Breton literature

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Breton literature

(brĕt`ən), in the Celtic language of Brittany. Although there are numerous allusions in other literatures of the 12th to 14th cent. to the "matter of Brittany," which includes the stories of Tristan and King Arthur, no Breton texts remain from this period. The earliest ones date from the 15th cent. Until the 19th cent., texts included songs, stories, and plays, all popular and mostly of unknown authorship. The plays were imitations of late medieval French miracles. As elsewhere in Europe, serious collecting of Breton folk literature began in the 19th cent. Jean François Le Gonidec (1775–1838) pioneered with a dictionary of the language in 1821. Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué assembled an anthology of folk poems but was attacked for his dubious scholarship. A more sophisticated collector was François Marie Luzel (1821–95). The mid-19th cent. saw the birth of a cultivated literature, mainly in stories and verse. Auguste Brizeux (1803–58) was the best known of the poets who wrote in their native Breton. Others were J. Guillome and Prosper Proux (1811–73). In the late 19th cent. an intensification of the campaign to revive local literary traditions resulted in the establishment of several folk theaters and in the expansion and modification of the vocabulary by writers. Among the leading writers of the late 19th and the 20th cent. are the poets Emil Ernault (b. 1852), Jean Pierre Calloc'hCalloc'h, Jean Pierre
, 1888–1917, Breton poet. Important in the revival of Breton literature, he wrote in the Vannes dialect of Brittany. His lyrical verse displays a love for the sea and a fascination with death; his chief work, Ar en deulin
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, and Robert Le Masson; the storytellers Louis and Louise Herrieu, Louis Héno, and Jakez Riou; and the playwright Tanguy Malemanche. During the 19th and 20th cent. a large number of Breton folk tales and songs have been collected. The diversity and richness of this collection make it unique in world literature.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Breton Literature


the literature of the Bretons (who inhabit the historic province of Brittany in France) in the Breton language.

The oldest monuments of Breton literature, glosses to texts of Latin grammarians and poets, are from the eighth to the 11th centuries. The oral legends of the King Arthur cycle and of the knights of the Round Table have not been preserved, and an idea of them can be obtained only through the French lais (short musical pieces accompanied by songs and gestures) and the Round Table novels of Robert de Borron and Chrétien de Troyes. Nor are there written records of the fabliaux (fables, fairy tales, parables) of the early Middle Ages. The growing influence of French literature led to a departure from the tradition of Breton literature, and only mystical and religious works of the 13th and 14th centuries have been preserved (Life of Saint Nonn, for example).

The annexation of Brittany by France in 1532 led to the final assimilation of Brittany’s ruling classes to the French language; however, the peasantry and the urban lower classes continued to speak their native language. In the 16th century, 150 dramas and mysteries on biblical and epic subjects in the Breton language were written and staged in local theaters. In the 17th century, representatives of the lower clergy, such as Michel Le Nobletz and Julien Maunoir, created songs and sermons that became symbols of struggle against absolutism. The popular poetry of this period abounds in lyricism and fantasy. The decline of Breton literature in the following period is linked to the liquidation of the feudal division and the establishment of the absolutist regime. In the 19th century T. H. de La Villemarqué attempted to revive Breton songs (the collection Baraz Breiz, or Folk Songs of the Ancient Bretons, 1839). In the 20th century Jaffrenou-Taldir tried to revive Breton lyric poetry, and Le Bayon, Breton drama.


Istoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1946. Pages 102-20.
Gourvil, F. Langue et littérature bretonnes. Paris, 1952.
Weitzmann, H. Itinéraire des légendes bretonnes. Paris [1954].
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
In Brittany, of course, the tradition of Breton literature would continue to have a long history, perhaps assisted by the publication of Jean Lagadeuc's Catholicon, the first Breton-French lexicon, printed by Jehan Calvez at Treguier in 1499.