1. Himself

The unique, inexhaustible, skeptical, hilarious, learned, and obscene author of “the most diverting and most profitable stories which have ever been told”23 burst into the world in 1495, son of a prosperous notary at Chinon. He was entered at too early an age into a Franciscan monastery; he complained later that women who “carry children nine months beneath their hearts... cannot bear to suffer them nine years... and by simply adding an ell to their dress, and cutting I know not how many hairs from the top of their head, by means of certain words they turn them into birds”—i.e., they tonsure them and make them monks. The boy accepted his fate because he was inclined to study, and probably, like Erasmus, he was drawn to the books in the monastic library. He found there two or three other monks who wished to study Greek, and who were excited by the vast ancient world that scholarship was revealing. François made such progress that he received a letter of praise from Budé himself. Matters seemed to be going well, and in 1520 the future doubter was ordained a priest. But some older monks scented heresy in philology; they accused the young Hellenists of buying books with the fees they received for preaching, instead of handing the money over to the common treasury. Rabelais and another monk were put in solitary confinement and were deprived of books, which were to them half of life. Budé, apprised of this contretemps, appealed to Francis I, who ordered the scholars reinstated in freedom and privileges. Some further intercession brought a papal rescript permitting Rabelais to change his monastic allegiance and residence; he left the Franciscans, and entered a Benedictine house at Maillezais (1524). There the bishop, Geoffroy d’Estissac, took such a fancy to him that he arranged with the abbot that Rabelais should be allowed to go wherever he wished for his studies. Rabelais went, and forgot to return.

After sampling several universities he entered the School of Medicine at Montpellier (1530). He must have had some prior instruction, for he received the degree of bachelor of medicine in 1531. For reasons unknown he did not proceed to earn the doctorate, but resumed his wandering until, in 1532, he settled down in Lyons. Like Servetus, he combined the practice of medicine with scholarly pursuits. He served as editorial aide to the printer Sebastian Gryphius, edited several Greek texts, translated the Aphorisms of Hippocrates into Latin, and was willingly caught in the humanistic stream then in full flow at Lyons. On November 30, 1532, he dispatched a copy of Josephus to Erasmus with a letter of adulation strange in a man of thirty-seven, but savoring of that enthusiastic age:

George d’Armagnac .... recently sent me Flavius Josephus’ History.... and asked me... to send it to you.... I have eagerly seized this opportunity, O humanest of fathers, to prove to you by grateful homage my profound respect for you and my filial piety. My father, did I say? I should call you mother did your indulgence allow it. All that we know of mothers, who nourish the fruit of their wombs before seeing it, before knowing even what it will be, who protect it, who shelter it against the inclemency of the air—that you have done for me, for me whose face was not known to you, and whose obscure name could not impress you. You have brought me up, you have fed me at the chaste breasts of your divine knowledge; all that I am, all that I am worth, I owe to you alone. If I did not publish it aloud I should be the most ungrateful of men. Salutations once more, beloved father, honor of your country, support of letters, unconquerable champion of truth.24

In that same November 1532 we find Rabelais a physician in the Hôtel-Dieu, or city hospital, of Lyons, with a salary of forty livres ($1,000?) a year. But we must not think of him as a typical scholar or physician. It is true that his learning was varied and immense. Like Shakespeare, he seems to have had professional knowledge in a dozen fields—law, medicine, literature, theology, cookery, history, botany, astronomy, mythology. He refers to a hundred classic legends, quotes half a hundred classic authors; sometimes he parades his erudition amateurishly. He was so busy living that he had no time to achieve meticulous accuracy in his scholarship; the editions that he prepared were not models of careful detail. It was not in his character to be a dedicated humanist like Erasmus or Budé; he loved life more than books. He is pictured for us as a man of distinguished presence, tall and handsome, a well of learning, a light and fire of conversation.25 He was not a toper, as an old tradition wrongly inferred from his salutes to drinkers and his paeans to wine; on the contrary, except for one little bastard26—who lived so briefly as to be only a venial sin—he led a reasonably decent life, and was honored by the finest spirits of his time, including several dignitaries of the Church. At the same time he had in him many qualities of the French peasant. He relished the bluff and hearty types that he met in the fields and streets; he enjoyed their jokes and laughter, their tall tales and boastful ribaldry; and unwittingly he made Erasmus’ fame pale before his own because he collected and connected these stories, improved and expanded them, dignified them with classic lore, lifted them into constructive satire, and carefully included their obscenity.

