“Big daddy Louis XVIth”: On the Reception of the French Revolution in Breton Literature

This paper is based on a class I taught during the autumn of 2023 for the Celtic literature class of the Licence Breton-Celtique.

Charles Fortin. Chouans (Royalist Insurgents in the Western Provinces during the French Revolution). oil on canvas, c. 1853; Salon des artistes français, Paris, 1853. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lille, JSTOR, https://jstor.org/stable/community.15672964. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

Even if the vast majority of the Breton literary production from the end of the XVIIIth century that has reached us is made up of songs printed on follennoù-nij (lit. flying papers), a few later works surely deserve our attention. For Breton publications, the XIXth century is a century in which changes happen to the printed material. Before, the literature that got printed was meant to be read in numbers, namely songs, religious or profane. Throughout the century, with the growing number of readers and the bourgeois culture, we see the appearance and take-over of works meant to be read on one's own: poetry, novels, books of edification…

Emgann Kergidu is probably the only Breton book to ever deserve to be called a best-seller. It was written by priest Lan Inisan, born Alain-Marie Inisan in the north-west region of Brittany called Léon, in the year of grace 1826, under the reign of Charles X. If the Church still held a great power at the time, it was already shattered by the souvenir of the Revolution that had abolished all privileges, given Protestants and Jews equal rights, and even led to the death of Pie VI in prison. Across the French countryside, the rivalry between priests (also called the whites) and republicans (also called ar re c’hlas, the blue ones) grew ever stronger during the entirety of the long XIXth century.

According to Yves Le Berre, who wrote a thesis on Lan Inisan, as well as translated the book into French. Emgann Kergidu, Inisan wasn’t very comfortable in his role. Because of his inclination to drink, smoke and be violent, he was not a pristine example for his community. Therefore, even though he agreed completely with the Church’s policy, and eagerly advocated for a return to the ways of the Ancien Régime, he was not to spend his life in his home village of Gwinevez.

It seems that he started to write during the 1870s, when he was sent to Gwengamp to be a teacher at the seminar. He started with a tale for children, Toull al Lakez, which was printed in Feiz-ha-Breiz, an all-Breton catholic newspaper. Then he started his masterwork, Emgann Kergidu (The Battle of Kergidu). It was immediately published by Feiz-ha-Breiz, but as two volumes instead of becoming a feuilleton published chapter by chapter in the newspaper. The first volume came out in 1877, followed by the second in 1878. They both sold quickly, and were reprinted several times over the following decades. But what is Emgann Kergidu?

Lan Inisan plays with genres: Le Berre has largely discussed in his thesis how Emgann Kergidu is somehow a historical study, a historical novel, a collection of popular songs and something close memories from travels, a popular genre at the time. And as he mixes events and reflections, a very efficient work of propaganda is born. Through the storytelling of Yann Pennorzh, the narrator of the book, Inisan displays his views on what truly happened in Leon and Tregor between 1789 and 1799 :

The lack of balance between the poor and the wealthy is the plan of God: it should be prohibited for the poor to lust over the possessions of the wealthy. All must accept their fate. As such, the republicans have committed numerous crimes during the last decade of the XVIIIth century: and the Chouans were right to wage a war in response. In six parts, Inisan displays the story of the Revolution: the violence of the revolutionaries, and the questions they raised for the Nobility and the Church: how to properly answer those attacks? Then, the call to arms and the battle of Kergidu, followed by the defeat of the Chouans and the end of the civil war. The end is disillusioned by the persecution the Catholics have to endure, as priests and women also suffered from the revolutionary violence.

Emgann Kergidu is an editorial project. Written to be published, written to convince people of the good values of the Church at a time of municipal elections (elections!), it is a dynamic text, written with its target reader in mind, in a tongue they used themselves. Similarly, Le Berre has argued that grounding the stories in the general living area of the readers is also a tool of the propagandist.

The two other works I will now introduce have a vastly different story. Written by men who, unlike Lan Inisan, lived through the Revolution, they did not meet any audience until the late XXth and early XXIst centuries.

First off is Kastell Ker Iann Koatanskour (The Castle of Ker Iann Koatanskour), written by Yves Marie Gabriel Laouenan (1781-1862) once he had retired from the Merchant Navy. According to Le Berre, he started to write his novel in 1824 in French, and then spent around a decade writing and translating it into Breton. With the thought of getting it published, he sent his manuscript to Le Gonidec who corrected it and sent it back to Laouenan. After Le Gonidec’s death, Laouenan resorted to sending it to La Villemarqué for a final correction. Eventually, the manuscript was found in La Villemarqué’s library at the end of the XXth century, when the author’s archives became more accessible to researchers (they are now public property and accessible online).

This unfortunate series of events leads us to the first and only publication of what is - for now - considered the first Breton novel, published in 2004 in a bilingual edition (edited and translated by Le Berre).

Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont (1790-1870) Vue de Saint-Pol-de-Léon (View of Saint-Pol-de-Léon), 1837, huile sur toile, 62 x 90,5 cm © musée des beaux-arts de Quimper

In his introduction to the novel, Le Berre argues that, had it been published in its time, Kastell Ker Iann Koatanskour might have been a prime example of the bourgeois literature in Breton. Similar to the most famous European authors of his time, Laouenan has read his classics: Tacite, Fénelon, Rousseau… He also knew the works of Breton writers such as Cambry, Fréminville or Kerartry. He had even read manuscripts from Le Laé and Kerevenyer, and he was acquainted with writer-printer-publisher Alexandre Lédan.

The very genre of his novel is exactly what was in fashion at the time: a historical novel with a romance. Despite his geographical proximity with Inisan (after his wedding, Laouenan moved to Plouescat, a small parish between Lesneven and Kastell-Paol), the tongue used in Kastell Ker Iann Koastanskour is very different from that  in Emgann Kergidu. However, Laouenan, who has fought in the civil war on the side of the republican army (to defend Gwengamp, notably) offers a much more nuanced opinion of the events. If he condemns extreme violence from both sides, he certainly is convinced by the values of the Revolution. As a military member of the local bourgeoisie, he belongs to the class who has the most to win.

Last, but definitely not least, is my personal favourite: Avanturio ar citoien Jean Conan (Adventures of the Citizen Jean Conan), written by Jean Conan (1765-1834). Entirely composed in alexandrines, this autobiography is unique and sets its own genre, which, in my opinion, can only be compared to what reading the Odysseus is - albeit very different in nature and creative process.

Conan, like Laouenan, grew up near Gwengamp, and became handyman at the Beauport abbey at 12. There he learned to read and write, before a heartbreak led him to put his name on a ship off the coast of Newfoundland on a cod fishing campaign, where his ship sank, which he retells in his work, stanzas 2265 to 2269 :

He came back to Gwengamp in early 1789 to get married. While he doesn’t linger on the political events of the year, he was among the 300 000 men sent to the front against Prussia in early 1793. Thus, he travelled a lot, and we follow him through the battle of the Tuileries, where he wrote about the imprisonment of Louis XVIth: “Querquend evelgomb ar gro papa louis a huesec / O vond dar prison condued gand cals a soudardet” (st. 1833-1834), and the invasion of Prussia, until he was too injured to keep going, and was sent back to Brittany. But the story does not end there, for back home the civil war was raging, and we findhim defending Sant Brieg against the Chouans.

From a lesser background than Laouenan, Conan shares his views on the atrocity of the civil war, and calls for moderation. And like his navy counterpart, his Aventurio didn’t get published until long after his death, in 1990.

Jules Girardet (1856-1938) Les Révoltés de Fouesnant ramenés à Quimper par la Garde nationale en 1792 (Fouesnant’s Insurgents being brought back to Quimper by the national Guard in 1792), vers 1886-1887 - Huile sur toile, 1.57 x 2.21 m © Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper

As we see, conservative authors of Breton language, under the influence of La Villemarqué, had a more consistent publishing network than the republicans, allowing them to publish their Revolution-related works much earlier. In the Barzaz-Breiz too, a few songs tell the story of the poor Catholics fighting for their king and their church. According to Le Berre, if Kastell Ker Iann Koastanskour had been published in his time, Laouenan would have become the father of Breton literature, not unlike Dickens, Stendhal or Gogol, especially in his descriptions of the bourgeois way of life.

Questioned on their statuses and their social roles, the elites maintained their economical power long after the loss of their privileges. Thus, they were able to heavily influence the memory of the Revolution in Brittany, which later nurtured the anti-French speech in the emsav until the 1960s - and to a lesser extent, until now.

Elisabeth Chatel Université de Bretagne Occidentale


Conan, Jean, Les aventures du citoyen Jean Conan de Guingamp, ed. by Yann-Ber Piriou, Francis Favereau, and Joël Cornette (Morlaix, France: Skol Vreizh, 1990)

Galand, René, ‘The Ideological Significance of “Emgann Kergidu”’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 6 (1986), 47–68

Inizan, Lan, Emgann kergidu, 2 vols (Brest, France: Al Liamm, 1977)

Inizan, Lan, and Mathan (de) Anne, Emgann Kergidu, ed. by Yves Le Berre (Brest, France: Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique : Université de Bretagne occidentale, 2014)

Laouënan, Yves-Marie Gabriel, and Le Berre, Yves, Kastel Ker Iann Koatanskour (Brest, France: Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique, 2004)

Le Berre, Yves, ‘Emgann Kergidu, de Lan Inizan: un homme, une oeuvre, un terroir’ (unpublished Thèse de 3e cycle, Université de Bretagne Occidentale, 1978)

Le Berre, Yves, ‘Présentation’, in Emgann Kergidu, La Bataille de Kergidu, Tal Ha Tal (Brest: Centre de Recherche Bretonne et Celtique, 2014), pp. 9–26


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