Public Republic random header image

Brittany – kenavo ar c’hentañ

July 18, 2010 by · No comments

Klara Barcic

There is an extremely interesting and mysterious point in the north-west of France, which a traveler cannot leave without saying au revoir, à la prochaine (in Breton kenavo ar c’hentañ). This point is called Brittany (Breizh). Its cliffs are very well acquainted with dark ocean storms and with the awfully unpredictable strength of its waves. All this makes Brittany a fertile land for a series of legends.

The name Brittany was given to this part of France in the second half of the 6th century AD after the Bretons, who slowly and peacefully moved in from Wales and Cornwall over a period of 200 years. Once they reached the territory of Armorica (the Celtic term for coastal area), the Bretons found a remarkable Celtic civilization. The Celts imposed their language, culture and religion. This has been witnessed by many different handicraft objects made of wood, iron, bronze and precious metals. The presence of the Celts in the area dates from the 7th century BC. The Romans, who came six centuries after the Celts, thirsted for the conquest of the peninsula and were finally victorious in 52 BC, under the command of Julius Caesar, who put an end to Armorican independence.

Pointe du Raz, photo by Jürgen Mangelsdor

St. Mathieu lighthouse, photo by Naroh

Talking about Breton Armorica, we have to point out three figures who played an important role in the foundation of Brittany: Nominoë, Erispoë and Salomon. Nominoë was a member of the Breton aristocracy. He always fought for Breton independence and was eager to set the Breton church free from the influence of the Franks. Hence he managed to depose Frankish bishops in Vannes, Quimper, Léon and Aleth, accusing them of simony and thus installed bishops from Breton and of Breton origin.

Erispoë, Duke of Brittany, successfully carried on his father’s work and extended the territory of Brittany adding to it, after his victory over Charles the Bald at Jengland-Beslé in 851 AD, the areas of Rennes, Nantes and Retz.

Erispoë was assassinated by his cousin and successor Salomon, who reigned for seventeen years over Brittany. Like his predecessors, he was determined to reinforce Breton independence. He proclaimed the Breton church independent from Tour and created an archdiocese for all the Breton bishoprics in Dol. However, the new Breton archdiocese was never recognized by the Roman papacy. In the Middle Ages this part of the Armorican peninsula was called Little Brittany (Petite Bretagne) or Lesser Brittany (Britannia Minor) in order to distinguish it from Great Britain. It was only with the French revolution that the Breton history inevitably became part of the French history.

The Bretons brought their own language. This is a Celtic language related to Welsh, Cornish and also to Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Today, names of small towns beginning with plou- (from the Latin plebs) such as Plougastel, Ploudalmézeau, Plouescat and many others are found especially in the north and in the south-west of Brittany. At the time when the Bretons settled on the Armorican peninsula, plou was the name of their first communities that gathered around their priests.

The Breton language has held out until today, despite the fact that it was forbidden in schools and public places until the 1950s. One of the greatest Breton writers, Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1914-1995), referred to this critical situation in his masterpiece Cheval d’orgueil. There are many cultural associations, spread all over Brittany, which fight against the permanent danger of a slow and definitive decline of the Breton language. However, the greatest credit for preserving the Breton language goes to bilingual schools Diwan (which in Breton means sprout or, more precisely, a moment when a sprout starts to spring up; it is in figurative way explained as a renaissance), founded in 1977. These schools have been modeled on bilingual schools in the Basque country, ikastolas, where students are taught in Basque as well as in Spanish.

Travelling across Brittany, a traveler would notice numerous churches built in the so-called “Breton Renaissance” style (16th century), in a mixture of gothic, baroque and renaissance features. The majority of these churches are built with grey stone on the exterior whereas interiors abound in wood (mostly ceilings and altars).

The Breton sacral architecture reaches its highest point in the 16th and 17th centuries. Of particular importance are stained-glass windows which, besides there protective function, had also an educative role. By looking at scenes from the Bible painted on them, a person was supposed to become enlightened and reminded of what was harmful for the soul. Among the nine cathedrals of Brittany, two of them are known for their magnificent stained-glass windows and well deserve to be visited: the St. Samson cathedral in Dol-de-Bretagne and the gothic cathedral of St. Corentin in Quimper, famous also for its richly decorated west doorway.

The Bretons were particularly fond of the ocean. This huge surface of water and mystery aroused a desire in them to explore the unknown. Such an adventurous spirit gave rise to an early nautical tradition which began in the 11th century. For many Bretons the ocean was a challenge; what is more as the land was rather poor providing very little means of support, the ocean became the only source of earnings.

Jacques Cartier, the great French explorer who discovered Canada in 1535, was born in Saint-Malo, a walled port city. He lies in the cathedral of his native town dedicated to St. Vincent of Saragossa. Many of those who sailed off across the hostile ocean, never came back. In the ecomuseum of the island of Ouessant, about an hour and a half by boat from Brest towards the North, there are some documents witnessing how proëlla was celebrated, in other words, how those who never came back were remembered by their families in the presence of a priest. Proëlla was a small waxcross which symbolized the body of a late sailor (it comes from the Latin pro illa), hence the use of the same word for a memorial service.

Saint-Malo, photo by anthony_m

Before leaving Brittany it is absolutely a must to observe the sunset at the Pointe du Raz, one of the promontories on the Western coast. It is an exceptional sight: the great red sun disappearing into the darkness of the ocean. Before such a scene one can see the island of Sein. Only a tiny number of fishermen live there. Henri Queffélec (1910-1992), the Breton writer, described their lives in his novel Un recteur de l’Île de Sein. Standing at the Pointe du Raz, which the Bretons call “the Land’s End” (Finistère), a visitor, listening to the noise of raging waves and to howling winds, would feel a perfect union with primordial wilderness and the beauty of this mysterious country.

The sunset over the Pointe du Raz, photo by Santi MB

Related posts ↓

No comments so far ↓

  • Nobody has commented yet. Be the first!