One story, then current in many rural areas, told of a kindly giant named Gargantua, his cavernous appetite, his feats of love and strength; here and there were hills and boulders which, said local traditions, had dropped from Gargantua’s basket as he passed. Such legends were still told, as late as 1860, in French hamlets that had never heard of Rabelais. An unknown writer, perhaps Rabelais himself as a tour de rire, jotted some of the fables down, and had them printed in Lyons as The Great and Inestimable Chronicles of the Great and Enormous Giant Gargantua (1532). The book sold so readily that Rabelais conceived the idea of writing a sequel to it about Gargantua’s son. So, at the Lyons fair of October 1532, there appeared, anonymously, the Horribles et espouvantables faictz et prouesses du très renommé Pantagruel (The Horrible and Dreadful Deeds and Prowesses of the Most Renowned Pantagruel). This name had been used in some popular dramas, but Rabelais gave the character new content and depth. The Sorbonne and the monks condemned the book as obscene, and it sold well; Francis I enjoyed it, some of the clergy relished it. Not till fourteen years later did Rabelais admit his authorship; he feared to endanger, if not his life, his reputation as a scholar.

He was still so wedded to scholarship that he neglected his duties at the hospital, and was dismissed. He might have had trouble buttering his bread had not Jean du Bellay, Bishop of Paris and co-founder of the Collège de France, taken Rabelais with him as physician on a mission to Italy (January 1534). Returning to Lyons in April, Rabelais published there in October La vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel (The Very Horrible Life of the Great Gargantua, father of Pantagruel). This second volume, which was later to form Book One of the full work, contained such rollicking satires of the clergy that it won another Sorbonnian condemnation. Soon the two stories, published together, outsold every publication in France except the Bible and The Imitation of Christ.27 Again, we are told, King Francis laughed and applauded.

But on the night of October 17–18, 1534, the posting of insulting Protestant placards on Paris buildings and the King’s own doors changed him from a protector of humanists into a persecutor of heretics. Rabelais had again concealed his authorship, but it was widely suspected, and he had good reason to fear that the Sorbonne, carrying the King in its train, would demand the scandalous writer’s head. Again Jean du Bellay came to his rescue. Now a cardinal, the genial churchman snatched the endangered scholar-physician-pornographer out of his Lyons den and took him to Rome (1535). It was Rabelais’ luck to find there an enlightened pope. Paul III forgave him his neglect of his monastic and priestly duties, and gave him permission to practice medicine. As amende honorable Rabelais expunged from future editions of his now “double-backed” book the passages most offensive to orthodox taste; and when Étienne Dolet played a trick on him by publishing, without permission, an unexpurgated edition, he crossed him from the roster of his friends. Under the protection of the Cardinal he studied again at Montpellier, received the doctorate in medicine, lectured to large audiences there, and then returned to Lyons to resume his life as physician and scholar. In June 1537, Dolet described him as conducting an anatomy lesson by dissecting an executed criminal before an assemblage of students.

Thereafter we know only snatches of his undulant career. He was in the suite of the King at the historic meeting of Francis I and Charles V in Aiguesmortes (July 1538). Two years later we find him at Turin as physician to Guillaume du Bellay, brother to the Cardinal, and now French ambassador to Savoy. About this time spies found in Rabelais’ correspondence some items that raised a flurry in Paris. He hurried to the capital, faced the matter out bravely, and was exonerated by the King (1541). Despite renewed condemnations of Gargantua and Pantagruel by the Sorbonne, Francis gave the harassed author a minor post in the government as maître des requêtes (commissioner of petitions), and official permission to publish Book Two of Pantagruel, which Rabelais gratefully dedicated to Marguerite of Navarre. The volume aroused such commotion among the theologians that Rabelais judged it discreet to take refuge in Metz, then part of the Empire. There he served for a year as physician in the city hospital (1546–47). In 1548 he thought it safe to return to Lyons, and in 1549 to Paris. Finally his ecclesiastical protectors secured his appointment (1551) as parish priest of Meudon, just southwest of the capital, and the hunted, aging gadfly resumed his sacerdotal robes. Apparently he delegated the duties of his benefice to subordinates, and confined himself to using the income.28 So far as we know he was still curé of Meudon when, a bit anomalously, he published what is now Book Four of his work (1552). This was dedicated to Odet, Cardinal de Chatillon, presumably with permission; evidently there were then in France high churchmen of the learning and lenience of the Italian Renaissance cardinals. Nevertheless the book was denounced by the Sorbonne, and its sale was forbidden by theParlement.Francis I and Marguerite were now dead, and Rabelais found no favor with the somber Henry II. He absented himself for a while from Paris, but soon returned. There, after a long illness, he died (April 9, 1553). An old story tells how, when he was asked on his deathbed where he expected to go, he answered, Je vais chercher un grand peuttre—“I go to seek a great perhaps.” 29 Alas, it is a legend.

