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Bretons and Britons

The Fight for Identity


Barry Cunliffe


Oxford: University Press, 2021

Hardback. x+472 pp. ISBN 978-0198851622. £25


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London





Some sixty years ago Barry Cunliffe, professor emeritus at Oxford University, was introduced to the archaeology of Brittany during a lecture given at Cambridge. Now he draws on the intervening decades of scientific endeavour to produce a splendid account and interpretation of the Breton past. His two-fold objective is to craft a narrative extending from prehistoric times to the beginning of the twentieth century, and ‘to explore the fascinating subject of identity: how a people living in a remote peninsula of Europe … created and fought to maintain a distinctive culture’ [vii]. As its title suggests, his volume is also a commemoration of centuries of contact between Brittany and western Britain, indeed also with other parts of Atlantic Europe such as Galicia, Wales, and Ireland. In its author’s words, this book is ‘a labour of love written to celebrate the forces that have bound our two countries [Brittany and Britain], and in profound appreciation of the ever-fascinating Breton countryside. Above all, it is a tribute to the remarkable resilience of the Breton people’ [viii].

In a succinct prologue, Professor Cunliffe explains how the land-bound French called ‘the western extremity of the continent “Finistère”, the end of the earth. But to the inhabitants their peninsula was the centre of the world: it was the rest of Europe that was peripheral’ [1]. Remote peninsulas and islands exercise special fascination since, ‘to distinguish themselves from outsiders, their communities spend much effort in defining and protecting their cultural identity’ [1]. Bretons, of course, follow this rule and worked tirelessly ‘to safeguard their culture and to intensify their differences with the land neighbours, the better to distinguish themselves from the alien other’ [1]. In this quest, the sea proved all-important providing ‘a barrier to unwanted outside interference while at the same time allowing maritime networks to develop, offering connectivity. By embracing overseas neighbours and becoming part of a broader community, peninsula dwellers can further enhance their culture in contrast to their continental neighbours’ [1]. Links between Armorica (Brittany) and the British Isles began to be forged seven thousand years ago and enabled ‘many generations of Bretons to look to their British [and Irish] neighbours as compatriots whose values they shared, while the neighbouring French were considered to be a threat’ [2]. In the past, Parisians placed Brittany ‘on the edge of the familiar world’, comprising an array of ‘distant and peripheral, irrational places where reality fades into fantasy’ [2], with mysterious enchanted forests and magic fountains where strange rites were enacted. During the nineteenth century, the remoteness of Brittany gave rise to ‘a wistful nostalgia’ embracing ‘primitive people untouched by the corrupting grasp of civilization’ whose alleged simplicity was to be envied [2]. Having established objectives and context, Cunliffe provides an elegant résumé of the geography of Brittany (land, sea, networks of communication, harbours) with ocean-facing ‘Armor’ contrasting with once-forested ‘Argoat’, and eastern ‘Haute-Bretagne’ differing from western ‘Basse-Bretagne’. He argues that Armorica ‘always has been a huddle of different pays each with distinctive characteristics and each, until recent times, speaking its own dialect of the Breton language. ‘It is a patchwork born of geography’ [31]. This account is accompanied by a suite of full-colour maps, diagrams and photographs which form a particularly appealing feature of the whole book.

The greater part of Bretons and Britons is devoted to the Breton past, from ‘clearing the land, 6000-2700 BC’ in chapter 2 to ‘rebellions and a revolution, 1532-1802’ in chapter 9. In earlier chapters the approach is emphatically archaeological, with Cunliffe quoting results from many of his own scientific enquiries as well as those of Breton confrères. Later chapters are fashioned from a digest of documentary and literary sources. The present review is not the place to retell the complex story of Breton history, but mention will be made of distinctive phases when contact occurred between Brittany and Britain. Thus, during 4300-3900 BC, it is likely that ‘migrants from Armorica were moving northwards to settle in the west of Wales and Scotland, in the north and west of Ireland, and possibly in south-western Britain’ [77]. Between 2700 and 600 BC ‘hide boats and plank-built vessels would have been used both in coastal trade and in cross-Channel sailing, greatly facilitating the connectivity between western Armorica and Wessex’ thereby leading to ‘a remarkable convergence of culture on both sides of the Channel’ [105]. From 600 to 50 BC, tin was exported from Cornwall to France, serving as the driver for intensity of contact and thereby creating ‘friends across the sea’ [139].

