François Rabelais

The French humanist, doctor, and writer François Rabelais (ca. 1494-ca. 1553) is acclaimed a master of the comic for his creations Pantagruel and Gar gantua.

Unfortunately there are more legends than facts about François Rabelais The dates of his birth and death are only scholarly guesses. No record of his activities for long periods has survived. Most certainly born in the closing years of the 15th century, Rabelais consequently experienced a time of considerable ferment in the history of France's institutions and intellectual life. Unless one grasps the issues and the attitudes in this crisis, much of Rabelais's work is meaningless or subject to misinterpretation.

Central to the problems that faced Rabelais's contemporaries were the decline of scholasticism and the rise of humanist activity. (A humanist is defined here as a scholar of the language and literature of ancient times, including biblical research.) After the constructive work of St. Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, scholastic philosophy became increasingly dominated by the nominalists, who, in distinguishing between the realm of reason and the realm of faith, placed faith firmly beyond the reach of reason. As a consequence, a scholastic education evolved into an endless exercise of rational proof that displeased many believers who felt such training failed to respond to the spiritual side of man. Humanist inquiry completed the crisis of confidence in inherited institutions by revealing the great ignorance of many scholastics and the inaccuracy of their work. At the same time, the newly studied texts, such as Plato, and the reinterpreted texts, such as St. Paul, seemed more and more to offer the inspiration of which scholasticism had proved incapable.

During the first 30 years of the 16th century in France, the gamut of attitudes on such matters was great. Some merely studied ancient texts; others, like Lefèvre d'étaples, brought their scholarly actions to bear on doctrinal questions without contemplating separation from the Church. Still others, like John Calvin, felt confronted by the necessity to form a new faith, a new church. All liberal minds felt disturbed by the evident disparity between, on the one hand, the sterility of scholastic pedagogy and the corruption of the Church and, on the other, the excitement in humanist studies and the vibrant faith of early Christianity.


Early Years

Rabelais's native land was the old province of Touraine, where his father, Antoine, practiced law. There is reason to believe that Rabelais was instructed according to scholastic methods. On March 4, 1521, he wrote a letter from the Franciscan monastery of Puy-Saint-Martin to Guillaume Budé, one of France's foremost humanists. Furthermore, in 1523 Rabelais's superiors confiscated his Greek books, and although the texts were returned, François soon left both his monastery and his order to become the secretary of Geoffroy d'Estissac of the Benedictines. He is next seen at Montpellier (1530), where he obtained a degree in medicine and taught the writings of Hippocrates and Galen from the original Greek text. In 1532 he settled in Lyons, where he was named physician at the Hôtel-Dieu and where, the same year, he published several works, including the first volume of his celebrated novel, Horribles et espouventables faictz et prouesses de tres renommé Pantagruel, roy des Dipsodes.

In addition to Rabelais's evident link with the humanists and his own scholarly accomplishments, certain critics have made much of his gradual separation from the monastery, implying that Rabelais's acts signify as well a separation from the Church (and religion). Nothing is more suspect. Rabelais wanted to study medicine, and this was not then possible if one remained a member of the regular clergy. If his books were seized, they were also returned, and the papal permission Rabelais received to change orders, too, intimates that he was far from being considered an errant atheist. Another papal authorization—this time to legitimize two children of Rabelais's (1540)—reveals that Rabelais could not recognize all the rules of monastic life, but this is not tantamount to saying that he could not recognize the tenets of the Church.


Pantagruel and Gargantua

Although Gargantua (1534) followed Pantagruelin order of publication, all modern editions place it at the beginning of the novel since the events it relates predate those of Pantagruel. The creation of Gargantua, the story of Pantagruel's father, attests to the success of the first volume. Rabelais, following the example of many medieval writers of chansons de geste, expands his material through a portrait of the hero's antecedents. The rapprochement with medieval literature is not gratuitous. In conception (the life and chivalric episodes of a family of giants) and execution (use of the vernacular, love of language, puns, mixture of popular and learned styles) the first two volumes of Rabelais's novel reflect practices well developed in medieval literature and known to Rabelais through the French and Italian chivalric romances, their parodies, and Les Grandes et inestimables croniques du grand et énorme géant Gargantua. Judging by the light and simple nature of Pantagruel, where traces of Rabelais's important themes are not always evident, it seems unlikely that the writer foresaw the volumes to follow or even the serious use to which his novel might be put.

