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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 11:93–109.


Science – A View from Below

The Satires of Francois Rabelais


I apologize for reminding the audience that the 16th and 17th centuries have been the age of the Great Scientific Revolution.1 These centuries were illuminated, among others, by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Francis Bacon, Descartes and Isaac Newton. At the same time, these centuries were the age of the great religious upheavals, of the struggle between Rome and the Protestant reformers, and the following terrible religious wars. We must not forget that this age also witnessed the “work” of the Inquisition, of the persecution of “witches” and heretics, claiming the lives of more than half a million innocent men women and even children. In addition, it was also the time of the Ottoman Turkish expansionism, of which Hungarians are all too well aware.

While doing my research, I wanted to understand the reasons for Francois Rabelais, the subject of this presentation, to reject centuries-old social and ethical norms (as this is alleged today by many scholars), opinions which the author skilfully included in his works.

My study is, at the same time, a classic example of the historian’s work in a negative sense. The fact was that I could not prove the hypothesis which I established. The hypothesis tried to confirm the supposition that, at the time when the Great Scientific Revolution shook the system of control by the Roman Catholic Church over thinking, and the new atmosphere became dominant among thinkers, Rabelais’ works reflected this process for the simple people of his times. With this, the great writer supposedly became a contributor to the ideas of the French Revolution. However, I could not prove my hypothesis.

Rabelais’ satires deal with the adventures of the “heroes” of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Contemporaries reported that the first issue of the book was sold out in record time. However, a comment attributed to Rabelais, according to which more copies of his book were sold in two months, than of the Bible in nine years, was never made. The remark referred to was a folk chronicle which was, indeed a phenomenally successful book. It is likely that Rabelais was encouraged by the success of a folktale2 and he wanted to benefit from its success.3

The first issue of ”Pantagruel” was followed by a number of illegal editions. It was published in Paris without the permission of the author and the original publisher. However, contemporaries were hard put to recognize the book’s uniqueness. For this reason, the less educated publishers copied Rabelais’ works and, in the process, freely added or excluded certain parts from the book. (Only in the course of the 19th century was the work cleansed of these distortions.) However, the theologians of the Sorbonne had called the attention of the censors to the work as early as 1533. In the same year, Pierre de Wingle, the son-in-law of the printer, Claude Norry, attempted to fit the satires of Rabelais in the stream of thought of the radical religious reformers. Later editions simply left off the pseudonym of the author, Alcofrybas.4

But let us not jump ahead of the story.

I would like to begin with a few biographical notes about the author. This is necessary, if a little boring, since it will provide a historical context for Rabelais’ activities.

The birthday of Rabelais is uncertain. His biographers cannot agree on a definite date. They mention 1483, 1490 and 1494.5 It is likely that he was born in the village of La Davinier, in the district of Chinon de Vienne. The events of the first book all take place in the surrounding area of the village, under distorted names, of course, and they reflect the struggle of the father of the author with his neighbours over water-use.

The father of Rabelais was a landowner and, at the same time, a well-known attorney. According to the witness of the family crest, the family was of noble origin.6 In all probability, young Francois received his elementary education in the nearby Dominican monastery, in St Pierre de Seuilly. It is also possible that his father taught him his letters at Chinon, where his law practice was located. Francois learned the Latin language well and his father must have instructed him in the knowledge of the law. It is also possible that, as he grew, he studied at the University of Angers. Around 1510, young Francois entered the Franciscan cloister at La Baumette, where he continued his studies.7

It may be surprising that a young man, such as Rabelais, eager to become acquainted with classical learning, would chose a Franciscan cloister for his home. Such opinions are, however, based on the fallacious notion that the Franciscans were more obscurus than other religious orders. Such false views were spread by Erasmus, and some other humanists shared his views. Rabelais soon became friendly with a young monk, a Pierre Amy, who was also addicted to the study of classical civilization.

