François Rabelais Rabelais, François - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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, 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

*Les horribles et espouvantables faictz et prouesses du tres renommé Pantagruel Roy des Dipsodes, filz du grand géant Gargantua [as Alcofrybas Nasier] (satire) 1532 [Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes, with His Heroic Acts and Prowesses, 1653]

*La vie inestimable du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel [as l’abstracteur de quinte essence] (satire) 1534 [The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel, 1653]

Epistre de Maistre François Rabelais, homme de grans lettres grecques et latines à Jehan Bouchet, traictant des ymaginations qu’on peut avoir touchant la chose désirée (letter) 1545, published in Épitres morales et...

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Camilla J. Nilles (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Solution and Dissolution in the Closure to the Quart Livre,” in Essays in Literature,Vol. XV, No. 1, Spring 1988, pp. 131-40.

[In the following essay, Nilles argues that Rabelais deliberately evades a sense of finality and resolution in the conclusion of the Quart Livre.]

The Quart Livre, which appeared in 1552, is the last work whose authorship is uncontestably attributed to François Rabelais. It may seem ironic that an author who had devoted three volumes to the comic exploits of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel should introduce the final installment of their “faicts et dicts” (“words and deeds”) with a praise of moderation....

(The entire section is 4943 words.)

J. E. G. Dixon (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Treatment of morbus gallicus in Rabelais,” in Etudes Rabelaisiennes, Vol. XXV, 1991, pp. 61-75.

[In the essay that follows, Dixon examines Rabelais's views on morbus gallicus, or syphilis, arguing that Rabelais consistently criticized those in authority who had the power to influence behavior and thought regarding the disease.]

The period 1532-1534 marks a date in the history of western culture, for these years saw the appearance of Pantagruel and Gargantua respectively. From the first line on the first page, the contemporary reader entered a hitherto unknown world: “Beuveurs très illustres, et vous, véroléz très...

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Edwin M. Duval (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Introduction: The Design of Rabelais's Christian Humanist Epics,” in The Design of Rabelais's Pantagruel, Yale University Press, 1991, pp. xiii-xviii.

[In the following excerpt, Duval argues that Pantagruel must be read in the historical and ideological contexts of its origin, noting the work's unified structure and heavy reliance on Christian humanism.]

What literature has in common with painting, according to Horace, is that some poems, like some paintings, are best judged when examined attentively at close range, others when viewed more globally from a distance:

Ut pictura poesis: erit quae, si propius stes,
Te capiat magis, et...

(The entire section is 3787 words.)

Carla Freccero (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Gargantua: Inheriting the Father,” in Father Figures: Genealogy and Narrative Structure in Rabelais, Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 52-89.

[In the following excerpt, Freccero argues that unlike Pantagruel—whose defining metaphor is that of the text as organic growth—Gargantuapresents itself as an artificial construct.]

Whereas during the earlier phases of humanism the metaphor of rebirth conserved a relatively simple relationship with its “reality reference,” the Rabelaisian text explicitly complicates the connection.1 The organic trope of rebirth or even exhumation and resuscitation that continues to make its...

(The entire section is 12875 words.)

Elizabeth Chesney Zegura and Marcel Tetel (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Change and Exchange,” in Rabelais Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 1-22.

[In the excerpt below, Zegura and Tetel discuss the importance of change and economics in Rabelais's life and works, arguing that these two concepts hold the key for comprehending his disjointed writings.]

François Rabelais hawked his Third Book (1546) by claiming the text would never run dry. “Our barrel will prove inexhaustible,” he tells us, comparing his book to a bottomless cask of wine that is “lively at the source and of perpetual flow … a veritable cornucopia of merriment and mockery” (TB, Prol., 298-99).1 That the prognostication...

(The entire section is 9802 words.)

Ullrich Langer (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Friendship and the Adversarial Rhetoric of Humanism,” in Common Knowledge, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 40-53.

[In the essay below, Langer considers the friendship between Pantagruel and Panurge in light of the competing intellectual beliefs of the time.]

At the conclusion of the war against the Dipsodes and the giants, the hero of Rabelais' Pantagruel faces his Mohammedan counterpart, Loupgarou, the incarnation of Plautus' phrase, homo homini lupus [man is a wolf to man], a figure of hatred and cruelty among human beings.1 Pantagruel, the Christian humanist giant, finds himself in dire straits, his weapon, a ship's mast,...

(The entire section is 7580 words.)

F. W. Marshall (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Papimania, the Blessed Isle: Rabelais's Attitude to the Roman Church,” in Australian Journal of French Studies, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, September-December 1994, pp. 245-58.

[In the essay below, Marshall contends that Rabelais's allegorical treatment of Papimania in the Quart Livrereveals his loyalty to the Catholic church while supporting reform of its perceived injustices and corruption.]

In the epic journey undertaken by Pantagruel, Friar John, Panurge and their companions, there is a group of islands visited after the encounter with the Sea Monster, the Physetère, which, by the contrasts made between them, appear to deal with the religious divisions...

(The entire section is 6831 words.)

Alice Fiola Berry (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “‘Written in the Mind with an Iron Pen’: The Failure of Misogynistic Cliché; in the Rondibilis Episode of Rabelais's Tiers Livre (31-34),” in French Studies, Vol. XLIX, No. 3, July 1995, pp. 275-82.

