François Rabelais Rabelais, François

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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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.

Biographical Information

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,...

(The entire section is 142,771 words.)