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Literary Nationalism in 19th Century Brittany:

The Curious Case of the Barzaz-Breiz

Lenora Timm

Professor of Linguistics, Dept. of Linguistics
University of California (Davis), U.S.A

I. Introduction

The year 1839 was a significant one in the history of Breton letters, for it was in that year that a young Breton nobleman, Hersart Théodore de La Villemarqué, published, in Paris, an anthology of epic and legendary chants or sung poems that he claimed to have collected from Breton-speaking peasants and artisans living on and around the family's manorial estate in southwestern Brittany. This is the Barzaz-Breiz: Chants populaires de la Bretagne ('Poetry of Brittany: Popular Songs of Brittany') which quickly became the talk of the provincial salons and was applauded in Breton literary journals of the day (Laurent 1989, 22). Before long it had also captured the attention of Parisian intellectual circles and their revues, and from there circulated to other European capitals. No less a literary luminary of the age than George Sand would extol it in rapturous terms, comparing one of the heroic songs in it with the Illiad and proclaiming the former as "more beautiful more perfect than any masterpiece issuing from the human spirit" (Le Mercier D'Erm 1977, vii-viii). Later Sand would coin the phrase 'oral literature', with the Barzaz-Breiz as a leading exemplar of the genre (Defrance 2001, 95).

Although sometimes identified, or misidentified as "French" by those outside of France (Karyell 1996) the Barzaz-Breiz was in fact a proto-nationalist literary project that sought to demonstrate the distinctiveness of Brittany and its people from the rest of France and to prove, through songs claiming a lineage back to the fifth century AD in some instances, the longevity and legitimacy of Bretons as an ancient Celtic people, predating by centuries the Frankish (i.e., Germanic)-derived French. The story of the rise and fall of the Barzaz-Breiz is a most interesting and curious one: although going through two subsequent, successively expanded editions (in 1845 and 1867) and enjoying critical praise (by and large) and helping advance its compiler/author to prominence as a distinguished man of letters, the work suffered, under the charge of forgery, a decline into near oblivion by the end of the century. It re-emerged as a topic of interest decades later in the next century, following the discovery of a sack of manuscripts of original transcriptions on which the Barzaz-Breiz had been based. This essay explores the genesis and eclipse of this contested work within some of the highly charged political, ideological, philological, religious and historical debates that were being waged in 19th-century Brittany, manifesting themselves in a movement called bretonisme ('Bretonism'), a type of cultural nationalism expressed in large measure through literature. The Barzaz-Breiz was a key literary starting point—"this capital book," as one Breton historian describes it (Guiomar 1987, 254)—that nourished Bretonist thinking. Although the rhetoric associated with this particular expression of nationalism indexed specific political orientations, and did so at times with remarkable virulence against the French, the movement as such had no political teeth and, with only a few exceptions, expressed little interest in working for the separation of Brittany from France as an independent nation-state. I return to the topic of Bretonism in Section IV.

II. The Nature of the Barzaz-Breiz

The Barzaz-Breiz (edition of 1867 ) consists of about 80 chants—i.e., sung poems—that are described by their collector-compiler as mythological, heroic-historical and including some ballads; some feast songs and love songs; and some legends and religious songs (La Villemarqué 1963 [orig. 1867], vi ).[1] Each song is preceded by an "Argument" in which the author sets the historical context of the piece and each is followed by "Notes" offering further contextualizing comments of an historical and/or literary nature. All of this is preceded by a 72-page Introduction in which the author lays out his understanding of the history of Brittany and the role played by ancient Breton bards and legendary heroes in this history.

There is a clear ideological thread connecting the historical songs and weaving through the author's Arguments and Notes (Tanguy 1997), which, in rather simplified terms, is this: Breton culture and history antedate French culture and history and are superior to the latter. Another oft-repeated theme in the collection relates to the French, and before them their ancestors the Gauls', oppression of the Bretons; yet another insists on the Breton origins of the legendary king Arthur and of the bard/magician Merlin, hence at the origin of the literary cycle of the Knights of the Round Table. Many songs describe gory actions or bloody battle scenes between Bretons and Gauls or Bretons and Gallo-Franks or—when relating to more recent centuries—the French. The violence of the descriptions is striking. As Francis Gourvil (who wrote his dissertation on this work 135 years later) puts it, in one song the Gauls and their French descendants:

are treated as 'manure'; in another, there is rejoicing at seeing the grass reddened with their blood; in a third, where it could only be a question of Normans, it is on the skull of the 'Gauls' that the Bretons exercise their arms; a fourth shows the Bretons oppressed, their country overrun by French invaders, beckoned by a certain dowager 'as the cow calls the bull'; a fifth makes du Guesclin the enemy par excellence and shouts hate for the French with the cry of Malloz-ru 'red malediction'; a sixth does not deprive itself of the pleasure of describing as 'assassins' the gentlemen of France, without distinction; a seventh, finally, relative to the Chouannerie, opposes the Blues to the Bretons on a plan that is more national than political (Tanguy 1997, 304; translations from French sources drawn on in this paper are my own).

