Way up in the northwestern section of France is a peninsula that is windswept with a coastline that is craggy with stone rocks and cliffs. It has its own culture and language much different than French. The people are hearty and work the land.
There are golden beaches along the dramatic coastlines and mysterious and ancient burial grounds along with medieval chateaus. Here the land and people are steeped in the myths and legends of King Arthur and Merlin.
The Bretons of Bretagne, France or Breizh, as they call their native land, are the last vestiges of the Celtic Britons that migrated from Great Britain and gave their name to this northwest section of France. They speak both their traditional language, Breton or Brezhoneg and also French, the first language of France.
These hearty people have preserved their distinct and different culture and language in France since the fifth century and continue to do so today although the Breton language is becoming an endangered language.
Today, Bretagne has a population of approximately four million people. The Breton language is the only Celtic language still spoken on the European continent today with approximately 365,000 speaking Breton of whom 240,000 speaking it fluently. Most speakers are over sixty-five years of age and this is why the language is becoming an endangered one.
Efforts are being made today to keep Breton a living language by teaching it in the French schools, although France does not recognize it as a regional language. French is the first and only official language of France today. Therefore, most Bretons today speak both French and Breton.
The Breton People
This interesting ethnic group traces their heritage to the groups of Brittonic speakers who emigrated from southwestern Britain, including Cornwall, England to avoid the Germanic tribes that were entering Great Britain.
These Britons migrated in two large waves from the third through the ninth century, and most heavily from 450-600 AD, to the Armorican peninsula (as named by the Romans) which was subsequently named Brittany after them.
Breton is part of the Insular Celtic languages from the British Isles, specifically the Brythonic branch or the P-Celtic languages.
It is believed by historians that a large number of Britons in the Roman army may have been stationed on this peninsula around 380 AD. During the ninth century, the Historica Brittonum, written by Geoffrey Monmouth, states that Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus settled troops there after they withdrew from Britain.
Then, the British and Welsh authors, Nennius and Gildas, mention a second wave of Britons that settled in Bretagne in the the fourth and fifth centuries to escape the Anglo-Saxons and Scoti moving into Great Britain.
These Britons gave this region its current name and contributed to the Breton language, a sister language to Cornish and Welsh.
The legends tell us that Conan Meriodoc was the mythic founder of the House of Rohan and is mentioned in several Welsh sources as having led the settlement of Bretagne by mercenaries serving Maximus.
Modern French scholars, such as Leon Fleureot, suggest a two-wave model of migration from Britain which saw the emergence of an independent Breton people and established the dominance of the Brythonic Breton language in Brittany.
During the Briton emigration to Bretagne, several Christian missionaries and saints, mostly Welsh, came to the region and founded Christian Roman Catholic dioceses. The patron saint of Brittany is St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Bretagne has always been the most devoutly of the Catholic regions in France.
By the early middle ages period, Bretagne was divided between three kingdoms: Domnonea, Cornouaille, and Broerec.
These three kingdoms eventually merged into a single state during the ninth century. King Nominoe (845-851 AD) unified Bretagne and he is considered as the Breton pater patriae.
Erispoe, Nominoe’s son, secured the independence of the new kingdom of Bretagne when he won the Battle of Jenland against Charles, the Bald, son of Charlemagne. The Bretons, however, resisted incorporation into the Frankish Carolingian Empire.
During the 10th century, Bretagne was attacked by Vikings. Alan II expelled the Vikings in 937 AD and recreated a strong Breton state.
However, he paid homage to Louis IV of France and thus Bretagne ceased to be an independent kingdom and became a duchy of France. It was united into the Kingdom of France in 1532 as a province.