Around the turn of the 5th-4th millennia BC, farmers arrived in Britain and Ireland from the near Continent, bringing domesticated animals and cultivated cereals (see CA 333). The most prolific flow came from the Pas-de-Calais region and southern Belgium – the same route taken by many of today’s migrants, and an obvious one given that the chalk cliffs on either side of the Channel are inter-visible on calm and clear days.
But the western sea routes also played a part in this early Neolithic migration from around 4300 BC. The main evidence for this western migration consists of a particular type of burial monument – the passage grave – found in various forms in the western parts of the British Isles and Ireland,
the construction of which seems to have been inspired by similar monuments in what is now Brittany, as well as further south, along the Atlantic coast to modern Spain and Portugal. Though they vary in detail, passage graves were built to be accessible and to allow new burials to be added or for rituals to be performed in the presence of the dead. They were places of collective burial, where ancestors could be revered, rather than the closed tombs of individuals that later became the norm.
Some archaeologists have theorised that it was the eventual meeting and merging of these two separate groups of Neolithic migrants – as one expanded westward and the other eastward – that was commemorated in the construction of Stonehenge, built from stone of symbolic importance to each of the ‘polities’. Equally important, according to Barry Cunliffe, was the beginning of the ‘long and continuing interaction’ between Bretons and Britons and their mutual influence on each other’s cultural development.
Atlantic coast trade
If the first contacts between Britain and Brittany involved the quest for land to cultivate, the next phase was all about the search for new sources of metal: specifically the prestige metals – silver and gold – and the components of bronze: copper and tin. Early prospectors, who included the Amesbury Archer (CA 184, 251, and 384) and the Boscombe Bowmen (CA 193, 251, 265, and 344), found the copper deposits they were looking for on Ross Island, Lough Leane (in south-western Ireland), and in north Wales, at Great Orme and at Parys Mountain on Anglesey. Gold was found in Cornwall, south Wales, and the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland; tin in Cornwall. It is likely that these metals were first extracted by panning for the ores in sands that had eroded from igneous lode-bearing rocks, and by fire-setting to heat the rocks, which would then be doused with water, causing them to shatter.
Barry Cunliffe has described on many previous occasions the nature of this Atlantic-coast trade and how the port-to-port cabotage system enabled people, ideas, technology, language, and cultural practices, as well as raw materials and finished artefacts, to travel to and from the eastern Mediterranean to Scotland and Ireland via the Iberian Peninsula and across the Bay of Biscay to Brittany. Barry’s distribution maps – of leaf-shaped Ballintober swords, originating in Ireland; of feasting apparatus (roasting spits, buckets, cauldrons, and flesh-hooks for lifting meat from the cauldron); of carp’s tongue swords from the Huelva region of south-western Iberia; and of Nantes-type swords – all demonstrate the significance and extent of this organised Atlantic trade. It also strengthened the interactions between cross-Channel neighbours, resulting in the convergence of cultures between Brittany and the south and west of England that is seen in the close similarities of pottery and metalwork styles and settlement type (clusters of circular houses set among regularly laid-out field systems).
We can only speculate how goods and people were transported between peninsular Devon and Cornwall and peninsular Brittany in the 4th millennium BC. Dug-out canoes were probably used for river transport, and could, when equipped with outriggers for stability, be used for marine transport in calm seas. Hide boats made from leather stretched over a wooden framework would be more stable in ocean conditions. When bronze tools were invented, they not only served as the driver for the expansion of coastal trade, they provided the catalyst for a revolution in boatbuilding. At Salcombe, Devon, a shipload of copper ingots, weapons, and tools has been recorded, but the boat carrying them has not survived; we do, though, have the evidence for sophisticated plank-built boats that were in use from the middle of the 2nd millennium BC (the Dover Boat, for example, dates from 1550 BC).
The Atlantic network developed because the raw materials for making bronze are highly localised. Once discovered, sources were exploited for centuries. It has recently been shown, for example, that the Great Orme mines of north Wales supplied much of northern Europe, from Brittany to Sweden, for the 200 years between 1600 and 1400 BC, smelting enough bronze for the manufacture of half a million tools and weapons every year. By contrast, iron ore occurs widely, and once the technology for extracting and working it had been learnt, the need to maintain the complex trade and social systems for distributing copper and tin began to decline.
Axes and amphorae
This decline was accompanied by a marked increase in the deposition of bronze axe hoards, which Barry says is a western phenomenon that reaches its most extreme expression in Brittany in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Some 350 hoards have been recorded there, containing 38,000 axes in total, amounting to 4 tonnes of copper, and 1 tonne each of tin and lead. Few of the socketed axes found in these hoards showed signs of use; many are unfinished and have not been trimmed of excess casting material. Most have a high lead content, making them softer – but also heavier – than normal axe heads, as if it were weight that mattered more than functional strength.
