Born: c. 1494
Birthplace: Chinon, Indre-et-Loire, France
Location of death: Paris, France
Cause of death: unspecified
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Gargantua and Pantagruel
French humorist, born at Chinon on the Vienne in the province of Touraine. The date of his birth is wholly uncertain: it has been put by tradition, and by authorities long subsequent to his death, as 1483, 1490, and 1495. There is nothing in the positive facts of his life which would not suit tolerably well with any of these dates; most 17th-century authorities give the earliest, and this also accords best with the age of the eldest of the Du Bellay brothers, with whom Rabelais was (perhaps) at school. In favor of the latest it is urged that, if Rabelais was born in 1483, he must have been forty-seven when he entered at Montpellier, and proportionately and unexpectedly old at other known periods of his life. In favor of the middle date, which has, as far as recent authorities are concerned, the weight of consent in its favor, the testimony of Guy Patin (1601-1672), a witness of some merit and not too far removed in point of time, is invoked. The only contribution which need be made here to the controversy is to point out that if Rabelais was born in 1483 he must have been an old man when he died, and that scarcely even tradition speaks of him as such.
With regard to his birth, parentage, youth, and education everything depends upon this tradition, and it is not until he was according to one extreme hypothesis thirty-six, according to the other extreme twenty-four, that we have solid testimony respecting him. In the year 1519, on the 5th of April, the François Rabelais of history emerges. The monks of Fontenay le Comte bought some property (half an inn in the town), and among their signatures to the deed of purchase is that of François Rabelais. Before this all is cloudland. It is said that he had four brothers and no sisters, that his father had a country property called La Devinière, and was either an apothecary or a tavern-keeper. Half a century after his death De Thou mentions that the house in which he was born had become a tavern and then a tennis-court. It still stands at the corner of a street called the Rue de la Lamproie, and the tradition may be correct. An indistinct allusion of his own has been taken to mean that he was tonsured in childhood at seven or nine years old; and tradition says that he was sent to the convent of Seuilly. From Seuilly at an unknown date tradition takes him either to the university of Angers or to the convent school of La Baumette or La Basmette, founded by good King René in the neighborhood of the Angevin capital. Here he is supposed to have been at school with the brothers Du Bellay, with Geoffroy d'Estissac and others. The next stage in this (so far as evidence goes, purely imaginary) career is the monastery of Fontenay le Comte, where, as has been seen, he is certainly found in 1519 holding a position sufficiently senior to sign deeds for the community, where he, probably in 1511, took priest's orders, and where he also pursued, again certainly, the study of letters, and especially of Greek, with ardor. From this date he becomes historically visible. The next certain intelligence which we have of Rabelais is somewhat more directly biographical. The letters of the well-known Greek scholar Budaeus, two of which are addressed to Rabelais himself and several more to his friend and fellow monk Pierre Amy, together with some notices by André Tiraqueau, a learned jurist, to whom Rabelais rather than his own learning has secured immortality, show beyond doubt what manner of life the future author of Gargantua led in his convent. The letters of Budaeus show that an attempt was made by the heads of the convent or the order to check the studious ardor of these Franciscans; but it failed, and there is no positive evidence of anything like actual persecution, the phrases in the letters of Budaeus being merely the usual exaggerated Ciceronianism of the Renaissance. Some books and papers were seized as suspicious, then given back as innocent; but Rabelais was in all probability disgusted with the cloister -- indeed his great work shows this beyond doubt. In 1524, the year of the publication of Tiraqueau's book above cited, his friend Geoffroy d'Estissac procured from Pope Clement VII an indult, licensing a change of order and of abode for Rabelais. From a Franciscan he became a Benedictine, and from Fontenay he moved to Maillezais, of which Geoffroy d'Estissac was bishop. But even this learned and hospitable retreat did not apparently satisfy Rabelais. In or before 1530 he left Maillezais, abandoned his Benedictine garb for that of a secular priest, and, as he himself puts it in his subsequent Supplicatio pro Apostasia to Pope Paul III, "per seculum diu vagatus fuit." For a time the Du Bellays provided him with an abode near their own château of Langey. He is met at Montpellier in the year just mentioned. He entered the faculty of medicine there on the 16th of September and became bachelor on the 1st of November, a remarkably short interval, which shows what was thought of his acquirements. Early in 1531 he lectured publicly on Galen and Hippocrates, while his more serious pursuits seem to have been chequered by acting in a morale comédie, then a very frequent university amusement. Visits to the Îles d'Hières, and the composition of a fish sauce in imitation of the ancient garum, which he sent to his friend Étienne Dolet, are associated, not very certainly, with his stay at Montpellier, which, lasting rather more than a year at first, was renewed at intervals for several years.