The anthology thus cannot be understood, as Guiomar (1987) demonstrates so convincingly, outside of the debates being waged in France at that time on literary, philological, and ideological fronts, to which I return in Section IV.

III. How the Anthology was Collected

Regarding European oral traditions, It is well known that the 18th- 19th century was the era par excellence of "collection" of folk material: under the influence of Romanticism, European intellectuals and artists began focusing on the continent's rural populations as the ideal (and idealized) representatives of the pure, the sincere, and the heroic characteristics of humanity. Scotland's James Macpherson (1736-1796) is typically credited with launching this movement of collection with his Ossian epic (claiming third-century origins of its Gaelic sources), first published in 1760 and circulated widely throughout Europe's salons and academic circles. Though later shown to be largely fabricated, his Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language would nonetheless serve as an inspiration for others elsewhere in Europe to look for similar residua of ancient poems and ballads among their own peasants and artisans. By 1778 Germany had Herder's two volumes of Volkslieder ('Folksongs') followed by the Grimm Brothers' Kinder- und Hausmärchen ('Children's and Household Tales) beginning in 1812. Finland by 1835 had Lönnrot's imposing epic poem, the Kalevala.

France was slower to respond to this mission, though in 1805 Napoleon established a Celtic Institute, whose purpose was to research Celtic antiquities, including language, literature, and monuments (Laurent 1989, 25). This was not a pursuit devoid of a political agenda. 'Romantic Celtophilia' (Dietler 1994, 588) was at its peak, in large measure due to the influence of Macpherson's Ossian saga. "Ossian made Celtic heroes fashionable" (Weber 1991, 23) and Napoleon was dedicated to finding evidence for a Celtic (Gaulish) identity of proto-France, quite explicitly as an alternative to the prevailing pre-Revolution emphasis on the Frankish (i.e., Germanic) origins of the French nation. In keeping with the rhetorical practices of the time, the distinction between Franks and Gauls was posed in terms of 'race', and in fact the 18th-century historian and early race theorist Comte de Boulainvilliers had characterized France as being composed of two races—the nobility, descended from the Franks and the commoners descended from the Gallo-Romans (Dietler 1994, 587). All this would be turned on its head following the French Revolution, which expelled the (Frankish) nobility and put the commoners—now citizens—in charge of the government. It was no longer acceptable for the aristocratic Franks to represent the traditional heritage of the new France,[2] and so a "choice had to be made between the Gauls and the Romans" (ibid.).

The choice was not quite that clear cut, however: although there was intellectual, and political fervor to identify as much evidence as possible of Celtic background, the influence of classical, especially Roman, civilization was too entrenched to be dismissed. Furthermore, while there was the occasional emotional outburst about the need for post-Revolutionary French citizens to learn Gaulish, the "natural" national language, "few," as Eugen Weber ironically comments, "would have known where to find that pristine idiom" (1991, 23). Nonetheless, the impetus toward establishing Celtic connections was a powerful academic and political current throughout much of the 19th century, to the point that French schoolchildren throughout the country were beginning to be introduced on the opening pages of their textbooks on national history to "our ancestors the Gauls," and the first-century Gaulish warrior leader Vercingetorix who had fought Julius Caesar was introduced in such texts as a French national hero (Dietler 1994, 590).

Another development during this time—this one on the more strictly philological and literary level—also provides background for understanding the origins of the Barzaz Breiz. It relates to the growing interest during the 19th century in ascertaining the origins of the French language and its literature. In 1835 La Villemarqué had proposed a paper to the first European Historical Congress, meeting in Paris, on the following question: 'Have the language and literature of the Celts entered as an element in the formation of the language and literature of France?' While he did not mention Breton popular songs in this essay (later published in the Congress Proceedings), it seems likely that he had these in mind as a way of establishing the contribution of Celtic to the development of French literature that he was already inclined to think could be established. In support of this idea, Laurent points out that in 1834, at the age of 19, La Villemarqué told the contemporary well-respected historian Abbé Gervais de la Rue that he had read the latter's Recherches sur les ouvrages des Bardes de la Bretagne armoricaine ('Research on the Works of the Bards of Armorican Brittany') and that it had "inspired him to write a vast work that would treat the history of Breton literature and its relations with the primitive literature of France" (1989, 20).

