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||François Rabelais 1484(?)-1553(?)|
French Renaissance writer, a Franciscan monk, humanist, and physician, whose comic novels Gargantua and Pantagruel are among the most hilarious classics of world literature. François Rabelais' heroes are rude but funny giants traveling in a world full of greed, stupidity, violence, and grotesque jokes. The true target of his satire was the feudal and the ecclesiastical powers, and the world of the learned. Rabelais' books were banned by the Catholic Church and later placed on The Index librorum prohibitorumon (the Index of Forbidden Books).
"Afterwards I wiped my tail with a hen, with a cock, with a pullet, with a calf's skin, with a hare, with a pigeon, with a cormorant, with an attorney's bag, with a montero, with a coif, with a falconer's lure. But, to conclude, I say and maintain, that of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole cleansers, and wipe-breeches, there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs. And believe me therein upon mine honour, for you will thereby feel in your nockhole a most wonderful pleasure, both in regard of the softness of the said down and of the temporate heat of the goose, which is easily communicated to the bum-gut and the rest the inwards, in so far as to come even to the regions of the heart and brains." (from Gargantua, 1534)
François Rabelais was born in 1484 (or 1483, 1490, 1495) near
town of Chinon in western France. His father Antoine Rabelais owned
vineyards there. According to some sources he was a lawyer, according
to others an apothecary or inn-keeper. Little is known about Rabelais'
youth and time at the Abbaye de Seuillé, where he was sent. He was a
novice at the Convent of La Baumette, where the brothers de Bellay may
have been among his fellow students. He became a member of the
Franciscan convent at Fontenay-le-Comte, in Lower Poitou, and by 1521
he had taken holy orders.
At the fair of Fontenay-le-Comte, Rabelais heard stories which stirred his imagination, and he later wrote in Gargantua: "He went to see the jugglers, tumblers, mountebanks, and quacksalvers, and considered their cunning, their shifts, their somersaults and smooth tongue, especially of those of Chauny in Picardy, who are naturally great praters, and brave givers of fibs, in matter of green apes." After the ecclesiastical authorities of the Sorbonne started to confiscate Greek books, Rabelais petitioned Pope Clement VII. He received permission to leave the Franciscan order and join the Benedictines.
In the monasteries Rabelais had studied Greek, Latin, law, astronomy, and ancient Greek medical texts, which had been ignored for centuries. He left the Abbaye de Maillezais without permission and started to study medicine, possibly with the Benedictines in their Hôtel Saint-Denis in Paris, and then in Montpellier. In 1530 he became bachelor of medicine.
At Montpellier Rabelais lectured on the ancient physicians,
Hippocrates and Galen. He made public dissections of human bodies and
was a specialist in the new disease, syphilis, and hysteria. Rabelais
also invented devices for the treatment of hernia and fractured bones
and published his own editions of Hippocrates' Aphorisms and
Galen's Ars parva. In 1532 he was a physician at Hôtel-Dieu, a
general hospital in Lyons.
Pantagruel (1532) was publisged under the pen
Alcofribas Nasier – an anagram of Rabelais's real name. It dealt with
the early years of Pantagruel, the son of Gargantua, and introduced the
cunning rogue Panurge, an Everyman, who became Pantagruel's companion.
Multifaceted Panurge is a sum of hodgepodge parts: a total coward, a
rogue, a rebel, a joyful fellow; his reactions to the world are not
governed by reasoning but childish emotions. Panurge is a stock type
character, but his source is thought to be possibly the Macaronaci Opus,
burlesque poems written by Teofilo Folengo, a monk of the twelft
century. Often he serves as a spokesman for Rabelais's philosophical
and theological battles, which he waged against the Sorbonne and the
Rabelais took the character of Gargantua from a booklet, which
in Lyons, and depicted the adventures of a giant famous in oral folk
tradition. The city was at that time the cultural center of France and
famous for its international book trade. It was claimed that at one
Lyons fair more copies of the booklet were sold than Bibles in nine
years. Pantagruel was
followed by Gargantua (1534). The books were highly successful,
but condemned by the Parliament and the Sorbonne, which included them on its list of censored
In Lyon Rabelais fathered a son, Théodule, who died at the age
two. He went to Rome as physician to his friend and patron Bishop Jean
du Bellay. Du Bellay was the bishop of Paris, who was later appointed
cardinal. In Rome Rabelais made archeological and botanical studies.
