Last modified: 2007-02-09 by ivan sache
Keywords: brittany | bretagne | breizh | ermines: 9 (black) | ermines: 11 (black) | ermines: 5 (black) | marchal (morvan) | gwenn-ha-du | banniel |
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Modern flag of Brittany
Left, traditional design - Image by Vincent Morley, 6 July 2000
Right, modernized design - Image by Michel Bolloré, 30 March 2004
The Breton flag is called Gwenn-ha-Du, which means "white and black". The Bretons often say that it is the only black and white flag in the world, which is wrong (see for instance the flags of Fribourg and Ceuta), but surely it is the only flag in the world that in a parade shall be carried at arm's length over the head. The dimensions of the flag are not really fixed. They vary from 9 x 14 cm to 8 x 12 m. The flag is not only used by cultural associations or autonomists but really everywhere: it can be seen on town halls in the region. Because of the absence of legislation concerning regional flags in France the flag is also flown on sail and fishing boats. This is tolerated, but the French flag must also be flown. The design of the ermine spots can vary.
In the past, the authorities considered the flag as separatist
but things have now changed and the flag can appear everywhere, even
on public buildings along with the French flag. It no longer has
political connotations. The Gwenn-ha-du is now used by the
Region Bretagne. It is also used in the
department of Loire-Atlantique, although
this belongs to the Region Pays de la
Loire, because the territory of Loire-Atlantique is historically
part of the province of Brittany. Nantes
(Naoned), its préfecture, was once one of the
two capitals of Brittany.
Despite early disputes, the Gwenn-ha-Du is now widely used by Bretons of all political, religious and cultural orientations. It was also present in the space shuttle, brought by the Breton spationaut Jean-Louis Chrétien.
Pascal Vagnat, 13 January 1997
The explanation of the flag was given by its designer, Morvan Marchal, as follows:
There are a lot of variations of the Gwenn-ha-Du, but the current version has eleven ermine spots, this number being without any specific meaning (except, for some Bretons, the 11 letters of Breizh dieuh [Free Brittany]).
Source: P. Rault. Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]
Ivan Sache, 5 January 1999
In 1923, Morvan Marchal (1900-1963), a student in architecture and
founding member of the nationalist movement Breizh Atao
(Brittany forever) designed a new Breton flag.
The design seems to have been inspired by the American Stars and Stripes and the Greek flag, or by the arms of the city of Rennes. Interestingly, the arms of the Irish Marshall clan are very similar to Marchal's design. There is, however, no evidence of a direct relationship between the two designs.
Marchal's original design of the Breton flag - Image by Ivan Sache, 5 January 1999
The original design had an unlimited number of ermine spots in canton. The Gwenn-ha-Du was adopted by the first Congress of the Breton Autonomist Party, held in Rosporden on 10 September 1927.
Breton flag hoisted in Paris, 1937 - Image by Ivan Sache, 5 January 1999
The Gwenn-ha-Du was hoisted over the Breton pavilion at the Exposition
Internationale of Paris in 1937 by C.
Couäsnon. The canton of this flag had nine ermine spots and was
The Gwenn-ha-Du was described as "autonomist flag of Brittany" in the flag book Fahnen und Flaggen by O. Neubecker (1939) [neu39a].
Source: P. Rault (op. cit.)
Ivan Sache, 5 January 1999
The adoption of the flag was not straightforward: some intellectuals, strongly criticised it. The bard Léon Le Berre wanted the Breton flag to be ermine plain. The dispute between him and Marchal was very harsh and the newspapers Ouest-Eclair and La Bretagne à Paris (not separatist minded at all) filled their pages for years with the dispute, which lasted 12 years! Several incidents happened, for instance when Marchal's flag was flown for the first time on the town hall of Plougastel without any French flag.
Pascal Vagnat, 13 January 1997
Vertical Breton flag - Image by Michel Bolloré, 27 February 2001
The building of the television channel France 3in Nantes flies a vertical Breton flag beside the French flag of the same format, the flag of region Pays de la Loire and the logotype of the channel.
Michel Bolloré, 27 February 2001
Erroneous Breton flag, 1970 - Image by Ivan Sache, 25 July 2003
In Ar Banniel [arb] #11
(Spring 2000), Divy Kervella reports an interesting erroneous
Gwenn-ha-Du. The flag has a small canton with only five
ermine spots (3 + 2). However, the main interest of this flag is the
number of stripes, which is five white and four black stripes.
The flag is shown hanging on the wall of a gym in the city of Lannion where members of FALSAB are training. The picture is dated 1970. FALSAB is Fédération Autonome de Lutte et Sports Athlétiques Bretons (Autonomous Federation of Breton Wrestling and Athletic Sports).
The picture is from the newspaper Le Télégramme de Brest.
Ivan Sache, 25 July 2003
The word banniel was initially used to designate a
procession banner, displayed during the traditional Roman Catholic
festivals, the most famous of them being the pardons. In French,
bannière is feminine (une bannière)
whereas in Breton banniel is masculine (ur banniel).
The plural form is bannielo. A traditional song called
bannielo Lambaol celebrates the banners of the city of
The use of banniel was later extended to all kinds of flags, for instance the flag of Brittany, banniel Breizh.
The expression Derc'hel uhel e vanniel means 'to hold one's banner high', in the sense of 'to maintain one's rank'. The expression especially targets the young women interested only in good matches. The expression kouezhet eo e vannielo has the opposite meaning, 'one's banners fell down', in the sense of 'he/she is less proud'.
Treiñ banniel, litterally 'to turn the banner', means 'to change sides'. Jean Quéré, a famous preacher of the XIXth century, used the expression in his sermons, e.g. keit ha n'ho po ezhomm ebet / C'hwi a gavo kalz mignoned / Pa zeu avat berro a-wel / Kalz mignoned a dro banniel ! ('As far as you are not in need, You'll find a lot of friends. As soon as you start to have problems, many friends turn their banner'.)
Dougen banniel sant Laorañs, literally 'to bear St. Lawrence's banner', means 'to be silly'. The expression includes a pun based on the word laorañs which means 'silly' in Trégor slang.
Source: Ouest-France on-line Breton lessons
Ivan Sache, 1 July 2002