LOCATION: Brittany region of northwestern France
LANGUAGE: French; Breton
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism
Bretons live in Brittany, a region located in the northwestern corner of France. The Bretons arrived in their current homeland in the fifth and sixth centuries AD , fleeing the Anglo-Saxons in their native Britain. Brittany was independently governed until 1532, when it was formally annexed to France. The region suffered great setbacks during both World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939–45). Since 1945, Brittany has pros pered. Agriculture has been modernized, and industry has grown. By the late 1990s, Bretons were focusing on preserving their culture and language, rather than on political separatism.
Located at the westernmost edge of continental Europe, Brittany is surrounded by water on three sides and is 134 miles (215 kilometers) long. Much of the interior is laid out in a checkerboard pattern of fields and pastures. These are separated by stone walls and hedges called bocages (bow-KAHJ). Most of Brittany's towns and cities are found along the coast.
Most Bretons speak both French and Breton, a Celtic language related to Welsh and Cornish. As of the late 1990s, there are only a small number of people who speak Breton as their first language.
Many Breton surnames are derived from the word ker (which means "house"), plus another syllable based on a Christian name. Examples include Kerjean (house of John), Kerbol (house of Paul), and Kerber (house of Peter).
Syllables commonly found in Breton place names include plou, meaning "parish" (as in Ploudaniel); lann, meaning "church" (as in Lannion); and gui, meaning "town" (as in Guimiliau). Other common words found in Breton place names are bihan (small), braz (large), men (stone), and mor (sea).
Brittany is a land of legends and superstition. Many folk customs and legends center on death, symbolized by a character named Ankou. He figures in numerous tales, depicted as a skeleton carrying a scythe and often riding on a wooden cart. Bretons believe that the creaking of the cart Ankou rides in predicts the death of a person in the neighborhood.
According to legend, the town of Quimper was founded by King Gradlon. His former capital, the city of Is, is said to have been destroyed when his daughter, bewitched by the Devil, let in the floodwaters of the sea. Escaping with her on horseback, the king received an order from Heaven to throw her into the sea. There she turned into the mermaid Marie-Morgane. It is said that if Mass is ever celebrated in one of Is's churches on Good Friday, the drowned city will be restored and the mermaid will become human again.
The Bretons are devout Roman Catholics. Every town has its patron saint, represented by painted wooden statues that decorate the region's many churches. People pray to special saints for specific ailments. Bretons are also noted for their pilgrimages (religious journeys).
Bretons celebrate France's religious, historical, and patriotic holidays throughout the year. These include New Year's Day (January 1); Epiphany (January 6); Labor Day (May 1); Bastille Day (July 14), which is the equivalent of Independence Day in the United States; the Feast of the Assumption (August 15); All Saints' Day (November 1); World War II Armistice Day (November 11); and Christmas (December 25). The French observe Christmas by attending a midnight mass.
The most famous and important of Brittany's regional holidays are the pardons. These local religious festivals usually center on a particular saint or legend. Pilgrims attend pardons to make or fulfill vows, seek miraculous cures, and, above all, to seek forgiveness for their sins. Pardons typically involve a solemn procession, followed by refreshments, dancing, and games.
Many of the rites of passage that young Bretons undergo are Roman Catholic rituals, such as baptism, first communion, confirmation, and marriage. In addition, many families mark a student's progress through the education system with graduation parties.
In most ways, life for twentieth-century Bretons differs little from life in the rest of France. Because the influence of the Catholic Church is so strong, religious festivals are important social events for many Bretons.
Traditional stone farmhouses in Brittany are rectangular with thatched or slate roofs. In older dwellings, the family's living area generally has only one or two rooms. Other structures, such as a barn, are added onto the house itself. Modern houses often look like older homes on the outside but are much more spacious inside.
Most couples in Brittany have both civil and church weddings. In spite of their devout Catholicism, many Bretons in the 1990s practice birth control. They generally have two or three children, in contrast to the larger families of the past. Also, couples tend to have their children while they are young. Divorce, while legal, is still frowned upon by many Bretons. Most women in Brittany are part of the paid labor force at some time in their lives. Many work in technical and professional fields.
Bretons wear modern Western-style clothing like that worn by people elsewhere in France and western Europe. However, their distinctive traditional costumes are still seen at pardons (festivals) and other special occasions. The men's costumes include broad-brimmed hats, embroidered waistcoats (vests), and short jackets. Women wear dresses and elaborately decorated aprons. The most distinctive feature of the women's costume is the elaborate lace headgear, which is generally called a coiffe (kwaff).
Much of the cuisine in Brittany is similar to that elsewhere in France. However, the region is known for its excellent seafood, especially lobster, crawfish, clams, scallops, and shrimp. Regional specialties include a fish soup known as cotriade; a beef-and-vegetable dish called potée bretonne; and wheat or buckwheat crepes, with fillings that may include ham, cheese, eggs, jam, fresh fruit, or honey. Cider is the most popular local beverage.
As elsewhere in France, education in Brittany is free and required between the ages of six and sixteen. Children attend school on weekdays and Saturday mornings and have Wednesdays off. Secondary education begins with four years at a school called a collège. Then come three years spent either at a general lycée (lee-SAY) for those planning to go on to college, or at a vocational lycée. After receiving their secondary (baccalauréat, pronounced back-ah-lahr-ray-AH ) degrees, students may go on to a university or to a grand école (grahn eh-COAL), which offers preparation for careers in business or government service.
The most popular Breton folk instruments are the biniou (a small bagpipe) and the bombarde, which is similar to an oboe. The accordion and the Celtic harp are also widely used for traditional music. Folk dances include the Ribbon Gavotte, the Tobacco and Handkerchief Gavotte, and the Dérobée, where a man "steals" a young woman from her escort.
Famous Breton authors include the medieval poet and philosopher Peter Abelard (1079–1142); Alain-René Lesage (1668–1747), author of Gil Blas; science-fiction writer Jules Verne (1828–1905); and contemporary experimental novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922–).
Brittany is one of France's most important agricultural regions. Approximately one- third of its work force is employed in food processing (including pork, beef, dairy products, and vegetable and fish canning). Other major employers are light industry and the service sector.
The Bretons, like people throughout France, love soccer (called "football"). On the coast, popular water sports include sailing, skin diving, and deep-sea fishing. Other favorite pastimes include fishing on the inland rivers, and hiking or cycling through Brittany's countryside.
The Breton pardons, while primarily religious festivals, are also a popular source of entertainment. In some areas, jazz and rock groups even perform. Bretons, like people in other parts of France, enjoy using their long summer holidays for travel.
Traditionally the Bretons have been skilled woodworkers, known for their chests, sideboards, dressers, wardrobes, and clock cases. Old-fashioned "box beds," large linen or grain chests, and two-door wardrobes are important pieces of traditional Breton furniture. Pottery is another important Breton craft.
Bretons are concerned about the decline of their language and traditional way of life. The use of Breton as a first language is confined mostly to the elderly, and today few children learn it as they grow up.
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