Indeed, it is known that the young viscount had been spending summer vacations collecting songs from peasants residing around his family manor in Lower Brittany (Guiomar 1987, 536), and was well positioned to undertake this sort of fieldwork. La Villemarqué's mother, whom he credits, set him on the path of collection of songs of the people in his environs. She had begun collecting songs, years earlier, from some of the parish poor whom she occasionally treated for various maladies with her own herbal remedies, and who repaid her by singing traditional Breton songs and ballads. It was from this basis, with his mother's encouragement, that the young man later began noting down songs on his own.

During the early decades of the 19th century in Lower Brittany—i.e., the western sector of the peninsula in which Breton has been continuously spoken— it would not have been unusual for the manor-dwelling aristocracy to have spoken the regional language, and doubtless many of them had had Breton-speaking wet-nurses and other servants with whom they needed to communicate. While French would have been the language used inside the manor, among family members, Breton would have prevailed at this time among the common people in the farms, hamlets, and villages.

In the mid 1830s La Villemarqué had, by his own account, extended his song "foraging" beyond the manorial setting, traveling further afield to fairs, weddings, evening story-telling events, and seeking out what he called "the nomadic and singing population of the countryside" (1963, iv)—by preference itinerant ragmen, weavers, millers, tailors, wet-nurses, and cobblers. By 1837 he had nearly 300 pages of handwritten transcriptions of songs thus collected along with his own notes about the songs (Laurent 1989, 21). This was sufficient to allow him to classify and ready them for publication with their French translations.

The young author then approached the national-level Comité historique ('Historical Committee') about publishing the material under its auspices, "as documents to serve the History of France" (ibid., 22), but this prestigious body declined. This was followed by a second negative response from the Comité littéraire des travaux historiques ('Literary Committee of Historical Works'), which explained that it didn't think itself sufficiently competent to judge the authenticity of the historical pieces, some of which the author claimed had been composed 1500 years earlier (ibid.). La Villemarqué decided to publish the collection on his own, and the first edition saw light of day on 24 July 1839.

In the Preface to the Barzaz-Breiz, the author presents the songs as coming directly from the people and states that he is struck by what he finds in this poetry, described as "the work of several thousand unknown rustic poets, who did not know one another and were even separated by centuries" (La Villemarqué 1963, vii). What he finds striking is:

their common character, their patriotic sentiment...the energetic and faithful expression of an enduring nationality that France has gone to so much trouble to absorb. One feels the heart of a noble race beating; the national poets have given it a voice [...] they have sung day by day the facts and acts of their country with the accent of the patriot and the emotion of the eye witness (ibid.).

The historical songs—which considerably outnumber the other categories of song (two-thirds to three-quarters, according to edition)—are arranged in chronological order with respect to the putative century of origin of each, with the compiler's Arguments and Notes helping to bridge between the pieces to the extent possible. The result is a sort of history of Brittany viewed through these poetic lenses, which was certainly the intent (Tanguy 1997, 304). As the reputation of the work spread through literary, philological and historical circles, there was much enthusiasm expressed by this learned public, though some, more cautious, expressed reservations about the plausibility of the survival of oral poetic traditions from the 5th century. However, as Bernard Tanguy comments, "the assurance, the aplomb with which the riskiest views were presented [by La Villemarqué] were sufficient to render the skeptics mute, and to attract the support of others [...]" (1997, 306).

The popularity of the collection led to a second edition in 1845, which included 33 additional songs, 30 of them historical, ranging in dates proposed by its author running from the 5th century through the Counter-Revolution (Chouannerie) of the 1790s. Included among these new titles were five songs glorifying a 9th-century Breton war leader and another—the one particularly lauded by George Sand—about the exploits of the Breton King Nominoë from the same era (Laurent 1989:22). The tone of many of these new titles was distinctly anti-French; however, their historical validity was still generally not questioned by critics (ibid.). La Villemarqué enjoyed a high reputation in the academic world of the day and was credited with having had a beneficial influence on the 19th-century renaissance of Breton letters and philology ( Gourvil 1960, 555).

IV. 19th Century Breton Nationalism—Bretonisme ('Bretonism')

La Villemarqué's Barzaz-Breiz was a literary exponent of an ideological movement within Brittany during this century known at the time as bretonisme, a confluence of thinking described by Breton historian Jean-Yves Guiomar as "constituted by militant Catholics who had understood...that the safety of values that were dear to them was going through a redefinition of the relation between these values and modern society" (1987, 19). The movement was culturally conservative, mainly legitimist in its political orientation, and highly responsive to Romantic currents of thought emanating from Germany and other parts of Europe. This was an era of Celtophilia—less extreme than the Celtomania that had preceded it in the 18th century, but still looking to Celtic "civilization" as an antidote to such excesses of modernization as urbanization and secularization. There were historiographical exponents of Bretonism as well, which can scarcely be covered here but which, briefly, concerned the origins of the population of Brittany in the early centuries of the second millennium, and the respective roles played in this by immigrants from Great Britain vs. the putative continuation of Gaulish and Gallo-Roman peoples. La Villemarqué for a long while advocated the Gaulish element in contrast with Bretonist historian Arthur de La Borderie who supported the British immigration position. Eventually La Villemarqué would work out a sort of compromise between the two accounts.

