François Rabelais 1494?-1553
(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Alcofribas Nasier and L’abstracteur de quinte essence) French satirist, editor and translator.
The following entry presents recent criticism on Rabelais. For earlier commentary, see LC, Volume 5.
A Renaissance monk, physician, and scholar, Rabelais has for centuries received acclaim for his Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-64), a multivolume narrative comprising comedy, satire, myth, and humanist philosophy and detailing the epic stories of two giants' upbringing, ribald adventures, and journeys towards self-discovery. Throughout this massive work shine the language and wit of a profound thinker possessing a remarkably original voice and vivacious literary style. A prominent influence on writers from Laurence Sterne to James Joyce, Rabelais ranks as one of the greatest figures in European literature.
Although many dates and details of Rabelais's life are uncertain, scholars believe he was born at his family's estate in Chinon, France in 1494. The wealth of his family afforded Rabelais a high quality education at home before he entered a Franciscan monastery for his formal training. There he began studying Latin, Greek, and Hebrew texts that were outside the prescribed curriculum and were forbidden by the Church. Acquiring in a short time considerable knowledge of secular history, myth, and humanist thought, Rabelais began composing letters in a mixture of Latin and Greek to Guillaume Bude and Desiderius Erasmus, Christian humanists whom he admired for their forthright views and unwillingness to bow to Church dogmatism. His secretly acquired Classical texts were eventually discovered and confiscated, but Rabelais received the patronage and protection of a high-ranking friend, Bishop Geoffroy d’Estissac, who accepted him into the Benedictine order at Saint-Pierre-de-Maillzeais in 1524.
As d’Estissac's secretary, Rabelais traveled with the bishop throughout his diocese and became intimately acquainted with rural peoples, acquiring a keen ear for rustic dialects, popular tales, and an appreciation of simple existence—all of which greatly influenced his fictional world. Following two years under d’Estissac, Rabelais set out on his own as a secular priest and aspiring physician who traveled about France teaching and studying. In 1530 he entered the widely esteemed University of Montpellier, where he obtained a medical degree. He soon gained renown as a talented lecturer, doctor, and editor-translator of works by the Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen, proving instrumental in reviving and incorporating their theories into contemporary medical practice. Because of his reputation and accomplishments in the field, Rabelais was appointed chief physician in 1532 to the well-known Hôtel-Dieu in Lyon. That same year he began his writing career with the publication of Les horribles et espouvantables faictz et prouesses dutres renomme Pantagruel Roy des Dipsodes, fils dugrand geant Gargantua (Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes, with His Heroic Acts and Prowesses). The book was banned in 1533 by the Sorbonne for obscenity. Rabelais left Lyon for Rome the next year as companion and personal physician to bishop and diplomat Jean du Bellay. For the next decade, Rabelais periodically assisted du Bellay and his brother Guillaume, governor of the Piedmont region of Italy, in various capacities. Primarily, he served as family physician, and as an intermediary in attempts to reconcile Catholic and Protestant factions, who had been at odds since Martin Luther's revolutionary pronouncements against the Church in 1517.
Between his travels and official service, Rabelais continued to practice and study medicine as well as write. He published subsequent volumes of his story about Pantagruel and Gangantua in 1534, 1546, and 1552, encountering further censure by Church officials who believed Rabelais to be a Lutheran sympathizer. Rabelais was also criticized by the Calvinists, an extreme Protestant group, who deemed him a dangerous spokesman for atheistic values. Although his works were protected by royal edict, scholars believe that persecution by religious groups forced Rabelais to leave France on occasion. In 1551 he was awarded the vicarship of two parishes, insuring him social stability. However, in 1553 he resigned the offices and died a few months later.