In 1520, Rabelais probably transferred to the Franciscan cloister of Puy St Martin, located in Fontenay-le-Comte. First, he studied Theology,8 but he was also showing a marked interest in learning the Greek language and culture. This was a difficult task; in contemporary France there were few scholars who knew Greek and there were hardly any textbooks available to teach the language. Brother Amy and Guillome Budé, a famous contemporary humanist, encouraged Rabelais and probably helped him to find the appropriate books. At this time, a group of lawyers formed an association whose meetings were often devoted to discussions about classical culture, and Rabelais participated in these meetings. His friends encouraged him and he translated the histories of Herodotus to Latin.

Rabelais was interested in all sorts of theories; however, he also acquired a good dose of sober folk wisdom. Nevertheless, he had all sorts of wild ideas and when he formulated these, he connected them to three major themes. These were birth, love-making and death. He perceived these themes in terms of the simplest physical phenomena. This free-thinking monk had no problem with the two conflicting sides of his nature, that of a humanist scientist and a simple man of the people. Rather, these sides complemented each other. The description of the perceived nature of men and women in his books is also full of contradictions; yet, he never attempted to reconcile these and never apologized for them.

We should learn something about the customs, prejudices and culture of the age of Rabelais if we wanted to understand his writing; these characteristics were, of course, very different from the culture of modern Europe. Unfortunately, we can only touch upon these traits in an essay as this, because of the limitations of space. We must also remember that the humanists of the Renaissance were not anti-religious or anti-Christian. Such characteristics will describe only the devotees of the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Rabelais was a true humanist and for him, the norms and rules of Christianity were determining factors of life.

To return to our subject, the study of the Greek language soon resulted in trouble for Rabelais. The Franciscans interpreted Scripture literally and when Rabelais wanted to read it in its original Greek, they were scared of the possible consequences. The Dominican monk-professors of the University of Paris simply forbade the study of the Greek language. They discovered dangerous patterns in the commentaries on the Greek version of Luke’s Gospel, which Erasmus undertook in one of his essays. They rejected Erasmus’ explanations of this Gospel entirely, because they ”discovered” Lutheranism in them. The abbot of the Franciscan cloister where Rabelais stayed, simply ordered the confiscation of the young monk’s books. The monks were not afraid so much of the knowledge of the Greek language, as if such knowledge would have brought pagan trends into Western culture. After all, the thoughts of Socrates, Plato but especially of Aristotle, have long been absorbed into the doctrines of the Christian churches. But a Greek revival threatened a culture based on the Latin language which, in turn, was part of the intellectual monopoly of Rome. Since the culture of Latin scholasticism was rejected by the humanists, in turn, the monk-professors of the Sorbonne simply forbade the teaching of the Greek language.

In response, Rabelais and his friend Amy decided to transfer to the somewhat more liberal Benedictine order. Before making a final decision, however, they used Vergil’s Aeneid for prognostication. As Amy opened the book at random, he found the following: Heu! Fuge crudeles terras! Fuge littus avarum. (They had successfully and safely escaped from the trap set by the goblins.) Amy found refuge at the nearby Benedictine abbey of St Mesmin. But Rabelais received dispensation from Pope Clement VII and, as a consequence, entered the Benedictine abbey at Maillezais.

The abbot of this cloister, Geoffroy D’Estissac, was also the bishop of Maillessais and he spent little time at his cloister. He entrusted his nephew’s education to Rabelais. He took both of them with him in his travels. They moved around in the region of Poitou and Rabelais became acquainted with the area’s scholars.9 Rabelais also began to dabble with literature. He listed the fauna and flora of the surrounding countryside in his later works and it is obvious that he talked a great deal with the simple folks of the area. Their patterns of speech, including their curses, often appear in Rabelais’ satires.10 Poitou and its environment was famous for its theaters at that time. The actors often included clerics together with laymen, although this was frowned on by the authorities.11 Rabelais became infatuated with theater there and this is often reflected in his works. He also began to collect lewd stories while at Poitou.

