Before & after the Revolution
Royalty to Revolution
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the French monarchy imposed its iron will on Brittany. Colonial trade expanded hugely from here, but vicious competition with Holland and England led to war. Many Bretons enlisted on merchant and naval vessels, but early protests at exploitation heralded the Revolution. That said, in deeply conservative Brittany, radical change wasn’t happily embraced.
A colonial pressure cooker
To serve the French colonial cause, major new ports were built around Brittany, notably Port-Louis, Lorient and naval Brest. Breton corsairs wrought havoc out to sea and the greediest Breton merchants, many became involved in the slave trade. Around St-Malo in particular, you can look inside certain sumptuous houses built for the wealthiest Ancien Régime traders.
Early rumblings of change
Many ordinary Bretons had to toil hard and pay exorbitantly for war. The 1675 Révolte du Papier Timbré, a regional uprising against a new tax on official papers, has been seen as a precursor of the Revolution. Meanwhile, Breton aristocrats got a fine new home for their law court in Rennes (now beautifully restored), but they too began speaking out against the monarchy.
Revolution and anti-revolutionaries
The Revolution wasn’t welcomed with open arms across Brittany. In a strongly Catholic, conservative region, the persecution of priests, plus the Revolutionary call-up, caused deep resentment. Breton aristocrats and peasants joined in an anti-revolutionary guerrilla movement known as the Chouannerie. The great Breton Romantic author, Chateaubriand, wrote stirringly on these matters.
Did you know ?
Chateaubriand's childhood home, the Château de Combourg, and the island off St-Malo were he's buried are major Breton tourist destinations, but few read his vast, passionate autobiography, Memoirs from beyond the Grave.