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23.01.03 Cunliffe, Bretons & Britons

23.01.03 Cunliffe, Bretons & Britons

This book is a “labour of love” (viii) by an archaeologist of enormous distinction reaching out beyond his usual period. It is exceptionally strong on archaeology, strong on sociopolitical history, and often insufficient on language and literature. This complicates its usefulness for medievalists. Readers of The Medieval Review will probably find more value in another book published last year: Caroline Brett, with Fiona Edmonds and Paul Russell, Brittany and the Atlantic Archipelago, 450-1200: Contact, Myth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021). On the archaeology, in some ways Cunliffe supersedes the most closely comparable books, The Bretons by Patrick Galliou and Michael Jones (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) and The British Settlement of Brittany: The First Bretons in Armorica by Pierre-Roland Giot, Philippe Guignon, and Bernard Merdrignac (Stroud: Tempus, 2003). General readers without French will surely appreciate Cunliffe’s expertise and his images but might be more comprehensively informed about Brittany’s recent history by Gwenno Piette, Brittany: A Concise History (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008) and maybe even Wendy Mewes, Brittany: A Cultural History (Oxford: Signal, 2014); readers with French would have many other options.

Bretons and Britons is a richly illustrated history of Brittany from 6000 BC to 1900 AD. (Despite the title, the book is not precisely focused on the history of relations between Brittany and Britain, although there is enough recurring coverage of that that it registers as a distinctive slant.) Why stop at 1900? Cunliffe does not say. For a history of the Bretons’ “fight for identity”--“their remarkable story [...] through the ages” (3)--to skip the last 120 years, except for a page or two in the Epilogue, is unfortunate and hard to justify.

The epilogue asserts that “Since the end of [the First World War], regionalist and autonomist movements in Brittany have come and gone with surprising rapidity, differing in their aims and their methods but sharing the desire that Breton should thrive as a living language. But there is now a new optimism, a sense that Breton culture is not just a backward-looking curiosity, nostalgic for a rose-tinted, folksy past, but is valued for its creative contribution to the modern world” (415). This is not a summary of anything from earlier in the book: the last chapter, “Creating Identities,” comes after the 1789-1900 chapter but does not go past World War I. Rather, this is introducing a new topic, which is dealt with in three paragraphs: some musicians are mentioned (Tri Yann, Alan Stivell, Didier Squiban), but not the Seiz Breur, Roparz Hemon and the Gwalarn group, any Breton writers, artists, or cultural figures since Anatole Le Braz, Pierre Loti, and Charles Le Goffic (except for a passing reference to Pierre-Jakez Hélias on p. 12), the Second World War (except in the annotation of two figures referencing damage to archeological and historical monuments), the term Emsav, the FLB, political protest of any kind, Breton-language education (Diwan, Div Yezh), Ofis ar Brezhoneg (now Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg), the oral-literature collection agency Dastum, and so on.

The book ends a page later. Brett, Edmonds, and Russell observe that “for much of the twentieth century, the Romantic agenda was left in possession of Brittany” [1]: the last pictures in Cunliffe (406-409), postcards from around 1900 “emphasizing the quaint and the curious” (408), do nothing really to combat this, historically accurate though they are. Cunliffe obviously cares for Brittany in the present. He might not have felt comfortable writing about twentieth- and twenty-first-century matters. He does at least mention Maryon Macdonald’s ‘We Are Not French!’: Language, Culture, and Identity in Brittany (London: Routledge, 1989) as “strongly to be recommended” (449), but of course even that is now three decades old.Galliou and Jones stopped at 1491, gesturing briefly to what followed, and that might have been a wiser precedent to follow, especially if someone else could write a sequel. It might seem churlish to complain about Cunliffe covering more than Galliou and Jones, but that does make the missing century all the more glaring. (It is missing even from the Guide to Further Reading, 423-454, which is keyed to the contents of the chapters and has nothing for the Epilogue.)

Of course, the charitable approach is to accept and value Cunliffe for what he offers, and he offers a lot.