In 1532, however, he had moved from Montpellier to Lyons. Here he plunged into manifold work, literary and professional. He was appointed before the beginning of November physician to the Hôtel Dieu, with a salary of forty livres per annum, and lectured on anatomy with demonstrations from the human subject. He edited for Sebastian Gryphius, in the single year 1532, the medical Epistles of Giovanni Manardi, the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, with the Ars Parva of Galen, and an edition of two supposed Latin documents, which, however, happened unluckily to be forgeries.
At this time Lyons was the center and to a great extent the headquarters of an unusually enlightened society, and indirectly it is clear that Rabelais became intimate with this society. A manuscript distich, which was found in the Toulouse library, deals with the death of an infant named Théodule, whose country was Lyons and his father Rabelais, but we know nothing more about the matter. What makes the Lyons sojourn of the greatest real importance is that at this time probably appeared the beginnings of the work which was to make Rabelais immortal. It is necessary to say "probably", because the strange uncertainty which rests on so much of his life and writings exists here also. There is no doubt that both Gargantua< and Pantagruel< were popular names of giants in the Middle Ages, though, curiously enough, no mention of the former in French literature much before Rabelais' time has been traced. In 1526, however, Charles de Bordigné, in a satiric work of no great merit, entitled la Légende de Pierre Faifeu, has the name Gargantua with an allusion, and in 1532 (if not earlier) there appeared at Lyons les Grandes et inestimables chroniques du grand et énorme géant Gargantua. This is a short book on the plan of the later burlesques and romances of the Round Table. Arthur and Merlin appear with Grantgosier, as he is here spelled, Galemelle (Gargamelle), Gargantua himself, and the terrible mare. But there is no trace of the action or other characters of Gargantua that was to be, nor is the manner of the piece in the least worthy of Rabelais. No one supposes that he wrote it, though it has been supposed that he edited it and that in reality it is older than 1532, and may be the direct subject of Bordigné's allusion six years earlier. What does, however, seem probable is that the first book of Pantagruel (the second of the whole work) was composed with a definite view to this chapbook and not to the existing first book of Gargantua, which was written afterwards, when Rabelais discovered the popularity of his work and felt that it ought to have some worthier starting-point than the Grandes chroniques. The earliest known and dated edition of Pantagruel is of 1533, of Gargantua 1535, though this would not be of itself conclusive, especially as we actually possess editions of both which, though undated, seem to be earlier. But the definite description of Gargantua in the title as Père de Pantagruel the omission of the words "second livre" in the title of the first book of Pantagruel while the second and third are duly entitled "tiers" and "quart", the remarkable fact that one of the most important personages, Friar John, is absent from book II, the first of Pantagruel, though he appears in book I (Gargantua), and many other proofs show the order of publication clearly enough. There is also in existence a letter of John Calvin, dated 1533, in which he speaks of Pantagruel, but not of Gargantua, as having been condemned as an obscene book. Besides this, 1533 saw the publication of an almanac, the first of a long series which exists only in titles and fragments, and of the amusing Prognostication Pantagrueline (still, be it observed, Pantagrueline, not Gargantuine). Both this and Pantagruel itself were published under the anagrammatic pseudonym of "Alcofribas Nasier", shortened to the first word only in the case of the Prognostication.
This busy and interesting period of Rabelais' life was brought to a close apparently by his introduction or reintroduction to Jean du Bellay, who, in October 1533, passing through Lyons on an embassy to Rome, engaged Rabelais as physician. The visit did not last very long, but it left literary results in an edition of a description of Rome by Marliani, which Rabelais published in September 1534. It is also thought that the first edition of Gargantua may have appeared this year.
