Tag Archives: Taylorian

Breton oral literature at the Taylorian

We continue the Breton theme with a post by a Breton scholar, Dr Éva Guillorel, who discusses the Taylorian’s wonderful collection of material relating to Breton oral tradition.

In the last ten years, I have had the opportunity to work regularly with three of the best library collections related to Celtic studies in the world. I was based in Brest when I completed my Ph.D. on Breton ballads and their connections with the history of early modern Brittany.

Some of the work of Dr Eva Guillorel held in the Taylorian.

Then I moved to Harvard for a post-doc on the mechanisms of transformation, renewal and transmission of oral traditions in Celtic countries. After a second post-doc in Québec on a totally different topic, Oxford was my final long lasting research experience abroad before obtaining a position as Associate Professor at the University of Caen in Normandy. The Oxford project entitled ‘Song and Social Protest in Early Modern Europe: Acts of Rebellion, Performance of Memory’, funded by the British Academy and supervised by Hertford College Lecturer David Hopkin, was based on a broad geographical area that exceeded Celtic countries. However, Breton oral literature as a source for early modern history has remained at the heart of my interests; that is why the collections of the Taylor Institution Library  rapidly caught my attention. My first reaction as I went down the narrow staircase giving access to the Breton stacks for the first time, was surprise. Breton is usually considered as the fifth wheel on the wagon of Celtic studies outside Brittany: Irish, Welsh as well as Scottish Gaelic are much more studied in Celtic departments, and I was expecting a small shelf dedicated to Breton books. But when I discovered the richness of the collection and the dynamism of acquisitions, I spent much more time in that library for my research.

A particularly rich repertoire of songs has been preserved in Breton-speaking Brittany until the present day. The most fascinating among them are certainly the ancient ballads which relate local historical events – murders, infanticides, rapes and other tragic stories – that took place from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

Gwennole Le Menn, Le vocabulaire breton du Catholicon (1499) (Skol, 2001)


They are known as gwerzioù, a name which appears in old dictionaries like the Catholicon, the oldest Breton dictionary written in 1464 by Jehan Lagadeuc (the Taylorian Library owns four printed editions of this precious dictionary), or the detailed eighteenth-century Dictionnaire de la langue bretonne by Dom Louis Le Pelletier (shown below).


These narrative songs are especially notable for the number of historical details they contain concerning names, events, beliefs or material culture, and for the quality of their oral transmission over several centuries. These songs have been preserved mostly without the support of handwritten or printed documents: contrary to close linguistic areas like French or English, there is very little evidence of written secular broadside ballads or chapbooks in Breton before the French Revolution. For those interested in learning more about gwerzioù and who are neither Breton nor French speakers, I strongly recommend Breton Ballads by Mary-Ann Constantine.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, some educated gentlemen started to get interested in what was not yet called “oral literature” and wrote down folktales, legends and songs heard from oral performance from beggars and poor craftsmen and women in the countryside. Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué’s Barzaz-Breiz, whose first edition was published in 1839, was the first attempt to publish an anthology of such folksongs in France. The Taylorian library owns two of the successive editions of this book, including the last and most complete one in 1867. The anthology had such a success that French writer George Sand compared the “diamonds of the Barzaz-Breiz” to the Iliad and the Odyssey. It deeply influenced the whole wave of song collecting in France, although the methods of his author were criticized. A series of studies about the “controversy of Barzaz-Breiz” followed, and the Taylorian Library holds all major works on this question, mainly three Ph.D. theses completed in Brittany: the first one written by Francis Gourvil in 1960, the remarkable work by Donatien Laurent in 1989 and the more recent analysis by Nelly Blanchard in 2006 (see pictures below).

Following La Villemarqué, many folklorists continued to collect songs, tales and legends in Brittany from the nineteenth century to the present day. In  recent years, the publication of songs in Breton with translations into French has been very active, particularly in the Vannetais area (South-East of Breton-speaking Brittany) with songs collected by Yves Le Diberder, Augustin Guillevic and Jean-Mathurin Cadic or in the Trégor area (North-East of Breton-speaking Brittany) with for example the very recent 2015 publication of Constance Le Mérer’s manuscripts  (Constance  Le  Mérer ; textes et musiques présentés par Bernard Lasbleiz et Daniel Giraudon, Une collecte de chants populaires dans le pays de Lannion (Dastum 2015), a recent Taylorian acquisition.

l'enquete fortoul

L’enquête Fortoul (Rennes, 2010)

Both volumes also of L’enquête Fortoul, edited by Laurence Berthou-Bécam and Didier Bécam, give documented and detailed access to extensive  fieldwork carried out throughout Brittany in the mid-nineteenth century.




When one works on songs, one must also study legends, folktales, proverbs and other forms of Breton oral literature. The Taylorian  holds  a broad  range of books in this field, like the volumes of  François-Marie Luzel’s tales, legends and letters edited by Françoise Morvan or the Contes et légendes de Bretagne gathered by François Cadic and edited by Fañch Postic.

When I think about my research experiences in the different libraries mentioned above, I realize how different the atmosphere is in each of them. The library of the Centre de Recherche Bretonne et Celtique in Brest has certainly the most complete collection of Breton material, not only books but also exceptional written and sound archives; however it is really focused on Brittany, and the collections on other Celtic countries are poorer. The Widener Library at Harvard is a huge, fascinating place where one can walk for hours among stacks as far as one’s eyes can see: the Breton collections are remarkable, although dispersed in many places throughout the library. When I try to characterize what makes the Taylorian different, two words spring to mind. The first one is “accessibility”. In a space that is compact but freely accessible to researchers, one has access to a very large collection of books all kept in the same room, with a remarkable coherence in the contents. Working in this intimate underground place on the tables near the rolling stacks is one of the great memories I will treasure of my time in Oxford. The second word is “dynamism”, I mean the dynamism of the Celtic department and the librarian in constantly improving the collections by acquiring the best new publications. How couldn’t one be surprised and impressed to discover such good provision for a language, today spoken in Brittany by fewer than 200 000 people,  in a university library across the Channel? Oxford libraries are amazing!  Once discovered, it is certainly difficult not to direct one’s steps to the Breton collections of the Taylor Institution Library…

Dr Éva Guillorel, Université de Caen Basse-Normandie