It would also be incorrect to portray Pantagruel as devoid of any controversial material. It and Gargantua were signed by a pseudonym, Alcofrybas Nasier, an anagram of François Rabelais. The Sorbonne condemned both books. Pantagruel is not just Panurge's wild jokes or the fantastic war between the Dipsodes and Amaurotes. In portraying Pantagruel's adventures with legal cases and debating, Rabelais good-heartedly satirizes the bumbling "learned, " so contemptible to the humanists. When Pantagruel visits the Library of Saint Victor, he finds such titles as The Codpiece of the Law and Béda's Of the Excellence of Tripe. If the first title is pure comedy, the second casts a satirical barb at Noël Béda, a conservative Catholic and notorious enemy of the reformers.

Contemporary religious questions keep reappearing and no doubt explain the Sorbonne's condemnation. Before a battle, Pantagruel promises God that if he is victorious, he will have God's word preached "purely, simply and wholly, so that the abuses of a host of hypocrites and false prophets will be eradicated from [his] land." Rabelais's sympathy with the reform could not be clearer. Mention should be made as well of Gargantua's letter to Pantagruel, in which the father contrasts the ignorance of his day with the new learning. It shows that the idea of a renaissance in France at this time was common among the humanists themselves.

There are striking contrasts between Pantagruel and Gargantua. Although both discuss religion and war, Gargantua gives these subjects an extended treatment in which Rabelais's serious thoughts direct the discussion instead of appearing sporadically as in Pantagruel. The reader first learns how Gargantua was taught by a (scholastic) theologian (changed in later editions to "sophist"). Gargantua studies those texts long discredited by humanist scholarship and proves his worth by learning to memorize texts backward. Under other sophists, he rises late, spends little time on studies or exercising but eats, drinks, and hears from 6 to 30 Masses. Then Gargantua receives a tutor schooled in the new humanist and religious thought. The tutor consults a doctor so that Gargantua's regime will benefit body as well as mind. The boy rises early and reads a page of the Scriptures. During the day not an hour is lost as the pupil strives to learn his lessons clearly and to absorb the great variety of skills required of a "renaissance man." There are limits to Rabelais's educational reform. He still emphasized memorization, and there can be no doubt about the continued importance of religion. His reform affects more the methods of education than its aims.

The battles against Picrochole are intended to show Rabelais's hatred of war. War is portrayed as interrupting more important pursuits, such as learning, and having an irrational basis. When Picrochole has been defeated, an entire chapter is devoted to Gargantua's treatment of the vanquished. His acts embody Christian charity. Only the King's evil minister and two instigators of the war receive a punishment (a very humanist punishment): they turn Gargantua's printing press!

The closing chapters of Gargantua are devoted to the Abbaye de Thélème, a utopian spot, where the motto is "Do What You Will." The phrase has been interpreted both as a frank statement of Rabelais's immorality and of his express confidence in the innate goodness of humanity. The text upholds neither interpretation. The rooms at Thélème have a chapel for worship, and Rabelais carefully enumerates those who are excluded from Thélème (hypocrites, lawyers, usurers, and jealous troublemakers) or invited (noble lords, ladies, and those who actively expound on the Scriptures). Religion is hardly absent from this abbey that also is not for everyone, and the inclusion of the aristocrat probably says more about Rabelais's association (a traditional one) of nobility of birth with nobility of soul than about his attitude toward original sin. In all three elements of Gargantua—education, war, Thélème—Rabelais's remarks are constructive and positive.


