even in the 1980s. However, that number has since fallen to about half a million, and Welsh has overtaken Breton in the number of active speakers. 

Despite that, the long survival of the language serves to testify to the strength of the Breton identity, even more so because it was developed and strengthened while being faced with the seemingly insurmountable opposition of the central French government. It is even said that at one time the French government forbade the speaking of Breton in Brittany, although no evidence has been found to support this claim.

Many other aspects of traditional Breton culture still flourish, including their music. Brittany has also given the world a number of famous Bretons, such as the famous medieval cleric, Peter Abelard. He spent some time exiled at a monastery on Brittany’s outskirts, where he was supposedly so infamous that the other monks tried to poison him.

The famous explorer, Jacques Cartier, who claimed Canada for France, and the popular writer Jules Verne, are some other popular Bretons.

All in all, the fact that this region which lay on the fringe of the fringe, within the already oppressed Celtic fringe, nevertheless managed to maintain its identity, even when faced with strong opponents, illustrates the strength of its people and culture. 

Learn more about Celtic culture.

Common Questions about Brittany under Norman Control

Q: Why were some parts of the Celtic world doubly marginalized?

The Celtic fringe was created when the use of Latin overthrew the Celtic language. Many centuries later, when English became common in the ‘Celtic core’ of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, regions such as Brittany and Galicia which did not have English became marginalized even among the Celtic fringe.

Q: How was King Arthur’s story made popular?

The story of King Arthur was a part of the book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, thought to be a translation of an old Welsh book. The prestige of being a translation of an old masterpiece made the story popular and, in fact, laid the groundwork for 12th-century Arthurian literature. King Arthur was seen as a symbol of the proud people of Brittany, fighting against their oppressive overlords.

Q: What made the Breton Celtic identity stand out?

The Breton Celtic identity was forged in the face of powerful potential overlords, the French and English governments. Despite the end of the political autonomy of Brittany, the Breton language survived, as did many other elements of Breton culture.

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