In the spring of 1535 the authorities of the Lyons hospital, considering that Rabelais had twice absented himself without leave, elected Pierre de Castel in his room; but the documents which exist do not seem to infer that any blame was thought due to him, and the appointment of his successor was once definitely postponed in case he should return. At the end of 1535 Rabelais once more accompanied Jean du Bellay, now a cardinal, to Rome and stayed there until April in the next year. This stay furnishes some biographical documents of importance in the shape of letters to Geoffroy d'Estissac, of the already-mentioned Supplicatio pro Apostasia, and of the bull of absolution which was the reply to it. This bull not only freed Rabelais from ecclesiastical censure, but gave him the right to return to the order of St. Benedict when he chose, and to practice medicine. He took advantage of this bull and became a canon of St. Maur. In 1537 he took his doctor's degree at Montpellier, lectured on the Greek text of Hippocrates, and next year made a public anatomical demonstration. During these two years he seems to have resided either at Montpellier or at Lyons. But in 1539 he entered the service of Guillaume du Bellay-Langey, elder brother of Jean, and would appear to have been with him (he was governor of Piedmont) until his death on 9th January 1543. Rabelais wrote a panegyrical memoir of Guillaume, which is lost, and the year before saw the publication of an edition of Gargantua and Pantagruel, book I, together (both had been repeatedly reprinted separately), in which some dangerous expressions were cut away. Nothing at all is known of his life, whereabouts, or occupations until the publication of the third book, which appeared in 1546, "avec privilége du roi", which had been given in September 1545.
Up to this time Rabelais, despite the condemnation of the Sorbonne referred to above, had experienced nothing like persecution or difficulty. Even the spiteful or treacherous act of Dolet, who in 1542 reprinted the earlier form of the books which Rabelais had just slightly modified, seems to have done him no harm. But the storm of persecution which towards the end of the reign of Francis I was fatal to Dolet himself and to Des Périers, while it exiled and virtually killed Marot, threatened him. There is no positive evidence of any measures taken or threatened against him; but it is certain that he passed nearly the whole of 1546 and part of 1547 at Metz in Lorraine as physician to the town at the salary of 120 livres, and Sturm speaks of him as having been "cast out of France by the times" in a contemporary letter, and says that he himself in another letter gives a doleful account of his pecuniary affairs and asks for assistance. At Francis's death on 31st March 1547 Du Bellay went to Rome, and at some time not certain Rabelais joined him. He was certainly there in February 1549, when he dates from Du Bellay's palace a little account of the festivals given at Rome to celebrate the birth of the second son of Henri II and Catherine de Medici. This account, the Sciomachie as it is called, is extant. In the same year a monk of Fontevrault, Gabriel du Puits-Herbault, made in a book called Theotimus the first of the many attacks on Rabelais. It is, however, as vague as it is violent, and it does not seem to have had any effect. Rabelais had indeed again made for himself protectors whom no clerical or Sorbonist jealousy could touch. The Sciomachie was written to the cardinal of Guise, whose family were all-powerful at court, and Rabelais dedicated his next book to Odet de Chatillon, afterwards cardinal, a man of great influence. Thus Rabelais was able to return to France, and in 1550 was presented to the livings of Meudon and St. Christophe de Jambet. It may, however, surprise those who have been accustomed to hear him spoken of as "curé de Meudon", and who have read lives of him founded on legend, to find that there is very little ground for believing that he ever officiated or resided there. He certainly held the living but two years, resigning it in January 1552 along with his other benefice, and it is noteworthy that at the episcopal visitation of 1551 he was not present. To this supposed residence at Meudon and to the previous stay at Rome, however, are attached two of the most mischievous items of the legend, though fortunately two of the most easily refutable. It is said that Rabelais met and quarrelled with Joachim du Bellay the poet at Rome, and with Ronsard at Meudon and elsewhere, that this caused a breach between him and the Pléiade, that he satirized its classicizing tendencies in the episode of the Limousin scholar, and that Ronsard after his death avenged himself by a libellous epitaph. The facts are these. Nothing is heard of the quarrel with Du Bellay or of any meeting with him, nothing of the meetings and bickerings with Ronsard, until 1697, when Bernier tells the story without any authority. The supposed allusions to the Pléiade date from a time when Ronsard was a small boy, and are mainly borrowed from an earlier writer still, Geoffroy Tory. Lastly, the epitaph, read impartially, is not libellous at all, but simply takes up the vein of the opening scenes of Gargantua in reference to Gargantua's author. There is indeed no reason to suppose that either Ronsard or Du Bellay was a fervent admirer of Rabelais, for they belonged to a very different literary school; but there is absolutely no evidence of any enmity between them, and Du Bellay actually refers to Rabelais with admiration.