The Barzaz-Breiz was La Villemarqué's contribution to these ongoing literary and historical debates; he deployed his collection of poems as the quod erat demonstrandum of the ancient nature of Breton culture and national identity, to prove that it antedated France and was very distinct from the latter. The collection offers a view of the Breton people emerging from "a Christian-pagan syncretism" (Guiomar 1987, 255), the pagans embodied in the early Druids who had inhabited the peninsula long before occupation by the Romans. This perspective is seen clearly in several of the early poems in the collection, which La Villemarqué had attributed to the 5th century.

Also unmistakable in a number of the poems is the theme of how cruelly the treacherous French (which could include their ancestors the Franks) had oppressed them over the centuries while they had so often come to the aid of their oppressors against, for example, English invaders.

This attitude toward the French had already been expressed by La Villemarqué in an essay he had published at the age of twenty:

No, you are no longer free, oh my country! but we adore you in irons, but our hearts, but our lives, but this blood that we have spilled over twenty centuries for your cause on the battlefields will always be yours! Ah! if we could spill it yet again! if we could break the chains that have encumbered your old age! [...] France will perhaps smile at our love for you, at the spectacle of our misery...The ungrateful one! we who have so many times saved her!...We understand this foreigner who has come to offer herself to our fathers, a dagger in the hand, and who oppresses and kills us! (Tanguy 1997, 300-301; the use of lower and upper case following punctuation marks is in the original).

The Breton language was for La Villemarqué the repository of all this history and ancient lore as well as the foremost marker of Breton "racial" identity, still carried by the bretonophone peasantry—though it is important to stress that he did not think that the peasants spoke the "pure," or original form of Breton, which was thought to have degenerated significantly over time, a view common to collectors of folklore of his day. In short, the Barzaz-Breiz served, for La Villemarqué and those aligned with him, as a sort of literary manifesto concerning the venerability, spirituality, and superiority of the Breton nation, conveying the image of a Breton David who, weary of being bullied, stands up to challenge the French Goliath. In its ensemble, the work expresses what might be called a cri-de-coeur, literary nationalism, espousing no veritable political agenda vis-à-vis the French state, but rather attempting, as one historian has so aptly described it, "the projection onto a given regional space of a reactionary utopia based on a patriarchal society without conflicts and submitting to its traditional masters" (Bertho 1980, 60). Moreover, in the words of another historian, "The Breton historians of the 19th century—Bretonists as much as the others—were remarkably uninterested in the Union [of Brittany with France] of 1532" (Guiomar 1987, 412).

The historical songs in the collection depict Bretons as mystical, heroic, magical, religious, and utterly Romantic. Not surprisingly, it is a picture chiefly of aristocratic Breton men:

[...] the privileged heroes of traditional nobiliar history who parade across the pages, mythic figures such as Arthur or hallowed warriors from legend such as Morvan or Nominoé. And in this heroic and wild epic, full of fury and blood, the people remain more of a figure than an actor (Tanguy 1997, 304).

Women portrayed in the collection are, with some notable exceptions, chaste, obedient, and resigned to their fate (Constantine 1999, 212). The social order is strictly hierarchical and everyone who is good is piously Roman Catholic Christian. In this worldview the Bretons are culturally and religiously superior to the French, who have become increasingly decadent and secular. Moreover, it is the existence and use of the Breton language by the people that has kept them from suffering the same decline as others in France. This is laid out explicitly in an important essay that La Villemarqué published in 1842, L'avenir de la langue bretonne ('The future of the Breton language'):

The day on which, betrothed to France [in 1532], Brittany abdicated its political rights, undermined its nationality; it does not, however, need to see it succumb entirely; a strength remains that, sheltering from foreign influences its beliefs, customs and traditions, will still save the most noble part; this is the Breton language (Tanguy 1997, 309).

A contemporary Breton historian, Aurélien de Courson—who was supportive of La Villemarqué—presented (in 1840) this perspective in even stronger terms:

Religion, history, tradition, independence, the Breton language is all of it [for the Bretons]; it is the language that, while faith disappears in other provinces where the rural populations degrade themselves in impiety, knows how to preserve among the Bretons and nobles the beliefs and fresh inspirations of another age (ibid.).

