Miracles and Murders. An Introductory Anthology of Breton Ballads

Oxford University Press, 2017, 250 pages, ISBN 9780197266199
Mary-Ann Constantine & Éva Guillorel

This is a vivid introduction, by two of the foremost scholars in the field, to one of the most fascinating and little-known song traditions in Europe, the Breton gwerz, or ballad. These narrative songs, collected in Western Brittany from the 19th century to the present day, recount a wealth of stories based on tragic local events or legends. They tell of shipwrecks, abductions, accidents and murders, miraculous rescues, penitent souls, and strange journeys. Quite unlike songs from the neighbouring French tradition, and distinct from anything else in the other Celtic languages, these ballads unfold in clear, spare verses, filled with striking imagery: they are often highly dramatic in nature.

Historians of popular culture will find much to explore here, as will medievalists interested in tracing themes and legends across different European cultures, or linguists looking for rare material in Breton. But the gwerziou speak to readers and listeners of all kinds, with stories of violence, love, and grief that touch us directly today. This generous selection of songs is presented here for the first time in the original Breton with English translations and musical notation; an accompanying CD showcases some of the most famous Breton traditional singers. A comprehensive introductory essay offers insights into the history of ballad collection in Brittany, the nature of the songs, and the contexts in which they have been performed.