In 1528 Rabelais traveled to Paris. The city was in the throes of a struggle between the Dominican monk-professors of the Sorbonne and the humanists of the Renaissance as well with the Protestants. Rabelais decided that he no longer wanted to be a monk. Consequently, he quit the Benedictine order and had himself ordained a lay priest. Two years later, we find him studying at the medical faculty of the University of Montpellier, where he received his baccalaureate degree in three months’ time! This seems to prove that he was quite familiar with the medical knowledge of his age.12 What was even more interesting, was the fact that he gave several lectures after earning his degree, and that many students attended his presentations. Much of this was in line with humanist thinking, according to which medical science originated with the classics and that knowledge of the Greek language opened the doors to the wisdom of the ancients. Rabelais considered that it was his task to clear the works of the Greek doctors of the trash afflicted on them by ”Arabs,” especially the interpretations of Avicenna. He and other humanists considered the human body “reflecting the microcosm,” namely, the magnificent harmony of the universe. Rabelais was to reflect on these ideas in the monologues of Panurge, the friend and companion of Pantagruel, in the third book, chapter 4, of the giant’s adventures.

Rabelais’ degree did not entitle him to use the designation of doctor, but this mattered little at that time. He was able to read the works of Galen and other Greek physicians in their original Greek which provided him an advantage over most of his contemporaries. In 1532, he was in Lyons, where he practiced his medical knowledge at the best hospital of the city, the Hotel Dieu. He probably moved to Lyons for financial reasons, because there were many booksellers and publishers there, catering to the students’ need for books.13

A description of the famous hospital, the Hotel Dieu, shows comparatively terrible conditions for the modern eye. There were 150–220 patients at any one time that had to be examined every day by the single physician. The patients were lying in six rows of beds, the men on one side, the women on the other. Each bed accommodated two or three patients. The visiting physician was accompanied by a barber-surgeon, who took notes of the prescribed medication. If Rabelais went to Lyons for financial reasons, he had to find extra jobs, because his salary as a doctor was rather low. In the meantime, he corresponded with the leading humanists of his time, including Erasmus. He called the Dutch humanist his “spiritual father” in one of his letters.14

The extra income Rabelais needed had to be earned through literary activities. Rabelais first issued the book, entitled The history of Pantagruel, which was, in fact, the second volume of the mythical giants Gargantua and his son, Pantagruel, and the first volume had not yet been published. The book contains a mixture of lewd stories and a satirical description of the faculty of the University of Paris as well as serious discussions of humanism. The book was published in French and it recalled the name of a favourite dwarf of folklore, Penthagruel. It was not one of those knightly stories that were still in vogue.

The second volume (really the first) was entitled The Terrible life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel. It began with the birth of the baby giant, Gargantua, to the wife of Grandgousier, Badabec.15 As the little giant grew, his father sent him to study at various universities, ending up at the University of Paris. He introduced himself to the people of the city in a curious way. They gathered around him and left him no peace. He was thus forced to seek refuge in the tower of Notre Dame cathedral. Below him, the crowds grew ever larger. Finally, Gargantua declared:

I believe that these men are asking for some sort of payment from me. They are right, and I will give them something to repay the kindly reception. But in a sporting spirit (par ris). So, he smiled and opened his pants and he pissed down at them with such force that 260,418 people had drowned, not counting women and children. There were some who escaped the flood and took refuge on the hill above the university, coughing, cursing, spitting, catching their breath, some in a sporting spirit, others in anger. “Carymary! Carymara!” They cursed, “we were wetted down in a sporting spirit.(Par ris.)” This is why this city is called Paris ever since. Before that, as attested to by the fourth book of Strabo, it was called Leucetia, which means a ”white place” in Greek.16

Gargantua met various people in his travels. However, his father soon called him home, because war had broken out between him and a neighboring king, Picrochole. This part of the book shows that Rabelais was not opposed to war if it was fought for a ”just cause,” especially in the defence of some sort of right. Gargantua concluded the war victoriously and his wife soon gave birth to a son, called Pantagruel. When he grew up, he, too, was sent to Paris to study. Pantagruel was joined in Paris by a shady character, called Panurge, who had escaped from Turkish captivity in an almost miraculous way.17