[In the following essay, Berry considers the gender ideology behind Panurge's quest for a wife in Tiers Livre.Berry states: “Trapped between contradictory clichés about women,” Panurge is “unable to proceed with the projects of marriage and paternity he so desperately wants to undertake.”]

The consultation with the physician Rondibilis in Rabelais's Tiers Livre is one of the most shockingly misogynistic episodes in all of his...

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Florence M. Weinberg (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Layers of Emblematic Prose: Rabelais' Andouilles,” in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer 1995, pp. 367-77.

[In the essay below, Weinberg considers the many levels of meaning in the attack of the Andouilles in the Quartre Livre, concluding that the Andouilles represent Lutherans and the flying hog represents the folly of Martin Luther's teachings.]

The Andouilles of the Quart Livre are emblematic, signifying on at least five levels: (1) Andouilles are literally, tripe sausages; (2) visually, they resemble phalluses, eels, small sinuous animals; (3) politically and historically, they are a metaphor for...

(The entire section is 5546 words.)

Gérard Defaux (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Rabelais and the Monsters of Antiphysis,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 110, No. 5, December 1995, pp. 1017-42.

[In the essay below, Defaux maintains that in the battle between humanism and scholasticism in the sixteenth century, Rabelais was the most powerful and effective advocate for humanism.]

“Cy n’entrez pas, hypocrites, bigotz,
Vieux matagotz, marmiteux, boursouflez,
Torcoulx, badaux, plus que n’estoient les Gotz
Ni Ostrogotz, precurseurs des magotz,
Haires, cagotz, caffars empantouflez …”

Rabelais, Gargantua

“Pourveu que cettuy cy frappe, il ne luy
chaut combien il se descouvre.”


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François Rigolot (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Three Temptations of Panurge: Women's Vilification and Christian Humanist Discourse,” in François Rabelais: Critical Assessments, edited by Jean-Claude Carron, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995, pp. 83-102.

[In the following essay, Rigolot discusses the relationship between Rabelais's apparent misogynist treatment of the lady from Paris in Pantagruel and the evangelic humanist ideology which he embraced.]

Là vous verrez … petites
joyeusettez toutes
veritables; ce sont beaux textes d’évangilles

—Rabelais, Pantagruel

For several decades now, the interpretation of Rabelais's...

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Max Gauna (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Gargantua,” in The Rabelaisian Mythologies, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996, pp. 69-102.

[In the excerpt that follows, Gauna explores the classical influences on the prologue and Abbey of Theleme passage in Gargantua.]

There is no doubt that Rabelais wished the appellation of mythologies Pantagruelicques to cover his second chronicle as well as the others, despite the absence in it of both Pantagruel and Panurge, for the author refers back to his first book in the first chapter of this one, and was surely as much as the printer responsible for the title page of the second edition (the page is lacking in the only example of the first...

(The entire section is 12973 words.)

Gerard Ponziano Lavatori (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” in Language and Money in Rabelais, Peter Lang, 1996, pp. 23-57.

[In the following excerpt, Lavatori contends that characters in Gargantua and Pantagruel “deliberately infringe upon the principles of good communication and use language and money to influence others in non-communicative ways.”]

What strikes a reader most about patterns of communication in Rabelais is their repeated deviance. There is a constant disregard for the limits to which signs function effectively in communication and little evidence of a clear distinction between levels of meaning or significance. The problem of...

(The entire section is 12387 words.)

Margaret Broom Harp (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Chimeric Communities of the Quart Livre,” in The Portrayal of Community in Rabelais's Quart Livre, Peter Lang, 1997, pp. 13-54.

[In the excerpt below, Harp outlines the ways in which the encounter with the Ennasins in the Quart Livre reflects Rabelais's beliefs about evangelic humanism.]

Throughout the many episodes of the Quart Livre, Pantagruel and his crew visit twelve islands. With each landing, the crew of the Thalamège not only encounters a new community, but reaches a haven. In Christian art, ships seeking a harbor may symbolize souls in search of Heaven (Cirlot 294-95). Rabelais, from the outset of his book, presents his...

(The entire section is 17371 words.)

Anne Lake Prescott (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Fantasies of ‘Mad Rabelais’: Exploiting the Unreal,” in Imagining Rabelais in Renaissance England, Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 146-95.

[In the excerpt below, Prescott traces the influence of Rabelais's ideas about fantasy toRenaissance writers and artists.]

In a culture that is ambivalent about the mental powers that can set lovers' eyes rolling or lead a nervous nocturnal traveler to suppose a bush a bear, Rabelais's fantasy seemed variously repellent or engaging. Either way, it was rhetorically useful. Michael Drayton jokingly calls Rabelais himself mad. Nimphidia, The Court of Fayrie (1627), a mock epic about the tiny fairy knight...

(The entire section is 14598 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Bowen, Barbara C. Enter Rabelais, Laughing. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998, 230 p.

Considers the humorous and comical elements in Rabelais's writings.

Frame, Donald M. Introduction to The Complete Works of François Rabelais, edited by Donald M. Frame, pp. xxvii-xlvii. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Discusses Rabelais's life and his influence on literature.

Hoffmann, George. “Neither One Nor the Other and Both Together.” Etudes Rabelaisiennes XXV (1991): 79-90.

Remarks on Rabelais's use of medieval logic in the Tiers...

(The entire section is 336 words.)