2. Gargantua

The Prologue to Book One (originally Book Two) gives at once the taste and smell of the whole:

Most noble and illustrious drinkers, and you thrice precious pockified blades (for to you and none else do I .dedicate my writings).... To have eyed the outside of Socrates and esteemed of him by his external appearance, you would not have given the peel of an onion for him.... You, my good disciples, and some other jolly fools of ease and leisure, reading the pleasant titles of some books of our invention... are too ready to judge that there is nothing in them but jests, mockeries, lascivious discourse, and recreative lies.... . But . . in the perusal of this treatise you shall find... a doctrine of a more profound and abstract consideration... as well in what concerneth our religion, as matters of public state, and life economical.... A certain addle-headed coxcomb saith [ill] of my books, but abren for him... Frolic now, my lads, cheer up your hearts, and joyfully read.... . Pull away, Supernaculum!

This is Urquhart’s famed translation, which sometimes overdoes the original, but is here quite faithful to it, even with pithy words now no longer permitted in learned discourse. In these two paragraphs we have Rabelais’ spirit and aim: serious satire clothed in neck-saving buffoonery, and sometimes smeared with unfumigated smut. We proceed at our own risk, thankful that the printed word does not smell, and trusting to find some diamonds in the dunghill.

Gargantua begins with a peerless genealogy Scriptural in form. The father of the giant was Grangousier, King of Utopia; the mother was Gargamelle. She bore him for eleven months, and when her pains began their friends gathered for a merry bout of wine, alleging that nature abhors a vacuum. “On with a sheep’s courage!” the proud father tells his wife painlessly; “dispatch this boy, and we will speedily fall to work... making another.” For a moment she wishes him the fate of Abélard; he proposes to accomplish this forthwith, but she changes her mind. The unborn Gargantua, finding the usual outlet of maternity blocked by an untimely astringent, “entered the vena cava” of Gargamelle, climbed through her diaphragm and neck, and “issued forth by the left ear.” As soon as he was born he cried out, so loudly that two counties heard him, À boire! à boire! à boire!—“Drink! drink! drink!” 17,913 cans of milk were set aside for his nourishment, but he early showed a preference for wine.

When it came time to educate the young giant, and make him fit to succeed to the throne, he received as tutor Maître Jobelin, who made a dolt of him by stuffing his memory with dead facts and befuddling his reason with Scholastic argument. Driven to a desperate expedient, Gargantua turned the boy over to the humanist Ponocrates. Teacher and pupil went off to Paris to get the latest education. Gargantua rode on a tremendous mare, whose swishing tail cut down vast forests as she proceeded; hence part of France is a plain. Arrived in Paris, Gargantua alighted on a tower of Notre Dame; he took a fancy to the bells, and purloined them to hang them about his horse’s neck. Ponocrates began the re-education of the spoiled giant by giving him an enormous purgative to cleanse the bowels and the brain, which are near allied. So purified, Gargantua became enamored of education; he began zealously to train at once his body, his mind, and his character; he studied the Bible, the classics, and the arts; he learned to play the lute and the virginal and to enjoy music; he ran, jumped, wrestled, climbed, and swam; he practiced riding, jousting, and the skills needed in war; he hunted to develop his courage; and to develop his lungs he shouted so that all Paris heard him. He visited metalworkers, stonecutters, goldsmiths, alchemists, weavers, watchmakers, printers, dyers, and “giving them somewhat to drink,” studied their crafts; he took part every day in some useful physical work; and sometimes he went to a lecture, or a trial, or to “the sermons of evangelical preachers” (a Protestant touch).