Some chapters of Rabelais' fourth book had been published in 1548, but the whole did not appear until 1552. The Sorbonne censured it and the parliament suspended the sale, taking advantage of the king's absence from Paris. But it was soon relieved of the suspension. He died, it is said, on the 9th of April 1553, but actual history is quite silent save on the point that he was not alive in May of the next year, and the legends about his deathbed utterances -- "La farce est jouée", "Je vais chercher un grand peut-être", etc. are altogether apocryphal. The same may be said of the numerous silly stories told of his life, such as that of his procuring a free passage to Paris by inscribing packets "Poison for the king", and so forth.
Ten years after the publication of the fourth book and nine after the supposed date of the author's death there appeared at Lyons sixteen chapters entitled l'Î'le sonnante par maistre François Rabelais, and two years later the entire fifth book was printed as such. In 1567 it took place with the others, and has ever since appeared with them. But from the beginning of the 17th century there have never been wanting disbelievers in its authenticity. The controversy is one of some intricacy, but as it is also one of capital importance in literary history the heads of it at least must be given here. The opponents of the book rely (1) on the testimony of a certain Louis Guyon, who in 1604 declared that the fifth book was made long after Rabelais' death by an author whom he knew, and who was not a doctor, and on the assertion of the bibliographer Du Verdier, about the same time, that it was written by an "écolier de Valence"; (2) on the fact that the anti-monastic and even anti-Catholic polemic is much more accentuated in it; (3) on the arguments that parts are apparently replicas or rough drafts of passages already appearing in the four earlier books; and (4) that some allusions are manifestly posterior to even the furthest date which can be assigned for the reputed author's decease. On the other hand, it is urged that, though Guyon and Du Verdier were in a sense contemporaries, they wrote long after the events, and that the testimony of the former is vitiated, not merely by its extreme vagueness, but by the fact that it occurs in a plaidoyer, tending to exculpate physicians from the charge of unorthodoxy; that Du Verdier in another place assigns the Pantagrueline Prognostication to this same unknown student of Valence, and had therefore probably confused and hearsay notions on the subject; that the rasher and fiercer tone, as well as the apparent repetitions, are sufficiently accounted for on the supposition that Rabelais never finally revised the book, which indeed dates show that he could not have done, as the fourth was not finally settled until just before his death; and that it is perfectly probable, and indeed almost certain, that it was prepared from his papers by another hand, which is responsible for the anachronous allusions above referred to. But the strongest argument, and one which has never been attacked by authorities really competent to judge, is that the "griffe de l'aigle" is on the book, and that no known author of the time except Rabelais was capable of writing the passage about the Chats fourrés, the better part of the history of Queen Whims (La Quinte) and her court, and the conclusion giving the Oracle of the Bottle. To this argument we believe that the more competent a critic is, both by general faculty of appreciation and by acquaintance with contemporary French literature, the more positive will be the assent that he yields. The reader must, however, be on his guard against confusing the authenticity of the fifth book generally with that of supposed early copies of it -- an edition of 1549 was proven apocryphal.