The coming of Panurge shows one of the most important characteristics of Rabelais’ writing, namely, that he could turn any situation into comedy. Panurge first appears as a man without restraints, but Pantagruel forgives him everything because Panurge can make his friend laugh. In the world of Panurge, nothing reflects real life. The essence of his world is that the weak smart man will always successfully swindle the strong but stupid.18

In Paris, Rabelais describes a dispute taking place between Baisecul (Kiss my Ass) and Humvesne (Swallower of Farts). The dispute is ranging around such obscure points that make no sense whatsoever. Consequently, the disputants appeal to Pantagruel to be the judge. He solves the dispute successfully. In this section, a well-known Italian lawyer, Accursius, who became known for his comments on Roman law, is parodized by Rabelais. The famous saying is used here by our author, according to which “two deaf men attended a court and their dispute was settled by an even deafer judge.”19

Not long after this, an English scholar arrives in Paris with the definite purpose of having a disputation with Pantagruel. However, the discussion will take place by the use of hand-signals, and for this reason the partner was to be Panurge, not Pantagruel. Rabelais wanted to show that even when the flood of meaningless words is eliminated, misunderstandings will still occur. He shows that even hand signals must be explained because otherwise they will lead to confusion.

The method of using hand signals in a discussion was taken by Rabelais from Accursius. The latter very seriously stated that the Greeks, who were the inventors of all knowledge, used hand signals in trying to learn if the Romans were ready for the absorption of Greek laws. According to his story, the Greeks sent a scholar of laws to Rome with the task of ascertaining if the Romans were mature enough for the acceptance of Greek laws. But since neither the Greek nor the Romans understood each other’s language, the discussion took place through hand signals. But the cunning Romans set up a madman to face the Greek, thinking that, if the Greek won, they can say that he disputed with a fool; on the other hand, if the fool triumphed, then they could laugh at the Greek’s arrogance and his failure.

Accordingly, when the disputants faced each other, the Greek raised a finger, signalling that there is but one God. The fool believed that the Greek wanted to gouge his eye out, so he raised two fingers, and his thumb naturally emerged from his fist, signalling that he will push out both of the Greek’s eye. The Greek considered this sign as proof of a deep religious thinking, the sign of the Holy Trinity. Thus he opened his hand, signalling that everything is open for God. The fool believed that the Greek wanted to strike him, and raised his fist to retaliate. The Greek interpreted this as proof that God holds everything in his hand. He, therefore, came to the conclusion that the Romans are a smart, understanding people and reported back at home that the transfer of the knowledge of the laws should be accomplished.20

The dispute with the English scholar, Thaumaste, is the more interesting, because it happened in spite of the Church’s teaching forbidding the search of signs. But in fact, the disputation meant as a mockery of the theologians of the Sorbonne. This was the method of Rabelais; he ridiculed matters important for some of his contemporaries, and showed that when scoundrels become involved in serious issues, they will make others laugh even if previously they took matters more seriously.

In the last part of the book, Gargantua calls his son home, because the Dipsodes (the thirsty ones) attacked his country and he needs his help. Pantagruel is successful in fighting the war and, with the help of an earthly monk, Frater Jean, he is victorious.

Modern publishers usually issue Rabelais’ five books in one volume. However, they usually make the mistake of following a chronological order instead of the order of the books’ original appearance. For the modern reader the solution of word-plays provide the flow of the story. But who had the knowledge of the Greek, Dutch or Danish languages in sixteenth century France? With the exception of a few people living in university towns, not very many understood them. Outside the circle of those who came into contact with foreign mercenaries, or made their living as merchants, not many people spoke these languages. These contemporaries of the author probably had a good laugh at the strange word-plays he presented.

