Sunday, February 07, 2021

Final post

Rade de Brest

Today is the last post on this blog. I have enjoyed sharing the history of Brittany and details from my writer's life with many readers over the last fifteen years and thank everyone for their support. Promoting the beauties and complexities of my adopted land remains a high priority, but in the interests of focus and simplification, I shall concentrate now on expanding my website  New writing and updates on what I'm doing will appear there regularly. I have various projects for 2021 which will both lead in uncharted directions and re-ignite my Breton explorations. Hope to see you all in new places. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Vikings in Brittany (Part 2)

St Aubin manuscript

Neither Nominoë’s military prowess nor his money put an end to Viking aggression in the mid 9th century, but the results of this were not entirely negative. One of the reasons for the success of the next rulers, Erispoë and then Salomon, in consolidating Breton territorial expansion was certainly the distraction caused to the Franks by the Norsemens’ raids all over their lands. This onslaught was particularly intense on the northern coast of France, and Brittany did not escape unscathed. The monastery on the Ile de Batz was destroyed in 884. Anywhere accessible by water was vulnerable, and even inland river towns like Rennes and Redon were not spared. The river Gouédic opened St-Brieuc to pillage in 855.

The assassination of king Salomon left something of a power vacuum in Brittany and no strong single leader emerged to tackle the Viking menace until Alain, count of Vannes, defeated them at Questembert in 888. He was given the epithet the Great for his achievement, and things improved for the remaining twenty years of his rule. But this was only a temporary hiatus and the 10th century saw increased terror on Breton soil.

Camp at Péran, near St Brieuc

Some of the Vikings were now seeking land to settle on, as they did in what is now called Normandy. Fixed camps were established near St-Brieuc, Dol-de-Bretagne and Nantes, where they even got official permission to set up a trading station on an island they had colonised in the Loire. In response many Breton nobles chose or were forced to flee, taking refuge in France or across the channel in England. The famous river camp of the Vikings at Saint-Suliac is of disputed origin and many claim it is in fact an old oyster-farm.

Viking camp (or oyster farm) near Saint Suliac

The abbey of Landévennec on the waterside at the mouth of the Aulne was burnt and plundered in 913, although the monks probably had advance warning of the Viking approach across the Rade de Brest and were able to evacuate themselves and their most precious treasures. The abbot Jean saw the potential saviour of Brittany in the person of another Alain, grandson of Alain the Great.

Abbey of Landévennec

This young man was in fact in England, having been brought up at the court of the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan, who was only too happy to supply support for a mission against the Vikings. Many rallied to Alain’s banner when he landed in Brittany: violent destruction was increasing and the Vikings were well set up in their fortified camps like the one at Péran, near St-Brieuc. Over the next few years a whole series of battles was fought, with finally a major victory for Alain near Dol-de-Bretagne in 939.

The nobles began to return, but Alain Barbetorte was able to consolidate his power and ruled – independently of France - as Duke of Brittany rather than claiming the title king, although the epithet Ribret or Robre meaning king of the Bretons is sometimes used of him. Nantes, which had been left in ruins after being sacked a second time by the Vikings, became Alain’s capital. He found the city almost deserted, hacking a path through the brambles with his sword to reach the once great church, now a roofless skeleton. Here he began the rebuilding of the cathedral and the construction of a new chateau near the Loire, calling on Bretons to come and re-populate the area.

After his victories, the wave of Viking terror was largely over in Brittany, but it left a legacy of destruction and dispersion that was to have serious consequences. The strong influence of French poured into Brittany with the return of nobles who had fled the Vikings. Their long stays in France meant that they brought back both the French language and French customs on their return, to the detriment of Breton. Already the eastern part of Brittany was increasingly Frenchified. After this time, the Breton court spoke French or Latin and not Breton, which began its retreat to the west of the region as early as this. Alain Fergent, the last Breton-speaking ruler came to power in 1084. Breton in future centuries was to be the language of the people.