It is possible that these hoards represent a gesture of thanks to the gods of the underworld for their gift of the raw materials from which bronze is made. Perhaps the increase in quantity and weight represents a hope that the gods would go on giving in the face of the new material, iron.And, for a while, the bronze trade did continue. Breton axes are found widely across France and southern Britain, entering Britain via Hengistbury Head and Portland-Weymouth in Dorset, Mount Batten in Devon, and perhaps Mount’s Bay in Cornwall. Bronze was still greatly valued for prestige and decorative objects, from brooches to harness mounts, parade shields and helmets to statuary, but archaeological evidence for exchanges made via the Atlantic seaways after the 7th century BC decreases significantly.
Trade between Brittany and Britain next becomes conspicuous in the archaeological record in the 1st century BC, in the form of wine-filled amphorae being traded across the Channel to Hengistbury Head from the northern French coast, along with Black Corded ware (which possibly contained some other commodity), as well as blocks of raw glass, bracelets of glass, bronze tableware, and dried figs. Ships returning to the Continent were loaded with grain, metal ingots, animal hides, and turned vessels and bracelets of Kimmeridge shale.
Such trade was rudely disrupted by Caesar’s campaign of conquest in Gaul, which involved, amongst other tactics, the destruction of the fleets of ships of the maritime communities located between the mouths of the Seine and the Loire. What Caesar says about them in his Bellum Gallicum (Gallic Wars, 58-50 BC) provides valuable evidence for our understanding of late Iron Age ship design:
‘Their prows were unusually high, and so were their sterns, designed to stand up to great waves and violent storms. The hulls were made entirely of oak to endure any violent shock or impact. The cross-beams, of timbers a foot thick, were fastened with iron bolts as thick as a man’s thumb… they used sails made of hides or soft leather… probably because they thought that with cloth sails they would not be able to withstand the full force of the violent Atlantic gales, or steer such heavy ships.’
Against such heavy ships, battering rams were of little use, and their height made it difficult to launch missiles or grappling irons from Roman galleys. In a decisive battle off the coast of the Morbihan region of Brittany, Roman victory was achieved by hacking at the rigging of the Gallic ships with sharp hooks mounted on long poles; Roman troops were then able to fight their way on board when the dead calm seas prevented the Gallic ships from manoeuvring.
Seven years spent fighting Caesar and his troops had a devastating effect on the communities of the Armorican peninsula, and economic decline was compounded by the reorganisation of cross-Channel trade with Britain, which shifted eastwards – perhaps an act of deliberate economic sabotage to punish the once rebellious tribes of north-western Gaul, which now became a relative backwater at the outer edge of the Roman Empire. Despite this, the Atlantic trading routes must either have survived or have been revived, judging by the quantities of Mediterranean pottery found at coastal sites in western Britain and Ireland in the post-Roman centuries.
Raiders and pirates
By this time, ships travelling between eastern Britain and the Continent were under constant attack from what historians call ‘raiders’ and ‘pirates’ – the same, no doubt, as those later labelled ‘Saxons’ and ‘barbarians’ (and later still ‘Vikings’) – as they took advantage of the opportunities afforded by the decaying empire. In western Britain and Gaul, it was the indigenous population that sought to exploit Rome’s problems. The early 6th-century AD Greek historian Zosimos might be thought an unreliable witness for events in Britain and Brittany in the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD, but equally he could be thought the more reliable for being an accurate copyist of the now-lost sources from which he constructed his Historia Nova.
In a much quoted passage (Historia Nova, Book VI.5.2-3), he says:
‘The barbarians above the Rhine, assaulting without hindrance, reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some of the Celtic peoples to defecting from the Roman rule and living their own lives, independent from the Roman laws. The Britons therefore took up arms and, braving the danger on their own behalf, freed their cities from the barbarian threat. And all Armorica [Brittany] and the other Gallic provinces followed their example, freed themselves in the same way, expelling the Roman officials and setting up a constitution such as they pleased.’
Zosimus refers again to ‘the barbarian threat’ in a further passage in which he says (Historia Nova, Book VI.5-6):
‘The barbarians from beyond the Rhine overran everything at will and reduced the inhabitants of the British island and some of the peoples in Gaul to the necessity of rebelling from the Roman Empire… the defection of Britain and the Celtic peoples took place during Constantine’s tyranny, the barbarians having mounted their attacks owing to the carelessness in administration.’
The impact of this liberation from Roman administration (and heavy taxation) is one of the great archaeological debates of our age. Rapid decline, exacerbated by a deteriorating climate, disease, population collapse, and the end of ceramics and coinage as a result of a shortage of people with the requisite skills, is one way of looking at it. Others point to rapid adjustment to changed circumstances – different, but not necessarily inferior.