This same author goes so far as to pronounce the Breton language a "cordon sanitaire" against all corrupting influences—for example, against Calvinism and Voltairism (ibid.). It was for this reason that 19th-century clerics and nobles were often supportive of maintaining Breton among the people, and advocated its use in schooling children, an idea increasingly at odds with the state's mission throughout that century of linguistic assimilation to French of its provincial populations by means of the educational system. La Villemarqué went so far as to write, in the aforementioned 1842 essay, that Bretons who propagated French language and ideas are "instruments of their own slavery," but "accomplices of their enemies" (ibid.). The worst of the corrupters of society were, in his view, schoolteachers and some printers. Later in the same essay he expresses his relief that "the language of the magister [schoolmaster] is not making, thanks to God, great progress among our peasants" (ibid., 310).

In light of this condemnation of French it is interesting to consider La Villemarqué's own use of French vs. Breton in his famous anthology. If in the first edition of the Barzaz-Breiz the Breton songs and their French translations were presented face to face, by the third, most widely re-issued, edition this mode of presentation had been abandoned, with the prominence now placed on the French versions, the Breton verses appearing in far smaller, harder-to-read font at the bottom of each page, almost in the manner of footnotes. Moreover, beginning with the first edition all Notes and Arguments were written in French, leading one scholar to suggest that "La Villemarqué himself seemed not to consider the Breton text as the text of reference" (Trépos 1959, 443).

Why would this be, considering the passion of the Bretonist intellectuals for their ancestral language and their espoused hatred of French? In the first place, the intended audience of this work was not the monolingual Breton-speaking people of Brittany, but rather La Villemarqué's provincial and Parisian peers, all of whom without exception would have been educated in French and would have had deep and wide exposure to French (and classical) literature and history. In spite of Bretonist tirades against the language of the Franks, it was the medium of choice through which to sound and disseminate their ideas. As is the case with postcolonial writers of our own era, it is more often than not in the language of the colonizer that the formerly colonized choose to express themselves. Any Breton writer expressing him/herself through Breton would have known how limited an audience and distribution the works would have had. Thus, a strategy of many successful provincial writers in Brittany in the 19th century (and beyond) was to use cultural themes of the natal territory in creating literary works expressed in the national language (Bertho 1980). Moreover, in La Villemarqué's case, during the "glory years" of Barzaz-Breiz popularity (Laurent 1989, 22), he was accorded some high honors by institutions of the Republic (the Legion of Honor award in 1846, membership in the Institut de France in 1858) and abroad (the Royal Academy of Berlin in 1851). In this way he was drawn into the national literary culture and the wider European literary scene—not, apparently, reluctantly. Much the same may be said of other successful academics and other writers within the Bretonist camp.

Another explanation offered for the predominance and foregrounding of French in the Barzaz-Breiz was that La Villemarqué did not know Breton, or did not know it well enough to have executed the transcriptions, with the implication being that he had relied on others for the collection and readying of the Breton texts, for which he provided the French translations. An alternative theory was that he had written the original poems himself in French and then had them translated into Breton by a collaborator who had both oral and written competency in that language (Laurent 1989, 24, n. 7)—which leads directly to the theme of the next section.

V. The Unravelling of the Barzaz-Breiz

The celebrity in which La Villemarqué had been basking as an authority on Breton oral literature and its historical linkage with the earliest history of Brittany and subsequently with early French literature (such as the lais and the Cycle of the Round Table) would be undermined two decades later as serious doubts began to be expressed by academics and other collectors of Breton folklore regarding the authenticity of La Villemarqué's collection. What came to be know as the querelle du Barzaz-Breiz ('quarrel of the Barzaz-Breiz') opened on the occasion of an international Celtic congress held at St. Brieuc (in northeastern Brittany) in 1867, at which a prominent folklore collector, François-Marie Luzel publicly questioned the plausibility of many of the songs in the Barzaz-Breiz, pointing out that he had not, in his many years of collecting in northern Lower Brittany, encountered songs of such coherence and elegance as those found in the Barzaz-Breiz, and he could not find any evidence for the great age attributed by La Villemarqué to certain of his poems claimed to be "debris" of ancient bardic creations. Luzel's criticism was, however, delicate in comparison with that issuing from the pen of the conservator (René-François Le Men) of the archeological museum in the Breton city of Quimper who, in 1868, stingingly wrote:

There are limits that imagination should not cross. Play at the bard, at the archibard if that amuses you, but do not try to falsify history with your inventions. The truth will see the light of day sooner or later and there will remain only contempt for your dishonest efforts (Postic, et al. 2003, 384).

