Armorica, Bertaigne, Bretaigne, Bretan, Breteyn, Bretland, La Bloie, La Bloye, La Petite Bretaigne, Leonais
Brittany is a region in the northwest of France known for its distinct Celtic heritage. It is bordered by the English Channel to the north, the Celtic Sea to the west, and the Bay of Biscay to the south.
Brittany, “Lesser” Britain as distinct from “Great” Britain: the north-west peninsula of France, inhabited by the Bretons, people of British descent whose ancestors played a major role in Arthurian legend-making. Under the Roman Empire, it was part of the somewhat larger territory of Armorican Gaul. Colonization from Britain began during the last phase of the Empire in the West.
Welsh tradition associates the settlement with the emperor Maximus (who took it from Duke Inbalt), who was proclaimed in Britain in 383 and captured Rome in 388 but was overthrown soon after. His army included numerous Britons, and according to the Welsh he allotted them lands on the Continent. Geoffrey tells us that the Breton kingdom was founded when Maximus bestowed the crown on Conan Meriadoc, a nephew of Octavius, elsewhere called Evdaf, King of Britain. Nennius (early ninth century) says:
He [Maximus] gave them many districts from the lake on top of Mount Jove to the city called Quentovic, as far as the Western Mass, that is the Western Ridge. They are the Armorican British, and they never came back, even to the present day.
Nennius’s statement spreads them out widely; by implication, it was the settlement in what is now Brittany that survived. When the British wanted a king, Conan’s successor, Aldroenus, gave them Constantine, his brother. Constantine was Arthur’s grandfather. In the Arthurian legend, King Hoel of Brittany was said to be Arthur’s relation and ally. Traditionally this Hoel reigned from about AD 510-545.
The story is enlarged on in the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig. Here, Macsen – Maximus himself – marries the British princess Elen, and, when her brother Cynan brings a British army to Rome to aid him, he rewards Cynan’s warriors for the consequent victory with a free hand in Armorica. They kill the men and marry the women, cutting out their tounges to prevent them from corrupting the British language with speech of their own. This is an onomastic legend. Llydaw, the Welsh name for Brittany, is made out to have been derived from lled ‘half’ and taw ‘silent’, because only the male half of the population could speak.
Cynan or (in Breton) Conan, surnamed Meriadoc, is also depicted as the founder in the Legend of St. Goeznovius. Its author knows the tounge story but seems not to know the reason for it so the point is lost. This Breton version says nothing of Maximus and treats Conan’s colonization as a purely British enterprise.
Brittany were also called Armorica in the old days, probably in about the same place but with more territory than the modern province. Brittany, not Great Britain, may well have been the birthplace of Arthurian romance as we know it. There is some evidence for a British presence in Armorica at least as early as these accounts imply. Armorica was inhabited by indigenous Celtic tribes, including the Venetii and the Osismii, before the Roman conquest in the first century BC. Over time, Armorica became part of the Roman Empire as part of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis.
The first Christian colonization took place in the late 450s, being marked historically by a reference to a “bishop of the Britons,” Mansuetus – a historical figure associated with Toul in Gaul – as attending a council at Tours in 461. Gildas descbribes the overseas movements as a flight of refugees from the Saxon ravagings, and so at first it presumably was. Yet the bulk of the emigration seems to have come from southwestern Britain, a long way from the Saxon enclaves. It is likely that some Britons went over in a more deliberate way by arrangement with Aegidius, the Roman ruler of northern Gaul, and cooperated during the next decade or so in coastal defense and other measures of control. The migrant leaders included people of wealth and education (Gildas says they took many books with them), and they apparently helped in the repulse and containment of Saxon marauders occupying the lower Loire valley.
However, nothing suggests a cohesive mass settlement, transforming the character of the region, as early as this. The supposed case for it depends wholly on the assumption that a large British force that operated in Gaul ca. 468-470 was recruited in Armorica, implying a large British population already there. But the little that is recorded about this army indicates that most if not all of it came directly from Britain, and with the army eliminated as evidence not much remains.
The next step, in the later fifth century, was the beginning of an influx of “saints” – ecclesiastics, most of them Welsh, who crossed over from Britain and were active in organizing Breton communities. In the first half of the sixth century, a fresh wave of general emigration, on a larger scale, finally converted most of Armorica into “Brittany,” the names “Brittany” and “Armorica” became interchangeable. The country was nominally subject to the kings of the Franks but kept a decided character of its own. The earlier Armorican people were absorbed. Breton developed as a language in its own right, evolved from the Celtic British speech of the imperial era, like Welsh and Cornish. Brittany had local dynasties and retained economic and cultural ties with Cornwall. Several regional rules may have held some kind of authority on both sides of the Channel.
Brittany’s traditions of Arthur were strong, but mainly oral, so that their nature is a matter of inference rather than knowledge. To judge from the Legend of St. Goeznovius, they were built on a genuine historical foundation. But motifs of a poetic and fanciful sort may have originated here, too. Notable is the idea of Arthur’s immortality and destined return, which is often mentioned as a Breton belief by a series of authors beginning with Henry of Huntingdon. Geoffrey of Monmouth shows a pro-Breton bias, pointing to his use of materials from that quarter, perhaps brought to England by Bretons returning to their ancestral island with the Norman conquerors, as many did. If the “ancient book in the British language” that he claims as his source had any reality, it is more likely to have come from Brittany than from Wales.
