Barzaz Breiz

Last updated
Nominoe's Vow, an illustration to the English translation of Barzaz Breiz, depicting the early Breton leader Nominoe vowing vengeance on the Franks for killing a Breton emissary Nomenoe (Tenniel).png
Nominoe's Vow, an illustration to the English translation of Barzaz Breiz, depicting the early Breton leader Nominoe vowing vengeance on the Franks for killing a Breton emissary

Barzaz Breiz (in modern spelling Barzhaz Breizh, meaning "Ballads of Brittany": barzh is the equivalent of "bard" and Breizh means "Brittany") is a collection of Breton popular songs collected by Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué and published in 1839. It was compiled from oral tradition and preserves traditional folk tales, legends and music. Hersart de la Villemarqué grew up in the manor of Plessix in Nizon, near Pont-Aven, and was half Breton himself.



The collection was published in the original Breton language with a French translation. It achieved a wide distribution, as the Romantic generation in France that "discovered" the Basque language was beginning to be curious about all the submerged cultures of Europe and the pagan survivals just under the surface of folk Catholicism. The Barzaz Breiz brought Breton folk culture for the first time into European awareness. One of the oldest of the collected songs was the legend of Ys. The book was also notable for the fact that La Villemarqué recorded the music of the ballads as well as the words. This was one of the first attempts to collect and print Breton traditional music, except hymns.

Until this publication the so-called Matter of Britain was known only from references to some legends in French language Romances of the 12th to 14th centuries, in which much of the culture was also transformed to suit Gallic hearers.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part collects ballads about historical legends and heroic deeds of Breton leaders, including Nominoe, Erispoe and the warriors of the Combat of the Thirty. The second part records local culture, concentrating on religious festivals and seasonal events.


The publication of traditional folk literature was controversial at this time because of the dispute about the most famous of such collections, James Macpherson's The Poems of Ossian , which purported to be translated from ancient Celtic poetry, but was widely believed to have been largely written by MacPherson himself. After the publication of Barzaz Breiz, François-Marie Luzel criticised the work at a scholarly conference in 1868. At the 1872 Congress of the Breton Association at Saint-Brieuc, he argued that the songs had been completely manufactured in the manner of Macpherson, because, he said, he had never himself met with ballads in such elegant Breton and free of borrowed French words. The main problem raised by his opponents was that Villemarqué refused to show his notebooks to other scholars.

The dispute continued into the twentieth century. In 1907 La Villemarque's son, Pierre de la Villemarqué, published a defence of his father's work. However, in 1960 Francis Gourvil argued in a PhD thesis that the Barzaz Breiz was a forgery. In 1974 Donatien Laurent partially rejected these accusations by demonstrating the authenticity of the material of the book thanks to the discovery in 1964 of Villemarqué's notebooks. Laurent's research was published in 1989. [1] Laurent concluded that Villemarqué had rearranged the material he had collected in order to enliven and clean up the texts and music, but that this was common practice at the time, comparable to work of the Brothers Grimm.[ citation needed ] An assessment of the dispute is given in the chapter "Collectors and Singers" of Mary-Ann Constantine's 1996 study Breton Ballads . [2]


Jean de Beaumanoir's knights kneel in prayer before combat. Illustration by J.E. Millais to Tom Taylor's version of Barzaz Breiz Millais combat.jpg
Jean de Beaumanoir's knights kneel in prayer before combat. Illustration by J.E. Millais to Tom Taylor's version of Barzaz Breiz

The first edition was published in 1839 in Paris by Éditions Delloye, in the form of books in 2 °-8. Reprinted in 1840, 1845 and, at Didier et Cie, 1846, the book was then published in 1867 in Paris.

In 1865 the standard English translation by Tom Taylor was published under the title Ballads and Songs of Brittany. The edition contained some of the original melodies "harmonized by Mrs. Tom Taylor", but omitted some of the ballads.

The 1867 edition was subsequently reprinted many times to the present day by the academic library Perrin, not counting the many English translations (Taylor, Fleay ... ), German (Keller-Seckendorf. ... ), Italian (Pascoli), Polish, and so on.

In 1981 a new edition appeared in pocket-sized format.

In 1989 Mouladurioù Hor Yezh issued a Barzhaz Breizh with only the Breton text, but changed into modern orthography and including the musical score.

In 1996, Coop Breizh published a pocket version of the book in French without the Breton text.

In 1999, Editions du Layeur issued a reprint of the 1867 edition, by Yann-Fañch Kemener, singer and collector, plus the foreword to the 1845 edition. The main merit is that he put Breton and French versions of each poem together ensuring a very high readability. A compact disc accompanies the book provides a performance of twelve of the songs by Yann Fanch Kemener and "Maîtrise de Bretagne", solo and duo.

See also

Related Research Articles

Since the early 1970s, Brittany has experienced a tremendous revival of its folk music. Along with flourishing traditional forms such as the bombard-biniou pair and fest-noz ensembles incorporating other additional instruments, it has also branched out into numerous subgenres.

Gwenc'hlan is the cognomen of a legendary 6th century Breton druid and bard called Kian, the subject and purported author of a Breton song called "Diougan Gwenc'hlan", published by Hersart de la Villemarqué in his 1839 anthology Barzaz Breiz.

