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BRITTANY. Jutting into the ocean, far from Paris's central state, Brittany had close economic and cultural ties to its Atlantic neighbors. Until 1550, when larger and more efficient Dutch ships displaced them, Breton fleets swarmed European coastal waters, carrying salt, linen, hemp, hides, grain, and wine to distant ports. They returned with oranges, leather, and silver from Spain, with herring, cheese, and naval stores from Holland, and with cloth from England, Holland, and Flanders. Brittany remained a bustling manufacturing power until 1680: its two million inhabitants gave it a population density matched in Europe only by the urban regions of the Low Countries.

In western Brittany, war between France and England disabled the manufacture of linen, crucial to the region's economy, at the end of the seventeenth century. This region lapsed into an enduring poverty, and became a leading center of emigration to Paris in the nineteenth century. Nantes followed a different path: it prospered mightily in colonial trade, becoming the largest French slaving port, and reexporting West Indian sugar and coffee throughout Europe.

Brittany enjoyed a quasi-independent status until 1491, when the last Breton ruler, Duchess Anne (14771513), married Charles VIII of France (ruled 14831498). He died childless; she then married Louis XII (ruled 14981515). Their eldest daughter, Claude, married Francis I (ruled 15151547); Claude's son, Henry II (ruled 15471559) inherited the duchy, making it the personal property of subsequent kings of France.

Brittany until 1790 preserved its provincial Estates, which met annually until 1626 and biannually after 1630; a full complement of local courts, headed by the parlement at Rennes; its customary laws; and its tax system, run primarily by the Estates. These local institutions enabled the Breton nobility to maintain unusually tight control over the province: alone among early modern French peasant rebels, the Breton bonnets rouges ('red caps') in 1675 targeted noble landlords, rather than royal taxes.

Western Brittany stood out culturally because its inhabitants spoke Breton Gaelic. Many French speakers shared the views expressed by the marquis of Lavardin, lieutenant general of Brittany, in 1675: Celtic Brittany "is a rude and ferocious country, which produces inhabitants that resemble it. They poorly understand French and scarcely better reason." The Catholic Church sent out "missionaries," led by the Jesuit Julien Maunoir, to "convert" the nominally Catholic Bretons, whom it viewed as pagans. One of his hymns set forward the church's view of peasant sociability: "Listen all of you [Bretons]/The evil of your veillées,/And your savage dances/That the mad devil/Has brought here/To plunge young people/Into eternal torments . . . From these dances/Come lewd thoughts!" (The veillées, evening village gatherings, for storytelling, matchmaking, and general socializing, remained a staple of Breton life into the 1930s.)

Bretons left a visual legacy of their remarkably rich civilization in parish closes, ensembles of churches, Calvary scenes, and ossuaries. The wealth produced by linen and livestock enabled the peasant-merchants of a St-Thégonnec or a Pleyben to commission magnificent statuary, often created by the workshop of Jean Dauré (1706?1736/1747?) of Landerneau. Artists richly decorated the interiors of the rural churches, either with imaginative paintings on ceilings and pillars, or with stunning altars, as at Lampaul-Guimiliau, whose gilded fallen angels are based on a painting by Rubens (15771640). These masterpieces show the European dimension of early modern Breton civilization, and offer some of the richest rewards rural France has to entice the twenty-first-century visitor.

See also Anne of Brittany ; Charles VIII (France) ; France ; Louis XII (France) ; Provincial Government.


Collins, J. B. Classes, Estates, and Order in Early-Modern Brittany. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1994.

Croix, Alain. L'âge d'or de la Bretagne, 15321675. Rennes, France, 1993.

Tanguy, J. Histoire de la Bretagne et des pays celtique: La Bretagne province 15321789. Morlaix, 1986.

James B. Collins

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Brittany (brĬt´ənē), Breton Breiz, Fr. Bretagne, region and former province, NW France. It is a peninsula between the English Channel (N) and the Bay of Biscay (S) and comprises four departments, Ille-et-Vilaine, Côtes-d'Armor, Finistère, and Morbihan. Historically the duchy and province of Brittany also included the Loire-Atlantique dept.