Amid all this education Gargantua was suddenly called back to his father’s realm, for another king, Picrochole, had declared war on Grangousier. Why? Rabelais steals a story from Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus, and tells how Picrochole’s generals boasted of the lands they would conquer under his leadership: France, Spain, Portugal, Algeria, Italy, Sicily, Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes, Greece, Jerusalem.... . Picrochole rejoices and swells. But an old philosopher asks him: “What shall be the end of so many labors and crosses?” “When we return,” answers Picrochole, “we shall sit down, rest, and be merry.” “But,” suggests the philosopher, “if by chance you should never come back, for the voyage is long and dangerous, were it not better for us to take our rest now?” “Enough,” cried Picrochole; “go forward; I fear nothing.... He that loves me, follow me” (I, xxxiii). Gargantua’s horse almost wins the war against Picrochole by drowning thousands of the enemy with one simple easement.

But the real hero of the war was Friar John, a monk who loved fighting more than praying, and who let his philosophical curiosity venture into the most dangerous alleys. “What is the reason,” he asks, “that the thighs of a gentlewoman are always fresh and cool?”—and though he finds nothing about this engaging problem in Aristotle or Plutarch, he himself gives answers rich in femoral erudition. All the King’s men like him, feed and wine him to his paunch’s content; they invite him to take off his monastic robe to allow more eating, but he fears that without it he will not have so good an appetite. All the faults that the Protestant reformers alleged against the monks are satirized through this jolly member of their tribe: their idleness, gluttony, guzzling, prayer-mumbling, and hostility to all but a narrowing range of study and ideas. “In our abbey,” says Friar John, “we never study, for fear of the mumps” (I, xxxix).

Gargantua proposed to reward the Friar’s good fighting by making him abbot of an existing monastery, but John begged instead to be given the means of establishing a new abbey, with rules “contrary to all others.” First, there should be no encompassing walls; inmates are to be free to leave at their pleasure. Second, there is to be no exclusion of women; however, only such women shall enter as are “fair, well-featured, of a sweet disposition,” and between the ages of ten and fifteen. Third, only men between twelve and eighteen will be accepted, and they must be comely, and of good birth and manners; no sots or bigots may apply, no beggars, lawyers, judges, scribes, usurers, gold-graspers, or “sniveling hypocrites.” Fourth, no vows of chastity, poverty, or obedience; the members may marry, enjoy wealth, and in all matters be free. The abbey is to be called Theleme, or What You Will, and its sole rule will be Fais ce que vous vouldras—“Do what you wish.” For “men that are free, wellborn, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them to virtuous actions and withdraws them from vice; and this instinct is called Honor” (I, lvii). Gargantua provided the funds for this aristocratic anarchism, and the abbey rose according to specifications which Rabelais gave in such detail that architects have made drawings of it. He provided for it a library, a theater, a swimming pool, a tennis court, a football field, a chapel, a garden, a hunting park, orchards, stables, and 9,332 rooms. It was an American hotel in vacation land. Rabelais forgot to provide a kitchen, or to explain who would do the menial work in this paradise.

3. Pantagruel

After Gargantua had succeeded his father as king he took his turn at procreation and pedagogy. At the age of “four hundred fourscore forty and four years” he begot Pantagruel on Badebec, who died in giving birth; whereat Gargantua “wept like a cow” for his wife, and “laughed like a calf” over his robust son. Pantagruel grew up to Brobdingnagian proportions. In one of his meals he inadvertently swallowed a man, who had to be excavated by a mining operation in the young giant’s digestive tract. When Pantagruel went to Paris for his higher schooling Gargantua sent him a letter redolent of the Renaissance:


... Although my deceased father, of happy memory, Grangousier, had bent his best endeavors to make me profit in all perfection and political knowledge, and that my labor and study was fully correspondent to, yea, went beyond his desire; nevertheless, as thou may’st well understand, the time then was not so proper and fit for learning as it is at present... for that time was darksome, obscured with clouds of ignorance, and savoring a little of the infelicity and calamity of the Goths, who had, wherever they set footing, destroyed all good literature, which in my age hath by the divine goodness been restored unto its former light and dignity, and that with such amendment and increase of knowledge, that now hardly should I be admitted unto the first form of the little grammar-school boys.....

Now the minds of men are qualified with all manner of discipline, and the old sciences revived which for many ages were extinct; now the learned languages are to their pristine purity restored—viz., Greek (without which a man may be ashamed to account himself a scholar), Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean, and Latin. Printing likewise is now in use, so elegant, and so correct, that better cannot be imagined.....

