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The similarities in the way that the ubiquitous cult of saints was expressed in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany form a major body of evidence for contact among these regions. Overtly ecclesiastical place-names, containing such elements as *lann, are unusually common in all three regions. The implications of these for similarities and differences in church-organisation are discussed. The significance of the appearance of the same personal names compounded in ecclesiastical place-names in different British-speaking regions is explored. These seem likely in most cases to reflect movements of the devotees of particular saints between Wales, Cornwall and Brittany from the sixth to the ninth centuries and particularly the reliance of Bretons on the educational and spiritual resources of important Welsh churches. Contact between Brittany and Cornwall was more sustained and more intimate: a tenth-century list reveals a number of Breton saints established at permanent cult-sites in Cornwall by the tenth century and more were to follow by the central Middle Ages; Cornish and Breton authors also drew on each other’s work in composing saints’ Lives throughout the medieval period. By contrast the relative rarity of Irish saints’ cults in Brittany and the absence of Breton saints from Ireland implies a more distant relationship.
Cultural relations between Brittany and Wales seem to have grown more distant in the ninth to eleventh centuries. The Norman Conquest, involving Bretons alongside Normans, revitalised these connections and in particular greatly raised the profile of Bretons in Wales. The attempt by the clergy of Dol in Brittany to make their see an archbishopric encouraged similar ambitions on the part of the churches of St Davids and Llandaf in south Wales. Sharing of pseudo-historical information between the clergy of Llancarfan (Wales) and Quimperlé (Brittany) created the conditions for Geoffrey of Monmouth to write (by 1139) his hugely influential ‘History of the Kings of Britain’. Geoffrey encouraged the opinion-formers of his time to see the Britons as a single people – not necessarily to the advantage of the Breton elite, who were part of French chivalric society in political fact, but who could be cast in the literary role of ‘barbarians’. This view of the Bretons reached a climax in the 1160s and 1170s when Breton revolt menaced the ‘Angevin empire’ of King Henry II of England, but became less relevant after 1203 when the Breton nobility transferred their allegiance to the king of France. The paths of Wales and Brittany then diverged, to judge by the comparatively slight role that Brittany played in the Welsh learned and literary tradition in the later Middle Ages.
The small amount of contemporary written evidence for the settlement of Brittany from Britain is discussed, in order to provide a context for the subsequent development of historical myths about Brittany. The theory of the settlement of a British military force in the peninsula by Roman authorities is evaluated and possible British and Continental contexts for such a movement in the fourth or fifth century are compared. In the sixth century the testimony of Gregory of Tours suggests that kingship was developing in Brittany along similar lines to Celtic Britain, but this development does not seem to have continued. Some reasons are suggested through comparison with rulership elsewhere in western Europe and the Atlantic Archipelago. The origins and significance of early regional units within Brittany that share names with regions in Britain (Domnonia and Cornubia) are discussed. The apparent isolation of Bretons (and Britons generally) from the rest of Western Christendom from the mid-seventh to the mid-eighth centuries finds an explanation in the ecclesiastical controversy over the date of Easter.
In the last century of the Roman Empire in the West, many decisions were taken which were doubtless intended as short-term measures, temporary concessions, to be reversed when affairs returned to normal. Affairs never did return to ‘normal’, and no one was ever able to fully clear up the resulting muddle, which over the centuries came to be dignified in history and myth as the ‘birth of the nations of Europe’.
In Brest, at the far end of Brittany, on winter mornings, people go to work in the pitch dark. They keep the same time as Paris and Berlin, but their city is further west than most of Britain, where the clocks are set an hour earlier. It is a concrete illustration of the uneasy way in which Brittany, a long, low, folded peninsula of granite and slate, about the same size as Wales, fits into the centralised, Continental power that is modern France.
In the ninth century, the Carolingian conquest of Brittany, together with a Europe-wide revival of learning, created a new interest in explaining Brittany’s past. Rival stories of Brittany’s British origins were set down by Frankish, Welsh and Breton scholars. The Bretons’ view of their own past was expressed wholly through the medium of hagiography, a considerable amount of which was produced during the later ninth and early tenth centuries: this allows us to gauge the nature of its authors’ links with the Insular world. The British origins of the founding figures of the Breton Church were proudly proclaimed despite a readiness to accept Carolingian authority; there seems to have been little real knowledge of the saints’ alleged sixth-century origins, but considerable opportunity to gather information contemporaneously from Wales and perhaps also from Cornwall and Ireland. The role of Llancarfan (in south Wales) in relaying information between Ireland and the hagiographers of Saint-Malo in Brittany is highlighted.
