Wednesday 13 August 2008

Gwenn ha du: the Breton flag

All around Brittany, you can see the distinctive gwenn ha du (white and black’) Breton flag. It is a relatively recent invention, although the elements of its design are far older. Morvan Marchal, a Breton nationalist, created it in 1925. By 1927, it was adopted by the Breton nationalist groups as the flag of Brittany. Today, it can be seen in all sorts of locations including official buildings.

The five black stripes symbolise the ancient bishoprics of Upper (eastern, Breton-speaking) Brittany: Dol, Nantes, Rennes, Saint-Brieuc and Saint-Malo. The four white stripes represent the bishoprics of Lower (western, Gallo-speaking) Brittany: Cornouaille, Léon, Trégor and Vannetais. The top left section of the flag is ermine on a white background.

The ermines are the symbol of the Dukes of Brittany. The order of the ermine was created by Duke Jean IV in 1381, in memory of the battle of Auray where – thanks to British support – he triumphed over the French-backed Charles de Blois. It was the first such Breton honour, and unusually, was open to both women and men. Legend has it that Jean IV chose the ermine as his symbol after hunting one through the countryside. When it came to a muddy stream, the ermine turned to face its pursuers rather than soil its pelt by crossing the dirty water. Seeing this, he spared the animal and took as his motto ‘Plutôt la mort que la souillure ‘ – ‘better death than a stain’.

Still trying to spot the ermines on the flag? When ermine was used to decorate shields, the white skins were sewn together side by side, and the black-tipped tail placed in the middle of each where it was fixed by three stitches in a cross shape. This became the stylised heraldic symbol seen now on the gwenn ha du and elsewhere.

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