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François Rabelais 1484(?)-1553(?)


French Renaissance writer, a Franciscan monk, humanist, and physician, whose comic novels Gargantua and Pantagruel are among the most hilarious classics of world literature. François Rabelais' heroes are rude but funny giants traveling in a world full of greed, stupidity, violence, and grotesque jokes. The true target of his satire was the feudal and the ecclesiastical powers, and the world of the learned. Rabelais' books were banned by the Catholic Church and later placed on The Index librorum prohibitorumon (the Index of Forbidden Books).

"Afterwards I wiped my tail with a hen, with a cock, with a pullet, with a calf's skin, with a hare, with a pigeon, with a cormorant, with an attorney's bag, with a montero, with a coif, with a falconer's lure. But, to conclude, I say and maintain, that of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole cleansers, and wipe-breeches, there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs. And believe me therein upon mine honour, for you will thereby feel in your nockhole a most wonderful pleasure, both in regard of the softness of the said down and of the temporate heat of the goose, which is easily communicated to the bum-gut and the rest the inwards, in so far as to come even to the regions of the heart and brains." (from Gargantua, 1534)

François Rabelais was born in 1484 (or 1483, 1490, 1495) near the town of Chinon in western France. His father Antoine Rabelais owned vineyards there. According to some sources he was a lawyer, according to others an apothecary or inn-keeper. Little is known about Rabelais' youth and time at the Abbaye de Seuillé, where he was sent. He was a novice at the Convent of La Baumette, where the brothers de Bellay may have been among his fellow students. He became a member of the Franciscan convent at Fontenay-le-Comte, in Lower Poitou, and by 1521 he had taken holy orders.

At the fair of Fontenay-le-Comte, Rabelais heard stories which stirred his imagination, and he later wrote in Gargantua: "He went to see the jugglers, tumblers, mountebanks, and quacksalvers, and considered their cunning, their shifts, their somersaults and smooth tongue, especially of those of Chauny in Picardy, who are naturally great praters, and brave givers of fibs, in matter of green apes." After the ecclesiastical authorities of the Sorbonne started to confiscate Greek books, Rabelais petitioned Pope Clement VII. He received permission to leave the Franciscan order and join the Benedictines.

In the monasteries Rabelais had studied Greek, Latin, law, astronomy, and ancient Greek medical texts, which had been ignored for centuries. He left the Abbaye de Maillezais without permission and started to study medicine, possibly with the Benedictines in their Hôtel Saint-Denis in Paris, and then in Montpellier. In 1530 he became bachelor of medicine.

At Montpellier Rabelais lectured on the ancient physicians, Hippocrates and Galen. He made public dissections of human bodies and was a specialist in the new disease, syphilis, and hysteria. Rabelais also invented devices for the treatment of hernia and fractured bones and published his own editions of Hippocrates' Aphorisms and Galen's Ars parva. In 1532 he was a physician at Hôtel-Dieu, a general hospital in Lyons. 

Pantagruel (1532) was publisged under the pen name Alcofribas Nasier – an anagram of Rabelais's real name. It dealt with the early years of Pantagruel, the son of Gargantua, and introduced the cunning rogue Panurge, an Everyman, who became Pantagruel's companion. Multifaceted Panurge is a sum of hodgepodge parts: a total coward, a rogue, a rebel, a joyful fellow; his reactions to the world are not governed by reasoning but childish emotions. Panurge is a stock type character, but his source is thought to be possibly the Macaronaci Opus, burlesque poems written by Teofilo Folengo, a monk of the twelft century. Often he serves as a spokesman for Rabelais's philosophical and theological battles, which he waged against the Sorbonne and the Catholic Church.

Rabelais took the character of Gargantua from a booklet, which was sold in Lyons, and depicted the adventures of a giant famous in oral folk tradition. The city was at that time the cultural center of France and famous for its international book trade. It was claimed that at one Lyons fair more copies of the booklet were sold than Bibles in nine years. Pantagruel was followed by Gargantua (1534). The books were highly successful, but condemned by the Parliament and the Sorbonne, which included them on its list of censored books. 

In Lyon Rabelais fathered a son, Théodule, who died at the age of two. He went to Rome as physician to his friend and patron Bishop Jean du Bellay. Du Bellay was the bishop of Paris, who was later appointed cardinal. In Rome Rabelais made archeological and botanical studies. During the following years he visited the city several times. In 1536 he entered the monastery of Saint Maur-les-Fossés. The pope allowed him to practise medicine and in 1537 Rabelais received his doctor's degree. He lectured on medicine and in 1539 he served as the medical advisor of Guillaume du Bellay in Turin.