This chapter surveys the archaeological evidence for the period of the settlement of Brittany from Britain. The absorption of the Armorican peninsula into the land-based Roman Empire in the first century BC ended its long-standing role in prehistory as an important bridge for trade and cultural communication between the Atlantic Archipelago and the Continent. It was further marginalised by the concentration of resources in frontier zones under the late Empire. However, the political and economic decline of late-Roman Armorica was apparently gradual, in contrast with the sudden disruption of the relatively prosperous lowland zone of Britain in the early fifth century. Differences such as these may partly explain the absence of direct archaeological evidence for migration. The absence from Brittany of the high-status material culture seen in Britain outside the zone of English settlement in the fifth to seventh centuries (hill-forts, decorated metalwork, imported pottery) may reflect Brittany’s relative poverty but also the extreme diffusion of political power there, and a lesser degree of conflict. More modest, newly discovered archaeological evidence indicates Brittany’s continued connections to the wider world of north-western Europe in more basic developments in agriculture and rural settlement forms.
Between a hundred and two hundred manuscripts connected with Brittany, written in the ninth and tenth centuries, can be identified by their script, contents and Old Breton glosses; they survived the Viking age by being taken to Francia or England, and open a window on the sources and external contacts of Bretons’ scholarly culture. The manuscripts contain a wide variety of Latin texts, biblical, legal, grammatical, technical and historical. One of the most important subsets consists of manuscripts of the Irish canon law compilation, Collectio Canonum Hibernensis: it is unclear whether the text was obtained from Ireland or via Irish-influenced centres on the Continent, but the ability of Breton scribes to access both the extant versions in full, together with some of their source-texts, implies contact with the milieu of the original compilers. Glosses show that even texts that were widely available on the Continent, like grammars and the scientific writings of Bede, reached Bretons through Irish contacts. Some manuscripts reveal collaboration between annotators writing in Irish, Welsh and Breton, providing a context for the sharing of hagiographical information discussed in the previous chapter. The occasional sharing of rare texts allows us to pinpoint a few centres where such encounters may have taken place, among them are Reichenau and Echternach. The survival of Breton manuscripts in England suggests that Breton scholarship played a considerable part in the reconstruction of the English Church in the tenth century, after the Viking age.
Between 919 and 936, Viking attacks caused a sustained crisis in Breton politics: much of the ruling elite fled to Francia or England. By the time a new duke of Brittany was installed with the help of the English king Æthelstan, Frankish aristocrats had encroached on Breton territory, introducing the French language and social norms. However, the new ruling class embraced a Breton political identity. This involved, for the first time, the promotion of a British secular founding figure for Brittany as a whole, a certain Riwal, for whom a genealogy (a very Insular kind of ‘charter’ to rule) was constructed using materials that seem to have originated in south-west Britain. The relics and Lives of Breton saints had been exported to many parts of France and England, and as a result a number of centres outside Brittany produced Lives of Breton saints, or hagiography apparently influenced by Breton motifs, during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Within Brittany, eleventh-century writings produced at Rhuys (the Life of St Gildas) and at Landévennec (the cartulary) show renewed contact and input from Wales, Ireland and perhaps northern Britain.
How did Brittany get its name and its British-Celtic language in the centuries after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire? Beginning in the ninth century, scholars have proposed a succession of theories about Breton origins, influenced by the changing relationships between Brittany, its Continental neighbours, and the 'Atlantic Archipelago' during and after the Viking age and the Norman Conquest. However, due to limited records, the history of medieval Brittany remains a relatively neglected area of research. In this new volume, the authors draw on specialised research in the history of language and literature, archaeology, and the cult of saints, to tease apart the layers of myth and historical record. Brittany retained a distinctive character within the typical 'medieval' forces of kingship, lordship, and ecclesiastical hierarchy. The early history of Brittany is richly fascinating, and this new investigation offers a fresh perspective on the region and early medieval Europe in general.