In French folklore, the name Penthagruel meant a small devil whose task was to spread salt in the mouths of sleeping drunks, causing hangovers. The use of the name Pantagruel was a joke, similar to that which undergraduates use for an especially small classmate, calling him “giant.” Rabelais’ work thus reflects contemporary student life, in which great spurts of drunken orgies are followed by the tension of cramming for exams. This was the world of Villon in which the policemen of the city became the butts of jokes, the authorities were constantly ridiculed and simple amusements made life colorful. This was the world of ”Gaudeamus igitur,” which had little to do with the spirit of carnival, so colorfully described by Michail Bahtyin.21

The humorous adventures of Pantagruel, and the enjoyment provided by reading about them, would be difficult to overestimate. But Rabelais himself smoothed over some of the rougher spots in the book in the 1534 edition, especially parts that criticized the Dominican theologian-professors of the Sorbonne. In spite of this, Rabelais found himself in the crossfire of the monks by the end of the 1530’s, which shows up in later editions as well. In the Victorian age the more ticklish parts of the books were further “sanitized,” which resulted in the elimination of some of Rabelais’ cutting humour. The anti-feminist hue of the later books was not surprising. After all, men placed women on a high pedestal in that age, “killed” dragons for them and saluted them almost as Goddesses. The anti-feminist parts of Rabelais’ books owe something to the breaking of taboos, although in our present age we would find it difficult to define these taboos. Let us show a characteristic episode; in Rabelais’ words;

At the time of the creation of the world, or a little thereafter, the women agreed that they would flail the men because they wanted to rule over women. They sealed this agreement with an oath on the blood of St Bridget. But oh, the useless womanly determination! Oh, the fragility of women’s nature! They started the flailing of a man or as Catullus stated, his pealing, on that part of his body which gives them the most pleasure... All this has happened six thousand years ago but they never completed the job beyond the tip. Out of pure malice, therefore, the Jews themselves flail it at the circumcision, and they rather be called circumcised unbelievers, than people flailed by the women as other peoples do...

The mores of our age would, perhaps, suggest to some people that, we should consider Rabelais as a populist writer. However, there is no trace in Rabelais’ writings that he would have wanted to be considered as such. In fact, Rabelais’ humour reaches philosophical levels in ”Gargantua” and the following books. The giants are merely comical in Pantagruel. However, in the third book, Panurge is facing a dilemma because he is unable to predict the behaviour of his yet unknown future wife.

Instead of standing for a particular ideology, Rabelais is the apostle of a harmonic, balanced life and of lighthearted laughter. He writes in the same spirit as the medieval monks, who copied the Goliard verses in the same manuscript which contained religious hymns. This is one of the reasons that prevent our consideration of Rabelais as a critique of the existing social order. His humor is aimed at the absurdities of life. He ridicules the bishop who wants to torture his enemies in order to prepare them for their ordeal in hell.

There is some truth in the charge that his writing was indecent. Let us quote a part of his book which incensed the theologians;

People asked, why is that friars have such long tools, and the (said) Panurge solved the problem very neatly by saying; what makes donkeys’ ears so long is because their dams do not put bonnets on their heads, as De Alliaco says in his Suppositions.’ By parallel reasoning, what makes the tools of the poor blessed fathers so long is that they do not wear bottomed breaches, and their poor member stretches freely, without let or hindrance, and so it goes waggling down to their knees, like a woman’s string of beads. But the reason why they have it correspondingly stout is because as it waggles, the humors of the body descend into the said member. For according to the lawmen, agitation and continuous motion are the cause of attraction...22


Or to quote another passage;

...A short time after this, the good Pantagruel fell ill and was so afflicted in his stomach that he could neither eat nor drink. Also, since misfortune never comes singly, he was taken with a hot piss which pained him more than you might imagine. But his doctors came to his aid and most successfully. For with plenty of lenitive and diuretic drugs, they made him piss his complaint away. But his piss was so hot that it has not grown cold since that day, and you will find some of it in different places, in France, according to where it flowed. These are called hot baths...23


By the time of this writing, Rabelais was more or less immune to criticism by the Dominican professors and the Inquisition. Jean du Bellay, the archbishop of Paris, took him under his protection and took him to Rome as his physician. Rabelais stayed in the Eternal City for two months and had a chance to view the city’s antiquities.

