Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Renaissance)
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...
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François Rabelais had a varied career. For almost two decades he was a monk, leaving a monastery in 1530 to study medicine at the University of Montpelier. During his lifetime, Rabelais published four books: Pantagruel (1532), Gargantua (1534), The Third Book (1546), and The Fourth Book (1552). A volume titled Fifth Book appeared in 1564 and was attributed to Rabelais, but most scholars doubt that he wrote it.
Rabelais’ knowledge of classical languages, theology, and philosophy was solid, and his books reveal his interests in both popular culture and the need to reform Christianity. Although he remained a Roman Catholic, his belief that Christian scholars should read the New Testament in the original Greek and not in the Latin translation of the Bible that the Catholic church had long regarded as official, alarmed many conservative theologians, fearful that Rabelais’ view would encourage heretical interpretations. In sixteenth century France, censorship of books on religion was entrusted to the judicial Parliament of Paris and to the Sorbonne, which was then the theological school at the University of Paris.
In all four of his books, Rabelais satirized the pretentiousness and superficiality of theologians, especially those at the Sorbonne, arguing that their restrictive approach to biblical exegesis stifled the creativity of sincere Christians who wished to appreciate on their own the many levels of meaning in the Bible. Many characters in his books discuss biblical passages, and their commentaries are often at odds with traditional Catholic interpretations. All his books were placed on the French Index of Prohibited Books by the Sorbonne and the Parliament of Paris. In 1564 the Council of Trent reaffirmed the French condemnation of Rabelais, and the Roman Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum described him as a heretic whose entire works were to be banned.
Since the sixteenth century, Rabelais’ novels have often been banned because of their crude language and the coarse behavior of certain characters. His works were formally banned in South Africa in 1938, and a ban against his books in the United States was lifted only in 1930 under the provisions of the Tariff Act of 1930, which authorized the secretary of the treasury to permit importation and distribution of “so-called classics or books of recognized and established literary or scientific merit.” Efforts to ban Rabelais’ novels have been singularly ineffective over the centuries, and his works are still considered classics of French fiction and satire.
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Much of François Rabelais’s biography is lost in obscurity, but modern scholars have established the principal events of his life. The year of Rabelais’s birth, believed to be 1494, is still uncertain, but it is known that his father, Antoine, was a lawyer at the royal court of Chinon and was associated with the most enlightened men of his day. Rabelais spent his childhood at Chinon, especially at the family’s country home, La Devinière, often mentioned in his works, and at Angers, his mother’s birthplace. He was probably educated at the Benedictine abbey of Seuillé, evoked in Friar John’s monastery in Gargantua and Pantagruel.
By 1521, Rabelais was a Franciscan monk at Fontenay-le-Comte in Bas Poitou; it was there that he met Pierre Amy, one of the outstanding Hellenists of the time, and entered into correspondence with the eminent French Hellenist Guillaume Budé. Rabelais translated some of Herodotus from Greek into Latin, and also contributed to André Tiraqueau’s treatise on the laws of marriage, “De legibus connubialibus,” echoes of which appear in book 3.
In 1523, the Greek books of the monastery were confiscated under orders from the Sorbonne, and shortly afterward Rabelais transferred to the Benedictines of Saint-Pierre-de-Maillezain, where he came into contact with the scholarly bishop Geoffroy d’Estissac. In 1527, Rabelais left the monastery and toured the same universities his Pantagruel visits in book 2. In 1532, he received his bachelor’s degree in medicine from the University of Montpellier and assumed a post in Lyons, at that time the capital of the Renaissance. He also continued his classical commentaries and the same year published Pantagruel, censured by the Sorbonne for obscenity. Jean du Bellay, bishop of Paris, became Rabelais’s protector in 1534, taking him to Rome as his personal physician. It was upon Rabelais’s return that he published Gargantua, likewise censured because of its unfortunate coincidence with the Affair of the Placards.
Rabelais attempted briefly the life of a secular priest; by 1537, he was a doctor of medicine in Lyons. In 1541, he published a new edition of Gargantua and Pantagruel, with the attacks against the Sorbonne expurgated. The publication of book 3 in 1546 still provoked censure, as did that of the complete book 4 in 1552. His later days included more travel in Italy, especially with du Bellay. It is fairly certain that Rabelais died in Paris, at the beginning of April, 1553.
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
François Rabelais (RAH-buh-lay) is generally thought to have been born circa 1494 at La Devinière, a family estate near Chinon, in the old province of Touraine, France. His father, Antoine, was probably a lawyer and petty official who eventually became village mayor, but he may have been an apothecary or tavern keeper. Legend places François in a convent school at an early age. It is certainly true that he was a fifth son, and thus likely to have been “given” to the church as a candidate for Holy Orders; inheritance rights rarely extended that far down the family line. The same legend makes him a schoolfellow of the du Bellay brothers, later to become powers in the church and the state, and the protectors of Rabelais. By...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
François Rabelais is one of those rare writers who define and test the boundaries of fiction, especially of comedy. The range of his comedy is broad, running from the coarse physical to the arcane intellectual. Like the greatest comic writers, however, his underlying purposes are quite serious. He ceaselessly attacks hypocrisy and repression and advocates personal freedom and self-expression through his characters, the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Concrete facts about the life of François Rabelais (rahb-uh-lay) are few and far between. The dates and places of his birth and death are guesses, and the gaps in his career are many. As is so often true of people with colorful personalities but uncertain biographies, his life is obscured by a mist of legend and anecdote. There is, for example, the story that Rabelais, finding himself without money in Lyons, obtained free transportation to Paris by pretending that he was involved in a plot to poison the king. Probably equally apocryphal are the well-known words attributed to him on his deathbed: “Down with the curtain; the farce is done! I am going to seek a great perhaps.” Modern understanding of Rabelais the man is further...
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