During the ‘Roman interlude 50 BC-AD 400’, cross-Channel trade expanded, with amphorae once containing wine being found in Poole harbour, and Armorica witnessed the appearance of Roman towns, roads, and administrative systems, especially in its eastern part. After 400 the grasp of imperial Rome was shattered by peasants’ revolts in areas away from nodes of Roman power. In response to the westward movement of Saxons across southern Britain, emigration from the British Isles ‘probably began in the early decades of the fifth century and continued over the next two centuries but of the history and process of the migration we know very little’ [205]. How it was organised, if at all, is unknown. What is clear is that Breton dialects and placenames acquired many features present in the Cornish and Welsh languages. Migration of holy men (‘saints’) from Britain led to the foundation of churches and monasteries. In some cases, standing stones from earlier times were taken over and rededicated by Christians, with crosses being added on top. A clear distinction emerged between a ‘late Brittonic zone’ in the west of the peninsula and a ‘Gallo-Roman zone’ in the east that was under the influence of Franks and Saxons. Cunliffe declares that the 350 years after the collapse of Roman rule ‘saw Armorica become Brittany [but this] was a complex and turbulent transformation bereft of a clear, reliable narrative’ [232]. Viking raids on the eastern march of Brittany led to an exodus of members of the Breton elite to the court of the Wessex kings thereby suggesting that ‘close relations were maintained between royal households on either side of the Channel’ [263]. However, it was the Norman conquest of 1066 that unleashed a flood of Bretons on England since the invading force contained many warriors from the peninsula. By the time of the Domesday Survey of 1086 ‘as much as a fifth of the land of England was in Breton hands’ [263], especially in East Anglia, Yorkshire and the south-west.

During the later Middle Ages, the kings of France and England ‘used Brittany as a pawn – a convenient place to play out their power struggles’ [267]. Areas surrounding Rennes and Nantes functioned as ‘a buffer between the Breton peninsula and Norman and Angevin neighbours’ [270]. Breton independence started to unravel in the late fifteenth century when Anne, Duchess of Brittany, married the king of France Charles VIII and, following his death, Louis XII. Integration of Brittany and France was formalised by treaty in 1532, with historic rights and privileges enjoyed by Bretons being guaranteed. At this time, coastal stretches of the peninsula flourished through maritime trade, fishing, and production of cereals, flax, and hemp. Conspicuous wealth was devoted to the construction of new churches adorned with remarkable parish closes, calvaries, and ossuaries. Breton piety was displayed through a multiplication of pardons. Nonetheless, many Bretons chose to migrate in search of a better life in south-west England where they worked as labourers, servants, fishermen, tin miners, and craftsmen. In November 1789 the province of Brittany and its historic parlement ceased to exist. ‘Old allegiances were torn apart and ancient rights and privileges were no longer recognised’ [349]. Traditional territorial units were replaced by départements. The Revolution was greeted with ambivalence by some Bretons and with downright hostility by others. The State takeover of the Church was bitterly opposed. It was perhaps only then, argues Cunliffe, that the Bretons became aware of the depths of their religious beliefs. ‘Their very distinctive form of Catholicism … was an essential part of their identity’ [345]. Introduction of universal conscription came as a second blow and tipped large areas into counterinsurgency. Even though such opposition faded away, ‘it created a potent image of Brittany, as strongly Catholic and royalist in stark opposition to the ideals of Revolutionary France. It was an image that was to persist, reminding the Bretons of what made them a people’ [345].  