During the following years he visited the city several times. In 1536
he entered the monastery of Saint Maur-les-Fossés. The pope allowed him
to practise medicine and in 1537 Rabelais received his doctor's degree.
He lectured on medicine and in 1539 he served as the medical advisor of
Guillaume du Bellay in Turin.
King Francis I of France (1494-1547) gave a license to print
the third book of the Gargantua-Pantagruiel series, Le Tiers Livre
des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel
(1546), which was dedicated to Margaret of Navarre, the King's sister.
At Court the party in favour of toleration was strong. Marguerite of
Navarre and Jean and Guillaume de Bellay had been willing to help those
who had trouble with religious authorities, and the King supported
moderate policies. He had also tried to defend Erasmus (1466-1536), the
famous humanist and scholar, against the attacks of theologians. In Gargantua
Rabelais gave his support to the humanist ideal of King Francis I. This
book featured the imaginary Abbey community of Theleme, where the only
rule was "Do as you will," based on the belief that all people who are
free, well-born and well-bred have a natural inclination to do good
Le Tiers Livre (The Third Book) came out under
name, and again condemned in spite of the royal licence. Panurge
wonders if he should marry, and starts with Pantagruel a voyage to the
Island of Oracle of the Holy Bottle for an answer.
The king had been Rabelais' protector, but as the king's health was declining, Rabelais fled to Metz, where for a while he practised medicine. Although French booksellers were not able to publish "heretical" works, they went on selling and printing books by Rabelais and other writers simply dropping their addresses from the title page. In Pantagruel Rabelais wrote: "Printing likewise is now in use, so elegant and so correct that better cannot be imagined, although it was found out but in my time by divine inspiration, as by a diabolical suggestion on the other side was the invention of ordnance."
In 1547 René du Bellay gave Rabelais the curacy of
Saint-Christophe-du-Jambet, though he probably did not reside there.
Later he was also given the curacy of Mendon, near Paris – he was known
as "the curate of Meudon". The fourth book in the series, Le Quart
Livre de Pantagruel, came out in February 1552; a partial edition had appeared in
Lyons in 1549. The Sorbonne banned the book in March. Rabelais
dedicated his work to Cardinal Odet de Chastillon, the cardinal of
Chastillon, who later became a Calvinist Hugenot.
Before his death, Rabelais acquired a new powerful enemy: he
was denounced by John Calvin, and thus he had angered both Catholics
and Protestants. Rabelais died probably on April 9, 1553, in Paris. His
last words were allegedly: "Let down the curtain, the farce is over."
There have been doubts about the authenticity of the fifth book, Cinquisme
Live (1564), where Panurge and his friends arrive at the temple of
the Holy Bottle. The temple is lit by a round lamp, which is said to
represent the intellectual sphere.
The five books of Gargantua and Pantagruel were first published together in English by J. Martin in 1567. The fifth book was first printed without the name of the place, and the in 1565 at Lyons by Jean Martin.
