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François Rabelais (c. 1483/1494? – 1553)

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Pantagruel : Gordon 1542 .R26 t.1, Gordon 1542 .R26 t.2

Pantagruel, Roy des Dispodes, restitue a son naturel… [ Lyon] : Francoys Juste, 1542.

Gargantua : Gordon 1542 .R25

La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua, pere de Pantagrual… [ Lyon] : Francoys Juste, 1542.

Tiers livre : Gordon 1552 .R258

Le tiers liure des faicts et dicts heroïques du bon Pantagruel… Paris: Michel Fezandat, 1552.

Quart livre : Gordon 1552 .R26

Le quart liure des faicts et dicts heroiques du bon Pantagruel… Paris : Michel Fezandat, 1552.

Cinquiesme Livre : Gordon 1564 .R65 no.2

Le cinquiesme et dernier liure des faicts et dicts heroïques du bon Pantagruel, appellé vulgairement l'Isle Sonnante…. Lyon: [s.n.], 1565.

Rabelais’s Five Books

Rabelais’s books, with their tales of the giant Gargantua, his son Pantagruel, and the comical and conflicted Panurge, were popular from their first publication, although his contemporaries did not agree on the import of his works. The Paris Faculty of Theology, for example, immediately condemned his first two books for their criticism of religious authority and satirical portrayals of clerical practices, yet the king later gave Rabelais the permission to publish more of his tales. Not surprisingly, scholars frequently arrive at opposing interpretations of Rabelais’s books, which continue to fascinate today’s readers.

Countless passages convey a “Rabelaisian” spirit, complete with elements of popular and oral culture, scatological humor, and a call to readers to eat, drink and be merry, “parce que rire est le propre de l’homme.” The ideal of “pantagruelisme,” however, includes the elements of a sober Christian ethic, with instructions to read carefully in order to discover deeper, hidden meaning regarding religion, politics, and education. Certainly Rabelais’s books are characterized by verbal proliferation, by an excess of both erudition and excrement that simultaneously fulfills and mocks the ideal of “copia,” the humanist dream of encyclopedic knowledge.

Rabelais’s laughter is both deep and ambiguous, and studies of his books return frequently to the central question of interpretation, but the Rabelaisian text inevitably eludes a single definitive reading. Some scholars see in Rabelais’s works an affirmation of Christian humanist values and a call for religious reform from a fervent partisan of “l’Evangélisme,” a movement seeking to purify the Catholic Church from within and to reestablish the primacy of the Scripture. Others have identified the influences of classical forms of satire in these parodies of contemporary religious, academic, and professional practices, concluding that for Rabelais, the search for truth is essentially a comic quest with no resolution. This most interesting ambiguity, combined with the engaging and extravagant humor of the characters and their exploits, guarantees that Rabelais’s books will continue to inspire readers to “sucer la substantifique moëlle.”

Rabelais’s Life: Franciscan friar, Benedictine monk, Humanist philologist, physician, teacher, and author of popular prose satire

Details of Rabelais’s life are sketchy and limited. The son of a lawyer in Chinon, the circumstances of his childhood are unknown, including the year of his birth, dated by some as early as 1483 and others as late as 1494. As a young man, he joined a nearby Franciscan community. Later, as a member of the Franciscan order in Fontenay-le-Comte, Rabelais joined a group of humanist scholars who studied classical languages and texts of antiquity. In 1521, Rabelais wrote to the renowned humanist, Guillaume Budé. In 1523, Rabelais’s Franciscan superiors confiscated his Greek books on the orders of the conservative Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris, who objected to the humanists’ study of pagan languages and texts. With the help of supporters, including Budé and bishop Geoffroy d’Estissac, Rabelais moved in 1525 to the less restrictive Benedictine order, and his Greek books were later returned to him.

Rabelais left the Benedictines after two years to become a secular priest, taking up medical studies, and receiving a Bachelor of Medicine from the University of Montpellier. In 1532, he was a doctor at the Hôtel-Dieu in Lyon, and he continued to practice and teach medicine throughout his life. He traveled to Rome on several occasions, serving as personal physician to his patron, Jean du Bellay, then bishop of Paris and later elevated to cardinal.

Rabelais applied his philological interest and skills, particularly his knowledge of Greek, to producing accurate editions of the classical medical texts of the early Greek physicians, Hippocrates and Galen. His broad humanist interests led him to edit other learned works, including Bartolomeo Marliani’s Topographia antiquae Romae (Gordon 1534 .M37), which Rabelais edited for Sebastien Gryphe, who published the book in Lyon in 1534. This volume displays both the erudition and printing techniques characteristic of early humanist works, notably in the combination of italic type for the text, roman capitals for headings and transcriptions of monumental inscriptions, and the use of Greek when appropriate .

Despite intermittent support from the king and the protection of the Cardinal Jean du Bellay and Odet de Coligny, cardinal de Chastillon, Rabelais’s association with religious and intellectual reformers continued to render his works suspect to the authorities throughout his life and subject to the constant condemnation of the conservative Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris, as well as to the political vacillations of the French monarchy.

More about Rabelais in the Gordon Collection

Rabelais: Further Reading and Internet Resources

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