For those of you who didn’t know, I am Bretonne, half of my family is from Brittany. Even though it’s quite easy to guess when you look at the color of my skin. If I say “Brittany”, you probably think of kouign amann, salted caramel or crepes and galettes. But it’s so much more than that, it’s a whole culture and years of resistance that France wanted to erase. Even I didn’t know Brittany’s history and its culture. I knew a few words and some anecdotes from my grand-parents, such as the one where my grand-father wasn’t allowed to speak Breton at school otherwise he would have had his fingers struck with a ruler. And now, I have all these questions in my head about this heritage I know so little about because of its erasure from France. This is why this article stands so close to my heart.
BRITTANY’S CULTURE AND ITS ORIGINS
Before talking about the erasure of the Breton culture, I’d like to jump back in time to tell you a bit about the history of this region which, at one time, was a country. While doing my research, I had the impression that even the Bretons did not know their history that well. Some of the sources were contradictory, but I managed to find the right elements. Previously called Armorique, of the Armor peninsula (Are mor = country around the sea), it will change its name between the IVth and VIth century. This is due to 200 years of Celtic immigration from the South West of Great Britain, named Brittania at the time. We find the Irish, Welsh and Cornish. That’s how Brittany or Little Brittany will be born.
The Breton culture is thus strongly influenced by the Celtic culture starting with its language, Breton (brezhoneg), mix of Cornish and Welsh spoken in Lower Britain. I also learned that there was a second language, spoken in Upper Britain, called Gallo. It is a Romane language derived from Latin and Old Celtic Armorican, and who transmitted some words to the Breton. Gallo is less known because it was considered for a long time as a French patois, a depreciative term meaning “sub-language”. If the two languages of Brittany had not been forbidden, I would surely have learned Breton from my grandfather and Gallo from my grandmother. Indeed, my grandfather comes from Brest and my grandmother from Quimper, but she grew up in Rennes where my father was born. It may sound silly, but I wish I had spoken the language of my father’s family.
The Breton culture is also a lot of headdresses (each country had its own), including the famous bigoudène, became a symbol of the region. The bigoudène is a ceremonial headdress made of linen or cotton, which was worn by women in the region of Pont-l’Abbé. By the way, we use a bigoudène on the photo below. I love this kind of headdress, I actually made a knitted curler during my second year in fashion school. If you look closely at the photos in the editorial, you will find it.
Apart from its costumes and headdresses, Brittany, it is also symbols, like the ermine or the triskell that you find everywhere. I would say that the ermine is to the Duke of Brittany what the lily is to the King of France, two symbols of purity. The triskell is not specific to Brittany as is the ermine, it belongs to the Celtic culture although its appearance dates back to the Nordic Bronze Age.
Impossible to talk about Brittany without talking about its traditional dances, practiced at the time by the farmers until the interwar period. They made a comeback in the 1950s in the form of fest-noz, a type of “revivalist” party, in order to recreate these festive gatherings of the peasant society which punctuated the days of collective work. The vast majority of the dances are done in groups, in circles or in procession. I participated in small fest-noz when I was younger, it was very joyful and full of life. I felt a bit ridiculous, it’s not really the kind of dance I do in my free time, but it’s nice. The traditional costumes are brought out for the occasion, the Celtic music is played loudly, it is a warm atmosphere.
THE ERASURE BY FRANCE
Most people don’t know that (except my relatives to whom I told the story about twenty times) but Brittany has been a country for many years (since 845). The territory was divided into 9 countries : Léon · Cornouaille · Trégor · Vannetais · Pays de Saint-Brieuc · Pays de Saint-Malo · Pays de Dol · Pays de Nantes et Pays de Rennes. Rather poor, Brittany (under the authority of dukes until the 16th century) became rich from the 15th century onwards thanks to a flourishing agricultural and maritime trade. And tensions will then burst with the kingdom of France which is interested more and more in the duchy…
If we have to remember an emblematic figure in the resistant culture of Brittany, it is Anne de Bretagne. Married to 2 kings of France, she fought for a long time to keep the independence of the duchy. Unfortunately, upon his death, the duchy, which was in his marriage contract, returns to Charles VIII. After long years of war and despite Anne’s struggle, August 13, 1532 the edict of Union seals the annexation of the duchy of Brittany by the kingdom of France. This process continued until the French Revolution which put an end to the autonomy of the province of Brittany by the suppression of its Parliament (forbidden to sit).
