views updated May 23 2018


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


views updated May 21 2018


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


views updated Jun 11 2018


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]


views updated Jun 27 2018

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.

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