Breton songs on popular prints
Broadsheets database

General informations - Characteristics


The collection presented here dates principally from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Eighteenth century productions (mainly religious) are relatively marginal. The Golden Age of the production of broadsheets in Brittany was indisputably the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.
In the nineteenth century, the local press was in its infancy and often consisted only of advertisements. The press was also too expensive for the budget of the popular classes. The broadsheet had the advantage of serving as a sort of gazette, and in addition, one only purchased subjects of personal interest. This descriptive character emerges in the subjects dealt with: news items (often sensational), political or religious proselytism, international events such as wars or catastrophes etc.).
The influence of the Bardic movement at the end of the nineteenth century led to a development of productions concerned with the promotion or the defence of Brittany and its culture…
During the first half of the twentieth century the daily or weekly press took on at least a part of the function held by the broadsheets, which in their traditional form, as sold by peddlers, came to an end by the conclusion of the Second World War.
The development of Breton cultural and political associations in the second half of the twentieth century led to the appearance of ‘militant’ broadsheets for the Breton Cause.

Precise dating is only rarely given with the signature of the printer. For songs relating to an event, it will most often be found in the title or in the body of the text. Indeed, in conformity with a very strong trend also found in songs of oral tradition, Bretons like to be precise about the names of the protagonists, the places, the date - all elements that constitute a token of veracity for the story that is going to be heard. Failing this, the context often allows one to have an idea of the date of composition.
In addition, broadsheets were closely monitored by the prefectural authorities (départements), which required an application for authorization to print and a legal deposit. This sometimes allows us to establish the precise date of publication (without, however, excluding the possibility of previous editions in certain cases).
The names and addresses of the printers are also clues and allow us to have at least a range in terms of dating according to what is known about their professional life.
The very close proximity between the event and the edition of the broadsheet that speaks of it should also be noted. Very often this proximity is so obvious to all that the author does not even feel the need to specify the year (as is the case, for example, for posters or press articles that indicate the day and month but not the year).
In this manner, in the case of relation of facts of war, one can follow from one sheet to another the evolution of the course of the conflict. Again, the broadsheet functions as a ‘gazette’.

Authors and Literary Characteristics

As with the previous descriptors of the site data, the authors make a contribution to the composite character of these productions. A very wide cross-section of Breton society felt the need to rhyme songs and poems - peasants, artisans, scholars, priests, politicians, cultural activists, etc. All the social classes are represented, including the emblematic blind songsters for whom this profession of composer and peddler of songs proved to be the only possible means of subsistence.
Consequently, the literary level and the level of language of the works was highly variable.
Songs on broadsheets have often been the object of profound contempt on the part of scholars who tended to regard these pieces as a sub-literature produced by illiterates.
Certain songs are obviously the work of authors who have not attended school, not always knowing how to separate words correctly and having an uncertain phonetic spelling. This does not mean that the syntax fails or the vocabulary cannot hold good surprises. And above all, illiterate does not mean uneducated!
In other pieces, students with poorly ‘digested’ erudition believe that they dazzle the listener by appealing to all the gods of Olympus to stimulate their inspiration, and by using French words in abundance where things could be said much simpler and better adapted in Breton.
However imperfect they may be, these works have the merit of being the spontaneous expression of people feeling the need to transmit their emotions, indignation or anger without necessarily resorting to licensed writers responsible for disseminating the ready-made politically correct attitudes which are too often the lot of our modern media. (What should we think today about the level of culture of a whole group of listeners who revel in "popular" television programs, or the illiteracy of many students who arrive at University without being able to write a line without fault?). They had the merit of reaching out to the people who felt comfortable there, to bear testimony in the matter of cultural history, and sometimes, whatever the scholars might think, bringing elements of vocabulary unknown to the dictionaries. If not all these texts were not necessarily works of art, some simple and natural poems can contain more emotion than many texts as erudite as they are obscure and which have remained in the waste bins of forgetfulness.
But besides these popular works, and in probably greater numbers, there are also compositions of scholars who did not think they demeaned themselves by using cheap media to spread their poetry: clerics, priests, and cultivated poets. And their works are then of a literary level comparable to other productions of the time, whatever the language.

