One of the oldest of the several breeds of French cattle, Charolais was developed in the district around Charolles in Central France. The breed became established there and achieved considerable regard as a producer of highly rated meat in the markets at Lyon and Villefranche in the 16th and 17th centuries. There also is historical evidence that these white cattle were being noticed as early as 878 A.D.
The cattle were generally confined to that area until after the French Revolution. However, in 1773, Claude Mathieu, a farmer and cattle breeder from the Charolles region, moved to the Nievre province, taking with him his herd of Charolais.
The breed flourished there, so much so that the improved cattle were known more widely as Nivernais cattle for a time than by their original name of Charolais. One of the early influential herds in the region was started in 1840 by the Count Charles de Bouile. His selective breeding led him to set up a herd book in 1864 for the breed at his stable at Villars near the village of Magny-Cours. Breeders in the Charolles vicinity established a herd book in 1882. The two societies merged in 1919, with the older organisation taking the records of the later group into their headquarters at Nevers, the capital of the Nievre province.
Charolais are the dominant beef breed in France with some 1.5 million breeding females.