The Celtic Fringe: The Breton Hegemony over Brittany

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

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

At its peak, the Celtic world spanned a lot of regions. But, when it gradually declined, some areas were adversely affected to a greater extent than others. Brittany, in France, was doubly marginalized and belonged to ‘the fringe of the fringe’, going through a series of sociopolitical changes that further shaped the way it is today. 

The Medieval port of Dinan on the Rance Estuary, Brittany (Bretagne), France.
Brittany, an area in France, is an important part of the Celtic discourse, being a doubly marginalized region. (Image: DaLiu /Shutterstock)

The Fringe of the Fringe of the Celtic World

The categorization ‘the fringe of the fringe’ is perhaps one of the best ways to describe the position occupied by certain areas of the Celtic world, a position that was arrived at as a result of a series of factors.

The Celtic fringe was born when the Celtic languages began to be gradually replaced by Latin, and, in some areas, replaced again by English, brought in by Anglo Saxon migrants.              

Later, around the 19th century, when there was an upsurge in interest in the Celtic world, especially in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, these areas began to proudly uphold their Celtic heritage. Western Britain and Ireland cumulatively became the ‘Celtic core’. Ironically, these were all areas where English, via imposition, had become the dominant language, and where all areas were ruled by a common power, England. Celts from these areas, therefore, formed a kinship that was based on the idea of the Celtic fringe and their oppression by the English, and, ironically, discussions on these topics were in English.

As a result of this kinship, areas such as Brittany in France and Galicia in Spain were marginalized yet again. They did not speak the language of the ‘mainstream’ Celtic world, as a result of which they ended up not only being a part of the Celtic fringe, but also having to lie on the fringe of the fringe, and having to work hard to be accepted as part of the modern Celtic world. 

Learn more about the Celts in Scotland.

The History of Brittany

In the Roman period, the area now called Brittany was called Armorica (‘by the sea’ in Gaulish, the Celtic language spoken at the time). For as long as written records exist, Brittany has been found to be a Celtic speaking region. 

Brittany also had a rich history from far before the Celtic languages even developed. It is, for instance, one of the areas on Europe’s Atlantic coast with the largest number of monoliths, which started appearing around 3000 B.C. and are found all over the Atlantic coast in Britain, Ireland, and, in perhaps the highest density, in Brittany. 

Carnac stones, a dense collection of monoliths in Brittany.
Although the most popular monoliths are in Stonehenge, England, the area of Brittany in western France has perhaps the highest concentration of monoliths in Europe.
(Image: Pete Stuart/Shutterstock)

The monoliths are also indicative of the possible prosperity of the societies along the Atlantic seaboard, perhaps as a result of extensive seaborne trade.

Incidentally, while the erection of the monoliths had nothing to do with the Celts, the stones did play an important role in the culture of the later Bretons.

With the coming of the first millennium B.C., the prosperity in Brittany seemed to have dissipated. Around 500 B.C., Brittany was a kind of backwater and did not have any elaborate hillforts; nor have there been any rich archaeological finds there as there have been in eastern France and the rest of Europe. Ironically, Brittany suffered because the eastern regions did very well, as the trade that had moved from the east to the west had now begun to move from the north to the south, from the Mediterranean up along the Rhône River. However, the economy seems to have picked up in the centuries leading up to the Roman conquest, when more and more land began to be brought into civilization. 

Brittany was also changing politically at the time. Where the second century B.C. saw the minting of coins by the three most prominent tribes of the region, the Veneti, the Riedones, and the Namnetes (the tribes which later lent their names to the three most important Breton cities, Vannes, Rennes, and Nantes), by the first century B.C., trading contacts and political alliances had emerged between the Armorican Peninsula and the tribes of northern Gaul on the one hand and southwestern Britain on the other.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Political Changes in Brittany

Statue of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar.
When Caesar came to power, Gaulish people were divided into factions over whether his rule would lead to dominion or prosperity for the region.
(Image: Gilmanshin/Shutterstock)

During the rule of Caesar, various Gaulish tribes inhabited Brittany. Within the Armorican tribes, there were faction fights about policy towards Rome: some people felt that Roman trade would be good for Armorica, while others felt that it could lead towards domination by Caesar. Both parties happened to be partly right. At the time of Caesar’s conquering of Gaul in the 50s B.C., Armorica was right in the midst of war. Later, Armorican soldiers were enlisted as Gaulish Chieftain Vercingetorix’s aides against Caesar. But, after Caesar’s victory, Armorica experienced more than four centuries of fairly prosperous Roman rule.

This meant massive infrastructure development by the Romans, who built huge road networks, urban settlements, and fortresses, on the back of Roman engineering skills. Even at the height of Roman rule in Gaul, it was full of Gaulish speakers, some of whom were bilingual in Latin. Brittany, by this point, was not too different from the rest of Roman-ruled Gaul. 

At the beginning of the fifth century A.D., Roman power throughout northwestern Europe began to decline. People from southwest Britain began to migrate to Brittany from the regions now referred to as Cornwall and Devon. This continued well into the sixth century; in fact, it was this migration that gave Brittany its name. These migrants then established dominance over the region. Despite the immigrants not being the majority, the fact that their language came with a lot of cultural prestige meant that it gradually took over in Brittany. This language is, in fact, what kept the cultural links between the two lands alive, and is why Cornish and Breton are still very similar; they only began to seriously diverge around the year 1000 A.D.

Learn more about Caesar and the Gauls.

Norman Control over Brittany

The Breton hegemony over the Armorican peninsula continued eastward into France until the 10th century, when the arrival of the Scandinavian newcomers, the Normans, stopped their advance. 

It was after this that the Normans and the Bretons began to engage in a series of battles for control over the region, with Brittany finally ending up under Norman control. Even though Brittany retained its own duke, he fought beside Duke William of Normandy, as a junior partner, almost under his tutelage. Brittany, under Norman control, played an important role in the power struggles of western France in the 12th century.

In 1202, Brittany regained autonomy within France, and the Bretons held on strongly to freedom from two strong overlords: France and England. They managed to hold on to this autonomy until the 15th century, when the Duchess of Brittany had to marry two French kings in succession, cementing the incorporation of Brittany into the French empire. 

Even though Breton political autonomy came to an end, the language lived on and was in fact the most widely spoken of the Celtic languages until recently. Now, however, Welsh has overtaken Breton in terms of numbers of active speakers. Many aspects of Breton culture, though, still survive, including the music. Forged and honed in the face of a strong backlash from the central French government, this survival stands testimony to the strength of Breton identity. 

Learn more about Celtic music and dance.

Common Questions about the Bretons in Brittany

Q: From where did Brittany get its name?

In the fifth century A.D., there was a lot of migration from the British Isles to the land that was then called Armorica. These inhabitants took over the culture and language of the land, and the land, therefore, began to be called Brittany, or ‘Little Britain’, to distinguish it from the British Isles.

Q: How did the important cities of Brittany come to be?

Around the second century B.C., Brittany, then Armorica, began to undergo a series of sociopolitical changes. The three important tribes of the region, the Veneti, the Riedones, and the Namnetes, began to mint their own coins and develop trade. they later lent their names to the three important cities that were hence formed in Brittany, Vannes, Rennes, and Nantes.

Q: Why was the Roman rule over Brittany questioned?

Roman rule in Brittany was met with the same controversies as elsewhere in Gaul: while some thought that the rule would end in Caesar dominating the region, others thought it would result in prosperity for Brittany.

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