There it was: the public accusation of fraudulence and the quarrel was launched that would carry on well beyond La Villemarqué's death in 1895. Though for a while the author of the Barzaz-Breiz had his defenders, as the dispute dragged on, and as La Villemarqué, for reasons not entirely clear, refused to attempt placating his detractors by producing for inspection the original transcriptions of the songs that he claimed he had taken down from the performance of rural singers decades earlier, even those sympathetic to his side could not sustain their belief in the authenticity of the songs. Instead, they would now praise him as a poet—since it was assumed that he had written the songs himself—and as an erudite man of Breton letters. More hostile critics dismissed him as the Breton Macpherson—that is, as a forger. La Villemarqué refused to participate directly in the debate, withdrawing to his manorial estate and other scholarly pursuits. Although never completely forgotten within Breton literary academic circles in subsequent years, his reputation elsewhere in Europe—at one time stellar—fell into relative obscurity.

VI. Manuscript Evidence Surfaces

La Villemarqué died in 1895 under the considerable shadow cast by the clouds of doubt and outright charges of fraud that had, as discussed earlier, formed in the final decades of his life. Very few people by the end of the 19th century believed that the Barzaz-Breiz was based on actual transcriptions of songs that the author had collected earlier in his life, though some still supported him as a poet of great talent, and a few "impenitent Celtophiles" (Laurent 1999:166) ignored the problem of its sources, clinging to it as their national epic. Outside of France his name, if mentioned at all by literary critics, came to be associated with those of creators of other literary hoaxes, notably James Macpherson and Iolo Morganwg (see Section VII).

As already mentioned, La Villemarqué refused for the duration of his lifetime to produce for inspection the transcriptions of songs he claimed to have made and that form the basis of the Barzaz-Breiz. After his death, descendants similarly refused to cooperate in this way, although the family always maintained that there was a sack of such notes stashed away in the manor house. Then, one day in 1964, a young Breton folklorist, Donatien Laurent, was given access to this mysterious hoard of documents by La Villemarqué's great grandson, who was living on the family estate. Laurent recounts (1989, 33) how, with great emotion, he began examining the sack's contents—three notebooks crammed with manuscripts—and then was given permission to take the precious cargo away with him for more careful perusal. Thus was launched an investigative odyssey that would continue for many years.

Hundreds of pages of transcriptions were there in La Villemarqué's 19th-century handwriting, including lines scratched out with corrections and marginal notes. Though fluent in spoken Breton from childhood, La Villemarqué's knowledge of written Breton was limited, especially in the early years of his collecting, so he had adapted French letters as best he could to represent Breton sounds. In any event, the discovery of these manuscripts proved erroneous the charges of some critics that he had not known any Breton at all (Laurent 1989, 38-39).

Laurent's scrupulous analysis of this gold mine of data resulted first in his 1974 doctoral dissertation, and subsequently in the expanded 1989 publication Aux Sources de la Barzaz-Breiz ('To the Sources of the Barzaz-Breiz), which is quite remarkable work of erudition in its own right. In these studies Laurent demonstrates that La Villemarqué had not, as many had alleged, made up the songs from whole cloth, for there was now undeniable, tangible manuscript evidence for all but two of them, which he did evidently compose himself. However, it was also clear that after collecting these songs La Villemarqué had taken considerable liberties in cleaning them up, in replacing or adding words, in normalizing the presentations, indeed in lending an elegance, a coherence, and a sense of drama that were likely not in the originals (Trépos 1959, 448). He had, in effect, given the songs that he had heard sung by rustic folk in the Breton countryside what we might today call a makeover—if not extreme, then considerable. On the other hand, it should be remembered that this was entirely in keeping with the approach to collecting oral literature that was practiced in the early decades of the century; in the Introduction to the Barzaz-Breiz, the author makes no effort to conceal the fact that he had proceeded more or less in this way.

VII. Comparison with some other Famous "Hoaxes"

One might expect that with Laurent's discovery and analysis of the manuscripts on which the Barzaz-Breiz was based that La Villemarqué would have been exonerated in the literary world, as has been the case with most other well-known instances of alleged literary forgers and hoaxes (see below). However, what is further curious about the case of Barzaz-Breiz is that even though the collection was convincingly shown to be based on a sizable core of authentic material, its reputation has not everywhere improved, especially in international contexts (Keryell 1996) As Laurent 1989 and Keryell 1996 point out, even as distinguished a Celtic literary scholar as David Greene continued to characterize La Villemarqué as a "forger." For example, in the G. J. Williams Memorial Lecture that Greene delivered at University College Cardiff in 1975, he specifically contrasted La Villemarque's methods with those of Elias Lönnrot, compiler of the Kalevala. Here are some points of comparison drawn by Greene:

He ['Lönnrot] joined a number of songs together, added connective material, and imposed a unifying sequence of events. It may fairly be argued that it was much the creation of one man as is the work of Homer [...] this is the great Kalevala which has been of incalculable importance in forging the national consciousness of Finland [...] No Finn would accept the view that Lönnrot was a forger, in the sense in which the term is often applied to Macpherson or Villemarqué (Greene 1975, 16-17).

