Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2148

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...

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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.

Rabelais’ satire of Scholasticism, the Church’s official intellectual system for the previous two hundred years, roused such prejudice against him that he went into hiding for a time. By 1536, however, he was back in Rome, again traveling as a member of Jean du Bellay’s party. This time, his petition was successful. The pope granted him absolution, and later in the year, after his return to France, he gained the status of a secular priest. For the rest of his life, Rabelais avoided the official censure of the Church. He continued to travel during the years that followed, and he acquired further protection from his academic enemies by winning a minor post at the court of King Francis I. In all, Rabelais made four documented visits to Italy, under the protection either of Jean du Bellay or Jean’s older brother Guillaume. The third sojourn in Rome lasted until 1541 and put Rabelais in frequent contact with the most learned and powerful men at the courts of the French ambassador and the pope. During these years, Rabelais was regarded as a greater physician than writer—he was famed for his dissection of cadavers and for the number of amazing cures he had effected.

Also in 1541, a new edition of Rabelais’ work, Gargantua and Pantagruel (which combined the two earlier publications), appeared. Rabelais edited the work so as to soften somewhat its satirical treatment of theologians. The Sorbonne was not, however, in the least mollified; it forbade the sale or possession of the book.

During the 1540’s, relations between the temporal and spiritual authorities were severely strained in France as elsewhere, so Rabelais maintained a low profile. Eventually, Rabelais used his court connections to publish the next installment of the giants’ adventures. Book 3 of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1546) was dedicated to Queen Marguerite of Navarre, sister to the king. In fact, in 1545, Rabelais had secured official permission from the king to publish the book. Still, the faculty of theology at the Sorbonne condemned book 3. In this volume, the central character is really Panurge. In the loose narrative of the earlier works, Gargantua has sent Puntagruel to Paris to be educated. There the giant falls into the company of Panurge, who is about thirty-five years of age at the time they meet. Panurge (literally “all-doer” or “knave”) is the stereotypical perennial college student: He lives by his wits and is sly, mischievous, lascivious, and debauched.

Rabelais made his fourth and final visit to Rome in 1548, and in his absence opposition to Gargantua and Pantagruel grew steadily. Nevertheless, in 1550 he again obtained the king’s permission to publish further. In 1552, he brought out book 4, as well as revised and corrected versions of the first three books. Not unexpectedly, the Sorbonne banned book 4 immediately upon its publication. In 1551, Rabelais had been appointed to the two curacies of Saint-Martin-de-Meudon and Saint-Cristophe-de-Jambet. He resigned both appointments early in 1553. Some scholars believe that he was forced to give up the curacies as a result of having published book 4; others speculate that poor health was his motivation. According to tradition, Rabelais died in April, 1553, in the rue des Jardins, Paris.

From 1562 through 1564, a fifth book was assembled. Few accept book 5 as being totally the work of Rabelais. Critical opinion ranges from the belief that it includes only sketches and fragments by Rabelais to the belief that it is essentially his work, edited and expanded by the hand of another.

Summary

François Rabelais has been afforded the greatest honor which can be bestowed upon any literary man or woman—his name has become an adjective. The term Rabelaisian is often applied too narrowly, to mean simply a story which graphically features copulation and the bodily functions. Still, the origination of that adjective is an acknowledgment that Rabelais’ work is so singular as to be described only on its own terms.

It has been suggested that no writer better captures the spirit of the Renaissance. His giants represent the grandiosity of his age. Their appetite for life is as huge as their bodies, and they thirst for knowledge as well as wine. Few passages in literature contrast the medieval and the Renaissance attitudes so strikingly as do chapters 21 through 24 of book 1. Gargantua’s tutor, Ponocrates, an advocate of the “new learning,” saves the giant from the slothful and ineffective instruction of his former teachers, the worst of whom is the Sophist and Scholastic master, Tubal Holofernes. The demanding regimen of Ponocrates turns Gargantua into a complete man, physically, mentally, and spiritually—what the moderns have come to call the Renaissance man.

Also, few examples of the Humanist ideal can match Rabelais’ utopian Abbey of Thélème (book 1, chapters 52 through 57). The rule of Thélème is the obverse of that of Saint Benedict, which Rabelais himself had finally fled. Only the brightest and most beautiful are admitted to the abbey. There, members of both sexes freely mingle, wearing beautiful clothes and engaging in exhilarating conversation. Their behavior is virtuous not because of codes and admonitions but because of their natural high-mindedness. The only rule at Thélème could serve as the motto of the Renaissance: “Fay ce que vou dras” (do what you wish).

Bibliography

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Reprint. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1985. A reprint of the English translation first published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press in 1968; the Russian edition was published in 1965. Bakhtin’s widely influential study considers Rabelais in the context of the “carnival” tradition: a rich and subversive vein of folk humor and comic festivities evident throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Brown, Huntington. Rabelais in English Literature. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1967. A reprint of Brown’s study, first published by Harvard University Press in 1933. Argues that since the Renaissance, Rabelais has been better appreciated in England than in his own country and that his influence upon English literature has been very marked. Brown traces this influence in Ben Jonson, Sir Thomas Browne, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Stern, Tobias Smollett, and others.

Coleman, Dorothy Gabe. Rabelais: A Critical Study in Prose Fiction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1971. This study examines the first four books of Gargantua and Pantagruel in nine chapters and some 230 pages of text. The author excludes discussion of book 5 on the grounds that its authenticity has not been established in four hundred years and may never be. She has used the English version (a very free interpretation) of Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611-1660) for the first three books and that of Peter le Motteux for the fourth. She quotes Rabelais directly when a more accurate rendering is required. Contains a chronology and a select bibliography.

Kaisar, Walter. Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. Begins with a prologue, discussing the fool in Renaissance literature. Part 2 is devoted to Rabelais’ Panurge. He is compared to Desiderius Erasmus’ Stultitia (part 1) and to William Shakespeare’s Falstaff (part 3). Includes an extensive bibliography.

Rabelais, François. Rabelais: A Dramatic Game in Two Parts. Edited by Jean-Louis Barrault. Translated by Robert Baldick. New York: Hill & Wang, 1971. A play adapted from the five books of Rabelais. The playwright attempts to capture and project Rabelais’ essential psychic health and love of life. Part (act) 1 is devoted to Gargantua and Pantagruel; part (act) 2 is devoted largely to Panurge. Each of the famous incidents is dramatized: part 1, scene 5, “Medieval Education”; part 1, scene 6, “Humanist Education”; part 1, scene 7, “Picrochole”; part 1, scene 8, “The Abbey of Thelema”; and the epilogue, “The Death of Rabelais.” Includes nine photographs from the play in performance.

Tilley, Arthur Augustus. Studies in the French Renaissance. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1968. A reprint of a work first published by Cambridge University Press in 1922. Three chapters are devoted exclusively to Rabelais: chapter 3, “Rabelais and Geographical Discovery,” chapter 4, “Rabelais and Henry II,” and chapter 5, “Rabelais and the Fifth Book.” Fully indexed.

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