French satirist; b. near Chinon, c. 1483; d. Paris, April 1553. He entered religion as a Franciscan novice probably in 1511; by 1521 he was already a priest at the Fontenay-le-Comte monastery of the Observantine Friars Minor. After difficulties with superiors over the study of Greek, he received an indult from Clement VII to join the Benedictine monastery-cathedral at Maillezais, whose abbot, Bishop Geoffroi d'Estissac, encouraged his studies. Without permission, he matriculated at the Medical Faculty, Montpellier (Sept. 17, 1530) in the garb of a secular priest. His graduation six weeks later was not as unusual as it now seems, but is proof of serious medical studies. In Rome, as personal physician to Cardinal Jean du Bellay, he obtained (1536) absolution from his irregularities and, by an agreed subterfuge, entered the Cardinal's Benedictine monastery at Saint-Maure-les-Fossés, just as it was about to be secularized. He was then named a supplementary prebendary canon. Toward the end of his life (1551) he was nominated to the cure of souls at Saint-Martin-de-Meudon, but never resided. He resigned the living on Jan. 9, 1553. He was the father of a son who died in infancy, and of two other children, legitimated by Paul III. His principal works were: Pantagruel (1532), Gargantua (1534), Tiers livre de Pantagruel (1546), and Quart livre de Pantagruel (partial version 1548, revised and completed 1552). The Cinquiesme livre de Pantagruel (1564), partially published 1562 as I'Isle sonnante, could not as it stands have been by Rabelais. Some scholars accept various parts as his, but their authenticity is not yet proved. His minor works include almanacs and prognostications (mainly evangelical and satirical in intention) and editions of works by Galen, Hippocrates, Manardi, etc. Several of his letters are extant.
Patrons and Persecution. At various times Bp. Geoffroi d'Estissac, Cardinal Jean du Bellay and his brother Guillaume, Margaret of Navarre, and Cardinal Odet de Châtilion protected Rabelais. He corresponded with Erasmus and Budé and had many learned friends, including the humanist lawyer Tiraqueau. Despite this support, all his novels were condemned on publication by the Sorbonne, the Parlement de Paris, or both, with the possible exception of Gargantua (condemned certainly in 1543). Francis I enjoyed his works, considered them free from heresy, and gave a fulsome privilege to the Tiers livre. Some months after the Affaire des placards (October 1534), when posters attacking the "idolatry" of the Mass led to severe repercussions, Rabelais abruptly abandoned his post of doctor to the Hôtel-Dieu at Lyons and for a time "disappeared." Later hostile theological reaction to the Tiers livre caused him to flee to the imperial town of Metz. After the condemnation of the Quart livre, it was rumored that he was imprisoned; this is possible, but unlikely. He was buried with honor in St. Paul's, Paris.
Rabelais's Ideology. Few scholars now discern hidden atheism in his work, and his "obscenity," though still shocking, is seen to serve a genuine artistic purpose. Pantagruel and, to some extent, Gargantua (both published anonymously) were presented as popular tales of giants, but their serious intent was soon recognized. In them Rabelais satirized the monastic ideal and the superstitious veneration of saints, as well as old-fashioned education and university theology. His liberal evangelism owes much to Erasmus and Lefèvre d'Étaples, and something to Luther, though Rabelais was no Lutheran. He strongly advocated the study of classical languages and thought, including law and medicine, and showed a pronounced preference for Plato over Aristotle. He opposed aggressive wars and the spread of the Gospel by force. His praise of fertile marriage was partly antimonastic in intention, but deeply Christian, indeed scholastic, in exposition. Perhaps under Lutheran influence, he tends at times to equate fides with fiducia ("faith" with "trust"), though in some ways his ideas retain a Franciscan mark.
Both Lutheran and Franciscan influences on his thought, however, have probably been overstressed. In the Tiers livre he exploits the renewed literary interest in matrimony, feminism, and antifeminism as a means of mocking ιλαυτία (self love), and he does it in the name of Christian Platonism and Stoicism, though with cynical and skeptical undertones. His evangelical propaganda is less overtly aggressive, except in his mockery of the doctrine of contrition and his condemnation of clandestine marriage. He follows the Reformers in denying the validity of ecclesiastical marriage law in the name of equity, natural law, and imperial law, with some reference to the Old Testament. He jests at Galen's opinions on the womb and the nature of semen, and advocates a Platonic-Christian morality that acknowledges the urgency of the sex-instinct in woman, but denies its necessary dominance in man. In the Quart livre, with the support of Cardinal de Châtillon, Rabelais took advantage of the crisis between the Holy See and the French Court (1551) to mock the Council of Trent as the "concile national de Chésil" (Hebrew Kessil, fool).
Under cover of gallicanism, he championed extreme evangelical opinions and followed the Reformers in calling the papal party worshippers of a Deus in terris, but without suggesting, as they did, that the pope desired the excesses of such worship. He satirized the decretals as Antichrist's parody of the Scriptures, rejecting, as based on their "usurped authority" alone, all monastic orders, papal claims to rights over princes and universities, as well as the doctrines of the Keys, purgatory, and supererogation. He mocked his comic bishop for asserting that we must love our neighbors as ourselves provided they are not heretics. Rabelais was strongly anti-Calvinist, rejecting, in the name of synergism, both the enslaved will of Lutheranism and Calvinistic predestination. His theology, like that of many Christian humanists, was syncretistic with Pan as its symbol in the Quart livre. The dying Pan of Plutarch was, for Rabelais, no devil but Christ Himself, the Good Shepherd (Πάν), the Christian's All (Π[symbol omitted]ν). Despite his outspoken satire, the question of his orthodoxy, within the wide tolerance of his day in France, remains to be settled.
Bibliography: Oeuvres, ed. a. lefranc et al., 5 v. (Paris 1913–31); v.6 (Geneva 1955–), v.6 contains opening chs. of Le Quart livre; for complete text and recent scholarship, with listed eds. of individual works, see Le Quart livre, ed. r. marchel (Geneva 1947). j. plattard, La Vie et l'oeuvre de Rabelais (Paris 1939). l. p. febvre, Le Problème de l'incroyance au XVI e siècle: La Religion de Rabelais (rev. ed. Paris 1947). m. a. screech, Rabelaisian Marriage (London 1958); L'Évangélisme de Rabelais (Geneva 1959). a. j. krailsheimer, Rabelais and the Franciscans (Oxford 1963).
[m. a. screech]