Breton literature

Breton literature may refer to literature in the Breton language (Brezhoneg) or the broader literary tradition of Brittany in the three other main languages of the area, namely, Latin, Gallo and French – all of which have had strong mutual linguistic and cultural influences.

Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué

Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué was a Breton philologist and man of letters.

Thomas Price (Carnhuanawc)

The Reverend Thomas Price was a historian and a major Welsh literary figure of the early 19th century. Price was also "an essayist, orator, naturalist, educationalist, linguist, antiquarian, artist and musician". He contributed to learned and popular journals and was a leading figure in the revival of the Eisteddfod.

Goursez Vreizh

Goursez Vreizh is the national gorsedd of Brittany. It often has delegates from the Welsh gorsedd and Gorsedh Kernow in Cornwall. The Breton organisation is itself based on the Welsh-based Gorsedd, which was founded by Iolo Morganwg in 1792.

François-Marie Luzel French writer

François-Marie Luzel, often known by his Breton name Fañch an Uhel, was a French folklorist and Breton-language poet.

Yann-Fañch Kemener

Yann-Fañch Loeiz Kemener was a traditional singer and ethnomusicologist from Brittany, born in Sainte-Tréphine, Côtes-d'Armor, France. Known in French as Jean-François Louis Quémener.

Pontcallec conspiracy

The Pontcallec conspiracy was a rebellion that arose from an anti-tax movement in Brittany between 1718 and 1720. This was at the beginning of the Régence (Regency), when France was controlled by Philippe II, Duke of Orléans during the childhood of Louis XV. Led by a small faction of the nobility of Brittany, it maintained links with the ill-defined Cellamare conspiracy, to overthrow the Regent in favour of Philip V of Spain, who was the uncle of Louis XV. Poorly organised, it failed, and four of its leaders were beheaded in Nantes. The aims of the conspirators are disputed. In the 19th and early 20th century it was portrayed as a proto-revolutionary uprising or as a Breton independence movement. More recent commentators consider its aims to have been unclear.

Breiz may refer to


François Eliès, born Fañch Eliès and better known by the pseudonym Abeozen, was a Breton nationalist, novelist and dramatist who wrote in the Breton language. Abeozen was also a noted scholar of the Welsh language.

Jean-François Le Gonidec

Jean François Marie Le Gonidec de Kerdaniel was a Breton grammarian who codified the Breton language.

Annie Ebrel Musical artist

Annie Ebrel is a traditional Breton singer of traditional Kan ha diskan and Gwerz (ballads).

"An Alarc'h" is a Breton traditional song. It is found in the 1839 collection Barzaz Breiz. It tells of the return from exile in England of the Breton prince Jean de Montfort and his defeat of the French army under Bertrand du Guesclin in 1379. It has been recorded by, amongst others, Alan Stivell and Gilles Servat.

Morvarc'h is the name of a fabulous horse of Breton legend found in two folktales reworked in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though its name appears in older sources, it was invented or reinterpreted by Charles Guyot, who named it Morvark in his version of the legend of the city of Ys in 1926. It belongs to the "Queen of the North" Malgven, who gives it to her husband King Gradlon. Endowed with the ability to gallop on the waves, Morvarc'h is described as having a black coat and as breathing flames through its nostrils. It also appears in a Breton folktale about King Marc'h of Cornouaille. In the course of a deer hunt it is killed by its own rider's arrow, which has been turned around by the spell of Dahud, the daughter of Malgven. She then puts the ears of the horse Morvarc'h on the head of King Marc'h, who seeks in vain to hide them.

"Gwerz Skolan" is a gwerz with a long tradition in Lower Brittany, especially Léon-Trégor and Cornouaille. Its story is found in Old Welsh texts also, and the oldest extant Welsh version is found in the 13th-century Black Book of Carmarthen. The poem is cited as evidence for the preservation in Brittany of cultural memories and traditions predating the entrance of Bretons into Brittany. The gwerz was performed in Brittany until the 19th century, with some late examples from the 20th century. Its content describes a man who had died after living a life of rape and murder, and now comes back from hell to ask for forgiveness.

Donatien Laurent French musicologist

Donatien Laurent was a French musicologist and linguist.

Ar rannoù

"Ar rannoù", also known as "Gousperoù ar raned", is a traditional Breton folksong, composed in twelve parts or "series".

<i>Breton Ballads</i> Academic monograph by Mary-Ann Constantine

Breton Ballads is an academic monograph by Mary-Ann Constantine, published in 1996. The book includes examples of the Breton ballad known as the gwerz, and follows their history, and that of scholarship on the genre, into the 19th and 20th centuries. It was awarded the Katharine Briggs Prize by The Folklore Society in 1996.

Andrea Ar Gouilh Musical artist

Andrée Le Gouil, known by her stage name Andrea Ar Gouilh, is a French singer.


  1. Laurent, Donatien, Aux sources du Barzaz Breiz: la mémoire d'un peuple, ed. ArMen, Douarnenez, 1989.
  2. Gowans, Linda (1997). "Reviewed Work(s): Breton Ballads by Mary-Ann Constantine". Jahrbuch für Volksliedforschung . 42: 189–90.