The body of the book is almost exactly 400 pages, and almost exactly half of that is before 400 AD. The chapters cover 6000-2700 BC, 2700-600 BC, 600-50 BC, 50 BC-400 AD, 400-751, 751-1148, 1148-1532, 1532-1802, and 1789-1900.

The coverage from 6000 BC through 400 AD is copious, with many helpful maps and images. Worth noting is the divide between the coast (Armor) and the interior (Argoad) (11-17), which is said to be crucial but is assumed rather than brought up again for the rest of the book, which focuses on differences between the east and west. Cunliffe touches repeatedly on his research project at Le Yaudet, his Breton home-away-from-home (viii), and this firsthand perspective is valuable. Megalithic tombs (cairns, dolmens) and standing stones (menhirs) are surely Brittany’s claim to fame when it comes to archeology: these are covered at length in Chapter 2 (35-80).

Strictly speaking, although the prehistoric archaeology left its mark on the landscape, only three chapters (201-303) deal with the Middle Ages.

“From Armorica to Brittany, 400-751” (201-233) opens with the breakdown of the Roman Empire, with disaffected troops roaming the countryside. Vannes, Rennes, and Nantes preserved a semblance of Roman order, while the rest of Armorica was racked by peasant revolts. Cunliffe contrasts the rural (“pagan” in the original sense) northwest with the urbanized southeast, a division reinforced by the coming of Christianity, as bishops set up in the cities and wrote to castigate priests in the west for unorthodox practices. On to the fifth- and sixth-century migration of insular Britons to Armorica: Cunliffe reviews the possible motives--were they refugees, or pioneers, or mercenaries?--but moves on swiftly to the impact, mapping Brittonic placenames in plou-, tre-, and lan- against Gallo-Roman ones in -(i)ac and -é/-y to show the extent of the migration (208-209). Plou-, he points out later, is usually paired with a saint’s name, and sifting through the horde of supposed saints associated with the migration, he uses the eighth-century Life of St. Samson of Dol as a case study (218-220) of local tensions in the church at this time.

There is a brief comment (210-211) on the phases of the Breton language (Old Breton, Middle Breton) and its dialects, although the extent of the Old-Breton glosses and the advent of literature in Breton (Ivonet Omnes, An dialog etre Arzur roue d’an Bretounet ha Guynglaff, mystery plays) go unmentioned here and in later chapters (“The Search for a Breton Literary Tradition,” 399-403, skips Middle Breton entirely and focuses on Romantic-era folklorists). Otherwise the historical survey concludes with the Franks’ ascendancy in northern Gaul and their initial clashes with the Bretons, leading to a period of “uneasy truce” (217) from 600 to 750: Cunliffe argues that this “constant confrontation” at the river Vilaine was instrumental in the forging of a new, distinct Breton identity (232-233), with the subregions of Domnonée, Cornouaille, and Broërec taking shape by the eighth century.

A section on “daily life of the early Bretons” focuses on the archeology of Le Yaudet and the monastery at Landévennec founded by St. Guénolé (which seems to have practiced an Irish rule and tonsure until the Carolingian period), and on the Christian appropriation of menhirs, stelae, and old Roman buildings. The chapter ends with a section on seaborne trade. There is very little archeological evidence (e.g., imported pottery, mapped on 231) that Brittany was involved in the thriving trade between the Mediterranean and the Irish Sea, but Cunliffe thinks it must have been: “All one can suppose is that there are many sites productive of imported wares still to be found in Brittany” (232).

(The manuscript image on 234, from a Landévennec gospel book, of the Apostle Mark with a horse’s head, reappears on 238 with the explanation--marc’h is the Breton word for ‘horse.’ Another Landévennec manuscript, the Harkness Gospels in the New York Public Library, has this feature too.)

