Rabelais, François ca. 1494–1553 French Humanist and Writer

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Rabelais, François
ca. 1494–1553 French humanist and writer

Although he is best known as a writer of satire*, French author François Rabelais pursued many careers in his lifetime. At various times, he was a monk, a doctor, a teacher, a clergyman, and an expert in languages. He gained fame for his satire Gargantua and Pantagruel, which promoted humanism* and religious reform. However, his comic and inventive writing frequently brought him into conflict with church and state authorities.

Rabelais's Life. Scholars know very little about several periods of Rabelais's life. Even his date of birth remains uncertain. Some evidence suggests that he was born as early as 1483, but most scholars consider 1494 the correct date. The son of a successful lawyer in the French town of Chinon, Rabelais may have studied to become a monk at a nearby monastery. If so, he could have begun his studies as early as 1510 or 1511, receiving a traditional education in church Latin and religious philosophy. At some point he also learned to read Greek.

By 1521 Rabelais had joined another monastery, where he fell in with a group of humanist scholars. In 1523, he experienced the first of a series of conflicts he would have throughout his life with conservative theologians* in Paris. The Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris seized the Greek and Latin books of Rabelais and his circle of friends. Although the faculty eventually returned the texts, Rabelais soon left to join another, less restrictive order of monks. Four years later he left that order and went out into the world.

Rabelais then went on to study medicine, receiving a Bachelor of Medicine degree in 1530. He practiced medicine on and off throughout his life, and his advanced language skills helped him to make a name for himself in the field. Medical schools of the time relied heavily on the works of ancient Greek medical writers such as Hippocrates and Galen. Rabelais produced new, accurate editions of these ancient texts. He also lectured on Hippocrates.

In 1531 Rabelais published his satire Pantagruel, which became immediately popular. However, the work offended the Faculty of Theology in Paris, who condemned it as indecent. Within a few years, Rabelais attached himself to an important patron*—Cardinal Jean du Bellay, the bishop of Paris. However, du Bellay's support was not enough to protect Rabelais from the Paris theologians, who continued to attack his work throughout his life.

In 1534 Rabelais published another satire, Gargantua. Like Pantagruel, this work poked fun at the Roman Catholic Church. Unluckily for Rabelais, a group of Protestant reformers chose the same year to post placards throughout Paris protesting Catholic practices. The Catholic Church immediately began to exercise greater control over booksellers and printers. Those who had criticized the church, like Rabelais, found themselves in a risky situation.

Rabelais received an advanced degree in medicine in 1537. For the rest of his life, he supported himself with money from his medical practice, support from his patrons, and the modest income he received for his popular writings. He also earned a small salary as a clergyman. In 1543 the Faculty of Theology condemned Gargantua and Pantagruel, but the king gave Rabelais permission to continue writing about the characters. Rabelais published two more volumes in the series before his death in 1553. The circumstances and exact date of his death are unknown.

Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais' most famous work, Gargantua and Pantagruel, is a collection of five books. Rabelais published the first four books over a period of 20 years, and the fifth appeared after his death. The books' main characters—Pantagruel and his father, Gargantua—are giants that Rabelais modeled after figures in popular tales.

The first two books are similar in form to romances*, with plots that include a jumble of comic events. Throughout these adventures, Rabelais slips in satiric comments about the intellectual, religious, and professional people of his day. He also asserts the values of Christian humanism and the reform movement within the church. For example, one of his characters—Friar Jean—represents a new type of monk who is worldly and active. In later books, Pantagruel and his sidekick Panurge seek the advice of various counselors on whether Panurge should marry, eventually embarking on a mock epic* voyage to consult with an oracle. The plot of these books reflects the theme of a search for answers in an uncertain world.

Gargantua and Pantagruel celebrates the breaking of boundaries and rejects rigid points of view. As the narrator, Rabelais hides behind a number of masks—at one point he is a wise philosopher, at another a hustler. Rabelais also breaks with tradition by mixing words from both the highest and lowest realms of society. Finally, the work constantly switches its perspective, sometimes beginning with a serious commentary only to follow it with mockery. For example, when two characters encounter a riddle in a religious building, one of them reads it as a divine Christian truth, but the other sees only the rules for a game of tennis. These constant shifts deny the reader any clear statement of the author's beliefs.

(See alsoFrench Language and Literature; Satire. )

* satire

literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* theologian

person who studies religion and the nature of God

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* romance

adventure story of the Middle Ages, the forerunner of the modern novel

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

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Rabelais, François ca. 1494–1553 French Humanist and Writer

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