Rabelais, François (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
RABELAIS, FRANIS. Little is known with complete accuracy about the life of Rabelais (1483 or 1494?553). Born in or near Chinon, France, where his father was a lawyer, he entered the priesthood as a novice of the Franciscan order. Here he was able to study languages, literature, and the sciences. Abandoning holy orders, Rabelais traveled to Montpellier, where he obtained a degree in medicine and became a physician at Lyons Hospital and a professor of medicine. It is here that he began writing the series of satirical books for which he is best remembered today. The four books (the fifth is of doubtful authenticity) tell the bawdy, rollicking tales of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel. Often difficult to read, and frequently misunderstood as works of gross indecency, the stories are strewn with references to eating, food, and drink that help paint a vivid picture of Renaissance life. But it is in the use of food as part of satirical allegory that Rabelais is at his most inspired. Food imagery helps create a cloak of laughter to thinly conceal his pointed comments on important contemporary issues of the day.
One example of the vivid food imagery founds in Rabelais' works occurs in the fourth book of Gargantua and Pantagruel when, in the course of an epic voyage, his heroic characters, Pantagruel and the ship's company, go ashore on the Wild Island, ancient abode of the Chitterlings. Here they encounter sausage-people who are locked in an irreconcilable war with their enemy Quaresmeprenant (Shrovetide). Learning that Chitterlings are preparing to ambush the heroes, Friar John orders the construction of a giant sow, similar in principle to the Greeks' Trojan horse, and mans it with a company of noble and valiant cooks ready to do battle in a "culinary war." In the midst of battle, the cooks spill forth and rout the Chitterlings, handing victory to Pantagruel.
Exemplifying the difficulty people have with the interpretation, this episode has been viewed as either a representation of the battle between Carnival and Lent; as a satire on Church and State, specifically on the German-speaking
Rabelais remains often misunderstood. But his books continue to inspire as literary masterpieces of satire, full of wit and wisdom, and displaying both a genuine humanist love of life and a quest for truth.
See also Art, Food in: Literature; Christianity: Western Christianity; France; Metaphor, Food as.
Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence, pp. 12833. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
The Complete Works of François Rabelais. Translated by Donald M. Frame. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Plattard, Jean. The Life of François Rabelais. New York: Knopf, 1931.
Rabelais, François. The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Translated by J. M. Cohen. London: Penguin Books, 1955.
Screech, M. A. Rabelais. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979.