"Burn 'em, tear 'em, nip 'em with hot pincers, drown 'em, hang 'em, spit 'em at the bunghole, pelt 'em, paut 'em, bruise 'em, beat 'em, cripple 'em, dismember 'em, cut 'em, gut 'em, bowel 'em, paunch 'em, thrash 'em, slash 'em, gash 'em, chop 'em, slice 'em, slit 'em, carve 'em, saw 'em, bethwack 'em, pare 'em, hack 'em, hew 'em, mince 'em, flay 'em, boil 'em, broil 'em, roast 'em, toast 'em, bake 'em, fry 'em, crucify 'em, crush 'em, squeeze 'em, grind 'em, batter 'em, burst 'em, quarter 'em, unlimb 'em, behump 'em, bethump 'em, belam 'em, belabour 'em, pepper 'em, spitchcock 'em, and carbonade 'em on gridirons, these wicked heretics! decretalifuges, decretalicides, worse than homicides, worse than patricides, decretalictones of the devil of hell." (from Le Quart Livre)
Rabelais mixed in his books elements from different narrative forms – chronicle, farce, dialogue, commentary etc, and peppered them with broad popular humor. With his flood of outrageous ideas and anecdotes Rabelais emphasized the physical joys of life – food, drink, sex, and bodily functions connected to them – and mocked asceticism and oppressive religious and political forces. Much of their time Gargantua and Pantagruel are occupied with drinking which earned Rabelais the reputation of a drunkard. "Drink always and you shall never die," Rabelais wrote. In folklore Penthagruel was a dwarf-devil who preyed on drunkards. Rabelais explained that Panta in Greek is all and Gruel means in Hagarene language thirsty, thus his name means 'all-thirsty'.
Rabelais' work influenced a long line of writers from Cervantes,
Swift, and Laurence Sterne to James Joyce and Céline. With Cervantes he
shared the same satirical view of the romances of chivalry. Balzac once
said: "Hundreds of absurd stories have been made up about the author of
Pantagruel, one of the finest books in French literature.
Rabelais, a sober man who drank nothing but water, is thought of as a
lover of food and drink and a confirmed tippler." The author himself
placed his books in the long line of heroic narratives, starting from
Homer and Virgil.
In Rabelais and His World (1968) the Russian theorist of literature, Mikhail M. Bakhtin (1895-1975) introduced the term carnivalesque to describe those forms of unofficial culture that use laughter, parody, and "grotesque realism" as a weapon against official culture and totalitarian order. Erich Auerbach wrote in Mimesis (1946) that the revolutionary thing about Rabelais' way of thinking "is not his opposition to Christianity, but the freedom of vision, feeling and thought which his perpetual playing with things produces, and which invites the reader to deal directly with the world and its wealth of phenomena. On one point, to be sure, Rabelais takes a stand, and it is a stand which is basically anti-Christian; for him, the man who follows his nature is good, and natural life, be it of men or things, is good..."
For further reading: The Cambridge Companion to Rabelais, ed. by John O'Brien (2011); The Rabelais Encyclopedia by Elizabeth C. Zegura (2004); Francois Rabelais: Critical Assessments, ed. by Jean-Claude Carron (1995); The Design of Rabelais's Pantagruel by Edwin M. Duval (1991); Rabelais's Carnival: Text, Context, Metatext by Samuel Kinser (1990); Irony and Ideology in Rabelais by Jerome Schwartz (1990); Rabelais and Bakhtin: Popular Culture in Gargantua and Pantagruel by Richard M. Berrong (1986); Moi in the Middle Distance: A Study of the Narrative Voice in Rabelais by Rouben C. Cholakian (1982); Satiric Inheritance: Rabelais to Sterne by Michael Seidel (1979); Rabelais by Michael Screech (1979); François Rabelais: A Study by Donald Murdoch Frame (1977); Rabelais and Panurge: A Psychological Approach to Literary Character by Mary E. Ragland (1976); Rabelais: A Critical Study in Prose Fiction by D. G. Coleman (1971); Le jeu de Rabelais by Michel Beaujour (1969); Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin (1968); Rabelais by Marcel Tetel (1967); Rabelais and the Franciscans by A. J. Krailsheimer (1963); Rabelais: His Life by John C. Powys (1948); La vie et l'oeuvre de François Rabelais by Georges Lote (1938); La vie Rabelais by Jean Platterd (1928); L'oeuvre de Rabelais by Jean Platterd (1910) - Note: the term Rabelaisian usually denotes coarse, satirical humour, and language that is robustly bawdy.