“Conflicting Identities, 751-1148” (234-265) begins with Pippin the Short’s capture of Vannes and the creation of the Carolingian March of Brittany. After “[t]he failure of seven major Carolingian campaigns, mounted over four decades, to bring the Bretons to heel” (239)--Cunliffe attributes this to difficult terrain, favoring guerrilla and light cavalry tactics by the Bretons; the Bretons’ decentralized leadership; and the fact they had nowhere to run--the Franks opted to rule Brittany through a local vassal, Nominoë, who eventually turned against them, defeating Charles the Bald at Ballon in 845 and replacing Frankish bishops in Brittany with Bretons. Nominoë’s son Erispoë and nephew Salomon continued the fight, making Brittany an independent kingdom and pushing its borders east. Meanwhile, the Franks and the Bretons alike were troubled by Viking raids. The Vikings were active in Brittany from c. 840 to c. 960, raiding major centers and settling on the Loire. The Breton kingdom fragmented after Salomon’s death: Cunliffe sees in this the persistence of the old separation of the southeast from the north and west. While the Vikings were held off for a time, after 912 they overwhelmed Brittany while the Normans nibbled at it from the east. The Breton clergy and aristocracy took refuge in England, and a few maintained holdings there even after Alain Barbetorte returned from exile in 936 to rout the Vikings and establish a Breton dukedom. The ducal period brought with it new and rebuilt monasteries and (as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry) fortified mottes. A section on “Bretons in Britain” (263-264) describes how the Bretons were involved with the Norman Conquest, settling mainly in East Anglia, Yorkshire, and the southwest, and prolonging dynastic rivalries from Brittany in the context of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. “Wandering Bretons” (264-265) notes how Bretons were spreading to Paris and elsewhere in Europe.

Here Cunliffe touches on “[t]he extent to which the Breton diaspora was responsible for disseminating the tales embedded in the oral literature of the Brittonic-speaking countries” (265). While any number of contributions on this topic could be mentioned (for example, Patrick Sims-Williams, “Did itinerant Bretonconteurs transmit the Matière de Bretagne?” Romania 116 [1998], 72-111; John Carey, Ireland and the Grail [Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications, 2007]), the one most congenial to Cunliffe’s approach of mapping archeological finds (because it maps the spread of Arthurian personal names) is the challenging and important work of Pierre Gallais in “Bleheri, la cour de Poitiers et la transmission des récits arthuriens sur le continent” (1967), reprinted in Journal of the International Arthurian Society 2.1 (2014), 84-113. Marie de France and the “Breton lays” are mentioned only later, in the chapter on “Creating Identities” (381-409, at 381-385).

A section on “life in the countryside” (248-251) describes the system of land tenure, plebes (the basic small communities) and rannou (individual family holdings). The plebs was overseen by a machtiern, with judges circulating among multiple plebes, and there was a basic distinction between aristocrats, free peasant farmers, and serfs. Cunliffe remarks that “[s]tanding back from the detail it is possible to discern many similarities between Breton society and that of the Celtic west, in particular Ireland and Wales” (251), but he does not explore these in any detail.

“Our Nation of Brittany, 1148-1532” (267-303) discusses Brittany as a pawn between England and France. From 1148 to 1206 it was dominated by the Angevins; from 1206 to 1341 aligned with France under Capetian dukes; from 1341 to 1365 rent by a war of succession between French-backed Charles de Blois and English-backed Jean de Montfort, in which their wives, Jeanne de Penthièvre and Jeanne of Flanders, took an active role. Drawing on the chronicler Froissart while maintaining some critical distance from his glamorous accounts, Cunliffe traces the course of the war and focuses on some of the personalities: the two Jeannes, Bertrand de Guesclin, the knights in the famous Combat of the Thirty. Montfort won in the end, becoming Duke Jean IV. In “Our Nation of Brittany” (296-297), a title that quotes Jean IV, Cunliffe suggests that this is “the earliest occasion when aspirations of nationhood are explicitly mentioned” (296), and surveys the administrative infrastructure and regal trappings of the dukes, which imitated France and Burgundy rather than anything specific to Brittany’s past. Still, Brittany enjoyed sovereignty and independence until the reign of Louis IX of France.

In service of the title Bretons and Britons, a special section (284-287) covers Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII of England, who took refuge in Brittany in 1471 and was granted asylum by Duke François II, remaining for many years (despite some intrigue, which Cunliffe describes) as an “honoured hostage of the Bretons” (286) before returning to win the crown from Richard III.

