|St. Louis Cemetery #1, New Orleans, LA|
This month I am taking a closer look at surnames that indicate a national, ethnic or regional origin. Many French surnames indicate the region of origin of their bearers. Before the French Revolution, France was divided into 40 provinces. To a large extent, these provinces define the historical regions of France. After the Revolution, France was reorganized with regions replacing provinces. Although some of the names of provinces were kept as region names, the territories were changed. For example, the large province of Normandy was divided into two separate regions, Upper Normandy and Lower Normandy.
Common surnames associated with provinces include Picard for Picardy (Fr. Picardie), Normand for Normandy (Fr. Normandie) and the topic of this post, Breton, along with the variants Lebreton and Le Breton (as seen in the inscription pictured above). The surname Breton is noteworthy because the name can indicate both a geographical and an ethnic origin. Brittany is divided into two separate parts, Upper Brittany to the East and Lower Brittany to the West. In Lower Brittany, a distinctly Celtic people persisted, maintaining their language and cultural. In Upper Brittany, during the Middle Ages, the Breton language was slowly replaced by the Romance language, Gallo, which is closely related to French and other Romance varieties of Northern France. From the 15th century to the 19th century, the linguistic frontier was relatively stable between the two regions. Thus, Breton carries a stronger ethnic connotation when applied to someone from Lower Brittany. My own ancestors from Brittany are split evenly between the Breton-speaking Lower Brittany and French- and Gallo-speaking Upper Brittany.
However, my ancestors with the name Breton are from Paris. My 10th great grandmother, Marguerite Breton, was born in Paris, immigrated to Quebec and married Nicolas Patenostre (Patenaude) in 1651. However, it is not too surprising to find this name in Paris; we would expect to find names indicating a region of origin more outside the region than in it. Being a Breton is more notable in a place where everyone else is not also a Breton. In the period between 1891 and 1915, the greatest number of Bretons are living in Paris (map). Although the name is common in Finistère, it is relatively rare in the other departments which cover Lower Brittany. Similarly, the largest numbers of Picards in the same period are found outside Picardy in Paris and the department of Seine-Maritime in Normandy (map). My ancestor's family presumably adopted the name Breton because the family originated in Brittany.