Rabelais, François 1483–1553

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Rabelais, François

François Rabelais, the sixteenth-century French Humanist, was born in Touraine near the city of Chinon between the years 1483 and 1494. An ordained priest and medical doctor, he accompanied, first, the cardinal Jean Du Bellay (1492–1560), and then Guillaume Du Bellay (1491–1543), governor of Piedmont, in their travels to Italy. His most important writings were published between 1532 and 1564. The novels, which were based on popular chronicles of giants from folklore, combined comedy and satire, scatology, and play with language to attack institutions, the monastic life, and the Scholastics in a multilayered fictional narrative. The first two books, Pantagruel (narrating the adventures of the son) and Gargantua (narrating those of the father), were published under the pseudonym of Maistre Alcofribas Nasier, an anagram of his name. Rabelais signed the Tiers Livre (1546) and the Quart Livre (1552), but the authorship of the Cinquième Livre (1564), posthumously published, remains uncertain. All five books were condemned by the Sorbonne, the parliament, and the Vatican, who added them to the index of forbidden books. Rabelais died in Paris in 1553.

Rabelais's work is at the junction of the Middle Ages (476–1350) and the Renaissance (1350–1600), incorporating characteristics of both periods. Although numerous critics have emphasized the misogynistic aspect of his writings as privileging the masculine, the instability of gender is nevertheless manifest in Rabelais's texts. If masculine dominance and symbolic violence seek, through visible signs of masculinity, to protect the male body from the type of vulnerability it projects onto women and the female body, the masculine is destabilized through performativity and parody. Indeed, many episodes in his works expose a crisis in masculinity, blurring the markers of an identity determined in terms of the established gender order of the Renaissance.

In a period of transition Rabelais problematizes a certain status and position of women in society that makes evident a decentralized place of men in the universe. In 1985 Carla Freccero, one of the few feminists challenging the overwhelming masculinist Rabelais criticism, argued that, if women are, as it is commonly affirmed, absent, silent, or pale figures in Rabelais's work, it is because the homosocial bond between Pantagruel and his servant Panurge, in particular, is so strong. The two share a jealous and exalted friendship that excludes women and in which power and passion are interrelated. Françoise Charpentier's work (1986), by contrast, simply states that Rabelais's texts are centered on a genealogy of men asserting domination and exercising the power that their gender is invested with by the perceptions and structures of society.

The body is the obsessive and recurrent theme in all five books. Mikhaïl Bakhtine's (1970) study of Rabelais's work remains essential for the history of its relation to the body, to popular tradition, and the carnivalesque, but his analysis, oblivious to gender, views the feminine as univocal. His focus is on the grotesque body, a fragmented body associated with nature and related to the digestive and reproductive functions.

Yet beyond their reproductive capacities, women's insatiable sexual appetite are frightening and, furthermore, threatening to male potency, calling into question male sexuality. In Pantagruel, Panurge suggests relying on female promiscuity to ensure the protection of Paris by using female genitals as building materials for a fortress that would not close the city but open it, one that would attract and repulse at the same time. Paradoxically, the fragmented women warriors would be defending the city by exposing themselves (Charpentier 1986).

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, bodies are still gendered to reflect social status and sexual identity. The oversized codpieces of Gargantua and Panurge, emphasizing a gender-specific silhouette, are deliberately conceived as the exterior form of the enhancement of a man's virility (Persels 1997). Yet such a hypermasculinity rather signals overcompensation for a lack thereof.

The popular episode of the assault on the body of the Lady of Paris is a prevalent farce of the period made famous by masculine readers. Panurge, encouraged by his previous sexual prowess, fails in his attempt to seduce a woman of different social status. Rejected, he transfers his desire onto a hyperbolic number of dogs he attracts by spreading the scent of a female dog on the woman's sumptuous dress. The dogs will then inscribe abjection all over her. Panurge supplants failure with revenge, but even though the misogynistic joke denounces in women a sexuality that is irrepressible and hidden, it only masks Panurge's impotence.

The tradition of the querelle des femmes raging in France and Italy between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries is at the heart of the Tiers Livre. The construction of male gender identity emerges as the result of the misogynistic discourse representing the negative qualities attributed to women and the necessity to domesticate female desire. Panurge is the central figure of this episode, questioning the misogyny of the intellectuals of his time and the institution of marriage. He has abandoned his codpiece, a disproportionate sign of virility, and appears as a more ambiguous character, doubting everything in search of an answer to his quest.

In another register the medallion evidently placed on Gargantua's hat is an androgyn, with the two heads facing each other. Whereas it seems to derive from Plato's (428–348 bce) image linking the physical and the spiritual, the ideal sought in the Renaissance, the figure in Gargantua is equivocal and rather represents the paradoxical relationship between spirit and flesh.

In the Quart Livre, the episodes of Quaresmeprenant and the Andouilles, related to the carnival period, are plagued with gender confusion. Rabelais continues his play and reflection on language to demonstrate the gaps between words and things they represent. Indeed, in this episode, beyond an obvious and literal phallic appearance, the Andouilles (chitterlings) have a feminine noun and live in a matriarchal system in which the name of the queen is that of the male organ in Hebrew.

Throughout the adventures and travels of Pantagruel and Panurge, sexuality, gender, and identity continuously intersect. As Lawrence Kritzman (1991) affirms, Rabelais's text depicts sexual difference as emanating from the difference of desires creating fictions of sexuality that investigate the very questions of male gender identity, a notion that appear no longer to be stable.

see also Censorship; Folklore; Literature: I. Overview; Obscene.


Bakhtine, Michaïl. 1970. L' oeuvre de Françoise et la culture populaire au Moyen Age et sous la Renaissance. Paris: Editions Gallimard.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2001. Masculine Domination. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Charpentier, Francoise. 1986. "Un royaume qui purdure sans femmes." In Rabelais's Incomparable Book, ed. Raymond de la Charité. Lexington: Lexington French Forum Publishers

Freccero, Carla. 1985. "Damning Haughty Dames: Panurge and the Haulte Dame de Paris." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 15: 56-67.

Kritzman, Lawrence D. 1991. The Rhetoric of Sexuality and the Literature of the French Renaissance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Persels, Jeffrey C. 1997. "Bragueta Humanistica, or Humanisms' Codpiece." Sixteenth Century Journal 28 (1): 79-99.

Rabelais, François. 1995. Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Guy Demerson. Paris: Editions du Seui.

                                                    Rosa Perez