In the dim and distant past, perhaps as long as seven or eight thousand years ago, it is almost certain that Brittany was an important centre of a Neolithic civilisation - a civilisation that pre-dated ancient Egypt and ancient Babylon, and which was responsible for the creation of the megalithic sites in Carnac, and across much of Brittany. Nothing is known about the builders of the megaliths, but even so, there are more megalithic remains to be seen in Brittany than Roman remains or Gallic remains - and megaliths have therefore been given a separate section of the website.
It is believed that Celtic people moved into Brittany around five or six hundred BC, bringing with them iron-working techniques, and the dawn of the modern era. The extensive chronicles left by Roman writers describe a long-standing rivalry between the Gauls (Celts who settled in France and Northern Italy) and the early Romans. This rivalry culminated in Julius Caesar's Gallic campaigns in which he conquered and subjugated the whole of modern France, including Brittany. Brittany remained a Roman province for four centuries, but, inexplicably, this period of its history has left virtually no trace, either architecturally or in folk lore.
After the Romans abandoned the province it seems to have descended into a state of complete chaos, and according to records written by visitors from Great Britain, it became completely devoid of human population.
From the middle of the sixth century AD, large numbers of migrants and settlers started to arrive in Brittany from South-West England, Ireland, and Wales. Amongst them were the people who have become known as the 'Breton Saints'. These were contemporaries of Saint Patrick and Saint David, and included the seven men known as the founding fathers of Brittany, and around whom Brittany's diocese were formed.
This phase of its history seems to have given the people of Brittany a uniquely independent and free-minded spirit, and the Bretons were the only people in the western part of mainland Europe who successfully resisted being absorbed into the Frankish empire ruled over by Charlemagne in the 700s. They owed their success to an extremely tribal, and localised system of government: the Frankish kings launched several military campaigns against the Bretons, and succeeded in occupying the whole of the peninsula by force of arms, but they never managed to make the Bretons pay taxes, and had to give up the occupation because it was unprofitable.
However, by the mid 800s, the Bretons had started to adopt a more conventional form of government - they became united under a single leader who managed to extend the territory under his control westward, to include the regions around Rennes, and Nantes, and to establish the modern borders of Brittany. This was the beginning of the era of the Breton dukes - a period of great prosperity. As a semi-autonomous region in Feudal Europe, Brittany was an important maritime and trading centre, playing an important role in trade between Northern Europe, France, Great Britain, and Spain and Portugal. The centres of many Breton towns, including Morlaix, St Malo, Quimper, Vannes, and Rennes date back to this Medieval period.
Unfortunately, Brittany's prosperity made it the envy of its powerful neighbours, and trading partners - France, England, and Spain - and the Dukes had increasing difficulty in maintaining its independence. This independence was effectively lost during the reign of Anne of Brittany, in 1532, when the duchy was officially united with France. Breton institutions suffered a further blow during the French Revolution in 1789, when it was considered unpatriotic to espouse anything but the French identity.
Since then, Brittany has had a troubled history. Largely marginalized in French politics up until recently, Brittany was allowed to slide into economic decay. There was little investment in the region, and for many years Bretons were regarded as second-class citizens in France, mainly because of their thick accents and relatively poor skills in the French language. This culminated in the events of the 1914-18 war, when, even though the battlefields never reached Brittany, the death toll amongst Breton conscripts was disproportionately large.
Twenty years later, Bretons once again felt betrayed by the government in Paris, when it surrendered to the advancing German army and allowed Brittany to be occupied by German troops. The German high command identified the Breton ports as some of their key strategic installations in Western Europe, and based their Atlantic submarine fleet in Lorient and Brest. This led to these cities being the scene of fierce fighting and very heavy bombing at the end of the war.
Since the war, there has been a collapse in traditional agriculture, and millions of young Bretons have left the countryside to look for work in the city. Post-war development has been concentrated around the coast, and reflects that of the rest of France - mass-produced housing, industrial zones, shopping complexes, and a disproportionate amount of office workers. In common with much of Europe, Brittany now has an economy based on high taxation and government borrowing: a system that is looking increasingly unsustainable in the modern world - which raises questions about what direction Brittany will take if or when it unravels.
Thus in a sense, Breton history provides a snapshot for European history as a whole - in the long term there have been times of peace and prosperity interspersed with periods of war and chaos: ultimately, questions about appropriate development, self-determination, and living in harmony with the rest of the continent remain waiting to be resolved.