brief history of brittany france
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Get to know Brittany
- Its history
- Ancient history
- The birth of Brittany
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- Before & after the Revolution
- Modern Times
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Brittany has known many stormy periods in its history, but it has been a cherished land since Neolithic and Celtic times. Caesar subjugated the Celts and as Roman rule faded, waves of British immigrants transformed the place. Through medieval and Ancien Régime periods, Brittany and Britain fought bitterly for trade and then colonies until today’s tourist times brought much happier relations.
Brittany, or the Armorican peninsula, as it was known in antiquity, is famed for its numerous Neolithic monuments. Most of the great burial chambers here predate the Egyptian pyramids by a long time. They consisted of a dolmen, or stone chamber, for the bodies, covered by a tumulus, an earth mound. As to the countless Neolithic menhirs, the standing stones for which the region is celebrated, they remain a riddle even for scholars.
Brittany’s history becomes very hazy in the long gap between the Neolithic period and the arrival of the Romans. In the Iron-Age centuries preceding Caesar’s conquest of Armorica, a strong Celtic culture emerged and even if very little has survived from this shadowy period, the druids, the charismatic priests of the time, have left the deepest imprint on our imaginations.
The birth of Brittany
During the Dark Ages, wave upon wave of immigrants from Ireland, Wales and southern England profoundly altered the character of the Armorican peninsula, turning it into Brittany, or Little Britain. They spread their own brand of Christianity as well as their exuberant legends and a feisty, independent Brittany was forged in this period.
The Middle Ages
After the Breton kingdom came the Breton duchy. First harassed by Vikings, the region’s leaders then had to contend with powerful neighbours and niggling infighting. A bitter Breton civil war broke out in the 14th century. Forts sprang up through the period, and towns were protected behind strong walls, while mighty new Gothic cathedrals arose in the cities.
Major changes occurred in Brittany as the 15th century turned into the 16th, and Gothic styles gave way to the Renaissance. The feisty duchy lost its independence to the French crown while Breton traders led the way in international commerce and organised vast fishing expeditions to Newfoundland. As to Jacques Cartier, he ‘discovered’ Canada.
Before & after the Revolution
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the French monarchy imposed its iron will on Brittany. Colonial trade expanded hugely from here, but vicious competition with Holland and England led to war. Many Bretons enlisted on merchant and naval vessels, but early protests at exploitation heralded the Revolution. That said, in deeply conservative Brittany, radical change wasn’t happily embraced.
As the 19th century rolled on, Breton industry developed but Brittany’s poor suffered. French relations with Britain radically improved, however. While British visitors came peaceably to enjoy Brittany’s delights, the Germans spread the terrible effects of war this far west. Between the appalling conflicts, tourism brought glimmers of light and then emerged triumphant.
Links between Brittany & Great Britain
Brittany has especially long, strong connections with the British Isles. Well before the Romans arrived, trading across the Channel thrived and while after mass Dark Ages immigration, things turned sour as merchants, corsairs and armies battled with each other across the Channel, matters could be quite different behind the scene at court. Then along came tourism to bring mutual benefit and joy.
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Brittany, French Bretagne, Breton Breiz, région of France encompassing the northwestern départements of Ille-et-Vilaine , Morbihan, Côtes-d’Armor, and Finistère. Brittany is bounded by the régions of Basse-Normandie to the northeast and Pays de la Loire to the east. It protrudes westward into the Atlantic Ocean as a peninsula; the Bay of Biscay lies to the southwest and the English Channel to the north. The capital is Rennes . Area 10,505 square miles (27,209 square km). Pop. (1999) 2,906,197; (2014 est.) 3,276,543.
Brittany belongs to the ancient uplands of the Armorican Massif and is generally low-lying, with a mean elevation of 341 feet (104 metres). The Aulne Basin separates the heights of the Arrée Mountains (1,260 feet [384 metres]) in the north and the Noires Mountains (1,001 feet [305 metres]) in the south. Both run east-west. Belle-Île-en-Mer, Ouessant, and several other small islands are part of the région. Erosion has carved out sharp abers, or gorges, in the north, and the coastline is deeply indented. Principal rivers include the Vilaine, the Leita, and the Rance. An oceanic climate prevails.
Decline in the French share of North Atlantic fisheries and the rural depopulation seen elsewhere in France at the beginning of the 20th century led to a population decline in Brittany of more than 11 percent between 1911 and 1946. Then, following World War II , the population rose, and from the 1970s it was bolstered by the growth of industrial and service businesses. However, demographic recovery has been uneven, favouring the coastal areas, with many inland, rural areas continuing to lose population.
Brittany is an important agricultural area in France. Following several decades of change and modernization, farming is efficient and productive, dominated by the raising of pigs, poultry, and calves. Cereals and forage crops are grown, largely to meet the needs of livestock farmers. Vegetables are cultivated in certain northern coastal areas. Fishing has declined in importance, as elsewhere in northwestern Europe , owing to problems of overfishing and the consequent need to limit catches, but it still characterizes many of Brittany’s ports, notably Guilvinec, Concarneau, and Douarnenez .
Brittany is not heavily industrialized, but the growth of such industries as electronics, telecommunications, and automobile assembly has offset the decline of the traditional industries of textiles, leather goods, and ship repair. Other long-standing activities, notably food processing , have been strengthened and modernized. Rennes is the main regional focus of industry and is also the administrative and business capital.
