Roberta’s Celtic Corner: From Armorica to Brittany

This time let me take you to la belle France for a change, dear friends – because Celtic culture and history isn’t only about the British Isles, of course. Quite the contrary: on their way to Britain, the Celts (who originated in Central Europe in what is now Austria) conquered other places first and founded great Iron Age principalities that were feared even by the Romans; and the most powerful and most famous of them all were in Gaul, which was largely what is now France.

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Unfortunately, the Celtic language and culture didn’t survive in France like it did in Wales, Ireland and Scotland; but there’s one place where it’s being carefully preserved and cultivated: in Brittany – for Brittany has got a bit of a different history from the rest of France. You may know bits of it from – yes, that famous comic book series about Asterix and Obelix, the brave Gallic warriors who fought against Julius Caesar and his Roman occupying army!

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Long before the Celts arrived in this beautiful part of North Western France, a Neolithic people started building burial cairns like the one at Bernenez and huge sites with standing stones like the one at Carnac – both much older (about 4,500 BCE) and much bigger than Stonehenge. So, in contrast to what people believed for centuries, it wasn’t the Celts who built those sites; but they certainly made good use of them once they arrived in the area.

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Which was in the 5th century BCE, when Belgic tribes settled in what the Romans would later call Armorica. Other tribes followed, like the Veneti who would eventually get to rule Armorica. The area soon became quite wealthy thanks to its salt mines, and gold coins were coined for the trade with Britain and faraway Mediterranean countries. And, of course, their druids used the ancient Megalithic monuments for their religious ceremonies as well as for their scientific research, namely in astronomy.
The tribes lived in small villages ruled by chiefs, and their main occupation was agriculture; the land was rich, and grain and meat even were exported to other places! Most of the time, the tribes lived together peacefully, they were in close contact with each other and helped each other out – and, of course, they stood together against foreign threats when necessary.

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And in 57 BCE, it turns out VERY necessary: Julius Caesar, who’s started a campaign against the Helvetii and then the Suebi, decides that, while he’s at it, he might as well conquer the whole of Gaul. His army literally mows down any sort of resistance from the brave Celtic warriors, and by the end of the year he reaches Armorica. The resistance there is particularly fierce, supported by the substantial sea fleet the Veneti of Armorica own, but a year later the region is under Roman control; many Celts flee by sea to Britain, the rest are killed or enslaved.

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For the next 400 years, the Romans rule Armorica and exploit its natural riches; they build their villas there and lead a carefree life – until the Roman Empire finally begins to crumble, and people from across the sea in Britain, where the political situation is already turning extremely insecure, start immigrating into Armorica. They are Britons fleeing from the incoming Anglo-Saxons, and they bring their Brythonic language with them. Soon, the whole of Armorica is under their influence, and by around 500 people start calling the area Brittany – or Britannia minor, as opposed to Britannia major i.e. Britain.

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Soon, though, a different group of people invaded Gaul: the Germanic Franks, who soon conquered the whole country – except Brittany. In 846, Nominoe declared himself Duke of Brittany; he is now known and hailed as ‘tad ar Vro’, Father of the Country. While the rest of France would be Germanized, Brittany remained a Celtic realm with a Celtic language and culture.

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Even though inevitably Brittany became part of France in 1532, the duchy remained autonomous and very much different from the rest of the country; it was only the French Revolution that abolished the special rights of the region and tried to completely integrate it into France. But, just like Wales and Scotland have done in the UK, in recent decades Brittany has rediscovered the old language and culture; so it’s now ‘Breizh da viken’ – Brittany forever!

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