Frankish travelogue: Brittany

Early medieval Brittany is a difficult place to explore. One scholar has noted “the complete absence of information about Brittany in the first half of the eighth century…”1.Smith, Julia M.H., The Sack of Vannes by Pippin III, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, Number 11, Summer 1986, p.25. With one notable, almost startling exception, which I will get to below, there is almost nothing in the sources about what was going on in Brittany during the eighth century. But let’s see what we can dredge up.

Brittany, for the cartographically challenged, is the peninsula jutting into the Atlantic on France’s north-west coast. It is a region of some 13,000 square miles, a land dominated by the sea, rocky and sparse. The hills reach heights of 1200 feet within just five miles of the coast. There was no traditional physical boundary between Francia and Brittany, although the Vilaine river is definitely Brittany, and the later eighth century Breton March was east of the river. On the other hand, the town of Nantes, just north of the mouth of the river Loire, was also considered part of the region. Other major towns include Rennes, and Vienne, and the monastery of Redon, which was established in 832. These population hubs are all along the Vilaine valley. West of the Vilaine there were only a few minor population centers.

Brittany was originally known as Armorica, and you will still find an occasional reference to this name. In the face of the rampaging Saxons who invaded England in the fourth and fifth centuries many Britons fled the island. They brought their culture and language with them, and to this day Brittany is as much ‘Celtic’ as it is ‘Gaulish’. The bulk of society made their living from the land or fishing the sea. An interesting local industry was salt, with many saltpans located far to the west.

The Merovingian kings exercised an almost purely theoretical hegemony over Brittany, but all subsequent events put the lie to that claim. “The Celts of Brittany had never been subdued by the Merovingian kings.”2.Riche, Carolingians, p.111. For example, Chramn, son of the Merovingian king Chlotar I, fled to Brittany after an abortive coup attempted by he and the king’s brother in the mid-sixth century. “There with Conomor, king of the Bretons, he and his wife and his children stayed hidden.” Chlotar marched into Brittany, fought against Conomor and Chramn, and beat them.3.Liber Historiae Francorum, ch.28, p.71. Fun fact: Chlotar “ordered that Chramn with his wife and children be consumed by fire. Thus they were shut up in the hut of a poor man. Chramn was stretched out on a bench and strangled with a scarf. Then the little hut was burned up on top of him with his wife and children.”

Gregory of Tours recorded skirmishes between Brittany and the Franks during the sixth century. In the year 578 many men “were ordered by King Chilperic [Chlotar’s successor] to march into Brittany and to pitch their tents along the River Vilaine, in readiness for an assault…”4.History of the Franks, b.5, v.26, p.290. A decade or two later King Guntram sent two dukes into Brittany in an attempt to stamp out rebellion, but the two dukes fell out, and one did not support the other. In the end the Bretons were defeated, but there was also much dissension and discord between the king and his magnates.5.History of the Franks, b.10, v.8, pp.556 – 558.

A more fanciful story from Geoffrey of Monmouth relates that in the early 7th century English king Cadwello was faced with a Spanish magician named Pellitus, who was allied with Cadwello’s enemy Edwin. Cadwello “made up his mind to to visit Salomon, the King of the Armorican Britons, so that he could ask his help…”6.Geoffrey, History of the Kings of Britain, b.8, p.271.

As noted above there is absolutely nothing known from the first half of the eighth century. Fouracre’s biography of Charles Martel doesn’t mention Brittany once. But in 753 there is an entry in the Earlier Annals of Metz that states that Pepin invaded Brittany. Julia Smith (cited above) broke down the evidence, pro and con, and concludes that Pepin did, in fact, make an attempt to clean up Brittany, but probably in 749 or 750.7.She takes that single line from the Annals of Metz, and builds a decent circumstantial case for Frankish intervention a few years prior to Pepin’s coronation. She believes that Pepin was ‘cleaning up’ western Neustria after his half-brother Grifo spurned the offer of twelve counties to rule, and fled to Aquitaine. Pepin figured that as long as he had forces in the area, he might as well do a bit of housekeeping on his western frontier, and smack the pesky Bretons back a bit.