Gargantua and Pantagruel, notwithstanding their high literary standing and the frequency with which certain passages from then are cited, are, owing partly to their archaism of language and partly to the extreme license which their author has allowed himself, so little read that no notice of them or of him could be complete without some sketch of their contents. The first book, Gargantua, describes the birth of that hero (a giant and the son of gigantic parents), whose nativity is ushered in by the account of tremendous feast. In this the burlesque exaggeration of the pleasures of eating and drinking, which is one of the chief exterior notes of the whole work, is pushed to an extreme -- an extreme which has attracted natural but perhaps undue attention. Very early however, the author becomes serious in contrasting the early education of his hero -- a satire on the degraded schools of the middle ages -- with its subsequent and reformed stage, in the account of which all the best and noblest ideas of the humanist Renaissance in reference to pedagogy are put with exceptional force. Gargantua is recalled from Paris, to where he had been sent to finish his education, owing to a war between his father, Grandgosier, and the neighboring king, Picrochole. This war is described at great length, the chief hero of it being the monk, Friar John, a very unclerical cleric, in whom Rabelais greatly delights. Picrochole defeated and peace made, Gargantua establishes the abbey of Thelema in another of Rabelais' most elaborate literary passages, where all the points most obnoxious to him in monastic life are indicated by the assignment of their exact opposites to this model convent. The second book, which introduces the principal hero of the whole, Pantagruel, Gargantua's son, is, on any other hypothesis but that already suggested of its prior composition, very difficult to explain, but in itself it is intelligible enough. Pantagruel goes through something like a second edition (really a first) of the educational experiences of his father. Like him, he goes to Paris, and there meets with Panurge, the principal triumph of Rabelaisian character-drawing, and the most original as well as puzzling figure of the book. Panurge has almost all intellectual accomplishments, but is totally devoid of morality: he is a coward, a drunkard, a lecher, a spiteful trickster, a spendthrift, but all the while infinitely amusing. This book, like the other, has a war in its latter part; Gargantua scarcely appears in it and Friar John not at all. It is not until the opening of the third book that the most important action begins. This arises from Panurge's determination to marry -- a determination, however, which is very half-hearted, and which leads him to consult a vast number of authorities, each giving occasion for satire of a more or less complicated kind. At last it is determined that Pantagruel and his followers (Friar John has reappeared in the suite of the prince) shall set sail to consult the Oracle of the Dive Bouteille. The book ends with the obscurest passage of the whole, an elaborate eulogy of the "herb pantagruelion", which appears to be, if it is anything, hemp. Only two probable explanations of this have been offered, the one seeing in it an anticipation of Joseph de Maistre's glorification of the executioner, the other a eulogy of work, hemp being on the whole the most serviceable of vegetable products for that purpose. The fourth and fifth books are entirely taken up with a description of the voyage. Many strange places with stranger names are visited, some of them offering obvious satire on human institutions, others, except by the most far-fetched explanations, resolvable into nothing but sheer extravaganza. At last the Land of Lanterns, borrowed from Lucian, is reached, and the Oracle of the Bottle is consulted. This yields the single word "Trinq", which the attendant priestess declares to be the most gracious and intelligible she has ever heard from it. Panurge takes this as a sanction of his marriage, and the book ends abruptly. This singular romance is diversified by, or to speak more properly, it is the vehicle of the most bewildering abundance of digression, burlesque amplification, covert satire on things political, social and religious, miscellaneous erudition of the literary and scientific kind. Everywhere the author lays stress on the excellence of "Pantagruelism", and the reader who is himself a Pantagruelist (it is perfectly idle for any other to attempt the book) soon discovers what this means. It is, in plain English, humor. The definition of humor is a generally acknowledged crux, and until it is defined the definition of Pantagruelism will be in the same position. But that it consists in the extension of a wide sympathy to all human affairs, together with a comprehension of their vanity, may be said as safely as anything else. Moroseness and dogmatism are as far from the Pantagruelism of Rabelais as maudlin sentimentality or dilettantism. Perhaps the chief things lacking in his attitude are, in the first place, reverence, of which however, from a few passages it is clear he was by no means totally devoid, and secondly, an appreciation of passion and poetry. Here and there there are touches of the latter, as in the portrait of Quintessence, but passion is everywhere absent -- an absence for which the comic structure and plan of the book do not by any means supply a complete explanation.