The final sentence cited above strongly implies that Greene agrees with the general assessment of La Villemarqué as a forger. His lack of admiration for him comes through as well in further comparisons he makes with Lönnrot and with Macpherson: "Instead of providing a Breton Kalevala, La Villemarqué did no more than bring Breton folksongs before a world already disposed to receive them by the works of Macpherson" (an undisputed forger). Greene ends by putting the Breton author in what Greene considers his appropriate place "among the ranks of [...] minor regionalist writers" (ibid., 18).

Nearly 20 years later, anthropologist Michael Dietler (1994) likewise describes the Barzaz-Breiz simply as "the Breton equivalent of the Ossian folkloric-epic invented in late-18th-century Scotland" (p. 595), offering no further comment about it, though he, too, should by then have been aware of Laurent's discoveries of the original manuscripts. Gaela Keryell (1996) probes in some depth the divergent fates of the Finnish epic the Kalevala and the Breton Barzaz-Breiz, showing, as her essay's subtitle suggests, "the relativity of the concept of forgery": The Kalevala is "good," the Barzaz-Breiz is "bad" for a variety of reasons, including the political status of the two cultures from which they came. That is, at the time of the emergence of the Kalevala, Finland was in the process of nationalizing,[3] for which the Kalevla, as an epic creation myth about Finland and its legendary heroes, was serving a deserving cause. Brittany, in contrast, was viewed by outsiders as a (properly) inherent part of France, not as an emergent nation with its own national epic, and the latter was thus seen as serving an undesirable cause in the eyes of critics (1996, 98). More specifically, Keryell suggests that Brittany was perceived by Europeans at this time as a Parisian 'suburb' (1996, 94), while Parisians may have thought of Brittany as their "very own Scotland" (Constantine 1999, 198). In other words, Keryell suggests, for contemporaries, "the 'Bretagne-representation [of the Barzaz-Breiz] obscured by the 'France-representation' when viewed from outside the borders of France" (ibid., 94; 'Bretagne-representation' was first proposed by Guiomar 1987, 415).

Another factor Keryell raises for the differing evaluations of the Kalevala and the Barzaz-Breiz relates to class differences between the compilers of the two collections: Lönnrot was a tailor's son, though he did become well educated. La Villemarqué by contrast was of noble lineage and the latter's origins may have been seen as diminishing "his legitimacy to edit folk poetry" (ibid., 97).

Finally, Keryell points out that some of the criticism of the Barzaz-Breiz seems to have been made by persons who knew of it only second hand through prior critiques, an example of the transmission of academic "knowledge" that is accepted without questioning and without examining original sources. She takes to task for this transgression the Italian scholar Giuseppe Cocchiara, author of the influential work The History of Folklore in Europe (1981), whom she charges with giving "a negative aesthetical critique of the work, without having apparently read it; otherwise he would not have attributed it to 'a begging singer'" (ibid., 88).

It should also be remembered that there were other examples of what U.S. folklorist Dorson (1950, 1969) cleverly dubbed "fakelore," which were either not castigated by contemporary and subsequent generations of critics to the same degree as was the Barzaz-Breiz and/or saw their reputations ameliorated over time. James Macpherson's Ossian saga, mentioned earlier, was described by literary historian Howard Gaskill as "the greatest literary sensation of the eighteenth century, and certainly the most notorious literary hoax of his or indeed any other age" (1986, 113). Gaskill continues:

[...] it was Macpherson with his impudent modern fabrications who for more than a generation deceived a gullible readership, particularly on the Continent, into associating Celtic literature with sublimely bleak, stormy, monochrome landscapes eternally echoing in the laments and pathetic wailing of living wraiths [...] (ibid.).

Yet Gaskill and others (with Derick Thomson leading the way in 1952) have gone to considerable effort to rehabilitate the reputation of Macpherson, to the point that, by 1998, historian Kristine Louise Haugen could assert that "it is now controversial to call James Macpherson a forger or the poems of Ossian a hoax" (1998, 309) if his contested Fragments of Ancient Poetry collection is interpreted in the light of political and intellectual debates of his day, as well as the state of the art (almost nil) in the collection, editing and presentation of oral traditions.

