Rabelais, François

(ca. 1494-1535)
   French author of vernacu-lar prose satires. Born the son of a lawyer at Chinon, he entered the Franciscan order about 1510 and presumably received the typical scholastic education provided to members of his order. He and sev-eral fellow Franciscans became attracted to humanistic studies. Ra-belais learned Greek and studied classical literature, as shown by an admiring letter he wrote to one of the leading French humanists, Guillaume Budé, in 1521. In 1523 the Paris theological faculty con-fiscated secular Greek and Latin books belonging to Rabelais and his fellow Franciscans. His interest in humanism caused him so much difficulty with his order that in 1525 he secured papal permission to transfer to a Benedictine monastery, whose abbot became one of his patrons.
   In 1527, however, Rabelais left that monastery and spent the rest of his life living as a secular priest. At about the same time he took up the study of medicine, first at Paris but eventually at Montpellier. Henceforth he practiced medicine from time to time but also became an editor of Greek medical texts, especially the works of Hippocrates and Galen. In 1531 he lectured on Hippocrates at Montpellier, and the following year he published an edition of that author's Aphorisms. In order to legalize his departure from the Benedictine order, while liv-ing at Rome in the service of a aristocratic patron, he secured a pa-pal dispensation that freed him from his monastic vows. Then he completed his medical doctorate at Montpellier (1537). Henceforth, he pieced together a living from a combination of medical practice, support by aristocratic patrons, income from two parishes of which he was titular rector, and earnings from his publications.
   Those publications included above all his famous satirical nov-els, humorous prose narratives about the imaginary lives of a fam-ily of giants. The first these, Pantagruel, appeared in 1532; a sec-ond, Gargantua, came out in 1534. These books, written in a racy French and full of sexual escapades and gross humor, were con-demned by the Paris theologians, but they were so popular that they could not be suppressed despite their obvious sympathy for reli-gious reformers (more for reform-minded humanists like Erasmus than for Martin Luther and others who broke away from the tra-ditional church). In 1545 Rabelais received from King Henry II (a fierce persecutor of heretics) permission to publish more stories about the adventures of Pantagruel, and his Tiers livre /Third Book came out the following year. Much later, he published a Quart Livre / Fourth Book (1552) of the adventures of Gargantua and Panta-gruel. A fifth book was pieced together from his surviving papers after his death and published in 1562; a more complete version ap-peared in 1564, but it is likely that considerable parts of this last book were written by another hand.
   Rabelais' satires are clearly the work of a man familiar with an-cient satirists like Petronius and Lucian, yet they also continue many elements of French popular satire rooted in the Middle Ages. Ra-belais shelters himself from ecclesiastical censors by his use of irony and shifting points of view. What is perhaps the most famous episode in Gargantua, the description of the aristocratic and pseudohumanistic Abbey of Thélème, makes its message so ambiguous that modern critics still debate just what the author meant. Rabelais also published humorous and profitable astrological calendars. Although his popu-lar works reflect his interest in humanism and religious reform, the comic spirit predominates, no doubt the reason why his books be-came and remained popular.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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