In the meantime, he published a new edition of ”Pantagruel.” He showed his tremendous imagination and his writing reached Ciceronian pathos that was typical of contemporary humanist writings. He promoted every small settlement into a city in the book and he parodized the writings of historians with which he was forced to become acquainted in his childhood.24 He describes and condemns the scholastic culture of his time in a letter written by Gargantua to his son. At the same time, he describes the foundation of humanistic culture.25 He describes the disputes of the Dominican professors as revolving around petty, meaningless points. He mentions the extension of court cases without time limit, and speaks about the nonsensical language students use among themselves. When he returned to Lyons, he published Gargantu’s history. His murderous description of the Dominican faculty of the Sorbonne, whom he accused of obscurantism, and being the enemies of humanist culture, cut to the bone. He wrote:

...And first of all, in the Rue de Feurre he contended against all the professors, students in arts and orators, and turned them all upside-down. Then in the Sorbonne he argued against the theologians for the space of six weeks, from four in the morning to six at night, except for a two-hour interval to take his refreshment and repast. And here were present the lords of the court, the masters of requests, presidents, councillors, treasury-men, secretaries, advocates and others, together with the sheriffs of that city, the physicians and canon-lawyers... But notwithstanding their ergos (sic!) and sophistries he made fools of them all, and conclusively proved to them that they were just calves in petticoats.26

In all this, Rabelais was similar to other contemporary satirists. As I mentioned above, he toned down his criticism of the professors of the Sorbonne in the second edition of his work. At the same time, he made fun of the priests, especially the monks, because they accused him of atheism. (As it was noted by Lucien Fabvre, in the 16th century some people were always accused of atheism and Rabelais was no exception. He returned the favour and called his opponents atheists.) However, it must be stressed that the satires of Rabelais remained within the confines of the explanation of the Holy Script,27 and generally reflected the opinions of Erasmus. He found the classic quotations he used in Erasmus’ writings; Rabelais provided the humour for his quotes. This is his comment; (Frater Jean, the friend of Pantagruel speaks;

Servant, give me a drink; How gracious is God to have given us such a drink! I swear to God, that if I lived at the time of Jesus, I would have done everything I could against the Jews to prevent his capture in the garden of the Olives! In addition, the devil take me if I did not kick the behind of those lordly apostles who ran away like cowards, after eating the marvellous dinner, and left their lord in the lurch. I hate those who run away when there is need for a knife...


Then he continues his monologue;

I do not study. In my monastery the monks never study because they are afraid of catching goitre. Our abbot, God rest his soul, used to say that a learned monk is a frightful creature...


Then later he added;

Gargantua could not fall asleep, he just kept turning around in his bed. Then the monk told him; I cannot sleep well unless I am listening to a sermon or praying. Let us begin, therefore, with the seven penitentiary psalms and you will see how quickly you will fall asleep...

Rabelais warned his readers in his second book not to seek hidden messages in his writings between the lines. He explained that his sole purpose was to amuse his readers, and that he wrote his books in the course of great drinking bouts, and that he simply summarized popular chronicles. He intended to prevent and reject the accusations of heresy and free thinking. However, he also wanted to make sure that his criticism was taken seriously. He said;

If you say to me; ”It does not seem very wise of you to have written down all this gay and empty balderdash for us,” I would reply that you don’t show yourselves much wiser by taking pleasure in the reading of it...28

When he describes the disputation between Thaumastes and Panurge, (the former was standing in for Sir Thomas Moore, but we do not know why), or when he explains the method of rendering judgement by judge Bridoye by the casting of a dice, Rabelais’ satire rises to the highest levels. In fact, he does not condemn the judge, but ridicules a judicial system that makes his activities possible. This part attests to the fact that Rabelais was a serious scholar who, although making fun of scholastic learning, was also attracted to it.

During his stay at Poitiers, Rabelais listened to a lot of discussions about the applications of laws, about court cases and their significance. As we noted earlier, he acquired the knowledge of laws from his father and this he made good use of while writings his satires. Unfortunately, the modern reader will find it difficult to understand his jokes about lawyers unless he possesses an appropriate dictionary.