Land and People

The coast, particularly at the western tip, is irregular and rocky, with natural harbors (notably at Brest, Lorient, and Saint-Malo) and numerous islands. Important rivers include the Odet and Vilaine. The emigration of the young has resulted in a serious decline in the region's population. Brittany and the Breton people have retained many old customs and traditions. Breton, their Celtic language (akin to Welsh), is spoken in traditionalist Lower (i.e., western) Brittany outside the cities (see Breton literature). Brittany has remarkable stone calvaries, some built at the close of the 16th cent. to ward off the plague. Many megalithic monuments, formerly ascribed to the druids, dot the Breton landscape, notably at Carnac. These sights and the local traditions (old-fashioned peasant dress and high lace headgear, processions, and pilgrimages), which its inhabitants jealously maintain, have made Brittany an outstanding tourist attraction.


The economy of the region is based on agriculture, fishing, and tourism. Apples, from which the distinctive Breton cider is made, are grown extensively inland. Industry includes food processing, and automobile manufacturing. A major space telecommunications center is at Pleumeur-Bodou. There is a nuclear power plant in the Arrée Mts. and a tidal power station at Rance.


A part of ancient Armorica, the area was conquered by Julius Caesar in the Gallic Wars and became part of the province of Lugdunensis (see Gaul). It received its modern name when it was settled (c.500) by Britons whom the Anglo-Saxons had driven from Britain. Breton history is a long struggle for independence—first from the Franks (5th–9th cent.), then from the dukes of Normandy and the counts of Anjou (10th–12th cent.), and finally from England and France.

In 1196, Arthur I, an Angevin, was acknowledged as duke. King John of England, who presumably murdered him (1203), failed to obtain the duchy, which passed to Arthur's brother-in-law, Peter I (Peter Mauclerc). The extinction of his direct line led to the War of the Breton Succession (1341–65), a part of the Hundred Years War (1337–1453). With the end of the Breton war, the dukedom was won by the house of Montfort. The dukes of Montfort tried to secure Brittany's neutrality between France and Britain during the remainder of the Hundred Years War.

The unsuccessful rebellion of Duke Francis II against the French crown led to the absorption of Brittany into France after the accession of his daughter, Anne of Brittany, in 1488. King Francis I formally incorporated the duchy into France in 1532. Brittany's provincial parlement met at Rennes, and its provincial assembly remained powerful until the French Revolution.

The 16th and 17th cent. were generally peaceful in Brittany, but the region, never reconciled to centralized rule, became one of the early centers of revolt in 1789. However, its staunch Catholicism and conservatism soon transformed it into an anti-Revolutionary stronghold; the Chouans (anti-Revolutionary peasants) were never fully subdued, and in S Brittany and the neighboring Vendée the Revolutionary government resorted to ruthless reprisals.

Breton nationalism grew in the 19th cent. and was fueled by the anticlericalism of the Third Republic. The Breton autonomists, long successfully repressed by the French government, nevertheless resisted German bids for collaboration in World War II. During the 1970s, Breton nationalists once again protested the French repression of Breton culture. Groups such as the Breton Revolutionary army and the Movement of National Liberation by Socialism committed sporadic acts of violence, such as the exploding of a bomb in the palace of Versailles in June, 1978.


See N. Lands, Brittany (1986); E. Baclone, The Appointed Hour (1989).

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Brittany, a region in what is now northwestern France, lay at the center of European politics and economic development during the Renaissance. A struggle for control over Brittany, the Breton War of Succession, began in 1341. It became a focus of the early stages of the Hundred Years' War between England and France. John of Montfort won control of Brittany in 1364 with the help of the king of England. Montfort's son, Duke John IV, founded a dynasty that ruled Brittany as an independent duchy* until 1491.

In the late 1400s the French king Charles VIII made alliances with several important Breton nobles. He invaded the duchy in 1487 and defeated a combined force of Bretons and English the following year. Brittany's Duke Francis II, who signed a humiliating treaty with France, died soon afterward. His daughter Anne of Brittany succeeded him as ruler.

Seeking to maintain Brittany's independence from France, Anne became engaged to Austria's powerful Duke Maximilian I in 1491. Meanwhile, the French king was planning to wed Maximilian's daughter. However, he called off that marriage, canceled Anne's engagement, and married Anne himself. One of Anne's grandsons from a later marriage became France's King Henry II. Many Bretons still consider Anne to be a symbol of a golden age in Brittany. Besides ruling the duchy, she supported the arts as a patron* and assembled a court of artists and writers. During the Renaissance new artistic trends from Italy spread to the region.

