6: Britanny/Llydaw

We can trace Geoffrey’s story of the settlement of Armorica – the Classical name for the area we now know of a Brittany in English or Breizh in its native tongue – by Conan Meriadoc back (as so often) to the Historia Brittonum. Whereas Geoffrey’s account (HRB v.14) is typically circumstantial and attributes the settlement to Conan, there is no trace of this tradition in the Historia Brittonum. However, the Breudwyt Maxen Wledig (‘The Dream of Maxen Wledig’) tells the story of Cynan ap Eudaf and his brother Gadeon who, as a gift of thanks from Maxen, were allowed to conquer any part of his empire. They chose a region, conquered it and cut out the tongues of the women who were destined to become the wives of their soldiers. This was to prevent the native speech of the region corrupting the British speech of the men who became known as the Brytanieid (‘Bretons’); the tale implies that the derivation of Llydaw, the name by which the region became known, was from the Welsh lled-taw (‘half-silent’). This is a folk etymology; the true origin of the name is discussed later.

Geoffrey’s story derives from the Historia Brittonum Chapter 27: septimus imperator regnauit in brittannia maximianus. ipse perrexit cum omnibus militibus brittonum a brittannia et occidit gratianum regem romanorum et imperium tenuit totius europae et noluit dimittere milites, qui perrexerunt cum eo, ad brittanniam ad uxores suas et ad filios suos et ad possessiones suas, sed dedit illis multas regiones a stagno quod est super uerticem montis iouis usque ad ciuitatem, quae uocatur cant guic, et usque ad cumulum occidentalem, id est, cruc ochidient. hi sunt brittones armorici et numquam reuersi sunt huc usque in hodiernum diem. propter hoc brittannia occupata est ab extraneis gentibus et ciues expulsi sunt, usque dum deus auxilium dederit illis. ‘Maximianus was the seventh emperor who reigned in Britain. He went from Britain with all the soldiers of the Britons and killed Gratian, the King of the Romans, and held the rule of the whole of Europe. He did not wish to send away the soldiers who had gone with him, back to Britain, their wives, their children and their possessions, but gave them many regions from the lake which is on the top of Mount Jove as far as the city which is called Cantwig and up to the Western Peak, that is Crug Ochidient. They are the Armorican Britons and never came back, right up to the present day. Because of this, Britain was occupied by foreign peoples and its citicenzs were expelled until God may give them help.’

Mons Iouis is the early medieval name for Mont Blanc, the mountain overlooking the Great St Bernard, close to Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). Classical writers never use the term Mons Iouis, but it seems to have taken the place of earlier names between the fourth and seventh centuries. The Historia Brittonum’s Cruc Ochidient (also found as Duma Ochidient in Breton documents; duma means ‘rounded hill’) has been identified as Menez-Hom, a peak 330 m high between Crozon and Chateaulin in western Brittany; the modern name contains a Breton word related to Welsh mynydd (‘mountain’). Cantwig is a Gallicisation of an early medieval Latin Cantia uicus, the port of Quentovic at the mouth of the River Canche in the Pas-de-Calais, near Étaples-sur-Mer. It occurs in Bede (HE iv.1) as Quentauic, the port from which Archbishop Theodore set sail for Kent on 27 May 668.

An addition to one of the variant texts of the Historia Brittonum (the version carrying the preface attributing it to Nennius) repeats the Breudwyt Maxen Wledig’s story about the cutting out of the women’s tongues: britones namque armorici, qui ultra mare sunt, cum maximo tyranno hinc in expeditionem exiuntes quoniam redire nequiuerant, occidentales partes galliae solo tenus uastauerunt nec mingentes ad parietem uiuere reliquerunt, acceptisque eorum uxoribus et filiabus in coniugium omnes earum linguas amputauerunt, ne eorum successio maternam linguam disceret. unde et nos illos uocamus in nostra lingua letewicion, id est semitacentes, quoniam confuse loquuntur. ‘Now, the Armorican Britons, who live beyond the sea, went out there on expedition with the tyrant Maximus. As they were unwilling to return, they laid waste to the western parts of Gaul and left alive ‘not one that pisseth against a wall’. Taking their wives and daughters in marriage, they cut out all their tongues, so that none of their descent should pick up their maternal language. For this reason, in our language, we also call them Lledewigion, that is half-silent, since they speak confusingly.’

The story in the Historia Brittonum implies that ‘Maximianus’ gave a vast area of northern Gaul to the Britons. The name is an error for Maximus (and the instability of the textual tradition of the Historia over the spelling of the name confirms that various copyists understood this), known as a usurper in fourth-century Britain. The Historia seems to have got the bare bones of the story from Gildas, Chapters 13-14: ad gallias magna comitante satellium cateuera, insuper etiam imperatoris insignibus, quae nec decenter usquam gessit, non legitime, sed ritu tyrannico et tumultuante initiatum milite, maximum mittit... exin britannia omni armato milite, militaribus copiis, rectoribus licet immanibus, ingenti iuuentute spoliata, quae comitata uestigiis supra dicti tyranni domum nusquam ultra rediit. ‘It [Britain] sent Maximus to the Gauls, on the initiative of rebellious soldiers, with a great entourage of satellites and even the insignia of an emperor on top of this – which he could never do with decency – not with legitimacy but in tyrannical manner… Then Britain was despoiled of all her armed solidery, her military supplies, her governors (cruel though they were) and her sturdy youth, which, as the companions of the aforementioned tyrant’s footsteps, never again returned home.’

It is noteworthy that Gildas does not give any geographical details beyond saying that they went to Gaul, especially when we recall the later traditions that link him with the monastery of Rhuys in Britanny. Most historians now seem to regard the connection as dubious, at best.

The name Llydaw is given in Latin texts as Letavia (quae antiquitus letauia sive armorica uocata est ‘which was anciently called Letavia or Armorica’ in the Chronicle of Robert de Torigni or in partes letaniae quae pars est armoricae siue britanniae minoris ‘in the regions of Letania, which is a part of Armorica or Little Britain’ in the Life of St Goulven, showing the common confusion of -u- and -n- in medieval manuscripts). A plausible Celtic etymology would see it as *lēto- (earlier *leito-), ‘grey’, or *lāto-, ‘broad’, with the derivational suffix *-auā. It would therefore mean something like ‘Grey Place’ or ‘Broad Place’, the former option describing the rocks characteristic of the peninsula, the latter describing its breadth. Letauia appears to be an ancient name for at least a portion of Gaul, as there was a Gaulish goddess named Litauis (consort of Mars Cicollus) invoked in Latin inscriptions from Gaul - she may have been an eponymous mother goddess figure like Eriu in Ireland. The name is related to the Vedic earth goddess Prthvi and the Greek placename Plataia, which would make Litauia ‘She who is broad/vast’. I am indebted to Chris Gwinn for pointing this out!

Blake and Lloyd’s hypothesis that Llydaw is the modern Cornwall depends on accepting that the name Cernyw is wrongly applied to Cornwall and that it describes the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales. I have already shown that deduction to be entirely wrong.