Bretons and Britons: the fight for identity

This well-illustrated book on Breton identity is a development of Cunliffe’s Facing the Ocean (2001), in which he successfully carves out a broad Atlantic cultural identity, separate to that of central Europe. Echoing the great Cyril Fox, Cunliffe’s opening chapter seeks first to contextualise the archaeology in the geography – revealing the geology of Cornwall as Armorican in origin. A series of Cunliffe’s characteristically excellent maps reveal Brittany as a peninsular culture, the area furthest west preserving the language. Coastal communities, separated by inland uplands, connect instead via the sea, moving inland on rivers. Our own journey is through the archaeology and history of Brittany, from the late Mesolithic to the 20th century. A short primer on prehistoric boats, Atlantic seafaring, and harbours reminds that Cunliffe remains the doyen of coastal archaeology.

From a brief section on the evidence for late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers (6000 BC) and first farmers (c.5400 BC), we are immersed in 34 attention-grabbing pages on Brittany’s Neolithic monuments, and connections north to Irish passage graves. From there to Early Bronze Age contact and the important role for Brittany regarding beakers, barrows, and other object types. Limited settlement evidence sees parallels with contemporary southern Britain, with scant Middle Bronze Age evidence too, finally increasing after 1200 BC. Cunliffe’s metalwork distribution-maps successfully demonstrate Late Bronze Age Atlantic connections, and Armorican axe hoards – with an astonishing 38,000 axe-heads now found – see measured, informative discussion.

The elusive Atlantic Early Iron Age begins with Armorican burial rites, consideration of Bourges and the tin trade, and Armorica now echoing traditions from further east. We hear of the first Greek textual references – although the location of the Oestryminides is disputed by this reviewer. Discussion of underground souterrains and above-ground stelae reveal again broader Atlantic connections, while the ceramics confirm social development from the Bronze Age, alongside exotic items from afar. The Late Iron Age sees consideration of the role of wine, and maps the coin-producing Armorican groups, ending on Caesar’s campaign, with Chapter 5 on the ‘Roman interlude’.

Ever-present in Cunliffe’s prehistory is the idea of periods of relative connectedness, and it holds. In these early chapters, Cunliffe successfully demonstrates how long-term continuity in culture works alongside connectedness, an ebb and flow. Culture is, at the same time, continuity and change.

The second half begins with the early Christian period (to AD 751) with similarities in early Breton, Cornish, and Welsh place-names, and a familiar landscape of saints, early medieval settlement, and the Church; of particular interest is the Christianisation of prehistoric monuments. By chapter-end, Armorica is divided in three – with one principality: ‘Cornouaille’. Chapter 7, with 8th-century Armorica now ‘Brittany’, sees much on the Vikings, and Bretons fleeing to Britain. Chapter 8 sees the English in 12th-century Brittany, the Breton Civil War, and the origins of independence. Chapter 9 is the run-up to revolution, followed by a consideration of Breton identity in Napoleon’s France, how Breton language and culture survived, and how it was presented in popular culture. The final chapter, ‘Creating identities’, details the Celtic renaissance beginning in the 16th century, and its 19th-century conflation with Breton linguistics in the face of French nationalism.

This is a sophisticated treatise on the deep roots of identity – on how detail shifts over time, and how difference endures. A short epilogue considers what constitutes identity, how we define ‘us’ in contrast to ‘them’, and how understandings change over time. Beautifully written, evocative, and perfectly pitched for general reader and specialist alike – with an extensive guide to further reading – this book demonstrates the true scope of Cunliffe’s scholarship; few can traverse human history in this detail. This is a wonderful book: a meditation on place and people. It brings together the coastlines of Britain and France, the to-and-fro of Bretons and Britons across millennia, and, without even needing to verbalise it, works to demonstrate the nonsense of modern political boundaries.

Bretons and Britons: the fight for identity, Barry Cunliffe, Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 978-0198851622.
Review by Rachel Pope.