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.