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The surprising tradition of fables in French education: 'It builds bridges between generations'

In the Netherlands, people probably grew up with De Fabeltjeskrant (a children’s show, ed.), but in France an introduction to fables plays a much more important role in a child's upbringing. PhD candidate Céline Zaepffel studied the role of fables in French education and teaching methods. It turns out that nostalgia keeps the tradition of memorising fables alive. PhD defence 16 December.

In France, fables are part of the national curriculum. Pupils read the stories, learn them by heart and then recite them to their classmates. ‘This tradition originated in the eighteenth century’, says Zaepffel. ‘At the time, people thought that memorising fables was a good way to teach children the concept of poetry, but I wondered why it is still done. Some fables are really difficult for children in terms of vocabulary, and sometimes the moral of the story is not so moral.'


Zaepffel herself has bad memories of having to recite fables at school. ‘I didn't like having to recite fables for the class and it was boring having to listen to my classmates.’ So at the beginning of her research, she didn't believe the Ministry of Education, that states that fables build bridges between generations of French people, because so many generations have studied them. ‘I was surprised to find that French adults do indeed talk about fables in very nostalgic terms. That also explains why fables are used in French education: they have become nostalgia.’

Anonymous, Nouveau Jeu des Fables d'Ésope, Paris, Jean, 1815. Musée Jean de La Fontaine (Château-Thierry), source : Lisanne Wepler.

An abundance of tools

To help children learn fables by heart, there are many tools: picture books, board games, sheet music, exhibition pieces, posters, school materials and even application software. What these tools have in common is the desire to promote the educational use of fables, according to Zaepffel. During her research, she came across such sources at the most unexpected moments. ‘Last summer, I went to a stork museum with my nieces. The museum was practical: they explained how storks migrate in winter and so on. But at the end of the museum they displayed a big book with a fable about a stork and a fox. In the story, the fox serves their food on a plate, but because of the shape of its beak, the stork cannot eat anything. It then puts the food in a glass, but then the fox can't reach it. I found it interesting that it was a biology museum and yet a fable was used.’

Anonymous, "La Cigogne et le Renard", Musée de la Cigogne, Parc d'attraction Cigoland, 2020. Source : Céline Zaepffel

Is the tradition good, or bad?

What does Zaepffel think of this tradition? ‘I think that the argument for teaching fables is very weak. I am not saying that it is a bad idea to teach fables, but I think it is a bad idea to teach it only because the generations before you had to. I do think that fables are a good way to learn how to write a debate or a similar piece of literature,’ she says.

Zaepffel also finds it strange that some fables are used to teach children morals, because of their ambiguous nature. ‘There is a fable in which a fox tells a bird with a piece of cheese in its beak that it looks amazing and that the fox wants to hear its voice. When the bird says something, the cheese falls out of its beak and the fox steals the cheese. The moral of the story is that, as a bird, you should not let anyone come to you because they will take you for a fool and steal your possessions. But if you think about it, you can also learn that you can steal things from people by giving them compliments. Kind of weird that we still teach that to kids.'

What is the difference between a fable and a fairytale? Zaepffel uses the following definitions in her dissertation: 'A fable is a short story in which two characters confront each other. They disagree about something and one of them wins this confrontation. A fable contains a moral that children can understand. A fairy tale is a short story in which we follow one character. Sometimes there is a moral, but it is not explicit and not important for understanding the story. In a fable, the moral is essential.’

Cover photo: Anonymous puzzles, XIXth century. Musée Jean de La Fontaine (Château-Thierry), source : Lisanne Wepler.

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