Attestation of Author’s Names

There are many examples of authors’ signatures.
  • In the best case scenario, the author is identified either by a signature or by a mention in the text. Generally speaking, however, it is necessary to generate a "standardized author name" because the signature may correspond to the official name or to various pen names, in variable forms, sometimes in French, at other times in Breton… (In the section "Search / Song / Author, it is possible to consult the list of authors’ names).
  • Sometimes, and especially in the case of ecclesiastics, the signature is limited to the initials, which imposes research (fruitful or not). Comparison with other editions can also provide the answer.
  • In other cases, a mention in the text, sibylline or evocative, makes it possible to unveil the author although not naming him/her clearly.
  • And when the text does not contain any signature or indication, one has to be satisfied with this anonymity (except in the case of mention found in other sources). Thus, the priests remain anonymous by choice, but the first owners of the broadsheets have sometimes handwritten a mention concerning the author, his function, his parish, the place or the date of purchase, etc.

Type of authors of songs on broadsheets (in numerical)

In the present state of the database (5618 different songs), only half of the songs are claimed by an author, i.e. 753 authors identified for 2927 songs.
We have selected here the 100 most productive authors, who together have 1874 songs (65%) out of the 2927 songs signed ( see detail).
To try to appreciate this typology of the authors, without making things too complicated, we have retained 4 main categories for which we obtain the following%:
  • 30% of ecclesiastics
  • 50% of literate people (with the various levels that this can cover, recognized writers or persons having studied or having professions requiring a certain level of education)
  • 14% of ‘various occupations’ (craftsmen, farmers, manual workers…) with all the uncertainty of this category. Indeed some may have an certain level of education and others a more rudimentary level
  • 6% of beggars, illiterate, blind people…
These statistics allow us to keep in perspective the often contemptuous criticism addressed to the authors of the broadsheets, or the clichés which make the broadsheets out to be the speciality of illiterates.
Beyond that, it is always possible to discuss their literary merits, but this is also true for "patented" authors. And that an illiterate person or persons without literary training should feel the need to compose poems seems already to deserve far more consideration than criticism (especially when compared to the spelling or written expression of a certain proportion of high-school graduates in 21st century France!)


As in traditional songs, there is hardly any ‘poetry for poetry’. The priority is narration… Rhymed, of course! But it is first of all a matter of telling.
On the other hand, the themes themselves have no limits (Section « Search > by Chants > by Theme », it is possible to consult the detailed list of themes which give better than a long tirade an idea of the diversity of the subjects addressed).
However, it is possible to distinguish some major categories:
  • Songs to the glory of…, or songs with a historical character.
  • Songs on events, catastrophes… corresponding to the dimension "trivial or sensational news" of the productions in broadsheets.
  • Songs on feelings, love…
  • Songs on religious themes, hymns, ‘feuilles de piété’: this is a very voluminous part of the collection which is far from having been thoroughly studied.
  • Political songs or proselytising: broadsheets of electoral or ideological propaganda, often ephemeral, satirical songs, songs about religious problems.
  • Songs on Brittany.
  • Satirical songs about the vices, the people, the trades…
In fact, it appears that the thematic classification established for the song of oral tradition (Patrick Malrieu, La chanson populaire de tradition orale en langue bretonne (Thèse de doctorat Rennes II, 1998)) can be applied to a large extent to the songs on broadsheets, with the addition of a few headings.

Song titles

The titles of the broadsheets are sometimes very long and detailed and constitute by themselves a kind of summary announcing what will be found in the song. This is the equivalent of the "introduction" of articles in the daily press.
Moreover, from one edition to the next, they may present variations that are sometimes minimal and linked to fluctuating spelling, but in other cases, we may find a totally different title for an identical song.
It has therefore been necessary to take into account all the variations:
  • To allow those who have a query on a sequence of letters in the title to find the corresponding title.
  • To identify editing variations. Sometimes an edition differs from another only by a detail in the title, and knowing the number of editions can bring precious information about the practice of singing itself.
  • To account for the variations that can be found in the body of the text (rearrangements, corrections, typography… sometimes plagiarized with the same text under different author names!)
Consequently, it was also necessary to attribute to the multiple variants recorded for the same song a standard "critical title" equivalent to a generic title.


The Broadsheets in the Breton language owe much to some printers particularly interested in the distribution of songs or texts in this language (Lédan in Morlaix, Le Goffic in Lannion, Kerangal in Quimper…)
It is a remarkable fact that the bulk of the production was in Trégor, León, and Quimper.
On the other hand, equally notorious was the weakness of secular production in the Vannetais, where production was almost exclusively limited to religious broadsheets (published by Galles or Lafolye in Vannes).
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