Poor Brittany. As a region, it has suffered rather more than its share of economic difficulties, prejudice and administrative neglect or misguided experimentation on the part of the government in Paris. Just now, its largest source of income, tourism, is being wiped out by tides of poisonous algae that are caused by the dumping of the slurry from the intensive pig farming that has boomed in the region at the behest of some bureaucrat in Paris. The slurry seeps into the ground water, flows to the sea, feeds the algae that thrives in the increased warmth of our new climate and washes onto the shores, exuding so much toxic gas that people (and even a horse) have been killed and beaches must be closed. One would think that, by now, we all have learned that mass agricultural policies have been proven a very bad idea. Yet, there is sure to be a new idea and it is sure to be tested on Bretagne first.
It has always been a region separate from the others in France, with its own government for many centuries and its own language. More importantly, it seems to us, the eye of the Breton is always on the sea, while that of the rest of France, (but for Normandy) is on its fields. So much so that, for a very long time, the Navy took only men from Bretagne, apparently on the assumption that they all were by nature seamen and needed little training.
In the 1840s, when all of Europe suffered harvest failures, many people from Alsace and Lorraine emigrated to America but fewer from Bretagne did so. The Revolution of 1848, after it was quashed, brought a certain amount of emigration to the Californian gold fields as the government encouraged all subversive types to go seek their fortunes there, even paying the passage for some. (How quickly our ideals and hopes for a better society for all can crumble when that sly offer of personal wealth is slipped in, eh?) The "Hungry Forties" were followed by economic crises in the late 1850s that began in the United States and spread to Europe. Bretagne was hit hard by these crises. Additionally, those dependent upon growing and weaving linen and hemp lost their livelihoods when cheaper cotton began to be imported.
What set people who were hungry and could not find work on the move was the opening of the Quimper-Nantes-Paris railway in 1863. Presented with a vastly safer journey to a place where there was employment and where one did not have to learn a new language, many Bretons, perhaps for the first time in the region's history, emigrated inland. Within twenty years, at least twelve thousand Bretons were living in Paris; ten years later, there were seventy-five thousand; by the 1930s some 125,000 people of Breton origins appeared in the Paris census returns.
As is always the case in such migration waves, most found no paths to wealth but they did find work, nearly always of the most difficult kind. The tunnels of the Paris Mètro were dug primarily by Bretons, wealthy and middle class children of Paris had Breton wet-nurses and nannies, and every household that could afford a maid had Breton housemaids. The Belle-Epoque was maintained, in a large part, by the migrants from Brittany (as well as from Savoie), so much so that, by 1905, the character of a Breton nanny, Bécassine, was created, soon became a huge success in many children's books, and remains a belovèd classic in France. Yet, just as the "Mammy" characterization of enslaved women belies the truth of outrageous oppression, so Bécassine gives a false impression of how Bretons were accepted and treated in Paris; Leslie Page Moch's "The Pariahs of Yesterday : Breton Migrants in Paris" gives a truer picture.
How to research a Breton ancestor who seems to have gone to Paris or, more likely in your hunt, who was in Paris but whose Breton place of origin you cannot find?
- Firstly, check on Geopatronyme and the Public Office of the Breton Language (follow the latter's links) to become familiar with Breton surnames and to determine if your ancestor's is such a one.
- Initially, large numbers of Breton migrants settled in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, near the train station of Montparnasse, their point of arrival from Bretagne. If you have no idea at all of where in Paris they may have lived, and if you have to search all the tables décennales (ten-year indices) for all twenty Parisian arrondissements, start with the 14th.
- Many Breton women had unfortunate encounters with results that caused the desperate measure of abandoning a child. The Parisian authorities went to great lengths to find the mothers of such children. You can begin a search for such a child on the website of the Paris Archives in the records of Enfants assistés (1859-1906). You could be very lucky and find where the mother was from in Bretagne.
- Eventually, many Bretons settled outside of central Paris, in Seine-Saint-Denis, Yvelines and Hauts-de-Seine, so you might extend your search to the larger cities of those departments, especially those containing railway centres. The 1872 and 1906 census returns for some, not all, of these departments have been indexed on Filae.com. Recall that there was no census in Paris until 1936.
- The Bretons maintained close ethnic communities in Paris and they still do. They published a directory of Bretons living and having a business in Paris, the Annuaire des Bretons de Paris, the 1911 edition of which can be seen on Gallica. You may wish to contact a branch of the Amicales des Bretons appropriate to where your ancestor settled. (See the links at the bottom of this article or simply search the association name online to get branches all over France. Searching "Breizh" and a location will bring some very interesting discoveries as well.)
- As you dig deeper, there are genealogy manuals specific to Breton genealogy
Good luck in finding your Breton ancestor (and should you wish to help the region and are in France, you could always boycott jambon)
Sources and Further Reading:
The blog En Envor and the excellent essays by Thomas Perrono
"The European subsistence crisis of 1845-1850: a comparative perspective" by Eric VANHAUTE, Richard PAPING, and Cormac Ó GRÁDA
©2019 Anne Morddel