Brittany remained largely independent under Anne, but a treaty in 1532 made the duchy part of France. The French allowed Brittany to keep its customary laws, which gave male and female heirs equal rights (commoners only) and protected widows' property rights. Bretons controlled the region's taxes until 1789.

Socially, Brittany resembled other parts of France. It was dominated by two powerful noble families. The aristocrats modeled their form of government after that of France and maintained close ties to the French nobility. The Breton noble families married into the French royal family and, like most eastern Bretons, were culturally French. Western Brittany was strongly Celtic* in culture and language.

Although Brittany's aristocracy* controlled politics into the 1600s, economic power shifted to the towns that ran Brittany's industries. Brittany's economy was diverse, exporting salt, wine, wheat, and rye throughout Europe. Breton ships dominated Europe's coastal trade from the early 1400s to the mid-1500s. Their fishing fleet probably discovered the Grand Banks of Newfoundland long before Columbus's first voyage. The region was also the center of a prosperous linen industry.

(See alsoArt in Italy; England; France. )

* duchy

territory ruled by a duke or duchess

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* Celtic

referring to the ancient inhabitants of Europe, known as Gauls in France and Britons in Britain

* aristocracy

privileged upper classes of society; nobles or the nobility

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BRITTANY (Fr. Bretagne ), region and former province of western France and ancient independent duchy. Canon 12 of the ecclesiastical Council of Vannes in Brittany (465) forbade clerics to partake in meals with Jews. At about the same time, Nunechius, bishop of *Nantes, welcomed a newly converted Jew. Jews are again found in Brittany from the end of the 12th century living in Ancenis, Clisson, Dol, Guérande, Lamballe, Nantes, and Rennes, and probably also in some other places. By an agreement of Feb. 23, 1222, Pierre Mauclerc, duke of Brittany, confirmed the jurisdiction of the bishop of Nantes over the Jews living in his see. In 1236 many Jews in Brittany were massacred by Crusaders. The remainder were expelled in April 1240 by the duke Jean le Roux who declared a moratorium on all debts owed to Jews and ordered them to return all pledges of chattels or real estate. The duke bound himself and his successors to uphold the decree in perpetuity. For several centuries, therefore, only converted Jews are found living in Brittany. A problem is presented, however, by the Hebrew tombstone (dated 1574) of Solomon b. Jacob Semahes found in Quimperlé. From the beginning of the 17th century, numerous *Marranos settled in Brittany, mainly in Nantes; their Christian competitors failed to have them expelled. During the 18th century, Jewish traders from Bordeaux, Alsace, and Lorraine began to visit the fairs and markets. In 1780, as a result of an isolated incident, they were all expelled. Immediately after the French Revolution, they are found again, notably in Nantes, Brest, Rennes, and Saint-Servan. In 1808, when the *consistories were established, the total number of Jews living in Brittany was only about 30. In the late 20th century there were communities in Nantes, Brest, and Rennes.


Gross, Gal Jud, 126ff.; Blumenkranz, in: Etudes d'histoire du droit canonique… G. le Bras, 2 (1965), 1055ff.; L. Brunschvicg, in: rej, 14 (1887), 84ff.; 49 (1904), 110–20; I. Loeb, ibid., 17 (1888), 92ff.; 33 (1896), 88–121; 43 (1901), 117–22; H. Sée, ibid., 80 (1925), 170–81; J. Montigny, Essai sur les institutions… de Bretagne (1961); E. Durtelle de Saint-Sauveur, Histoire de Bretagne (19574), 230ff.

[Bernhard Blumenkranz]

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Brittany (Bretagne) Former duchy and province in nw France, forming the peninsula between the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel. Under Roman rule from 56 bc to the 5th century ad, it was later inhabited by Celts who provided its name, language (Breton), and distinctive costume and culture. It was formally incorporated within France in 1532, and the years that followed saw the deliberate suppression of Breton culture, to the extent that the language was banned. In more recent times, the French government has improved the region's infrastructure. Pop. (1999) 2,907,178.