Some detailed remarks regarding the estimate of Rabelais' literary character must be given here. There are three questions which must be considered. These are -- What is the general drift and purpose of Gargantua and Pantagruel, supposing there to be any? What defense can be offered, if any defense is needed, for the extraordinary license of language and imagery which the author has permitted himself? What was his attitude towards the great questions of religion, philosophy and politics? These question succeed each other in the order of reason, and the answer to each assists the resolution of the next.
There have been few more remarkable instances of the lues commentatoria than the work of the editors of Rabelais. Almost every one appears to have started with a Rabelais ready made in his head, and to have, so to speak, read that Rabelais into the book. Those who have not done this, like Le Duchat, Motteux, and Esmangart, have generally committed the error of tormenting themselves and their author to find individual explanations of personages and events. The extravagance of the last-named commentator takes the form of seeing elaborate allegories; that of some others devotes itself chiefly to identifying the characters of the romance with more or less famous historical persons. But the first blunder, that of forming a general hypothetical conception of Rabelais and then adjusting interpretation of the work to it, is the more common. This conception, however, has singularly varied. According to some expositors, including Fleury, Rabelais is a sober reformer, an apostle of earnest work, of sound education, of rational if not dogmatic religion, who wraps up his morals in a farcical envelope partly to make them go down with the vulgar and partly to shield himself from the consequences of his reforming zeal. According to others, of whom we have had in England a distinguished example in Sir Walter Besant, Rabelais is all this but with a difference. He is not religious at all; he is more or less anti-religious; and his book is more or less of a general protest against any attempt to explain supernaturally the riddle of the earth. According to a third class, the most distinguished representative of which was Paul Lacroix, the Rabelaisian legend does not so much err in principle as it invents in fact. Rabelais is the incarnation of the "esprit Gaulois", a jovial, careless soul, not destitute of common sense or even acute intellectual power, but first of all a good fellow, rather preferring a broad jest to a fine-pointed one, and rollicking through life like a good-natured undergraduate. Of all these views it may be said that those who hold them are obliged to shut their eyes to many things in the book and to see in it many which are not there. The religious part of the matter will be dealt with presently; but it is impossible to think that any unbiased judge reading Rabelais can hold the grave-philosopher view or the reckless-goodfellow view without modifications and allowances which practically deprive either of any value. Those who identify Rabelais with Pantagruel strive in vain, on any view intellectually consistent or morally respectable, to account for the vast ocean of pure or impure laughter and foolery which surrounds the few solid islets of sense and reason and devotion. Those who in the same way identify Rabelais with Panurge can never explain the education scheme, the solemn apparition of Gargantua among the farcical and fantastic variations on Panurge's wedding, and many other passages; while, on the other hand, those who insist on a definite propaganda of any kind must justify themselves by their own power of seeing things invisible to plain men. But these vagaries are not only unjustifiable; they are entirely unnecessary. No one reading Rabelais without parti pris, but with a good knowledge of the history and literature of his own times and the times which preceded him, can have much difficulty in appreciating his book. He had evidently during his long and studious sojourn in the cloister (a sojourn which was certainly not less than 25 years, while it may have been 35, and of which the studiousness rests not on legend but on documentary evidence) acquired a vast stock of learning. He was, it is clear, thoroughly penetrated with the instincts, the hopes, and the ideas of the Renaissance in the form which it took in France, in England and in Germany -- a form not merely humanist but full of aspirations for social and political improvement, and above all for a joyous, varied, and non-ascetic life. He had thoroughly convinced himself of the abuses to which monachism lent itself. Lastly, he had the spirit of lively satire and of willingness desipere in loco which frequently goes with the love of books. It is in the highest degree improbable that in beginning his great work he had any definite purpose or intention. The habit of burlesquing the romans d'aventures was no new one, and the form lent itself easily to the two literary exercises to which he was most disposed -- apt and quaint citation from and variation on the classics and satirical criticism of the life he saw around him. The immense popularity of the first two parts induced him to continue them, and by degrees (the genuineness of the fifth book, at any rate in substance, is here assumed) the possibility of giving the whole something like a consistent form and a regular conclusion presented itself to him. The voyage in particular allowed the widest license of satirical allusion, and he availed himself of that license in the widest sense. Here and