After François, the ducal period ended with the reign of Duchess Anne, who, to keep Brittany from becoming a battleground between France and England once again, was married to two successive French kings: her death precipitated the formal union of Brittany with France in 1532, in which France guaranteed the “‘privileges, rights, and exemptions’ of the Breton people” (290).

A section on “Brittany and the sea” (290-296) discusses Brittany’s involvement in trade between Bordeaux and Britain, and in the various trade routes established by the Portuguese, Spanish, and Italians as the Middle Ages wore on. The Bretons had a reputation as sailors.

“The people and their beliefs” (297-303) focuses on religious architecture, pardons and pilgrimages, folk religion, and a characteristic fascination with death that extended well beyond the Middle Ages.

Summing up developments in the book so far, Cunliffe points to the persistence of “the old divide between the east and the west evident in prehistoric and Gallo-Roman times” (303).

As mentioned, the later chapter on “Creating Identities” (381-409) says the most about literature, and it does not say much (among medieval authors it mentions Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Chrétien de Troyes, and a touch of Marie de France). The major value of this section, for anyone who has not been following the conversations in Celtic Studies, is its treatment of the label “Celts/Celtic” as a modern phenomenon with nationalist, nostalgic, and Romantic associations. In tracing the emergence of “Celtomania,” Cunliffe makes it retrospectively clear why attributing “Celtic” identity as such to the medieval Bretons would be a dubious proposition, for all the power that “Celtic” framing has had to define Brittany more recently (see Cunliffe’s introduction, 2-3). For the “& Britons”part, Cunliffe highlights the influence of the Breton Paul-Yves Pezron on Edward Lhuyd (386-389) and various British contributions to the “Celtomania” trend, including (of course) Macpherson’s Ossian, Iolo Morganwg, and Charlotte Guest. This chapter concludes (before the postscript on postcards) with how, “at the beginning of the twentieth century, we see the old divide between Haute-Bretagne and Basse-Bretagne once more apparent. The one, urban-based, French-speaking, and sharing the ideals of Europe, the other, essentially rural in its attitudes, fighting to maintain traditional values and culture. The geography of the peninsula was once more asserting itself, reminding us that there have always been two Brittanys” (407-408). To the extent that this might be the thesis of the book, I suppose it might explain why the book stops there, since anything more recent might complicate this picture.

Personally, I felt there were missed opportunities in various chapters to relate archeology to Breton literature and folklore, as J. P. Mallory and John Waddell, for example, have done for early Irish literature. I would have loved to see Cunliffe’s archeological expertise applied to the twelfth-century Chanson d’Aiquin, in which Charlemagne fights “Saracens” in real Breton settings that are described in some detail, or to the sprawling legend of Ker-Is (the City of Ys), on which Cunliffe’s friend Patrick Galliou periodically weighed in (see his “La Ville d’Is et l’archéologie,” in La légende de la ville d’Ys, une Atlantide bretonne, ed. Philippe Le Stum and Catherine Troprès [Quimper: Musée departmental breton, 2002], 7-11).

The Further Reading section is comprehensive, although, as I said, it gives nothing for the Epilogue. One regrettable omission is another recent OUP book,Miracles & Murders: An Introductory Anthology of Breton Ballads, ed. and trans. Mary-Ann Constantine and Éva Guillorel (London: The British Academy/Oxford University Press, 2017): narrative song is one of Brittany’s unique strengths, and a neglected resource for historians, as Guillorel, especially, has shown.

This book is readable and beautiful, a coffee-table piece with substance. The maps in particular are great. It will be a go-to for any medievalist who (i) is living or vacationing in Brittany (because being surrounded by living Bretons will be a good antidote to the book’s omissions); (ii) wants detailed background on the prehistoric archaeology; (iii) needs a primer on Breton history and will not mind the archeological focus of the early chapters.



1. Caroline Brett, with Fiona Edmonds and Paul Russell, Brittany and the Atlantic Archipelago, 450-1200: Contact, Myth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 11.