Another confectioner of Celtic poetry, the 18-19th-century Welshman Iolo Morganwg, produced, among many other writings, verses that he claimed had been penned by a medieval Welsh poet and offered them to a literary collection.[4] These were not his only his only fabrications: it has been estimated that the 1809 compendium of early Welsh poetry and prose, the Myvyrian Archaeology of Wales, is comprised of roughly a third of his own creations, accepted at the time by the editor as authentic (Kontratiev 1983, 33). In spite of the revelation in the early 20th century of his forgeries, Morganwg's fabricated images of Celtic traditions had entered Welsh public consciousness, and he is lauded today as "a prime force behind the cultural revival that saw the birth of modern Wales."[5]

Additional examples from the past include the Kinder- und Hausmärchen of the Grimm brothers (1812 with many subsequent editions), and, in the New World, Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and the tale of Paul Bunyan (1906-1910).[6] In each of these cases the lack of authenticity of the texts—based only partially or even minimally on authentic oral folk narratives—while usually acknowledged, has not been condemned and thus has not prevented them from being praised for their contributions to "indigenous" traditions and/or to national culture and identity. Indeed, the degree of distortion and fabrication in most of these quite famous and respected tales and sagas far surpasses what we now know to have been the "transgressions" of La Villemarqué in his construction of the Barzaz-Breiz.

VIII. Conclusion

The Barzaz-Breiz had played a leading role for several decades in the development of the Bretonist intellectual movement, projecting through its poetic history of Brittany the Romantic image of an ancient, mystical, moral and spiritual people. However, as the authenticity of the collection was increasingly undermined during the latter part of the 19th century under the allegation of fabrication, and as a new current of historical interpretation about the early populating of Brittany lent powerful support to the idea of a series of immigrations from Great Britain during the fifth century, the premise of the Barzaz-Breiz that a Gaulish-speaking Celtic people had formed the basis of Breton civilization could not be sustained. The work lost its status as an historical document and was relegated by Breton scholars, not entirely without affection, to the domain of poetry. Elsewhere in France and in Europe, it was sooner or later dismissed as a fabrication, and passed into obscurity. However, Breton activists of the following century did not forget it, some still seeing it as "the "Bible" of their, by this time, much more explicitly political, sometimes separatist, ideology;[7] but it did not enjoy broader popularity among the Breton public until much later in the century, entering into the cultural revival movements that arose in Brittany (and elsewhere in France) during the 1960s and 1970s.

The Barzaz-Breiz has also served, and continues to serve, as a source of poetic inspiration for 20th- and now 21st-century Breton creative writers and musicians. For example, the collection was again re-issued in 2003, attractively bound with an accompanying musical CD containing 12 selected poems from the Barzaz-Breiz sung by a prominent and much respected Breton singer—Yann-Fañch Kemener—who himself works with traditional oral materials and singers in Breton rural areas. Kemener also provides a bilingual (Breton-French) preface to this latest edition of the work, in which he points to the burgeoning interest from the 1970s in Brittany in collecting and recording songs from still practicing Breton singers; this repertoire is accessible to the public and is rightly characterized by him as "a great treasure" (La Villemarqué 2003, 12).

In the present-day era of eroding boundaries among cultures, special markers of the identity of Brittany—prime among them its Celtic language, literature and music, all rolled into one in the Barzaz-Breiz —are indeed prized and encouraged. The promotion of such markers does not necessarily signal a politically nationalistic stance. Within the context of the European Union, regions have acquired increasing abilities to act semi-autonomously in cultural and economic domains, and the cultivation of regional distinctiveness is, in many regards, quite simply "good business" (Timm 2006). These markers also signal the growing resistance in Brittany (and elsewhere) to the perceived threat of cultural and linguistic flattening propelled by the effects of globalization in recent decades. In this context, in spite of its curiously troubled history, the Barzaz-Breiz remains a durable literary tribute to Brittany's distinctive history and languacultural identity (Timm 2001, 2006).


[1] Note that the particle in his name (de) is generally eliminated in referring to him, but in bibliographical entries the particle is restored.

[2] Historian Eugen Weber describes how "in his seminal pamphlet [of 1789] Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès called on the Third Estate, descended from the Gauls, to send the aristocrats packing, back to their German forests" (1991, 22).

[3] Finland had been an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia since 1809, with a strong nationalist movement developing momentum from the mid 19th century; it would become an independent nation in 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution. Fuller information is available from Virtual Finland: Retrieved 25 March 2007.

[4] This information is available online on the 100 Welsh Heroes website: Retrieved 16 September 2006.

[5] Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies, Project 6—Iolo Morganwg The Centre's website link for information on Morganwg is: Retrieved 16 September 2006.

[6] For a study of these cases see Dundes 1985 and Lockard 2000. See also Hoffman 1986 for a discussion of the genesis of the Paul Bunyan tale.

[7] The late 19th to early 20th-century Breton militant writer and journalist Taldir-Jaffrennou exclaimed, in 1935: "Misfortune to him who, through ostentatious erudition, passes a foolhardy judgment on the Barzaz-Breiz. It is with this Bible that we create Believers in the Fatherland" (Trépos 1959, 442).


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