Rabelais does not create individual characters. For this reason, he does not find it hard to destroy his actors. Only Frater Jean may be recognized by his manner of speech, by his refusal to drink wine openly and by his reference to his breviary which also hides his wine bottle. In other words, our author describes an age, not individual destinies, at the point of the meeting of two historical periods, when individualism had become the dominant force replacing medieval collectivism. He did not exempt kings from his satire;

(Pantagruel went to war against the king of the Anarchs. During the battle, Panurge captured the king and took him to Pantagruel.) He said to his friend; ”do you know this clod?” ”No, indeed,” answered Pantagruel.” ”It’s his peerless Highness, the King. I want to make an honest man of him. But these accursed kings are absolute dolts. They know nothing and they’re good for nothing except to harm their poor subjects, and troubling the whole world with wars, for their wicked and detestable pleasure...29

I want to call the reader’s attention once again to the fact that Rabelais had never been a “populist writer,” at least if we wanted to apply such a measure to his writing. The uneducated people of his time, whether they lived in a shack or in a village house or even in a town or city, could not really understand the depth of his works.

In any case, culture does not spread in a linear way, but it wanders up and down the social scale. It is certain that there was cultural exchange between the lower and upper levels of society in France at that time, if in no other way than through nannies. Better-off families usually had a lower-class nanny for their children who told tales to the kids when going to bed. They undoubtedly spoke about Tom Thumb or Puss-in-the-boots, and even about the adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel.30 The simplest pamphlets often suddenly turned into ”kitchen Latin;” Rabelais was undoubtedly a figure of the interrelationship between high culture and folk culture.

However, a thorough understanding of Rabelais’ works required the knowledge of contemporary humanist culture, and it helped if one knew Latin and even the Greek language. Whatever is considered popular culture in Rabelais’ works is but the reflection of the culture of later ages back into his time.

Rabelais often related to knowledge possessed only by a very narrow intellectual stratum, although the members of this group were neither nobles nor simple people. This is one reason for the mistake of Bahtyin when he “discovered” the spirit of the carnival in Rabelais’ works. The efforts of later ages to saddle Rabelais with the title of “popular writer,” were politically motivated. This is similar to the search for ”radical predecessors” in our age and the inclusion of their writings in the political right- or left literature, ”proving” their affinity with the appropriate causes. Rabelais’ writings had nothing in common with the atmosphere of the carnival, during which the people could mock the Bible, the officials, or the bishops without incurring penalties. Rabelais remained within limits set by official Christendom and he did not deplore the institution of the priesthood, but corrupt priests; he did not reject scholarship, but made fun of the charlatans masquerading as scholars.

The publication of his third and fourth books had its consequences. For a time, he had to disappear from official sights. Once again, Bishop Du Bellay, who became cardinal in the interim, came to his rescue. He took Rabelais to Rome again, where he arranged a papal dispensation for his physician for leaving the Benedictine order. At the same time, he arranged for him a letter that permitted entrance to any Benedictine monastery, and he could continue his medical practice. After their return to France, Du Bellay arranged an appointment as a canon for him. However, the canons disliked Rabelais and thus he returned first to Lyons and then to Montpellier, where he received his medical doctorate.

In 1537, Rabelais spent time at the royal court and thus he had to make peace with the theologians of the Sorbonne. After the war of King Francis I that ended with the conquest of Piedmont, Guillome, Signeure de Langey, who was another Du Bellay, called Rabelais to join him at Turin. The author continued his medical practice while staying in Italy and had written a history of the war. Unfortunately, the manuscript of this work has been lost.

In 1541, Rabelais returned to France with his master and he found out in Lyons that his publisher was issuing his books without the improvements that the author had suggested. But he was simply powerless to do anything about it.

