A few months ago, I wrote about the Gallic rooster and how it became the symbol of France. Then William Bahr, an online friend with whom I share an interest in the French Revolution, asked me why the rooster was called Chantecler. This caused me to do a bit more research and led me to some curious French fable finds.
- By the way, William Bahr has written an interesting book called Liberty Key which is about the key to the Bastille that was given to George Washington by LaFayette. Read more about it by clicking on the image.
The Book of Renart
To find out why Chantecler is a favored name for roosters, we must first go back to the twelfth century and start with a fox. In those ancient days, minstrels traveled from town to town entertaining people with rhyming stories. And in medieval France, it seems that many of those stories had to do with a fox named Renart. Twenty-seven animal-centered fables, all written by different authors at different times, were assembled into an anthology called Le Roman de Renart (or The Book of Renart).
These stories about Renart the fox and his interaction with other animals were updated throughout history and are still enjoyed by French children today. In one of the most popular tales, Renart had a run-in with a rooster whose name was Chantecler. But we’ll talk about the rooster in a minute. First let’s learn more about the fox.
Renart the Fox
If you speak French, you know that the French word for fox is renard. So, you might think that Renart (later spelled Renard) was given this name because he was a fox. But you would be wrong – it was the other way around: Renard is now the word for fox because of this particular character.
Up until the end of the seventeenth century, the word for fox was goupil. The animal in the fable was a goupil named Renart – a form of the Germanic name Reinhard. Renart was so popular that the French word for fox was actually changed from goupil to renard because of him!
Chantecler the Rooster
Now, what about that rooster? Ever since those medieval French people heard the story of Renart and the rooster called Chantecler, they have been giving the same name to their own roosters. Chantecler comes from two French words: chanter (to sing) and cler or clair (loudly or clearly). So, it’s easy to see why it’s a fitting rooster name. Even so, nobody felt the need to change the existing word for rooster – which is still coq.
The Fable of Renart and Chantecler
This is a very brief summary of the fable: Renart tricks Chantecler then captures him. Chantecler tricks Renart and escapes. They both learn a lesson about not taking advice from just anyone. Of course, it was embellished a bit more than that, but this was the little tale that changed goupils into renards and caused everyone to start naming their roosters Chantecler.
The stories from Le Roman de Renart (The Book of Renart) were recounted throughout medieval Europe from about the twelfth century. Then, in the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer adapted the story of Renart and Chantecler as part of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales. This helped to popularize it in England where the characters were known as Reynard and Chanticleer.
Another Famous Chantecler
In the early 1900s another Chantecler stuck out his neck and began to crow. Edmond Rostand (author of Cyrano de Bergerac) decided to write a fable-based play with a rooster as the star of the show. And, of course, the obvious name for that rooster was Chantecler.
In this play, the very cocky Chantecler believed that it was his crowing that caused the sun to rise every morning. Then one day he fell in love with a beautiful pheasant hen who had flown into the barnyard to escape a hunter. Chantecler’s thoughts were only for her, and one morning he forgot to crow. He became a laughing-stock among the other animals when the sun rose without his help. But don’t worry, Chantecler did redeem himself when he fought off a hawk who was trying to pick up the ingredients for a chicken dinner. This play deepened the association of roosters with the name Chantecler even more.
Since the Gallic rooster (coq) is a symbol of France, there are rooster images everywhere, and the term “Chantecler” is often mentioned. These days Chantecler is also a popular name for restaurants, hotels, companies, etc. (For example, the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Negresco hotel in Nice, France is called Chantecler.)
So there you have the tale of Renart, the former goupil, and Chantecler, the cocky coq. Now whenever you see or hear a reference to them, you’ll know the whole story.
Spelling: Old French / Modern French / English:
- Renart / Renard / Reynard
- Chantecler / Chantecler / Chanticleer
* More about France – You can read more stories like this in my book Berets, Baguettes, and Beyond.
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