I intend... that thou learn the languages perfectly.... Let there be no history which thou shalt not have ready in thy memory.... Of the liberal arts of geometry, arithmetic, and music, I gave thee some taste when thou wert yet little... proceed further in them... As for astronomy, study all the rules thereof; let pass nevertheless .... astrology... as being nothing else but plain cheats and vanities. As for the civil law, of that I would have thee to know the texts by heart, and then to confer them with philosophy ...

The works of nature I would have thee study exactly.... Fail not most carefully to peruse the books of the Greek, Arabian, and Latin physicians, not despising the talmudists and cabalists; and by frequent anatomies get thee the perfect knowledge of the microcosm, which is man. And at some hours of the day apply thy mind to the study of the Holy Scriptures: first in Greek the New Testament.... then the Old Testament in Hebrew.....

But because, as the wise man Solomon saith, wisdom entereth not into a malicious mind, and science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul; it behooveth thee to serve, to love, to fear God. ., . Be serviceable to all thy neighbors, and love them as thyself; reverence thy preceptors; shun the conversation of those whom thou desirest not to resemble, and receive not in vain the graces which God hath bestowed upon thee. And when thou shalt see that thou hast attained to all the knowledge that is to be acquired in that part, return unto me, that 1 may see thee, and give thee my blessing before I die....

Thy father,

Pantagruel studied zealously, learned many languages, and might have become a bookworm had he not met Panurge. Here again, even more than in Friar John, the subordinate character stands out more clearly than his master, as Sancho Panza sometimes outshines the Don. Rabelais does not find full scope for his irreverent humor and riotous vocabulary in Gargantua or Pantagruel; he needs this quarter-scoundrel, quarter-lawyer, quarter-Villon, quarter-philosopher as a vehicle for his satire. He describes Panurge (which means “Ready to do anything”) as lean like a starving cat, walking gingerly “as if he trod on eggs”; a gallant fellow, but a little lecherous, and “subject to a kind of disease... called lack of money”; a pickpocket, a “lewd rogue, a cozener, a drinker... and very dissolute fellow,” but “otherwise the best and most virtuous man in the world” (II, xiv, xvi). Into Panurge’s mouth Rabelais puts his most ribald sallies. Panurge particularly resented the habit which the ladies of Paris adopted, of buttoning their blouses up the back; he sued the women in court, and might have lost, but he threatened to start a similar custom with male culottes, whereupon the court decreed that women must leave a modest but passable opening in front (II, xvii). Angered by a woman who scorned him, Panurge sprayed her skirts, while she knelt in prayer at church, with the effluvia of an itching pet; when the lady emerged, all the 600,014 male dogs of Paris pursued her with unanimous and indefatigable devotion (II, xxi-xxii). Pantagruel, himself a very mannerly prince, takes to this rascal as a relief from philosophy, and invites him on every expedition.

As the story rollicks on into Book Three, Panurge debates with himself and others whether he should marry. He lists the arguments pro and con through a hundred pages, some sparkling, many wearisome; but in those pages we meet the man who married a dumb wife, and the renowned jurist Bridlegoose, who arrives at his soundest judgments by throwing dice. The Prologue to Book Four catches a cue from Lucian and describes a “consistory of gods” in heaven, with Jupiter complaining about the unearthly chaos reigning on the earth, the thirty wars going on at once, the mutual hatreds of the peoples, the divisions of theologies, the syllogisms of the philosophers. “What shall we do with this Ramus and Galland... who together are setting all Paris by the ears?” Priapus counsels him to turn these two Pierres into stones (pierres); here Rabelais steals a pun from Scripture.

Returning to earth, he records in Books Four and Five* the long Gulliverian voyages of Pantagruel, Panurge, Friar John, and a royal Utopian fleet to find the Temple of the Holy Bottle, and to ask whether Panurge should marry. After a score of adventures, satirizing Lenten fasts, Protestant pope-haters, bigot pope-olators, monks, dealers in fake antiques, lawyers (“furred cats”), Scholastic philosophers, and historians, the expedition reaches the Temple. Over the portal is a Greek inscription to the effect that “in wine there is truth.” In a near-by fountain is a half-submerged bottle, from which a voice emerges, gurgling, TRINC; and the priestess Bacbuc explains that wine is the best philosophy, and that “not laughing but drinking .... cool, delicious wine... is the distinguishing character of man.” Panurge is happy to have the oracle confirm what he has known all the time. He resolves to eat, drink, and be married, and to take the consequences manfully. He sings an obscene hymeneal chant, and Bacbuc dismisses the party with a blessing: “May that intellectual sphere whose center is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere, whom we call GOD, keep you in His Almighty protection” (V, xlii). So, with a typical blend of lubricity and philosophy, the great romance comes to an end.