After World War I, Breton, like Welsh, reaches its historical maximum of speakers. However, the Breton language is confronted with a repressive policy in schools, to promote the linguistic unity of France. It is at this same period that the first nationalist claims are born and give rise to the creation of the Breton flag : Gwenn ha Du (black and white in Breton) in 1925. Its two languages were forgotten and French became the mother tongue of the Bretons in the second half of the 20th century. It’s my grandparents’ generation that gets slapped on the wrist if they speak Breton at school.
Unfortunately the nationalist claims will attract the eye of Pétain during World War II. The government is afraid of a new independence for the region, it would become a political and economic heavyweight that would overshadow a centralizing state. Pétain did not want a region that was too powerful to resist the Vichy government and he decided to amputate Brittany from the Loire-Atlantique.
The Breton culture is invisibilized. This phenomenon, existing since the 20th century, is called the débretonnisation, defined according to Wikipedia as “the suppression of the Breton language and culture.” Still today, we face it in some corners of Brittany, with toponyms whose names are becoming Frenchized since 2016. The most recent example goes back to 2019 32 lanes were francized in Finistère. But fortunately, the Breton culture continues to resist.
LA BRETAGNE, ÇA VOUS GAGNE
(how the culture still holds out today)
To fight against the débretonnisation, many Breton associations have been created and militate to continue to develop the culture. The precursor is the Breton movement, emsav. It is an informal group of political organizations, unions, economic groups or cultural associations concerned with maintaining the Breton culture.
Brittany remains a resistant region, and wants to recover what belongs to it. She has made numerous petitions to attach the Loire-Atlantique to the region. Many elected officials reiterated their request at the beginning of the year. The organization Bretagne Réunie is particularly committed to this subject.
Despite everything, the Breton culture is reborn. The teaching of the Breton language has been authorized again (as an option) at school thanks to the Deixonne law of 1951, but families are increasingly ceasing to transmit the language to their children. It is the music industry that will give to the Breton language a new breath with several singers like Alan Stivell or Tri Yann. A network of associative, free and secular schools for teaching Breton, called Diwan, was set up by the French government in 1977. On October 4 of the same year, the Breton Cultural Charter was signed, an agreement between the French Republic and the regional councillors of Brittany, formalizing the existence of a “cultural personality” of the region.
In 1999, the Lorient Interceltic Festival attracted more than 500,000 visitors. The Festival des Vieilles Charrues, created in 1992 in central Brittany, has become in a few years one of the biggest French festivals.
During my most recent research, I noticed a certain division in Breton culture, between those who rely heavily on the past and those who focus on the future. This is the main question that revolves around the Brittany of the 21st century : the transition between the modern and the traditional. This is what I wanted to represent in the editorial “Give Brittany back to its people”.
This article meant a lot to me, I wanted to share the story of my heritage with you and learn about it at the same time. I thought it was important to shed a light on a culture that France wanted to erase, as she knows so well how to do with others. I hope that during your next stay in Brittany, you will take the time to learn about the local culture. Start by making the distinction between pancakes and galettes. Galettes are made with buckwheat flour and crepes with wheat flour. Stop asking for salty crepes please. 🙂
On this note, as my grand-father would say, bisous BZH.
AD : Elena Gaudé, Coralie Pinatel
Photography : Elena Gaudé, Coralie Pinatel
Model : Anna Tonaydin
Styling : Coralie Pinatel
Makeup : Elena Gaudé
Written by Elena Gaudé.
SOURCES : Histoire de Bretagne, Auguste Dupouy ; bretagne.bzh ; geo.fr ; Ouest France ; Wikipedia ; lelephantrevue.fr