King Francis I of France (1494-1547) gave a license to print the third book of the Gargantua-Pantagruiel series, Le Tiers Livre des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel (1546), which was dedicated to Margaret of Navarre, the King's sister. At Court the party in favour of toleration was strong. Marguerite of Navarre and Jean and Guillaume de Bellay had been willing to help those who had trouble with religious authorities, and the King supported moderate policies. He had also tried to defend Erasmus (1466-1536), the famous humanist and scholar, against the attacks of theologians. In Gargantua Rabelais gave his support to the humanist ideal of King Francis I.

Le Tiers Livre (The Third Book) appeared under Rabelais' own name, and again condemned in spite of the royal licence. Panurge wonders if he should marry, and starts with Pantagruel a voyage to the Oracle of the Holy Bottle for an answer. The king had been Rabelais' protector, but as the king's health was declining, Rabelais fled to Metz, where for a while he practised medicine. Although French booksellers were not able to publish "heretical" works, they went on selling and printing books by Rabelais and other writers simply dropping their addresses from the title page. In Pantagruel Rabelais wrote: "Printing likewise is now in use, so elegant and so correct that better cannot be imagined, although it was found out but in my time by divine inspiration, as by a diabolical suggestion on the other side was the invention of ordnance."

In 1547 René du Bellay gave Rabelais the curacy of Saint-Christophe-du-Jambet, though he probably did not reside there. Later he was also given the curacy of Mendon, near Paris – he was known as "the curate of Meudon". The fourth book in the series, Le Quart Livre de Pantagruel, came out in 1552; a partial edition of the Quart livre had appeared in Lyons in 1549. Before his death, Rabelais acquired a new powerful enemy: he was denounced by John Calvin, and thus he had angered both Catholics and Protestants. Rabelais died probably on April 9, 1553, in Paris. There have been doubts about the authenticity of the fifth book, Cinquisme Live (1564), where Panurge and his friends arrive at the temple of the Holy Bottle. The five books of Gargantua and Pantagruel were first published together in English by J. Martin in 1567. The fifth book was first printed without the name of the place, and the in 1565 at Lyons by Jean Martin.

"Burn 'em, tear 'em, nip 'em with hot pincers, drown 'em, hang 'em, spit 'em at the bunghole, pelt 'em, paut 'em, bruise 'em, beat 'em, cripple 'em, dismember 'em, cut 'em, gut 'em, bowel 'em, paunch 'em, thrash 'em, slash 'em, gash 'em, chop 'em, slice 'em, slit 'em, carve 'em, saw 'em, bethwack 'em, pare 'em, hack 'em, hew 'em, mince 'em, flay 'em, boil 'em, broil 'em, roast 'em, toast 'em, bake 'em, fry 'em, crucify 'em, crush 'em, squeeze 'em, grind 'em, batter 'em, burst 'em, quarter 'em, unlimb 'em, behump 'em, bethump 'em, belam 'em, belabour 'em, pepper 'em, spitchcock 'em, and carbonade 'em on gridirons, these wicked heretics! decretalifuges, decretalicides, worse than homicides, worse than patricides, decretalictones of the devil of hell." (from Le Quart Livre)

Rabelais mixed in his books elements from different narrative forms – chronicle, farce, dialogue, commentary etc, and peppered them with broad popular humor. With his flood of outrageous ideas and anecdotes Rabelais emphasized the physical joys of life – food, drink, sex, and bodily functions connected to them – and mocked asceticism and oppressive religious and political forces. Much of their time Gargantua and Pantagruel are occupied with drinking which earned Rabelais the reputation of a drunkard. "Drink always and you shall never die," Rabelais wrote. In folklore Penthagruel was a dwarf-devil who preyed on drunkards. Rabelais explained that Panta in Greek is all and Gruel means in Hagarene language thirsty, thus his name means 'all-thirsty'.

Rabelais' work influenced a long line of writers from Cervantes, Swift, and Laurence Sterne to James Joyce and Céline. With Cervantes he shared the same satirical view of the romances of chivalry. Balzac once said: "Hundreds of absurd stories have been made up about the author of Pantagruel, one of the finest books in French literature. Rabelais, a sober man who drank nothing but water, is thought of as a lover of food and drink and a confirmed tippler." The author himself placed his books in the long line of heroic narratives, starting from Homer and Virgil.

In Rabelais and His World (1968) the Russian theorist of literature, Mikhail M. Bakhtin (1895-1975) introduced the term carnivalesque to describe those forms of unofficial culture that use laughter, parody, and "grotesque realism" as a weapon against official culture and totalitarian order. Erich Auerbach wrote in Mimesis (1946) that the revolutionary thing about Rabelais' way of thinking "is not his opposition to Christianity, but the freedom of vision, feeling and thought which his perpetual playing with things produces, and which invites the reader to deal directly with the world and its wealth of phenomena. On one point, to be sure, Rabelais takes a stand, and it is a stand which is basically anti-Christian; for him, the man who follows his nature is good, and natural life, be it of men or things, is good..."