And it was not just the ‘barbarians’ who were on the move: if Gildas is to be believed, the western British fled the barbarian onslaught in the east by escaping to the mountains of Wales and ‘the land beyond the sea’ (taken to mean Brittany). Barry Cunliffe offers a less sweeping account of the migration: ‘We can imagine pioneer groups setting themselves up wherever land was available, establishing workable relations with their Armorican neighbours and creating lasting bonds through intermarriage. Later, more people would arrive, seeking out kin to help them find a home.’ And so the British networks grew until the language of the migrants became firmly established as the language of Brittany, just as in eastern Britain a similar migration of Germanic people changed the language spoken there.
The migration to Brittany may well have been led by clerics and missionaries from Wales, Devon, and Cornwall because Christianity was flourishing in western Gaul under the administration of an archbishop in Tours, with dioceses in Nantes, Rennes, and Vannes, and a renowned soldier-turned-Christian cleric in the form of St Martin of Tours (AD 316-397). Bishop Mansuetus, who attended the Council of Tours in AD 461, was described as episcopus Britannorum – almost certainly bishop of the British in Brittany, rather than of Britain itself. Later medieval saints’ lives give various accounts of Irish, Welsh, and Cornish saints travelling to Brittany – notably St Samson (AD 485–565), a member of an aristocratic family from south Wales, educated under St Illtud at the monastery in Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major), later abbot of Caldey, and later still a migrant via Cornwall and Guernsey to Brittany, where he established the monastery at Dol and was sought out as an advisor at the court of the Frankish king Childebert.
There is further evidence for the interaction between Brittany and the Christian parts of western Britain in the differences between the practices of the rural Bretons and the more Romanised urban church. The bishops of Rennes, Tours, and Angers wrote to two Breton priests in AD 510 to deplore the practice of allowing women to administer communion and to criticise the use of huts and portable altars instead of churches for celebrating Mass, implying by their tone that these were primitive practices. As late as the Second Council of Tours, held in AD 567, a distinction was still being drawn between the more austere traditions of Roman Christianity and the more relaxed practices of Breton clerics. The latter might be interpreted as well-suited to the missionary work of Christian migrants working amongst a dispersed population without a formal parish structure.
Although the archaeological evidence eludes us for a detailed account of the early medieval migration from Britain to Brittany (and presumably in the opposite direction), we do have place-name evidence. Mapping the distribution of the place-name elements Plou, Lan, Loc, Tré, and Ker gives us a good idea of the regions in which British migrants settled: along the northern coast of Brittany and the south-west of the peninsula, regions later known as Domnonée and Cornouaille, echoing the names of Devon (Dumnonia) and Cornwall (Cornovia), further signposting the parts of Britain from which the migrants might have set out.
The commonest place-name element in these regions is ‘Plou’, derived from Latin plebs, the people (plui in Cornish, plwyf in medieval Welsh, and pobl in modern Welsh). About three-quarters of the ‘Plou’ names are compounded with the names of people, the majority of them ‘saints’ or religious figures. When these names can be traced, they derive from Britain: Pleucadeuc, for example, referring to St Cadoc; or Plougoulm (St Columba). It is possible that ‘Plou’ thus represents a religious foundation, and later a parish. The ‘Lan’ names almost certainly indicate a place of religious significance, like the Welsh llan, a settlement that has grown up around a church or saint’s shrine. ‘Tré’ (Welsh tref, town) is a division of a parish, and ‘Ker’ (Latin castrum and Welsh caer, fort) is a hamlet. Significant dwellings include the element ‘lis’ or ‘lez’ (Welsh llys, court or centre of administration). By contrast, the Romanised areas, less affected by migration, tend to have names ending in -ac, -iac, -é and -y, all ultimately derived from Latin -acum, meaning ‘place of’ or ‘property of’, usually preceded by the name of an individual or a community
While the language and culture of one part of Brittany was being transformed by British migrants, the rest of northern Gaul was coming under the control of the Franks. Like so many of the tribal names of this period (Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Vandals, Huns, and the rest), the word ‘Franks’ gives the impression that this group of migrants shared a common origin, culture, and language. But Barry argues that tribal names were usually based on the ethnicity of the commander only or, as in the case of the Franks, were descriptive names – in this case meaning ‘bold forces’. Made up of a confederacy of many Germanic tribes, they spread westwards, sacking cities and ultimately controlling much of northern Gaul from their base in Paris.
It was during this period that a frontier of sorts was established between Brittany and the France of the Franks. Though the Franks under Childeric and Clovis were bent on territorial expansion and state formation, it is likely that the Bretons posed little threat and were not rich enough to be worth the effort of military campaigning when there were more profitable conquests to be made further south. It is likely that the Bretons agreed to recognise Frankish hegemony in return for living in relative autonomy. By AD 700, the Bretons had emerged as a distinct people with a language, culture, and identity of their own, which was to be challenged many times subsequently but that (as Barry goes on to show in the remaining five chapters of his book) is alive and flourishing to this day: ‘The constant battle to retain their identity has made them resilient and determined, and it is this,’ he concludes, ‘that has conditioned their attitude to life.’
Barry Cunliffe (2021) Bretons and Britons: the fight for identity, Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 978-0198851622.