From the 5th to 19th century

Old Welsh and old-Breton: from the 5th century

We only have a few records in Old-Welsh or Old-Breton. The use of these languages is confirmed by inscriptions and notes or comments added to Latin texts or also by the names of people and places.

A few extracts of Old-Welsh can be found in similar sources, for example, Historia Brittonum written by Nennius in the 8th century.

The oldest manuscript today known in Old-Breton is a two-page treatise of medicine dating from the end of the 7th century, preserved in Holland .

In insular and Armorican Britain, it was the monks, who translated and copied texts. They, together with the bards and supported by the nobility, played a major role in the maintenance of the culture.


* In Britain, Wales remained independent despite the pressure of the Anglo-Saxons people. Between 757 and 796 A.D., Offa, the king of Mercia , built a wall and dyke to separate the Celts from the Saxons.

In the 9th century, Wales , Cornwall and part of Scotland retained their independence. In Wales , Gwynedd, in the North, was the strongest kingdom at this time ruled by King Rhodri Mawr. He secured political unity for Wales but after his death (in 877) his lands were shared between his two sons.

Between the 10th and the 11th century, Wales was partially united several times but only Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was successful in unifying the whole country. However, the unity was uncertain because his conquered kingdoms were always ready to revolt and take their independence back. During this period, parts of Wales sometimes paid tribute to England .

At the end of the 11th century, the Normans, who had already invaded England , coveted Wales but despite some victories in the North and West, they were unable to conquer the whole country.

* In Brittany, at this time, periods of war and peace between the Bretons and the Francs followed each other. In 578, Waroc successfully defended the banks of the Vilaine River , which was the border between the Breton and Francs kingdoms, against the invading Franks and so became the hero of the struggle for independence.

In 635, King Dagobert invited Judicaël, Duke of Domnonée (north of Brittany ) to his court. After having consulted the representatives of Cornouaille (south-west of Brittany ) and Bro Waroc (lands around Vannes, where Waroc had his base) he met Dagobert and recognized the authority of the Frankish king in the name of all Breton people. Thanks to this, a long-lasting peace was established between both kingdoms.

In the 9th century, Nominoé fought to keep Brittany as an independent dukedom and beat the army of Charles le Chauve in the Battle of Ballon (near Redon) in 845. On his death, his son Erispoé continued the struggle for independence. He enlarged his territory and established Brittany as an independent kingdom.

However, darker times were in store for Brittany with the arrival of the Normans .

Middle-Welsh and middle-Breton : from the 11th century

Unlike the time of Old-Welsh, there are plenty of written documents dating from Middle-Welsh. Poetry was very important and often reported the military prowess of the nobility, who were the patrons of the poets. The nobility organized eisteddfodau (competition for all the arts, particularly poetry – meetings where the rules of poetry were codified). The most famous poet of that time is Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-1380). His poems were on nature and love and are still very well known today.

The different dialects of North and South Wales started to appear. From the 15th century, the vocabulary and the spelling changed. Wales was a Welsh-speaking country despite the arrival of some French and English settlers and the great majority of the population remained monoglot Welsh.

If the gentry of Wales supported the Welsh language at this time it is another story for the Middle-Breton. This period was marked by the abandonment of the language by the elite of the country. After fleeing the Norman invasions of the 10th century to take refuge in neighbouring countries, they adopted the habits and language of their host country. When they came back to Brittany , their descendants were gallicized.

Nantes , which was the capital of the country from 937, was a non-Breton-speaking town. The court became increasingly gallicized and the Breton language retreated to the west. The language border stabilized between the 12th and 14th century on a line from Dinan to the Brière.

Breton language changed under the influence of the neighbouring language. Some vocabulary was added, some letters disappeared in some words and the accent moved. Around the end of the 16th century, the dialects of Kerne , Leon and Tregor (K,L,T) became established.


* In Wales, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, ruler of Gwynedd (1195-1240) profited from a civil war in England and united all independent Welsh kingdoms. In order to ensure that Wales remained a united country after his death, he made his son Dafydd his one and only heir. However, the kingdom collapsed under English invasions.

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (1246-1282) restored unity and took the title of Prince of Wales in 1258. He reconquered the parts of Wales occupied by the English and made the king of England , Henry III, recognize his kingdom and title in the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267.

In 1272, Edward I succeeded Henry III and started a campaign of invasions of Wales . After five years, his armies were in the south-west and mid-Wales. Llywelyn was defeated and the lands were given back to the previous rulers. In March 1282, his brother Dafydd revolted. Llywelyn supported him but died in battle at Cilmeri under mysterious circumstances. Dafydd was defeated and executed by the English in June 1283. The statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 imposed English rule in Wales . It was the first step to occupation. In Wales , English built towns around fortified castles from which Welsh people were forbidden from entering, except on business.