there persons are glanced at, while the whole scenery of his birthplace and its neighborhood is curiously worked in; but for the most part the satire is typical rather than individual, and it is on the whole a rather negative satire. In only two points can Rabelais be said to be definitely polemic. He certainly hated the monkish system in the debased form in which it existed in his time; he as certainly hated the brutish ignorance into which the earlier systems of education had suffered too many of their teachers and scholars to drop. At these two things he was never tired of striking, but elsewhere, even in the grim satire of the Chats fourrés, he is the satirist proper rather than the reformer. It is in the very absence of any cramping or limiting purpose that the great merit and value of the book consist. It holds up an almost perfectly level and spotless mirror to the temper of the earlier Renaissance. The author has no universal medicine of his own (except Pantagruelism) to offer, nor has he anybody else's universal medicine to attack. He ranges freely about the world, touching the laughable sides of things with kindly laughter, and every now and then dropping the risibile and taking to the rationale. It is not indeed possible to deny that in the Oracle of the Bottle, besides its merely jocular and fantastic sense, there is a certain "echo", as it has been called, "of the conclusion of the preacher", a certain acknowledgment of the vanity of things. But in such a book such a note could hardly be wanting unless the writer had been a fanatic, which he was not, or a mere voluptuary, which he was not, or a dullard, which he was least of all. It is, after all, little more than a suggestion, and is certainly not strengthened by anything in the body of the work. Rabelais is, in short, if he be read without prejudice, a humorist pure and simple, feeling often in earnest, thinking almost always in jest. He is distinguished from the two men who alone can be compared with him in character of work and force of genius combined -- Lucian and Jonathan Swift -- by very marked characteristics. He is much less of a mere mocker than Lucian, and he is entirely destitute, even when he deals with monks or pedants, of the ferocity of Swift. He neither sneers nor rages; the rire immense which distinguishes him is altogether good-natured; but he is nearer to Lucian than to Swift, and Lucian is perhaps the author whom it is most necessary to know in order to understand him rightly.
If this general view is correct it will probably condition to some extent the answer to be given to the two minor questions stated above. The first is connected with the great "blemish" of Gargantua and Pantagrue -- their extreme coarseness of language and imagery. It is somewhat curious that some of those who claim Rabelais as an enemy of the supernatural in general have been the loudest to condemn this "blemish", and that some of them have made the exceedingly lame excuse for him that it was a means of wrapping up his propaganda and keeping it and himself safe from the notice of the powers that were. This is not complimentary to Rabelais, and, except in some very small degree, it is not likely to be true. For as a matter of fact obscenity no less than impiety was charged against him by his ultra-orthodox enemies, and the obscenity no less than the supposed impiety gave them a handle against him before such bodies as the Sorbonne and the parliaments. As for the extreme theory of the anti-Rabelaisians, that Rabelais was a "dirty old blackguard" who liked filth and wallowed in it from choice, that hardly needs comment. His errors in this way are of course, looked at from an absolute standard, unpardonable. But judged relatively there are several, we shall not say excuses, but explanations of them. In the first place, the comparative indecency of Rabelais has been much exaggerated by persons unfamiliar with early French literature. The form of his book was above all things popular, and the popular French literature of the middle ages as distinguished from the courtly and literary literature, which was singularly pure, can hardly be exceeded in point of coarseness. The fabliaux, the early burlesque romances of the Audigier class, the farces of the 15th century, equal (the grotesque iteration and amplification which is the note of Gargantua and Pantagruel being allowed for, and sometimes without that allowance) the coarsest passages of Rabelais. His coarseness, moreover, disgusting as it is, has nothing of the corruption of refined voluptuousness about it, and nothing of the sniggering indecency which disgraces men like Alexander Pope, like Voltaire, and like Laurence Sterne. It shows in its author a want of reverence, a want of decency in the proper sense, a too great readiness to condescend to the easiest kind of ludicrous ideas and the kind most acceptable at that time to the common run of mankind. The general taste having been considerably refined since, Rabelais has in parts become nearly unreadable -- the worst punishment for his faults. As for those who have tried to make his indecency an argument for his laxity in religious principle, that argument, like another mentioned previously, hardly needs discussion. It is notoriously false as a matter of experience. Rabelais could not have written as he has written in this respect and in others if he had been an earnestly pious person, taking heed to every act and word, and studious equally not to offend and not to cause offense. But no one in his senses would dream of claiming any such character for him.
