Old Welsh and old-Breton: from the 5th century
Middle-Welsh and middle-Breton : from the 11th century
Modern Welsh and modern Breton : from the 16th
and old-Breton : from
the 5th century
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.
few extracts of Old-Welsh can be found in similar sources, for example, Historia
Brittonum written by Nennius in the 8th century.
oldest manuscript today known in Old-Breton is a two-page treatise of
medicine dating from the end of the 7th century, preserved 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.
remained independent despite the pressure of the Anglo-Saxons people.
Between 757 and 796 A.D., Offa, the king of
built a wall and dyke to separate the Celts from the Saxons.
the 9th century,
and part of
retained their independence. In
Gwynedd, in the North, was the strongest kingdom at this time ruled by
King Rhodri Mawr. He secured political unity for
but after his death (in 877) his lands were shared between his two sons.
the 10th and the 11th century,
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
sometimes paid tribute to
the end of the 11th century, the Normans, who had already
but despite some victories in the North and West, they were unable to
conquer the whole country.
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
which was the border between the Breton and Francs kingdoms, against the
invading Franks and so became the hero of the struggle for independence.
635, King Dagobert invited Judicaël, Duke of Domnonée (north of
to his court. After having consulted the representatives of Cornouaille
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.
the 9th century, Nominoé fought to keep
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
as an independent kingdom.
darker times were in store for
with the arrival of the
from the 11th century
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.
different dialects of North and
started to appear. From the 15th century, the vocabulary and
the spelling changed.
was a Welsh-speaking country despite the arrival of some French and
English settlers and the great majority of the population remained
the gentry of
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
their descendants were gallicized.
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.
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
and Tregor (K,L,T) became established.
ab Iorwerth, ruler of Gwynedd (1195-1240) profited from a civil war in
and united all independent Welsh kingdoms. In order to ensure that
remained a united country after his death, he made his son Dafydd his one
and only heir. However,
the kingdom collapsed under English invasions.
ap Gruffydd (1246-1282) restored unity and took the title of Prince of
Wales in 1258. He reconquered the parts of
occupied by the English and made the king of
Henry III, recognize his kingdom and title in the Treaty of Montgomery in
1272, Edward I succeeded Henry III and started a campaign of invasions of
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
It was the first step to occupation. In
English built towns around fortified castles from which Welsh people were
forbidden from entering, except on business.
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
he regained independence for
However, the English regained control of most of South and mid
in 1408. Glyndwr, however, continued with the rebellion in the mountains
anti-Welsh repression started with the end of the revolt and the act of
of 1536 linked
English was made the only official language.
The aim of the English state was to make the Welsh culture and
In Brittany, Henry
II of Plantagenet had been given the comté of
for helping Conan to gain power in 1156. After this first seizure of land
he managed to enthrone his son Geoffrey Plantagenet as Duke of Brittany in
spite of some revolts.
1341 the death of Jean III engulfed
in a war of succession lasting 25 years. The kings of
who had been at war since 1337 (Hundred years War), also found it
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).
was definitively linked to
with the Edict of Union. This edict maintained fiscal, judicial and
religious rights and privileges. No taxes could be raised in
without the agreement of the States of Brittany and no Breton could be
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.
Welsh and modern Breton :
from the end of the 16th century
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
and 1536 for
were in part responsible for this because the upper classes gradually
abandoned their original culture and language.
were, however, plenty of other reasons for this decline, which were
as well as
wanted to destroy the Celtic culture considered by them to be backward and
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
the “symbol” was a piece of wood on which was engraved the letters WN,
for Welsh Not, and which was worn around the neck.
Henry VIII separated from the Church of Rome, he decided to attach
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.
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.
1868, voting by secret ballot was introduced. This led to the election of
supporters of the Welsh culture because nobody was afraid of reprisals
the treaty of
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
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
From this time the French government developed a policy hostile to the
existence of these languages.
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.
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.