4. The King’s Jester

What sense is there behind this nonsense, and is there any wisdom in this demijohn of Falernian-Priapean hilarity? “We country clowns,” Rabelais makes one of his asses say, “are somewhat gross, and apt to knock words out of joint” (V, vii). He loves words, has an endless supply of them, and invents a thousand more; he draws them, like Shakespeare, from every occupation and profession, every field of philosophy, theology, and law. He makes lists of adjectives, nouns, or verbs, as if for the pleasure of contemplating them (III, xxxviii); he multiplies synonyms in an ecstasy of redundancy; this pleonasm was already an old trick on the French stage.32 It is part of Rabelais’ boundless and uncontrollable humor, an overflow beside which even the humor of Aristophanes or Molière is a modest trickle. His coarseness is another phase of this unmanageable flux. Perhaps some of it was a reaction against monastic asceticism, some of it the anatomical indifference of a physician, some of it a bold defiance of pedantic precision; much of it was in the manner of the age. Undoubtedly Rabelais carries it to excess; after a dozen pages of urogenital, excretory, and gaseous details we weary and turn away. Another generation of classic influence would be needed to tame such volcanic exuberance into disciplined form.

We forgive these faults because Rabelais’ style runs away with us, as with him. It is an unpretentious, unliterary style, natural, easy, flowing, just the medium for telling a long story. The secret of his verve is imagination plus energy plus clarity; he sees a thousand things unobserved by most of us, notes innumerable quirks of dress and conduct and speech, unites them fantastically, and sets the mixtures chasing one another over the sportive page.

He borrows right and left, as the custom was, and with Shakespeare’s excuse, that he betters everything that he steals. He helps himself to hundreds of proverbial snatches from Erasmus’ Adagia,33 and follows many a lead from The Praise of Folly or theColloquies. He assimilates half a hundred items from Plutarch, years before Amyot’s translation opened that treasury of greatness to any literate thief. He appropriates Lucian’s “heavenly discourse,” and Folengo’s tale of the self-drowned sheep; he finds in the comedies of his time the story of the man who regretted that he had cured his wife’s speechlessness; and he uses a hundred suggestions from the fabliaux and interludes that had rolled down from medieval France. In describing the voyages of Pantagruel he leans on the narratives that were being issued by the explorers of the New World and the Far East. Yet, with all this borrowing, there is no author more original; and only in Shakespeare and Cervantes do we find imaginative creations so lusty with life as Friar John and Panurge. Rabelais himself, however, is the main creation of the book, a composite of Pantagruel, Friar John, Panurge, Erasmus, Vesalius, and Jonathan Swift, babbling, bubbling, smashing idols, loving life.

Because he loved life he flayed those who made it less lovable. Perhaps he was a bit too hard on the monks who had been unable to share his humanistic devotions. He must have been clawed by a lawyer or two, for he tears their fur revengefully. Mark my words, he warns his readers, “if you live but six Olympiads and the age of two dogs more, you’ll see these law-cats lords of all Europe.” But he lays his whip also upon judges, Scholastics, theologians, historians, travelers, indulgence peddlers, and women. There is hardly a good word for women in all the book; this is Rabelais’ blindest spot, perhaps the price he paid, as monk and priest and bachelor, for never earning tenderness.