Later Life

Rabelais's continued association with the most able men of his time is attested to by trips he made to Rome in the party of Jean du Bellay (1534 and 1535) and by his presence at a dinner given for étienne Dolet (1537). The same year he gave an anatomy lesson at Lyons. In 1546 he published the Tiers livre des faictz et dictz héroïques du noble Pantagruel, which Rabelais dared to sign with his own name and which the Sorbonne immediately condemned.

Firm traces of Rabelais now become increasingly difficult to find. The kindness of Jean du Bellay permitted him to visit Rome a third time, where he appeared definitely in 1548. That year saw published in Lyons a partial edition of the Quart livre. The full edition was printed in 1552. A fifth volume, called first L'Isle sonantein a truncated text of 1562 and then the Cinquième livre in a much enlarged printing of 1564, continues to bear, as it did then, the name of Rabelais, but its authenticity is yet to be confirmed. When, in January 1553, Rabelais signed away the rights to two ecclesiastical posts, he performed his last certain act.


Tiers livre and Quart livre

The Tiers livre contains much of Rabelais's most obscure writing. The romanesque battle scenes and the general hilarity of gigantic exploits no longer furnish him with a narrative line, although Pantagruel and Gargantua appear in the book. Even Panurge, the impish, amoral prankster of the first volume, shares the less funny and more disquieting quality of the Tiers livre, for which he provides a central theme. Panurge wonders whether he should marry and whether his wife will deceive him. The book enumerates all the efforts expended by Panurge to help him make a decision.

The complexity of the Tiers livre resides primarily in the portrait of Panurge. Pantagruel early states that Panurge must decide what is his will and act. If all else in life is fortuitous, man has his will and an obligation to use it. (Rabelais did not share John Calvin's views on predestination.) From this perspective the Tiers livre is a criticism of Panurge, who will not act and will not accept the advice given him. It has also been argued that much of the advice is open to discussion and that Panurge's final decision to consult the Dive Bouteille is a positive reaction before the need for self-knowledge. However one reads the Tiers livre, there is no missing its allusions to the gathering tensions in France after the reformers lost royal support.

The Quart livre, an account of Panurge's adventures on the voyage to the Dive Bouteille, contains the famous episode of Dindenault and his sheep, as well as Rabelais's final definition of Pantagruélisme: "a certain gaiety of spirit filled with contempt for fortuitous things." There is a chapter here devoted to the Papefigues (those who mocked the Pope). Their land was once rich and free. Its inhabitants are now poor, the subjects of the Papimanes (supporters of the Pope).

Later Pantagruel meets two groups of men, the Engastrimythes (ventriloquists) and the Gastrolates (adorers of the stomach). Rabelais specifically states that Pantagruel—generally so tolerant—"greatly detested them." In both cases there is a religious overtone. The Engastrimythes are prophets who fool the simple; the Gastrolates depict those enemies of the Cross who, in the words of St. Paul, have made Belly their God. By 1552, a mere decade before the outbreak of the religious wars, France had left far behind the optimism of the 1530s. Its evolution is well mirrored in the changing tones of Rabelais, who incorrectly but not unfortunately is remembered only as the jovial embodiment of Renaissance enthusiasm.


Further Reading on François Rabelais

The most solid modern biography of Rabelais is Jean Plattard, The Life of François Rabelais (1930). Excellent studies of Rabelais's work include M. A. Screech, The Rabelaisian Marriage (1958); A. J. Krailsheimer, Rabelais and the Franciscans (1963); and Abraham C. Keller, The Telling of Tales in Rabelais (1963). Aspects of Rabelais's influence are well treated in Huntington Brown, Rabelais in English Literature (1933).

Additional Biography Sources

Besant, Walter, Sir, Rabelais, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.

Frame, Donald Murdoch, François Rabelais: a study, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Henry, Gilles, Rabelais, Paris: Perrin, 1988.

Powys, John Cowper, Rabelais: his life, the story told by him, selections therefrom here newly translated, and an interpretation of his genius and his religion, London: Village Press, 1974.