France's Celtic fringe
Everyone in France has heard of Asterix - and millions of people beyond
France are familiar with Asterix the Gaul, his band of merry
and their exploits against the Roman invader, as detailed in the
classic series of cartoon books that began in the late nineteen
fifties, became cult reading in the sixties, and are still going
And as the maps in Asterix books remind the
reader, it is
in the northwest tip of France that the famous resistance village is to
be found. Asterix and his tribe are Gauls, fighting a rearguard action
against the "Latin" invaders who had spread across a large
western Europe, establishing their towns and villas and changing for
ever the history of Europe.
As in Britain, where the ancient Celtic tribes
progressively forced back into the western parts of the
Celts of France were also pushed towards the Atlantic by the westward
thrust of Romans and Germanic tribes such as the Franks, who
eventually gave their name to the land that the Romans had called
Gallia - or Gaul - and which we know today as France.
It was only in the furthest northwestern extremity of France
the ancient Gauls, with their Celtic language and culture, managed to
survive; and they have done so to this day, leaving Brittany - the land
of the Bretons - as the largest outstanding stronghold of Celtic
heritage on the continent of Europe.
During the Dark Ages after the fall of
Empire, the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain,
British who previously inhabited the whole island, to retreat again to
their western strongholds; a considerable number of them decided to do
so by emigrating south across the sea, to join their cousins in the
northwest part of Gaul; and so it was that Armorica,
as the area had been know until then, became the land of the Britons,
or as we now know it, Brittany.
The Bretons are thus the cousins of the Britons, and to this day
Brittany and the Celtic parts of the UK share much in common, including
a common folklore - involving among others the legends of King Arthur -
and similar languages.
If you happen to speak Welsh, you may get on well with Britanny's
Breton speakers. Indeed, about 250,000 people in Brittany speak or
understand Breton - generally as a second language, and Breton culture
and language have undergone a massive revival in the last thirty years,
even if they have not acquired the force and status that the Welsh
language has regained in Wales.
the folklore of the legendary King Arthur, with the southwest of England
proud of their identity, and many think of themselves as
before calling themselves French. However, in centralised
devolution has not occurred to the same extent as in Britain, and while
the Breton language is taught in many schools, there is no official
Breton parliament, just a regional council that meets in Rennes.
Like their cousins in the
islands to the north,
the ancient Bretons left to posterity an impressive number of
prehistoric sites, most famous of which are the megaliths of Carnac
in southern Brittany, France's equivalent of Stonehenge, with its 3000
blocks of granite. But throughout the region, there are dolmens and
standing stones whose origins are lost in the mists of time.
Brittany's cultural identity -
recognised by a charter signed in 1977 - is expressed through folklore
and customs which set it apart from the rest of France. Scots visiting
Brittany may be surprised to hear the strains of bagpipes as they
wander on holiday through a Breton market; but bagpipes - called biniou
and harps are part of the Breton musical tradition, just as they are in
the other Celtic regions of Europe, from western Spain to northern
Scotland. Breton music went through a huge revival in the late 1960s
and 1970s, with the emergence on the music scene of Celtic rock, led by
and a group
known as Tri Yann, who achieved international fame. Many others have
taken up the tradition, and today Celtic rock is a strong sector in
contemporary French music.
Throughout Brittany, small festivals and other
strongly stress the region's distinct Celtic heritage and cultural
identity. The most importent event in the annual calendar is however
the annual InterCeltique
festival, which takes place each year in the
first half of August, in the port of Lorient.
Started in 1971 on the tide of enthusiasm for the Celtic revival music,
the Lorient festival is now one of France's great summer music
festivals, and attracts performers from all over the Celtic regions of
Europe, as well as over 600,000 visitors. It includes a Grand parade,
with marching bands and musicians from Brittany and other Celtic
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