At this point in the narrative, Barry Cunliffe adopts a different approach and treats nineteenth-century Brittany as ‘Ourselves as others see us’. He argues that Parisians and other Frenchmen ‘saw a people very different from themselves. The Bretons dressed differently, spoke their own incomprehensible language, and were highly superstitious, their lives being dominated by a sense of ever-present death … They were altogether more primitive, more sauvage’ [347]. This perception and the construction of railway lines and operation of regular ferry services attracted visitors, including members of the British elite, drawn by the delights of sea bathing, as well as writers and painters from Paris, and archaeologists seeking to explore the Celtic past. Those who came in search of inspiration 'crafted a vision of the land and its people that set in high relief their distinctive characteristics. This inevitably fed back into the consciousness of the people themselves, providing them with a vision with which to aspire. Thus it was that the fascination of foreigners encouraged the Bretons to become even more Breton' [378].      

Myths and legends about Bretons and Celts were exploited by scholars such as Paul-Yves Pezrou who wanted ‘to give his people, the Bretons, a worthy ancestry rooted deep in the past to help differentiate them from the French’ [389]. Welshman Edward Lhuyd explored linguistic similarities in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland. In this way, ‘the concept of the Celt became a symbol for the minorities of the western extremities of Europe who were striving to maintain their way of life and language against the inroads of French and English culture’ [389]. Legends and folk tales provided ample fodder for Romantic poets and novelists to polish the image of Bretonness. The Union Régionaliste Bretonne was founded in 1898 to preserve Breton cultural identity and obtain independence, with emphasis on Catholicism and a Breton-speaking peasantry. A year later, the Ligue des Bleus de Bretagne came into being to promote the ideals of the Englightenment and the Revolution of 1789. At the turn of the century, the peninsula was divided between Haute-Bretagne, ‘urban-based, French-speaking, and sharing the ideals of Europe’, and Basse-Bretagne, ‘rural in its attitudes, and fighting to maintain traditional values and culture’ [407]. It was as if ‘the geography of the peninsula was once again asserting itself, reminding us that there have always been two Brittanys’ [408]. And there the narrative comes to an abrupt halt, apart from a brief epilogue that reveals the devastating effect of World War I on Breton communities, with 22% of Breton conscripts dying in conflict (or soon afterwards) compared with 11% of conscripts from Paris. Mention is also made of regionalist and autonomist movements that, since 1920, ‘have come and gone with surprising rapidity, differing in their aims and methods but sharing the desire that Breton should thrive as a living language’ [415]. Barry Cunliffe concludes:


Peninsular Armorica is a special place, remote from the continental mainland yet central to a network of maritime connectivity binding the communities of Atlantic Europe … Geography has allowed the inhabitants of the peninsula to use the surrounding sea, and the forest and marshes guarding the neck of the promontory, to insulate themselves from external influences if they so wished, or to accept them selectively on their own terms [413].

Their ‘constant battle to retain their identity has made them resilient and determined, and it is this that has conditioned their attitude to life’ [416].

This.reviewer is filled with admiration for the clarity and vigour of Bretons and Britons, while acknowledging that the story is not evenly balanced but is emphatically geared to interpreting the past of Brittany. An impressive bibliography covering no fewer than thirty closely printed pages offers examples of further reading for those who have access to specialist academic libraries. Reading the text reminded the reviewer of his own experience of the peninsula which began in 1963 at the freshly rebuilt town of Lorient that suffered extreme devastation during World War II. Further encounters led him to archives in Quimper and Rennes, took him to many parts of Brittany on fieldtrips with his students, and instructed him about the diversity of the peninsula’s rural landscapes on a wonderful study visit in 1977 directed by the late Pierre Flatrès. More recently, his research into post-war reconstruction took him back to Brest, Lorient, Saint-Malo, and other towns. Against this background, he felt rather disappointed that Professor Cunliffe chose to draw his account to a halt ca. 1900 since there is much to recount about twentieth-century regionalism, Celtic cultural festivals, Breton language schools, tourism, industrialisation, second homes, retirement migration, agricultural modernisation, destruction of historic enclosed (bocage) landscapes, pollution of land and water by agricultural fertilisers, and a host of other themes. But to encompass such a range of topics is perhaps to expect too much from a concluding chapter. In short, Professor Cunliffe has written a masterpiece and his publishers must be thanked for making available such an elegant, beautifully illustrated hardback volume for only £25.


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