Breton stories, spread abroad by minstrels through France and beyond, probably underlie much Arthurian romance on the Continent. Arthur holds court in Brittany in Chrétien’s Cligés and explicitly at Nantes in Wolfram’s Parzival. Brittany figures in the Tristan legend and may have supplied some of its elements. Wace, who first mentions the Round Table, claims to have heard of it from the Bretons. He also mentions the enchanted forest of Brocéliande, in the heart of their country. He was disappointed with it himself, but it reappears in romance, and its remnants harbor Arthurian folklore to this day – as do other Breton locations.
France and Brittany almost surely contain such important sites as Broceliande Forest and the lake in which Lancelot was raised. Sometimes, indeed, the reader of old romances hardly can be sure whether the author had British or Breton places in mind. It is confusing and it’s easy to get places wrong when there is one Benoye or Benwick in Britain and another in France, and a magical Lake with its Damsel on both sides of the Channel, ultimately may be the result of a fusion or confusion of British and French sites in the original romances.
Rulers of Brittany in the Arthurian age are variously given as Hoel (whose wife, the duchess of Brittany, was kidnapped by the Giant of Mont St. Michel), Brian of the Isles, Aramont, Fflergant, Caradoc, and Peissawg the Tall. Arthur is often named as Brittany’s overlord. In Middle High German romance, Brittany is often noted as Arthur’s primary kingdom, with its capital at Nantes.
The works of Chrétien de Troyes indicate Brittany as among Arthur’s lands, describing two of his visits there, at both of which his Breton subjects rejoice. One occurs when Arthur for some reason, perhaps topical to Chrétien’s own time, chooses Nantes in Brittany for the site of Erec’s coronation as king of Outre-Gales. During Alexander’s time with Arthur, which we may suppose to take place before Erec’s adventures, when Arthur wishes to pay Brittany a visit, he consults his lords as to whom he should leave in charge of Britain – they unwisely choose Count Angrs.
Both the care Arthur uses to select a regent and the time he plans to stay suggest that Brittany was not a part of his regular yearly round: he spends the entire summer and might have been about to spend the winter as well, had it not been for his regent’s rebellion. Arthur musters men from all of Brittany to swell his army before returning to deal with Angrs. In Yvain, however, Chrétien certainly appears to move Broceliande Forest into England.
Brittany, as a region with Celtic heritage, has its own ancient legends and folklore, some of which intertwine with the Arthurian legends. Arthurian literature thrived during the medieval period, and there were exchanges of stories and narratives between different regions. Some Breton poets and authors likely contributed to the expansion and enrichment of the Arthurian tradition.
- King Arthur’s mother, Igraine, is said to come from Cornouaille, according to some sources.
- King Arthur is said to have had knights who were Bretons. For example Sir Owain (Ywaine).
- The love story of Tristan and Isolde has ties to both Cornwall (in England) and Brittany.
- Lancelot is often depicted as having Breton origins.
- In some stories, knights are said to have traveled to Brittany in search of the Grail.
- Isle of Avalon has been associated with Brittany, possibly the Breton island of Aval (Îsle d’Aval).
- In Breton literary tradition, there is a mention of Château d’Avalon in the romance Les Romans de la Table Ronde (specifically in Lancelot ou le Chevalier de la Charrette), suggesting that a location with a similar name was part of the Breton Arthurian lore.
- In Breton hagiographies, there are instances where local saints interact with Arthurian characters or events, showcasing the blending of religious and Arthurian motifs in Breton literature.
Brittany and Wales share close cultural ties, including language and legends. Welsh sources, such as the Mabinogion, have their own stories of Arthur and his knights, which might have influenced Bretion traditions. In modern times, Brittany hosts various Arthurian-themed festivals and events that celebrate the region’s connection to King Arthur and the Round Table.
Some Breton churches and medieval monuments feature art and sculptures depicting Arthurian characters, suggesting the widespread popularity and significance of the Arthurian legends in the region.
Brittany | 0 to the 9th century AD
Roman Influence | 1st century BC – 5th century AD
Prior to the Celtic settlement, the Roman Empire had a presence in the region, known as Armorica, from the first century BC. The Romans left a legacy in term of infrastructure and cultural influence. With the decline of the Roman Empire and its evenual withdrawal from Gaul (modern-day France) in the fifth century, the region became more susceptible to external influences.
Breton Kingdom and Independence | 9th century
During the ninth century, the region faced Viking raids and invasions, similar to other parts of Western Europe. The Vikings targeted coastal areas and navigable rivers. In response to Viking threats and invasions, the local leaders in Brittany began to consolidate power. Nominoe, a Breton leader, is often credited with uniting the Breton duchies and establishing the Kingdom of Brittany in the early ninth century.
Treaty of Angers | 851
The Treaty of Angers in 851 between King Charles the Bald of West Francia and Erispoe, the Duke of Brittany, recognized the independence of Brittany from West Francia. This marked the formal acknowledgment of Brittany as a separate political entity.
Breton Expansion | 9th century
The Breton leaders engaged in territorial expansion, pushing back against Viking incursions and extending their influence inland. To defend against Viking raids, the Bretons built fortifications and established strongholds.
Weal-land is the name given by the Saxon Chronicle to Brittany, according to The Place-names in Wales (1912).
Culhwch and Olwen | Late 11th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Lancelot do Lac | 1215-1220
Breudwyt Rhonabwy | 13th century
Garel von dem blühenden Tal | Der Pleier, 1240-1270
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470