Authors: François Rabelais

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Pantagruel, 1532 (English translation, 1653)

Gargantua, 1534 (English translation, 1653)

Tiers Livre, 1546 (Third Book, 1693)

Le Quart Livre, incomplete 1548, complete 1552 (Fourth Book, 1694)

Le Cinquième Livre, 1564 (Fifth Book, 1694)

Gargantua et Pantagruel, (collective title for all of the above; Gargantua and Pantagruel, 1653-1694, 1929)


La Sciomachie et festins, 1549

Edited Texts:

Aphorisms, 1532

Ars medicinalis, 1532

Topographia antiquae Romae, 1534


Pantagruéline Prognostication, 1532 (occasional verses and letters)


Concrete facts about the life of François Rabelais (rahb-uh-lay) are few and far between. The dates and places of his birth and death are guesses, and the gaps in his career are many. As is so often true of people with colorful personalities but uncertain biographies, his life is obscured by a mist of legend and anecdote. There is, for example, the story that Rabelais, finding himself without money in Lyons, obtained free transportation to Paris by pretending that he was involved in a plot to poison the king. Probably equally apocryphal are the well-known words attributed to him on his deathbed: “Down with the curtain; the farce is done! I am going to seek a great perhaps.” Modern understanding of Rabelais the man is further confused by his relationship to the bitter religious and political controversies that raged in Europe during his lifetime. As an exponent of rationality and common sense, and an enemy of narrow-minded dogmatism of any sort, Rabelais almost inevitably became the victim of bigotry and cant. His writing was denounced by extremists on both sides of moderation. He was characterized by John Calvin as a debauched libertine and by the Catholics as an infamous drunkard. Both characterizations, whether justified or not, have stuck.{$I[AN]9810000064}{$I[A]Rabelais, François}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Rabelais, François}{$I[tim]1494;Rabelais, François}

François Rabelais

(Library of Congress)

About all that is known for certain about Rabelais is that he was, at various times, a monk, a doctor of medicine, an editor, and, for all time, a writer. The first specific record of him is his signature on the certificate of a purchase made by the Franciscan monastery at Fontenay-le-Comte in 1519, evidence that suggests, because of his apparent importance in the abbey, that he had taken orders several years earlier. Rabelais also corresponded with Guillaume Budé, secretary to King François I and one of the foremost scholars in Europe. At the same time, he was familiar with the group of scholars gathered around André Tiraqueau, one of the most learned judges in France. Moved, it would seem, by a growing interest in intellectual matters, Rabelais received permission from the pope in 1524 to transfer from the Franciscans at Fontenay to a Benedictine monastery at Maillezais, a change which gave him the advantage of both the protection of his friend, Geoffroi d’Estissac, bishop of Maillezais, and the relative sophistication and scholarship of the Benedictines. By 1530 he had left the order and taken on secular garb, and in November of that year he graduated as bachelor of medicine from the University of Montpellier.

In 1532 Rabelais was in Lyons, the intellectual center of France, where he edited and published some medical and scholarly works, was physician at the Hôtel-Dieu, and produced his first original work in Pantagruel (Book 2 of what was later to become Gargantua and Pantagruel). The following year his work was censured by the Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris. In 1534 Rabelais went to Rome in the train of his friend and patron, Cardinal Jean du Bellay, apparently in the hope of regularizing his somewhat anomalous relationship with the Church. His wishes were realized, and in reply to his petition excusing his leaving the order, a papal bull was issued permitting him to rejoin the Benedictines, to assume ecclesiastical office, and to practice medicine. Rabelais, who in the meantime had published Gargantua, or the first book of his masterpiece, took advantage of this dispensation almost immediately, becoming canon of St. Maur the next year and, in 1537, taking the degrees of licentiate and doctor of medicine at Montpellier. In 1540 he seems to have been in Italy, and by 1546 he was in Metz, while the recently published Third Book of Gargantua and Pantagruel was being condemned by the Sorbonne. Two years later part of the Fourth Book was published in Lyons–for which a rare copyright was granted by Henry II–and in 1552 the completed Fourth Book appeared in Paris, to be immediately proscribed by parliament. In 1553 Rabelais resigned two curacies which he had received several years before from the du Bellay family, and sometime before the end of the year he was dead. Nine years later, in 1562, sixteen chapters of what is now called the Fifth Book appeared under the title Ringing Island by Master François Rabelais, and in 1564 the complete Fifth Book was published in Paris. Most scholars have serious doubts about the authenticity of the so-called Fifth Book, and there is no proof that it was written by Rabelais himself. In the four books known to be written by him, Rabelais combined in an aesthetically pleasing manner solid erudition with numerous manifestations of popular culture. In 1567 all five books were published together for the first time.

Apart from such inferences as can be gleaned from these meager biographical data, knowledge of the philosophy or personality of the man called Rabelais is based on his one extant work and masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel. This rollicking and uninhibited tale of the birth, education, and adventures of the “huge giant Gargantua” (book 1) and of his son Pantagruel (books 2-5) leaves the reader with the impression that its author was a man of keen satiric wit, of comprehensive learning, but above all, of a tremendous and inclusive enthusiasm for life. Rabelais ends his prefatory address “To My Reader” with the admonition, “Live Happy,” and this joie de vivre colors every word he wrote. Himself a monk, he was the inveterate enemy of Scholasticism, pedantry, superstition, the unnatural rigors of monasticism, and all that was narrow, crabbed, or fanatical. An admirer of what was best and noblest in Renaissance humanism, Rabelais had a profound respect for enlightened education and learning (he would make Pantagruel “an abyss of knowledge”). At the same time, reason, for Rabelais, is very close to instinct, and to “follow nature” (where nature is civilized and well-bred) is the true road to the happy life. The one rule of the saturnalian Abbey of Theleme (book 1) is, “Do as thou wilt”; nature is good, and everything that limits and restricts one’s freedom to be oneself is rotten. Rabelais, however, was not simply a pagan hedonist; instinct for him included faith in God and a future life.

BibliographyBowen, Barbara C. Enter Rabelais, Laughing. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998. Each chapter is a different study of laughter: “literary,” “humanist,” the “comic lawyer,” the “comic doctor.” Includes notes and bibliography.Carron, Jean-Claude, ed. François Rabelais: Critical Assessments. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. A selection and revision of papers delivered at a 1991 symposium at the University of California, Los Angeles.Chesney, Elizabeth A., and Marcel Tetel. Rabelais Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993. A good introduction to the novels, with an annotated bibliography of important studies on Rabelais. Examines relationships between men and women in the works.Coleman, Dorothy Gabe. Rabelais: A Critical Study in Prose Fiction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1971. A meticulous analysis of Rabelais as a prose stylist and of the genres in which he wrote.Frame, Donald M. François Rabelais: A Study. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. A detailed study of Rabelais’s life and work, including several chapters on his major fiction and on topics such as obscenity, comedy, satire, fantasy, storytelling, giantism, humanism, evangelism, characters, and fortunes. Includes detailed notes and an annotated bibliography.Greene, Thomas M. Rabelais: A Study in Comic Courage. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Often cited as the best introductory study of Rabelais.O’Brien, John, and Malcolm Quainton, eds. Distant Voices Still Heard: Contemporary Readings of French Renaissance Literature. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000. A collection of paired essays on five major authors, including Rabelais.
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