Article abstract: Rabelais, although a physician by trade, is best known for his writings, which satirize the Church and its officials while capturing the spirit of the Renaissance through grandiose characters who have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Rabelais’ strong challenge to spiritual authority is representative of a new period in literary thought and action.
François Rabelais was most likely born in 1494 or 1495 in the Loire valley of France, at La Devinière, near Chinon, in the province of Touraine. His father was a lawyer, a prominent member of the landowning middle class. Little is known of his youth and, in fact, scarcely a date in his biography is beyond dispute. At some point, he entered the Franciscan monastery of La Baumette at Angers as a novice. Since his subsequent actions and especially his writings suggest the opposite of the stereotypical monastic temperament, Rabelais, the scholars surmise, entered the order so that he might study ancient texts. By the age of twenty-seven, Rabelais is known to have been a monk in the monastery of Puy-Saint-Martin at Fontenay-le-Comte, where he was immersed in Greek and other “new” humanistic studies. The faculty of theology at the Sorbonne was opposed to the study of Greek (eventually proscribing such study in France), and the head of the monastery was hostile to it as well. As a result, Rabelais petitioned Pope Clement VII for a transfer to the more liberal and scholarly Benedictine Order. His request was granted in 1524, and the rest of his life was a step-by-step return to a secular status.
Little is known about the next six years of Rabelais’ life. He must have found even the Benedictine monastery unsatisfactory, for he left it in 1527 or 1528. It is believed that he did considerable traveling over the next three years or so, principally because his books would later show evidence of wide travel. In September, 1530, he entered the University of Montpellier as a medical student and earned a bachelor’s degree in medicine; the extreme brevity of his residence and his knowledge of Parisian student types, as exhibited in his writings, suggest that he had previously studied medicine in Paris. Early the next year, Rabelais was giving public lectures on Galen and Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physicians. In 1532, he moved to Lyons and was appointed a physician in the city hospital of the Pont-du-Rhône. Henceforward, medicine was Rabelais’ trade. The Church did not object, so long as he retained his priestly garb and abstained from the practice of surgery.
Rabelais was an outstanding Greek scholar. He was a lecturer on anatomy, using the original Greek treatises. He received his doctorate of medicine at Montpellier in 1537 and for the last two decades of his life was highly regarded as a skilled physician. He was an intimate of the learned and powerful. It was not until he began his literary career at almost forty years of age, however, that he won lasting fame.
In 1532, Rabelais was working for a Lyons printer, editing Greek medical texts. During that summer, he read Grandes et inestimables cronicques du grant et énorme géant Gargantua (1532; great and inestimable chronicles of the great and enormous giant Gargantua), a newly published book by an anonymous author. This crude tale was an adjunct to the Arthurian legends, employing a character who had been present in French folklore for centuries. Rabelais was moved to write a sequel, greatly superior to the original in both style and content. Pantagruel (English translation, 1653), the literal meaning of which is “all-thirsty,” was published in the autumn of 1532. It is the story of Gargantua’s son, a boisterous and jovial drunkard, who is the gross personification of the tippler’s burning thirst. A visit by Rabelais to his home province during a time of severe drought also may have been an inspiration for the book. Pantagruel’s author was identified as Alcofribas Nasier, which was an anagram of François Rabelais. The book was an immediate success with the public but was censured by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne as obscene. Also in 1532, Rabelais published a tongue-in-cheek almanac, Pantagruéline Prognostication, which survives only in fragments.
Rabelais met Jean du Bellay, Bishop of Paris and subsequently a cardinal, in 1533. By the next year, Rabelais was the bishop’s personal physician and was attending him during a trip to Rome. In Rome, Rabelais requested absolution for leaving the Benedictine monastery without permission, but the pope declined to grant it. Later in 1534, back in France and still under the protection of his powerful patron, he published Gargantua (English translation, 1653), the main episode of which (concerning the Picrocholine War) was based upon his father’s dispute with a neighbor over fishing rights. The events of Gargantua precede those of Pantagruel; Gargantua would eventually become book 1 of the combined work. This volume was more satiric than the first, and Rabelais made his enemies, the theologians at the Sorbonne, the objects of scorn and derision.
(The entire section is 2148 words.)