Breton literature

Breton literature

Breton literature, in the Celtic language of Brittany. Although there are numerous allusions in other literatures of the 12th to 14th cent. to the "matter of Brittany," which includes the stories of Tristan and King Arthur, no Breton texts remain from this period. The earliest ones date from the 15th cent. Until the 19th cent., texts included songs, stories, and plays, all popular and mostly of unknown authorship. The plays were imitations of late medieval French miracles. As elsewhere in Europe, serious collecting of Breton folk literature began in the 19th cent. Jean François Le Gonidec (1775-1838) pioneered with a dictionary of the language in 1821. Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué assembled an anthology of folk poems but was attacked for his dubious scholarship. A more sophisticated collector was François Marie Luzel (1821-95). The mid-19th cent. saw the birth of a cultivated literature, mainly in stories and verse. Auguste Brizeux (1803-58) was the best known of the poets who wrote in their native Breton. Others were J. Guillome and Prosper Proux (1811-73). In the late 19th cent. an intensification of the campaign to revive local literary traditions resulted in the establishment of several folk theaters and in the expansion and modification of the vocabulary by writers. Among the leading writers of the late 19th and the 20th cent. are the poets Emil Ernault (b. 1852), Jean Pierre Calloc'h, and Robert Le Masson; the storytellers Louis and Louise Herrieu, Louis Héno, and Jakez Riou; and the playwright Tanguy Malemanche. During the 19th and 20th cent. a large number of Breton folk tales and songs have been collected. The diversity and richness of this collection make it unique in world literature.
Breton literature is the Breton language literary tradition of Brittany.

Old and Middle literature

Breton literature can be categorised into an Old Breton period, from the 5th to 11th century; and a Middle Breton period, up to the 17th century. The period break is marked by the Norman invasions of the 10th and 11th centuries which triggered an exodus out of Brittany. The number of extant works remaining is very limited and of less interest to scholars than the indirect evidence of its influences.

The only Old Breton extant words are glosses in Latin manuscripts from the 9th and 10th centuries, now scattered in libraries and collections throughout Europe. It is likely there was a highly developed oral tradition during the Old Breton period. And on the evidence of Breton names, it would appear that Old Breton literature inspired much of Arthurian literature, the story of Tristan and Iseult and the romances of Chrétien de Troyes.

The earliest known piece of extant Breton literature is found in the margins of a 14th century Latin manuscript, scribbled by a scribe weary of his toil and mind on more immediate concerns, he left for posterity a four line love poem, the first two lines beginning:

An guen heguen am louenas
An hegarat an lacat glas
The fair one, her cheek gladdened me
The lovable one of the blue eye.

The main principle of Breton poetry, complex to achieve, is that the next to last syllable in a line should rhyme with one or more other syllables in the same line. For example in the first line above, "en" is the second to last syllable, which rhymes with "guen" and "heguen". In the second line, "at" is the second to last syllable which rhymes with "hegarat".

There are several texts from the 15th century:

Modern literature

In the 19th century antiquarians and Celtic revivalists undertook the collection of folk texts, songs and stories. Writers such as Anatole Le Braz and Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué brought new readers to traditional Breton literature.

The poet Jean-Pierre Calloc'h (1888-1917) was killed during the First World War. His posthumously-published collection Ar en deulin established his reputation as a war poet.

In the 1920s a movement, in which the linguist and author Roparz Hemon played an important part, arose to introduce the trends of modern literature into Breton. The literary magazine Gwalarn provided an outlet for modern authors, such as Jakez Riou and Yves Le Drézen (who published the first long novel in Breton in 1941).

Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1914-1995) wrote prose and poetry in both Breton and French. His contemporary Añjela Duval (1905-1981) wrote poetry reflective of her peasant origins, mysticism, and social conscience.

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