Tourism is prominent in many coastal areas, and in Ille-et-Vilaine coastal resorts have become more important than the fishing industry to the economy. The département of Morbihan has more stone monuments than any other département in France, with several thousand megaliths in the area of Carnac and Locmariaquer west of the Morbihan Gulf. The medieval towns of Morbihan are also important tourist attractions.
Following major investment, the région has been integrated into the French motorway network and is served by a series of highways and high-speed trains (trains à grande vitesse; TGV). Rennes has a regional airport, and Brest is an important seaport and naval base.
Bretons combine enterprise and traditionalism. Many have distinguished themselves as seafarers; Jacques Cartier , for example, who explored Canada, was born in Saint-Malo . Brittany long provided the French navy with the majority of its sailors. The Roman Catholic faith is deeply rooted in Brittany; there are pilgrimages, or pardons, at Locronan, Josselin, and Ste. Anne d’Auray. Compared to elsewhere in France, the région has preserved much of its old social structure; in the country, families are large and devoted to paternal authority, and the rural nobility still exercises influence.
The Breton language is commonly spoken in parts of Morbihan, Finistère, and Côtes-d’Armor, and from the mid-19th century there has been a considerable revival of Breton literature .
A strong Celtic background distinguishes Brittany from other parts of France. The Celts were the first historically identifiable inhabitants of Brittany, but they probably intermingled with the earlier peoples who built the great stone monuments, the menhirs and dolmens , that still stand. Conquered by Julius Caesar in 56 bce, the region became part of the Roman Empire as Armorica , a Romanization of the Celtic words for “seaside.” The Celts of Armorica never were more than superficially Romanized. After the Romans withdrew, Celts from Britain moved into the area to seek refuge from the Anglo-Saxon invaders of the 5th and 6th centuries. It is from this event that Brittany derives its name. Over the next 300 years the Celts were converted to Christianity by missionaries from the British Isles .
During the Middle Ages, Brittany fought to become and remain an independent duchy. It was first united in the 9th century under the rule of Nomenoë , Brittany’s national hero, who revolted against the Carolingians. By repelling the Norse invaders, his successors were able to keep the independence he had won. In the 10th century the ruler of Brittany took the title of duke and located his capital at Rennes. In the following centuries the dukes not only had to assert their power over rebellious vassals but also faced a threat to their existence from their neighbours, the powerful Norman dukes. In the late 12th century the duchy was brought into the Angevin empire but eventually came under the control of the Capetians , the ruling French dynasty .
Brittany had only a minor role in the struggles between England and France during the later Middle Ages. A civil war for control of the duchy was fought in the mid-14th century between supporters of an English heir and supporters of a French heir. The dukes of the family of Montfort , who finally gained the title, tried to keep Brittany neutral during the remainder of the Hundred Years’ War .
Brittany became a part of France when Anne , heir to Brittany, married two successive kings of France, Charles VIII and Louis XII . In the formal treaty of incorporation into France in 1532, the province was guaranteed local privileges. Over the next two centuries it resisted the crown’s efforts at centralization. At the time of the French Revolution , Brittany contributed to the agitation that led to the calling of the Estates-General . From 1793 to 1799 the Chouans of Brittany were in revolt against the Revolution’s reorganization of the Roman Catholic church.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Brittany remained a conservative area of France, maintaining old social and religious practices. A separatist movement affirms that the Bretons are still conscious of the uniqueness of their province.
Learn More in these related Britannica articles:
- France: Principalities north of the LoireBrittany, to the west of Anjou and Normandy, was set apart by its strongly Celtic tradition. It achieved identity in the 9th century under the native leader Nomenoë, who seized Nantes and Rennes in defiance of Charles the Bald. His successors, badly battered by the…
- France: Philip Augustus…and renounced the suzerainty of Brittany, although the complete submission of Poitou and Saintonge was to take another generation.…
- France: Regrowth of the French monarchyFomenting strife between Brittany and Normandy, he soon recovered the latter and isolated the former. Deaths among his rivals in Gascony enabled him to secure successions that were more divided and less hostile—such as in Armagnac. Increasingly, Louis’s tortuous diplomacy fastened on Burgundy. The king succeeded in reconciling…
- France: The shrinking of the frontiers and peripheral areasIn Brittany the Franks maintained control of the eastern region but had to cope with raids by the Bretons, who had established heavily populated settlements in the western part of the peninsula. To the southwest the Gascons, a highland people from the Pyrenees, had been driven…
- Europe: Hercynian orogenic beltIn Brittany there is an island arc with lavas and granites that resulted from subduction of the ocean floor. The main Hercynian suture zone of the collided plates extends from the south side of Brittany to the Massif Central.…
More About Brittany
10 references found in Britannica articles
- Celtic languages
- In Celtic languages
- In Europe: Hercynian orogenic belt
- Arthur II’s rule
- In Arthur II
- Charles VIII’s marriage
- In Anne Of France
- In France: Principalities north of the Loire
- In France: Philip Augustus
- In France: Regrowth of the French monarchy
- Franks and Bretons
- In France: The shrinking of the frontiers and peripheral areas
- opposition to Henry IV
- In Henry IV: Henry IV.
- Richemont’s rule
- In Arthur, constable de Richemont
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