There followed many rebellions in an attempt to regain independence. The most famous was the revolt of Owain Glyndwr, from 1400 to 1410. As ruler of Glyndyfrdwy, in the north-east of Wales , he regained independence for Wales . However, the English regained control of most of South and mid Wales in 1408. Glyndwr, however, continued with the rebellion in the mountains of North Wales until 1410.

An anti-Welsh repression started with the end of the revolt and the act of Union of 1536 linked Wales to England . English was made the only official language. The aim of the English state was to make the Welsh culture and language disappear.

* In Brittany, Henry II of Plantagenet had been given the comté of Nantes for helping Conan to gain power in 1156. After this first seizure of land in Brittany , he managed to enthrone his son Geoffrey Plantagenet as Duke of Brittany in spite of some revolts.

In 1341 the death of Jean III engulfed Brittany in a war of succession lasting 25 years. The kings of France and England , who had been at war since 1337 (Hundred years War), also found it strategically interesting.

In 1491, Anne, Duchess of Brittany, had to marry the King of France, Charles VIII, and on his death his successor, Louis XII, in 1499. This last wedding assured the safeguarding of institutions, rights and privileges and ensured that the youngest of their children would be successor to the dukedom (the oldest being the successor of the French crown).

In 1532, Brittany was definitively linked to France with the Edict of Union. This edict maintained fiscal, judicial and religious rights and privileges. No taxes could be raised in Brittany without the agreement of the States of Brittany and no Breton could be judged outside Brittany .

In 1539 François I signed the order of Villers-Cotterets, which ordered the writing of official acts in French, to protect the French language from Latin. The Breton clergy, however, continued to use Latin.

Modern Welsh and modern Breton : from the 16th century

This was a time of decline for the Welsh and Breton languages. The end of independence and the signing of the Act of Union (1532 for Brittany and 1536 for Wales ) were in part responsible for this because the upper classes gradually abandoned their original culture and language.

There were, however, plenty of other reasons for this decline, which were identical in Wales and Brittany . England , as well as France , wanted to destroy the Celtic culture considered by them to be backward and uninteresting.

Neither language was taught in schools and the medium of education was English or French, the speaking of Welsh and Breton being forbidden within schools. From the middle of the 19th century, a “symbol” was used against the schoolchildren who did not obey this prohibition. The teacher gave the “symbol” (pebble, little wooden shoe or piece of wood) to the first child he heard speaking the forbidden language. This child could only get rid of the “symbol” by giving it to another child who had committed the same “misdeed”. The one who was in possession of the “symbol” at the end of the day was punished. In Wales the “symbol” was a piece of wood on which was engraved the letters WN, for Welsh Not, and which was worn around the neck.


* In Wales ,

When Henry VIII separated from the Church of Rome, he decided to attach Wales to England politically, giving the Welsh the same rights as the English. This made it easier to strengthen the maritime frontiers. Some members of the Welsh upper class decided to abandon the Welsh culture and language in order to have the opportunity to be promoted and thus become English. However, they had been the sponsors of the Welsh culture but now the Welsh culture became the property of the ordinary people and gave them an identity.

With the industrial revolution of the 19th century, many people moved from rural areas to industrialised areas. The Welsh language, mostly spoken in rural areas, came to the city with them. A series of revolts started against the English government. There were two main causes for these: the Welsh language and the religious non-conformity and the rejection of the Anglican establishment. The English authorities believed that both had to be stamped out.

In 1868, voting by secret ballot was introduced. This led to the election of supporters of the Welsh culture because nobody was afraid of reprisals anymore.

* In Brittany...

After the treaty of Union the Breton language deteriorated because it was not taught in schools and it became essentially an oral language. It survived in the working-class thanks to the clergy who still used it in services and as a medium for teaching religion.

After the French revolution, French became the only official language of the country. However, to make the Constitution, the law and the decrees known and understood by everyone they were translated into every spoken language in France . From this time the French government developed a policy hostile to the existence of these languages.

In the 19th century, a movement was established to revive the Breton language. Le Gonidec (1775-1838), who wrote the “Grammaire celto-bretonne” (Celto-Breton Grammar) and the “Dictionnaire Celto-Breton” (Celto-Breton Dictionnary), and De La Villemarqué (1815-1895), with his collection of popular songs called “Barzaz-Breiz” were both examples of this. The tendency at this time was to purify the Breton language by getting rid of all the French words and reviving old words or creating new ones if necessary.

At the end of the century, the laws of Jules Ferry made school secular, free and obligatory (1880-1883) and imposed French as the medium of teaching. In 1902 Combes prohibited the priests from holding services in Breton and teaching religion in Breton. The ones who disobeyed had their recognition by the state removed and lost their financial support.

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