History of Brittany (B. Merdrignac)

From the Paleolithic to contemporary times, the " History of Brittany »Takes us through several centuries of history through a richly illustrated and well-documented book. Something to satisfy fans of the genre, as well as the simple curious.


Bernard Merdrignac (1947-2013) was a medievalist historian, specialist in religious matters in the medieval West. For a long time a professor at the University of Rennes 2 Haute Bretagne, he was particularly interested in the history of Brittany. As such, under the supervision of André Chédeville, he defended his thesis in 1982 on Armorican hagiography from the 7th to the 15th century. A recognized researcher, he was also interested in the sources and techniques of history and their use for the historian [i].

From the first men to the Roman Empire

Land rich in history, the human presence is attested in what will become Brittany around 600,000 before our era, in the region of Saint-Malo-de-Phily. Man could then cross paths with elephants, cave lions, aurochs or rhinos. It was in the Neolithic period (around 7000 BC) that man built these famous menhirs or dolmens, which today are identified with funerary monuments, the engravings of which are still difficult to use. Around 2000 BC, the island of Ouessant served as a transit point for bronze, which made it possible to forge stronger weapons. In the 6th century BC, Armorica was populated by Celts from the north who then merged with the local clans. The aristocracy, divided into chiefdom, seems to prosper. Later, the Roman occupation, in particular in the region of Vannes, results in the construction of "oppidum », As evidenced by the recent discovery on the Saint-Symphorien site in 2006. During the reign of Augustus (31-14 AD), Armorique was integrated into Lyonnaise. The Celtic deities are integrated into the Roman pantheon through the phenomenon ofinterpretatio romana. The crisis of the 3rd century AD is also felt in Armorica during piracy raids which attacked the strongholds of Bret or Alet.

When Armorica becomes Brittany

The term of Brittany does not appear until the 6th century from the pen of Grégoire de Tours. During the reign of Clovis (481-511), the Bretons approach the Franks and even participate in battles that have marked historiography, such as that of Vouillé in 507 against the Visigoths. At the same time, Brittany is gradually becoming Christianized through the action of monks who came to found hermitages or lann. Subsequently, the Carolingians will constitute the March of Brittany made up of the counties of Vannes, Nantes and Rennes. This “buffer zone” aims to contain the assaults of possible aggressors from the West. In 851, at the end of internal struggles, Erispoë proclaimed himself and was recognized as king of Brittany. The Viking invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries did not spare Brittany. These “men from the North” settled in Normandy in 911 with the agreement of the king of the Frankish kingdom. Some Breton aristocrats then fled to "England". This is the case of Alain says Barbetorte who, in 939, managed to definitively defeat the Vikings around Nantes. The Counts of Brittany are then powerful, some do not hesitate to take the ducal title and to mint change.

Brittany in the Middle Ages

From an intellectual and cultural point of view, medieval Brittany is a leading home from where many copyists and illuminators originate who bring the Christian West to life. Literary culture is also dynamic with the famous lais, or with what will later be used for the development of chivalrous culture through the adventures of Arthur and the matter of Brittany. Other great figures, such as Pierre Abélard or Bertrand du Guesclin, are from Brittany. During the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), numerous inheritance troubles divided Brittany, which sometimes leaned towards England, sometimes towards France. Finally, under Charles VII (1422-1461), the Dukes of Brittany joined the French camp and even participated in the Battle of Castillon in 1453. Duke Arthur III, although a simple vassal of the King of France, did not fail to specify that "The duchy has never been part of the kingdom of France and it is not a dismemberment". It was in the middle of the 15th century that the ducal court finally settled in Nantes for a while.

From modern times to the Revolution

After strained relations between the duchy and the kingdom, Henry II reunited the two entities in 1547 and removed the ducal title, while recognizing certain institutions such as the “States of Brittany”. Brittany, during modern times, is relatively untouched by taxes compared to the rest of the kingdom. In 1561, Parliament finally moved to Rennes for logistical reasons. The end of the 16th century was marked by numerous revolts which bloodied the territory, particularly after the assassination of the Duke of Guise in 1588. It was in Nantes that Henry IV would come to proclaim his famous edict in 1598. From a point of view economically, from the 16th to the 17th century, Brittany knew how to take advantage of its ports to trade with the rest of the world. The production of canvases is particularly lucrative. The economic difficulties will be felt in the 18th century, when the English ports and those of the United Provinces will take over. Certain Breton merchants then turned to triangular trade and enriched themselves considerably. Some Bretons will be very active during the Revolution, meeting in Paris in the famous "Club Breton". The Chouans revolt will be particularly disastrous for the territory.

From picturesque Brittany to 21st century Brittany

It was in 1815 that the slave trade was banned. Brittany no longer has an official existence. It is now divided into five departments. The economy developed throughout the 19th century with major innovations such as the establishment of a network of railroads which linked Paris-Nantes from 1851. The textile industry of yesteryear had to give way to shipyards. , metallurgy, chemical and then food industries. Sardine canneries enabled certain brands to emerge, such as Cassegrain in 1861 or Saupiquet in 1877, and to place Brittany as the world's leading producer of canned food. Many artists are also attracted by the Breton landscapes and make their "artistic pilgrimage" there. Thus, Balzac, Hugo or Mérimée come to meditate along the coasts and gaze at the ocean from the top of the steep cliffs. The entry into the twentieth century is made in a shattering way. Almost 120,000 young people were killed in the First World War. During the interwar period, Brittany was slowly reconstituting itself. Most of the population remains rural. Agriculture, in 1936, still employed 77% of the population (against 48% nationally). Gradually, the rural exodus diverts some young people to towns in the Seine valley or even to the United States. The Second World War will again bring a series of difficulties before Brittany enters definitively into "modernity".

In the end, the work of Bernard Merdrignac comes, in a hundred pages, to paint the landscape of a centuries-old history in a way that is always relevant. The angle of view has the merit of not being exclusively centered on Brittany. On the contrary, the author tries to encompass a local history - of which he is one of the best connoisseurs - in a larger framework in order to reinforce the interest which one can carry to this kind of work. Everything is abundantly illustrated, making reading easy and pleasant. We can only recommend this “History of Brittany”.

Bernard MERDRIGNAC, History of Brittany, Editions Ouest-France, 2015

[i] André CHEDEVILLE and Bernard MERDRIGNAC, Auxiliary sciences in the history of the Middle Ages, Rennes, Presses Universitaires Rennes, coll. History, 1998

Video: Brittanys Viking Age 800-950 (January 2022).