For further reading: The Cambridge Companion to Rabelais, ed. by John O'Brien (2011); The Rabelais Encyclopedia by Elizabeth C. Zegura (2004); Francois Rabelais: Critical Assessments, ed. by Jean-Claude Carron (1995); The Design of Rabelais's Pantagruel by Edwin M. Duval (1991); Rabelais's Carnival: Text, Context, Metatext by Samuel Kinser (1990); Irony and Ideology in Rabelais by Jerome Schwartz (1990); Rabelais and Bakhtin: Popular Culture in Gargantua and Pantagruel by Richard M. Berrong (1986); Moi in the Middle Distance: A Study of the Narrative Voice in Rabelais by Rouben C. Cholakian (1982); Satiric Inheritance: Rabelais to Sterne by Michael Seidel (1979); Rabelais by Michael Screech (1979); François Rabelais: A Study by Donald Murdoch Frame (1977); Rabelais and Panurge: A Psychological Approach to Literary Character by Mary E. Ragland (1976); Rabelais: A Critical Study in Prose Fiction by D. G. Coleman (1971); Le jeu de Rabelais by Michel Beaujour (1969); Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin (1968); Rabelais by Marcel Tetel (1967); Rabelais and the Franciscans by A. J. Krailsheimer (1963); Rabelais: His Life by John C. Powys (1948); La vie et l'oeuvre de François Rabelais by Georges Lote (1938); La vie Rabelais by Jean Platterd (1928); L'oeuvre de Rabelais by Jean Platterd (1910) - Note: the term Rabelaisian usually denotes coarse, satirical humour, and language that is robustly bawdy.

Selected works:

  • Les horribles et espouvantables Faicts et Prouesses du très renomméde Pantagruel, roy des Dipsodes, fils du grant Gargantua, 1532
    - [Book II] (translated by Sir Thomas Urquhart, 1653) / Pantagruel: King of the Dipsodes Restored to his Natural State with his Dreadful Deeds and Exploits Written by the Late M. Alcofribas, Abstractor of the Quintessence (translated by Andrew Brown, foreword by Paul Bailey, 2003)
    - Pantagruel Dipsodien kuningas: totuudenmukaisesti kerrottuna, ynnä hänen hirmuiset sankarityönsä ja urotekonsa kirjoittanut herra Alcofribas-vainaa, Kvintessenssin tislaaja (suom. Erkki Salo, 1989)
  • Pantagruéline Prognostication pour l'an 1533, 1533-35
    - Pantagruel's Prognostication (tr. 1660, reprinted 1947)
  • La Vie inestimable du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel, 1534
    - [Book I] (translated by Sir Thomas Urquhart, 1653) / Gargantua: the Most Horrific Life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel (translated by Andrew Brown, foreword by Paul Bailey, 2003)
    - Suuren Gargantuan hirmuinen elämä (suom. Erkki Ahti, 1947) / Pyllypyyhin: kuinka jättiläinen Grandgousier oppi tuntemaan poikansa Gargantuan ihmeelliset hengenlahjat tämän keksittyä pyllypyyhkimen (Le torchecul;suomennos: Kirsti Luova, 2011) 
  • Le Tiers Livre des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel, 1546
    - The Third Book of Pantagruel (translated by Sir Thomas Urquhart, 1693)
    - Pantagruelin kolmas kirja (suom. Ville Keynäs, 2009)
  • Le Quart Livre, 1552
    - The Fourth Book of Pantagruel (translated by Peter Le Motteaux, 1694)
  • L'Isle sonante, 1562
  • Le Cinquième livre (?), 1564
    - The Fifth Book of Pantagruel (translated by Peter Le Motteaux, 1694)
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel, 1653 (translation of books 1-3 by Thomas Urquhart; 1649, translation of books 4 and 5 by P.A. Motteux; 1955,  translated by Burton Raffel, 1989;  J.M. Cohen; 1990)
  • Œuvres, 1868-1903 (6 vols., edited by Ch. Marty-Leveaux)
  • Œuvres de François Rabelais, 1912-31 (5 vols., edited by A. Lefranc, et al.)
  • The Portable Rabelais, 1946 (selected, translated & edited by Samuel Putnam)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1962 (edited by P- Jourda)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1973 (edited by G. Demerson)
  • The Complete Works of François Rabelais, 1991 (translated by Donald M. Frame, with a foreword by Raymond C. La Charité)
  • Almanachs et prognostications, 1994 (edited by Catherine Claude)
  • Rabelais: Oeuvres complètes, 1994 (edited by M. Huchon and F. Moreau)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1995 (edited by Guy Demerson) 
  • Gargantua, 1997 (edited by Nicole Cazauran)
  • Pantagruel: édition critique sur le texte de l’édition publiée à Lyon en 1542 par François Juste, 1997 (edited by Floyd Gray)

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