This brings us to the last point -- what his religious opinions were. He has been claimed as a freethinker of all shades, from undogmatic theism to atheism, and as a concealed Protestant. The last of these claims has now been very generally given up, and indeed Erasmus might quite as reasonably be claimed for the Reformation as Rabelais. Both disliked and attacked the more crying abuses of their church, and both at the time and since have been disliked and attacked by the more imprudent partisans of that church. But Rabelais, in his own way, held off from the Reformation even more distinctly than Erasmus did. The accusation of freethinking, if not of directly anti-Christian thinking, has always been more common and has recently found much favor. It is, however, remarkable that those who hold this opinion never give chapter and verse for it, and it may be said confidently that chapter and verse cannot be given. The sayings attributed to Rabelais which color the idea (such as the famous "Je vais chercher un grand peut-être", said to have been uttered on his deathbed) are, as has been said, purely apocryphal. In the book itself nothing of the kind is to be found. Perhaps the nearest approach to it is a jest at the Sorbonne couched in the Pauline phrase about "the evidence of things not seen", which the author removed from the later editions. But irreverences of this kind, as well as the frequent burlesque citations of the Bible, whether commendable or not, had been, were, have since been, and are common in writers whose orthodoxy is unquestioned; and it must be remembered that the later Middle Age, which in many respects Rabelais represents almost more than he does the Renaissance, was, with all its unquestioning faith, singularly reckless and irreverent in its use of the sacred words and images, which were to it the most familiar of all images and words. On the other hand, there are in the book, in the description of Gargantua's and Pantagruel's education, in the sketch of the abbey of Thelema, in several passages relating to Pantagruel, expressions which either signify a sincere and unfeigned piety of a simple kind or else are inventions of the most detestable hypocrisy. For these passages are not, like many to be found from the Renaissance to the end of the 18th century, obvious flags of truce to cover attacks -- mere bowings in the house of Rimmon to prevent evil consequences. There is absolutely no sign of the tongue in the cheek. They are always written in the author's highest style, a style perfectly eloquent and unaffected; they can only be interpreted (on the freethinking hypothesis) as allegorical with the greatest difficulty and obscurity, and it is pretty certain that no one reading the book without a thesis to prove would dream of taking them in an unnatural sense. It is not to be contended that Rabelais was a man with whom religion was in detail a constant thought, that he had a very tender conscience or a very scrupulous orthodoxy. His form of religious sentiment was not evangelical or mystical, any more than it was ascetic or ceremonial or dogmatic. As regards one of the accepted doctrines of his own church, the excellence of the celibate life, of poverty, and of elaborate obedience to a rule, he no doubt was a strong dissident; but the evidence that, as a Christian, he was unorthodox, that he was even a heretical or latitudinarian thinker in regard to those doctrines which the various Christian churches have in common, is not merely weak, it is practically nonexistent. The counter-testimony is, indeed, not very strong, and still less detailed. But that is not the point. It is sufficient to say that there is absolutely nothing within the covers of Rabelais' works incompatible with an orthodoxy which would be recognized as sufficient by Christendom at large, leaving out of the question those points of doctrine and practice on which Christians differ. Beyond this no wise man will go, and short of it hardly any unprejudiced man will stop.
University: University of Poitiers, France
University: University of Montpellier
Spanish Inquisition Index of Prohibited Books
Author of books:
La vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua (1534)
Topographiae antiquae Romae Epistola (1534)
Supplicatio pro Apostasia (1535)
La Sciomachie (1549)
Do you know something we don't?
Submit a correction or make a comment about this profile
Copyright ©2019 Soylent Communications