Evidently the housecleaning was not effective, for in 778 we hear of a “Roland, lord of the Breton March,” who, a century or two later, became a medieval celebrity.8.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, b.9. There were two major expeditions sent by Charlemagne into Brittany in the closing decades of the eighth century. The first was in 786.

[T]he king decided to send an army into Brittany. For at the time of the invasion of the island of Britain by Angles and Saxons, a large part of its population had crossed the sea and occupied the regions of the Veneti and Coriosolites in the furthermost lands of Gaul. Subjected and made tributary by the kings of the Franks, this people customarily, if unwillingly, paid the impost laid upon it. But at this time it failed to heed what was ordered; and Audulf, who had charge of the royal table, was therefore sent there. He repressed the contumacy of that perfidious people with remarkable speed and brought both the hostages he had received and a great number of the primores of that people to the king at Worms.9.Revised Frankish Annals, King, year 786, p.119.

The second expedition was launched in 799.

Count Wido, who held the command in the frontier-region over against Brittany, entered Brittany with fellow-counts, ranged over the entire region and accepted its surrender. After the king had returned from Saxony he presented him with the weapons of the dukes who had surrendered themselves, individually inscribed with their names, for it was by these weapons that each of them yielded himself, land and people. And the whole province of the Bretons was subjugated by the Franks, something which had never occurred before.10.Frankish Annals, King, year 799, p.92.

The Bretons would not remain subjugated. The Royal Annals mention further expeditions in 811, 818, and 824. It was during this last foray that the court poet Ermoldus Nigellus accompanied king Pippin of Aquitaine into battle. He later wrote of the Bretons,

This perfidious and insolent nation has ever been rebellious and barren of decent sentiments. Traitors to the faith, they are no longer Christian save in name, for of works, worship, religion, there is no trace. They have regard neither for children nor widows nor for churches. Brothers and sisters share the same bed. Brother takes the wife of brother. All live in crime and incest. They inhabit the forest and make their beds in the tickets. They live by rapine, like savage beasts.11.Ermoldus Nigellus, as quoted in Riche, Daily Life, pp.5 – 6.

However in 842 Bretons are mentioned as participating in athletic games, among other nationalities of the empire.12.Riche, Daily Life, p.75. So perhaps continuing the beatings until morale improved finally paid off.

If you want to really get into the nitty-gritty of daily life in Brittany in the ninth century there is an amazing little volume called Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany, by Wendy Davies. She undertakes a deep analysis of charters from the monastery in Redon, and builds a detailed picture of families, social structure, and land ownership in the area surrounding the monastery. Hers is probably the fullest and most detailed account of village life in the early medieval period available, for any region. You can tell her I sent you…

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Smith, Julia M.H., The Sack of Vannes by Pippin III, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, Number 11, Summer 1986, p.25.
2. Riche, Carolingians, p.111.
3. Liber Historiae Francorum, ch.28, p.71. Fun fact: Chlotar “ordered that Chramn with his wife and children be consumed by fire. Thus they were shut up in the hut of a poor man. Chramn was stretched out on a bench and strangled with a scarf. Then the little hut was burned up on top of him with his wife and children.”
4. History of the Franks, b.5, v.26, p.290.
5. History of the Franks, b.10, v.8, pp.556 – 558.
6. Geoffrey, History of the Kings of Britain, b.8, p.271.
7. She takes that single line from the Annals of Metz, and builds a decent circumstantial case for Frankish intervention a few years prior to Pepin’s coronation.
8. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, b.9.
9. Revised Frankish Annals, King, year 786, p.119.
10. Frankish Annals, King, year 799, p.92.
11. Ermoldus Nigellus, as quoted in Riche, Daily Life, pp.5 – 6.
12. Riche, Daily Life, p.75.

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