Traditional coat of arms
Traditional coat of arms
This article is about the historical duchy and French province, as well as the cultural area of Brittany. For the current French administrative région of Bretagne, see Bretagne. For other meanings, see Brittany (disambiguation).

Brittany (French: Bretagne, Template:Audio; Breton: Breizh; Gallo: Bertaèyn) is a former independent duchy, then province of France. It is also, more generally, the name of the cultural area whose limits correspond to the old province.

The historical province of Bretagne was split between two modern-day régions of France. 80% of Brittany has become the région of Bretagne, while the remaining 20% of Brittany (Loire-Atlantique département with its préfecture Nantes, the old capital of the duchy of Brittany) has been grouped with other historical provinces (Anjou, Maine, and so on) to create the région of Pays-de-la-Loire (i.e. "lands of the Loire"). For the reasons behind the splitting-up of Brittany, and the current debate around a reunification, see the Bretagne article.

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Modern flag

Brittany occupies a large peninsula in the northwest of France, lying between the English Channel to the north and the Bay of Biscay to the south. Its land area is 34,034 km² (13,137 sq. miles), which is about the same size as Taiwan, about 60% larger than Wales, and about 70% larger than Massachusetts.

In 2004 the population of Brittany is estimated at 4,200,000 inhabitants. 72% of these live in the Bretagne région, while 28% of these live in the Pays-de-la-Loire région. At the 1999 census, the largest metropolitan areas were Nantes (711,120 inhabitants), Rennes (521,188 inhabitants), and Brest (303,484 inhabitants).

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Historical province of Brittany


main article: History of Brittany

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

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 revolutionaries 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 hardly 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 of France, and marks the entrance of the English Channel. Other islands off the coast of Brittany include:


French, the official language of the French Republic, is spoken all over Brittany, but the region has two other languages, both still spoken by minorities, typically in rural areas: Breton, a Celtic language related to the same origin as Welsh; and Gallo, a Romance language related to the same origin as French.

In rural areas, until French came to dominate after the First World War, Breton was traditionally spoken in the west, and Gallo in the east. The dividing line stretched from Plouha on the north coast to a point to the south-west of Vannes. French had, however, long been the main language of the towns. The Breton-speaking area formerly covered territory much further east than its current distribution. In the Middle Ages, Gallo expanded into formerly Breton-speaking areas. Now restricted to a much reduced territory in the east of Brittany, Gallo finds itself under pressure not only from the dominant Francophone culture, but also from the Breton language revival which is gaining ground in territory that was never part of the Breton-speaking area. A large influx of English-speaking immigrants and second-home owners in some villages sometimes adds to linguistic tensions.

Privately funded Diwan ("Seed") schools, where classes are taught in Breton by the immersion method, play an important part in the revival of the Breton language. The issue of whether they should be funded by the State has long been, and remains, controversial. Some bilingual classes are also provided in ordinary schools.

A few bilingual (Breton and French) road signs may be seen in some areas, especially in the traditional Breton-speaking area. Signage in Gallo is much rarer.


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Traditional costume in Brittany around 1900

Since the 1970s Breton music has undergone a revival and has become popular even outside the region. Alan Stivell resuscitated 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 who 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-scale Celtic festivals are held in the summer in towns around the region. The biggest of these is the Lorient's Festival Inter-Celtique, while Quimper hosts the Festival de Cornouaille, one of the oldest. There are also numerous rock and pop festivals; the biggest in Brittany (and indeed all France) is the Festival des Vieilles Charrues (held in late July in Carhaix, Finistère). Others include the Route du Rock (mid-August, Saint-Malo) and the Transmusicales, held in Rennes in early December. Every four years, the city of Brest is the venue for a giant contest of Vieux Gréements (Old Ships), which brings together some of the world's finest wooden sailing ships.

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


The first Christian missionaries came to the region from Ireland and Great Britain. With more than 300 "saints" (only a few recognized by the Catholic Church), the region is strongly Catholic, and 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 who devoted his life 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. The seven founder saints of Brittany are:

  • 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 pilgrimage was made in one go (a total distance of around 600 km). Nowadays, however, pilgrims complete the circuit over the course of several years. In 2002, the Tro-Breizh included a special pilgrimage to Wales, symbolically making the reverse journey of the Welshmen Saint Paol, Saint Brieuc, and Saint Samson.


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

br:Istor Breizh cy:Llydaw da:Bretagne de:Bretagne et:Bretagne es:Bretaña eo:Bretonio fr:Bretagne ga:An Bhriotáin gd:A' Bhreatainn Bheag it:Bretagna kw:Breten Vyghan la:Britannia minor nl:Bretagne ja:ブルターニュ地域圏 pl:Bretania pt:Bretanha sv:Bretagne zh:布列塔尼


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