Partisans have debated whether he was a Catholic, a Protestant, a freethinker, or an atheist. Calvin thought him an atheist; and “my own belief,” concluded his lover Anatole France, “is that he believed nothing.”34 At times he wrote like the most irreverent cynic, as in the language of the sheep drover about the best way to fertilize a field (IV, vii). He ridiculed fasting, indulgences, inquisitors, decretals, and enjoyed explaining the anatomical requisites for becoming a pope (IV, xlviii). He had evidently no belief in hell (II, xxx). He echoed the Protestant arguments that the papacy was draining the nations of their gold (IV, liii), and that the cardinals of Rome lived lives of gluttony and hypocrisy (IV, lviii-lx). He sympathized with the French heretics; Pantagruel, he says, did not stay long in Toulouse, because there they “burn their regents alive, like red herrings”—referring to the execution of an heretical professor of law (II, v). But his Protestant sympathies seem to have been limited to those who were humanists. He followed Erasmus admiringly, but only mildly favored Luther, and he turned with distaste from the dogmatism and puritanism of Calvin. He was tolerant of everything but intolerance. Like nearly all the humanists, when driven to choose, he preferred Catholicism with its legends, intolerance, and art to Protestantism with its predestination, intolerance, and purity. He repeatedly affirmed his faith in the fundamentals of Christianity, but this may have been the prudence of a man who, in defense of his opinions, was willing to go to the stake exclusively. He loved his definition of God so well that he (or his continuator) repeated it (III, xiii; V, xlvii). He apparently accepted the immortality of the soul (II, viii; IV, xxvii), but in general he preferred scatology to eschatology. Farel called him a renegade for accepting the pastorate of Meudon,35 but this was understood, by donor and recipient, as merely a way of eating.

His real faith was in Nature, and here, perhaps, he was as trustful and credulous as his orthodox neighbors. He believed that ultimately the forces of Nature work for good, and he underestimated her neutrality as between men and fleas. Like Rousseau, and against Luther and Calvin, he believed in the natural goodness of man; or, like other humanists, he was confident that a good education and a good environment would make men good. Like Montaigne, he counseled men to follow Nature, and possibly he looked with impish unconcern on what would then happen to society and civilization. In describing the Abbey of Theleme he seemed to be preaching philosophical anarchism, but it was not so; he would admit to it only those whose good breeding, education, and sense of honor would fit them for the trials of freedom.

His final philosophy was “Pantagruelism.” This must not be confused with the useful weed Pantagruelion, which is merely hemp, and whose final virtue is that it can make appropriate neckties for criminals. Pantagruelism is living like Pantagruel—in a genial and tolerant fellowship with Nature and men, in grateful enjoyment of all the good things of life, and in cheerful acceptance of our inescapable vicissitudes and termination. Once Rabelais defined Pantagruelism as une certaine gaieté d’esprit confite de mépris des choses fortuites—“a certain gaiety of spirit preserved in contempt of the accidents of life” (IV, Prologue). It combined Zeno the Stoic, Diogenes the Cynic, and Epicurus: to bear all natural events with equanimity, to view without offense all natural impulses and operations, and to enjoy every sane pleasure without puritanic inhibitions or theological remorse. Pantagruel “took all things in good part, and interpreted every action in the best sense; he neither vexed nor disquieted himself .... since all the goods that the earth contains... are not of so much worth as that we should for them disturb or disorder our emotions, trouble or perplex our senses or spirits” (III, ii). We must not exaggerate the epicurean element in this philosophy; Rabelais’ litanies to wine were more verbal than alcoholic; they do not quite comport with a contemporary’s description of him as a man of “serene, gracious, and open countenance”;36 the wine he celebrated was the wine of life. And this pretended Lord of Dipsophily put into the mouth of Gargantua a sentence that in ten words phrases the challenge of our own time: “Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul” (II, viii).

France has treasured Rabelais more than any other of her giants of the pen except Montaigne, Molière, and Voltaire. In his own century Etienne Pasquier called him the greatest writer of the age. In the seventeenth century, as manners stiffened under lace and perukes, and classic form became literally de rigueur, he lost some standing in the nation’s memory; but even then Molière, Racine, and La Fontaine were confessedly influenced by him; Fontenelle, La Bruyère, and Mme. de Sévigné loved him, and Pascal appropriated his definition of God. Voltaire began by despising his coarseness, and ended by becoming his devotee. As the French language changed, Rabelais became almost unintelligible to French readers in the nineteenth century; and perhaps he is now more popular in the English-speaking world than in France. For in 1653 and 1693 Sir Thomas Urquhart published a translation of Books One and Three into virile English as exuberant as the original; Peter de Motteux completed the version in 1708; and by the work of these men Gargantua and Pantagruel became an English classic. Swift stole from it as if by right of clergy, and Sterne must have found in it some leaven for his wit. It is among the books that belong to the literature not of a country but of the world.

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