Scholars attribute four books in the Pantagruel and Gargantua series to Rabelais with certainty. First appearing at the annual Lyon fair, and modeled after a recently published, popular chapbook tale of Arthurian giants (Les grandes et inestimables chroniques du grand et enorme geant Gargantua), Rabelais's Pantagruel met with an avid readership, particularly as it, unlike its predecessor, contained allusions to current events and more vividly portrayed human life under the humorous guise of gianthood—a fantastic realm then in vogue with French readers. This first volume was soon revised and expanded. The second book, La vie inestimable du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel, (The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel) represents Rabelais's attempt to recreate the myth of Gargantua, father of his first fictive hero. Due to the chronological precedence of its story, Gargantua has been placed first in sequence by some editors of Rabelais's work. Next came Le tiers and Le quart livres des faictz et dictz heroiques du noble Pantagruel (The Third and Fourth Books of the Heroic Deeds and Sayings of the Good Pantagruel), the last to be positively attributed to Rabelais; in these works, the giant element is downplayed and a greater emphasis is placed on the quest for truth and meaning in life. More complex in structure, more copious in allusion and ambiguity, these later books greatly contributed to Rabelais's posthumous reputation as a profound thinker and allegorist. An additional work, L’isle sonante (The Ringing Island), appeared in print under Rabelais's name in 1562. The majority of scholars recognize this work as a largely authentic continuation of the Pantagruel story. This publication was followed two years later by Le cinquieme et dernier livre des faictz et dictz heroiques du bon Pantagruel (The Fifth and Last Book of the Heroic Deeds and Sayings of the Good Pantagruel), which included L’isle sonante as its first sixteen chapters. The authenticity of the latter portion of this work, given its predominantly moralistic and didactic tenor, has been seriously questioned and the issue remains unresolved.
The unwieldy size and scope of Gargantua and Pantagruel prevents simple summary of its circuitous plot and numerous themes. The first two books are closely allied in that both center around the birth, education, and maturity of the hero-giants Gargantua and Pantagruel, who demonstrate remarkable physical prowess and wisdom, yet often find themselves or their friends caught in a series of ridiculous predicaments. There results a central dichotomy in Rabelais's work between sagacious, occasionally profound, prose and superficial, rollicking entertainment. Through modern analyses, scholars have shown that despite several ribald episodes and seemingly aimless, digressive language, Gargantua does move gradually toward highe concerns. In the closing chapter of Gargantua, the titular character builds an archetypal religious abbey (Theleme) for his aide and confidante, Friar Jean. The abbey, for its egalitarian tenets and adoption of Renaissance principles of education and open-mindedness, is regarded as Rabelais's idealized conception of a new world order. The inscription on one of its cornerstones, “Fay ce que vouldras” (“Do what you will”), along with an emphasis on responsible, active participation in God's community on earth, represent ideals which Rabelais iterates throughout the novel in various ways, often cloaking his humanist beliefs in irony, humor, and allegory.
Central to Rabelais's artistic world, and to his humanist conception of life, was the potency, magic, and unlimited appeal of human language itself. Rabelais released in his books a pyrotechnical display of verbal constructs and linguistic games; yet, such inventiveness, and a purported inattention to contiguous plot and relevant detail, have provoked some harsh criticism of his work. Many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scholars took Rabelais's ribald, seemingly amoral humor and madcap verbiage at face value and labeled the author a drunken fool with a profane pen, rather than a serious writer with a uniquely organized and effectively expressed message for the world. However, most later critics have acknowledged the serious intent of Gargantua and Pantagruel and accept the wordplay, circuitous narrative, and occasional grossness as the natural outpourings of a literary genius artistically intoxicated with life at its fullest, language at its richest.
Rabelais's writings continue to garner positive critical attention, though the depth of Gargantua and Pantagruel, with its apparent contradictions, complex allegories, and time-specific satire has generated a disparate body of recent commentary applying a variety of critical styles and viewpoints, from narratology to semiotics. Camilla J. Nilles has investigated Rabelais's deliberate evasion of resolution and finality in the Quart Livre. Carla Freccero has examined the different narrative strategies Rabelais employs in Pantagruel and Gargantua. Edwin M. Duval has stressed that the series must be read within its historical context, while Gerard Ponziano Lavatori as well as Elizabeth Chesney Zegura and Marcel Tetel have detected economic concerns informing the text. Many critics have focused on Rabelais's philosophic and religious thought. François Rigolot, for example, in his analysis of Rabelais's portrayal of the lady from Paris, has contrasted the misogynist depiction with Rabelais’ humanist ideology, and Margaret Broom Harp has viewed the encounter with the Ennasins as a reflection of Rabelais's evangelic humanism. Florence M. Weinberg has argued that the Andouilles in the Quart Livre represent Lutherans and the flying hog represents Martin Luther. F. W. Marshall has maintained that Rabelais's treatment of Papimania reveals both his loyalty to the Catholic church and his interest in reform. Gérrard Defaux has considered the whole of humanist thought, and has seen Rabelais as its greatest voice. He declares that Rabelais's “importance and exemplarity are above all due to the exhilarating and vibrant violence of his satire, and to the remarkable depth and acuity of his critical intelligence.”