Brittany (Bretagne), the most westerly part of France, a peninsula 255km/155mi long and 100-150km/60-95mi wide reaching out into the Atlantic, was once a mighty range of mountains up to 4,000m/13,000ft high which in the course of some 60million years was worn down to a granite base no more than 400m/1,300ft high. Brittany is the land between ar mor, the sea, and ar goat, the forest. Armor, the land on the sea, was the name given by the people of Gaul to this region with a tidal movement of up to 18 m/60 feet and a much indented coastline of 1,100km/685mi, a region of rocky promontories affording magnificent views of the ocean and cliff-fringed inlets with a scatter of islands, of little fishing towns and popular seaside resorts. Inland Brittany - Argoat, the land of the forest - is a region of lonely moorland and heath, with scattered settlements and fields enclosed by hedges.
Among the charms of the coastal regions are the islands, which are particularly numerous off the south west coast. The most important is Belle-Ile (area 84 sq. km/32 sq. mi). The principal ports are Brest and Lorient. Brittany holds out a whole range of attractions to visitors - its variety of scenery, its seaside resorts, its castles, churches and museums, its megalithic stone- settings and other monuments, and the lovingly preserved customs and traditions - which make it a popular and much frequented holiday area.
Brittany is thinly populated, with some 3.5million people living in an area of 27,208 sq. km/10,505 sq. mi. The administrative region of Brittany takes in the départements of Ille-et-Vilaine, Côtes- du-Nord, Morbihan, Finistère and Loire-Atlantique. The largest town, with a quarter of a million inhabitants, and the historic capital of the region is Nantes, but the real capital and cultural center of present-day Brittany is Rennes.
Brittany, then occupied by a Celtic population, was conquered by Caesar in 56 B.C. For four centuries it was part of the Roman Empire under the name of Armorica, belonging to the province of Lugdunensis (Lugdunum = Lyons). From around 460 it was settled by Celtic immigrants from Britain, driven out by the Angles and Saxons. The incomers called their new country Little Britain, which then became known as Brittany. Unlike the earlier Celtic population, which was now completely Romanized, the new arrivals retained their own language and culture, and the Breton still spoken today is a Celtic language related to Gaelic.
In 799 Brittany became part of Charlemagne's Frankish kingdom, but remained relatively independent. After suffering from raids by the Normans (Norsemen), Brittany came under Norman- English control in 1113. In 1213 it passed by inheritance to Pierre Mauclerc, Count of Dreux, a scion of the Capet family, whose grandson Jean II was created duke in 1297. Finally in 1532 Brittany fell to the French crown.
In subsequent centuries disputes about rights and privileges led to repeated risings against the French crown. During this period the port of Brest was built by the royal military engineer Vauban.
During the French Revolution Brittany was the scene of a civil war between townspeople of republican views and the country people (Chouans) whose sympathies were with the royalists. In the early days of industrialization there was a movement of population out of Brittany which was halted only with the establishment of industry in Brittany itself and the development of agriculture.
The main element in the Breton economy is agriculture - meat, dairy products, vegetables, poultry (half the eggs eaten in France come from Brittany). Second to agriculture are the fisheries (barbels and soles, cod and sardines, lobsters and crabs, the famed Belon oysters, scallops and other shellfish, molluscs, algae). Industry plays a smaller role (cars and tyres, Citroën and Michelin, shipbuilding, electrical products, electronics, precision engineering). A leading place is now taken by the foodstuffs industries, in particular the canning and preserving industry.
Tourism is playing an increasingly important part in the economy, helped by the development of good communications with Paris. It is, however, confined to the summer season, between late spring and early autumn. In the early 20th century regionalist movements began to develop in Brittany, followed after the First World War by movements seeking self-government, which on occasion resorted to militant action. There is now a well developed regional consciousness in Brittany, which finds expression, for example, in the preservation and development of the Breton language, which is now spoken at home by over a million Bretons. There are now numerous institutions concerned with the study and preservation of the language, which is seen as the symbol of an independent Breton culture.
Various organizations reflect varying regionalist, ecological and political attitudes. Information can be obtained from the Union Démocratique Bretonne (UDB), which is represented in most communal councils and publishes its own journal, "Le Peuple Breton"; its headquarters are in Brest.
Breton art begins with the cult monuments of the third and fourth millennia B.C., the menhirs (standing stones), dolmens (megalithic chamber tombs), and stone-settings, either in groups (cromlechs) or in rows (alignements), which feature prominently in the landscape in certain areas (more than 3,000 in the Carnac area alone): silent witnesses to a long vanished culture, probably associated with some form of solar cult. Apart from Carnac, other important sites are Er Lannic, on a small island in the Gulf of Morbihan, Erdeven, St-Just, Lagat-Jar, Camaret-sur-Mer, Locmariaquer and Commana.
The enclos paroissiaux of Brittany are walled enclosures with a monumental entrance, within which are the church and churchyard, a charnel-house (ossuaire) and an elaborate Crucifixion group (calvaire) carved from the local granite. The best known are those of St- Thégonnec, Guimiliau, Lampaul-Guimiliau, Pencran, La Martyre, Sizun, Pleyben and Kergrist-Moëlon.
Brittany is a land of ancient myths and legends which have survived in varying degrees in the life and customs of the people. Here Parsifal is said to have come in quest of the Holy Grail; here the wizard Merlin fell in love with the fairy Morgan le Fay; here the city of Ys sank into the sea after the king's daughter, Dahut, became involved with the Devil, and still, as the fairy Marie- Morgane, lures seamen to their doom at the bottom of the sea. Another well known Breton legend is the tale of Tristan and Isolde, which inspired Wagner's opera. In Christian times the Breton belief in wonders was transmuted into a fervent reverence for the saints, in which ancient Breton beliefs fused with the teachings of Christianity. St Yves is the most celebrated Breton saint, and St Anne is honored along with the Virgin as the protectress of mothers.
The Breton pilgrimages known as pardons are religious festivals with processions in which the participants, many of them wearing traditional costumes, beg for forgiveness of their sins. Of medieval origin, they begin with a pilgrimage, which is followed by the celebration of mass and then by a popular festival (fest noz) which has no religious content. On these occasions music is provided by bands playing traditional instruments like the bombarde (a kind of oboe) and the biniou (the Breton bagpipes). The most important pardons take place between May and September; the exact dates can be obtained from local tourist information offices.
Brittany has a rich variety of traditional costumes, but nowadays these are mostly to be seen in local museums and only occasionally in pardons or other festivals. Brittany has a very beautiful coastline of around 1,100km/685mi. There are numerous attractive seaside resorts, both on the cliff-fringed north coast and on the gentler south coast with its long sandy beaches and numerous islands.