Throughout the Middle Ages, the present-day département of Finistère, currently including the whole of the westernmost tip of Brittany with Brest as its main city, was spread over three of the nine Breton Episcopal sees. This administrative complexity is mirrored in the tensions that divided Brittany during much of the period that we are considering. In 1341, Duke John III of Brittany died without issue, triggering a twenty-four-year long war of succession that divided north and south of the province, and Breton-speaking areas against French-speaking areas. Within the context of the Hundred Years’ War, the struggle for the upper-hand over a strategically important province gave the duchy a prominent place in European politics. Dukes Jean IV (1364-1399) and Jean V (1399-1442) maintained strong links with England throughout their rules; both lived for a time in exile in England and had English retainers in their households. Jean V in particular played England against France as a matter of policy, maintaining personal bonds of friendship with members of the French royal family whilst attempting to keep his entitlement to the County of Richmond – an honor bestowed upon the Dukes of Brittany in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England. The Duke was an English grandee as well as a peer of the kingdom of France. This made Brittany a cultural as well as a political crossroads and a key locus for transmission and exchange between Breton, French and English speakers. To many outside observers, one suspects that Finis Terrae was an apt description of Brittany as a whole, rather than just its western seafront: the Brittany of Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, for all its being situated in Penmarc’h, is characterised mainly by a feature shared by much of the Breton coastline, the jagged rocks that warranted the widespread building of lighthouses in a later age. In economic terms, the Hundred Years War period marks the beginning of a period of prosperity for Brittany as a maritime nation, thanks to its position of neutrality. Little remains of the Breton-language literature of this time, as the élites were by now almost entirely French-speaking and therefore did not commission the copying of Breton texts on a wide enough scale for much to have survived. However, the Middle Breton verse that has come down to us, with its complex internal rime, strongly suggests a thriving native tradition of both poetry and theatre predating the actual manuscripts. The subjects are those also popular in France at the time and are mainly devotional, but also more light-hearted, with fragments from at least one farce. To this, one may add a very brief fragment copied around 1350, identified as part of either a lay or an Arthurian-type romance. That the Breton language was heard far away from Brittany in the fifteenth century is indicated by the presence in the Farce de Maistre Pierre Pathelin of a passage in cod-Breton that is garbled, but shows familiarity with the rhythm of the language : attributable to the presence of Breton students, certainly, but also a consequence of the high emigration levels from the Duchy, which had a high population density that does not appear to have been markedly affected by the Plague.
Texts: La Farce de Maître Pierre Pathelin, ed. Jean Dufournet (Paris, Flammarion, 1986) ; Les Fragments de La Destruction de Jerusalem et des Amours du vieillard (textes en moyen-breton), ed. and transl. Roparz Hemon (Dublin, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1969) ; Trois Poèmes en moyen-breton, ed. and trans. Roparz Hemon, Dublin, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1981) ; The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford, Oxford University Press,1987)