Twelve Days of Christmas: Three French Hens

By Professor Joel Felix

To a French historian the three French hens of the 12 Days of Christmas inevitably recalls the story of King Henri IV and the poule au pot (chicken in the pot) which was popularized by Voltaire in his historical works. The famous 18th century philosopher reminded how Henri IV, the head of the Bourbon dynasty who brought back peace to the kingdom after the French Wars of Religions (1562-98), wished that the peasants would now be able to cook a chicken every Sunday.

The figure of Henri IV (r. 1589-1610), whose edict of Nantes (1598) authorized both Catholicism and Protestantism – it was only recalled by his grandson Louis XIV in 1685 – became a hero in the age of the Enlightenment as reformers were calling for tolerance, reason and progress. The story of the poule au pot, unlike the goose with the golden eggs which emphasized the accumulation of money, came to embody the goal that institutions should aim for and achieve, namely happiness.

Shortly after Louis XV’s death (1774), the character of Henri IV further gained in popularity. The latter’s achievements were associated with the great expectations that the public placed in the royal couple, Louis XVI and his queen Marie-Antoinette, as the new rulers of a country craving for reforms. The two engravings below show the young Louis XVI personally mentored by his ancestor Henri IV, and the queen empathise with the hardship of a poor peasant family to which she gave a gold coin to add a hen to their meagre soup.

Henri IV & Louis XVI


[Image credit: BNF, Gallica, La Poule au pot. Dédiée à la Reine par son très humble et obéissant serviteur et sujet A. F. David.]

The allegory of the poule au pot was also especially relevant in a period which saw the birth of economics, or the modern economy. At the same time as Voltaire was writing, a group of intellectuals, known as the physiocrats, argued, like Adam Smith did later, that the origins of wealth were to be found in the capacity to produce and consume goods, and not in the unproductive accumulation of money by the king’s financiers. Physiocracy – literally the power of nature – proposed the first economic programme of government based on Dr Quesnay’s path-breaking Tableau oeconomique which also proposed the first economical model of wealth creation and reproduction. One of the key features of physiocracy – they were mostly implemented during the French Revolution – was to support agricultural productivity by means of a reform that would tax the net revenue of the landowners only (not of the ordinary peasant who usually rented land), as the initiators (capital) and beneficiaries (revenue) of wealth. The physiocrates, such as Dupont de Nemours, also demanded the abolition of excise duties and domestic tolls, allowing for the suppression of costly and unproductive tax agents.

Dr Quesnay

[Image credit: BNF Gallica, Dr Quesnay, Tableau Oeconomique. Physician of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, Quesnay printed the first economic model (1759) on the printing press at Versailles. The table represent the economic and social rationale behind the creation and reproduction of wealth (revenue). As such he is a precursor of Marx’s analysis of capital, the formation of wealth and its social distribution.]

As France was heading toward the French Revolution, the poule au pot became the symbol of the social aspirations to equality and plenty, often in opposition to the privileged. The image below shows a poor sans-culotte putting a hen on top of his pike (with the words ce ira; it will fit). It draws a parallel with the beheadings of Bertier de Sauvigny, intendant de Paris, and his son-in-law Foulon, shortly after the Fall of the Bastille. Foulon had been accused of cruelty towards the hardships of the poor for allegedly telling the people to eat grass in a period of poor harvest and higher bread prices.


[Image credit: BNF Gallica, Quand ce ra la Poule au Pot, 1789 (When will be the chicken in pot).]

The imagery of the poule au pot is perhaps best encapsulated in the new revolutionary jeu de l’oie, the equivalent of the English snakes and ladders, where the goose (oie) is now replaced by a hen. According to the rules, a  favourable draw of the dice would see the lucky player move automatically from hen to hen and reach the goal: cornucopia. The other players were sure to get there eventually: for each of the game boxes represented the major events that had successively paved the way to the abolition of the monarchy in 1792.


[Image credit: BNF Gallica, Les délassements du Père Gérard, 1792.]

In the 19th century, the allegory of the poule au pot remained a distinctive symbol for the reformers who sought to encourage agricultural progress, as well as the radicals who pursued the French revolutionary agenda into the age of the Industrial revolution.

During the Revolution of 1848, the poule au pot was seen as both the cause and the remedy to the class war. As the conditions of the population and the representation of their political interests improved with the establishment of the Third Republic (1870-1940) the transformative agenda associated with the story of king Henri IV inevitably faded away.


[Image credit: BNF Gallica. Addition à la poule au pot ou assolements du spéculateur, 1829 [addition to the chicken in the pot, or crop rotations according to the speculator)]

Poule 2.jpg

[Image credit: BNF Gallica. La poule au pot ou le secret de finir la guerre sociale par un bourgeois des mansards. Religion, Famille, Propriété. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. (The chicken in the pot, or the secret of finishing the social war to 10 million of electors, by a bourgeois living in the attic).]


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