The third satire came out in 1546. This work discussed the nature of women, at least as seen by a former monk. It appears that Rabelais was isolated from women’s company. Rumours maintain that he had an illegitimate son who died at the age of two, yet, none of the rumours know anything about the boy’s mother.30

In the third book there is little mention of heroic acts and giants. The book revolves around the marriage plans of Panurge, Pantagruel’s friend, and the ways a prospective husband can ensure that his future wife, whom he did not yet know, will not cheat on him. Rabelais repeats the centuries-old dispute in this book over the superiority of men or women and, of course, he ends up on the side of men. The structure of this book is the best of them all, and it leads to the next volume in which the main theme is the adventure of Pantagruel and his friends in the course of their pilgrimage to the Oracle of the Bottle. They wanted to consult with the Oracle concerning Panurge’s future marriage. Pantagruel appears in this book as a scholarly philosopher, embodying the ideal humanist. They travel by ship which, of course, meets all sorts of adventures. Pantagruel defends the ship against attack by a giant whale, and they visit various islands whose occupants have strange beliefs. However, the Sorbonne, while maintaining the ban on his previous books, also banned this one because, according to the theologians, it contained a lot of heresy and dirty talk.32 This was done despite the fact that before publication, Rabelais received royal dispensation for the printing of the book.

In 1546, Rabelais appeared in Metz, the imperial city, where he received some sort of office appointment. The French language was dominant in this free city. However, there were no humanists present. Rabelais stayed here for two years. But his salary was inadequate and he turned to whom else? Du Bellay for help. Once again, the two travelled to Rome.33 Traveling through Lyons, Rabelais turned over eleven chapters of his next book to a printer, Pierre de Tours, because he was badly in need of money. Arriving in Rome, he had plenty of time to discourse with the local humanists.

Besides his regular salary as a physician, Rabelais owned the services of two villages. While in Rome, he worked on his fourth volume. However, his critics would not leave him alone. One of these, using the pseudonym of Prutherbus, sharply attacked the writer.34 John Calvin also condemned the books of the French satirist. In response, Rabelais included both of them in the next book among the “parasites living off the church.”35 None of this empty chatter caused any problems for Rabelais, because, in addition to Du Bellay, the new French king, Henry II, who followed his father on the French throne, was an enemy of the pope. This fact provided encouragement for Rabelais and, in the fourth book, under the guise of traveling to “Papimania,” he made fun of the papal decretals and the corrupt popes as well. This is what he said;

As they arrived at Papimania,( an island), the inhabitants yelled at them in unison; ”have you seen Him?” ”Whom do you mean?” asked Frater Jean. ”Him, who it is.” was the answer. (Jean answered) ”According to our theological doctrine you are talking about God. Because these were the words God used in introducing himself to Moses. Of course, we have never seen Him. He is invisible for human eyes.” Carpalin, (their guide) explained that the questioner meant the pope. Pantagruel answered; I have seen three of them. And had not received any good from either one.” ”What!” responded the island’s inhabitants, ”according to our scriptures there is never more than one at a time.” ”What I mean is that I saw three one after another.” At this, the people went down on their knees and wanted to kiss Pantagruel’s feet. But Pantagruel did not let them do it and reminded them that they could not do more even for the pope. ”Oh yes,” answered the island’s inhabitants, ”we could certainly do more for Him. First of all, we would kiss his bare behind, and after that his balls. Because this pope has balls! Our law books say that he is the pope, therefore, he must have large balls. And if there were no more balls in the world, there would not be popes either.”36

When they disembarked from their ship, they saw a giant statue which represented the pope. When Panurge declared that the statue does not look like the pope, the islanders explained that it does not matter. They also asserted that the pope is entitled to wear a helmet as the statue does, and lead wars, because he is obliged to do so by his own laws and punish heretics.37

This book was already showing the decline of Rabelais writing ability. Not long after the publication of this book, the pope and King Henry II resolved their differences. Not surprisingly, his last book was also banned. If we scrutinized Rabelais’ books closely, we would find them to have been written for the amusement of an educated humanist. He probably did not consider the books so important that later ages would pay attention to them. However, after the huge success of the first book, he changed his tune and the story of Gargantua came closer to propaganda. The third book contains a great deal of wisdom – including some political and religious propaganda, which increased the significance of the volume. The fourth book, which was issued in 1550, and which was followed in 1552 by a revised edition, contains the deepest philosophical comedy ever written, and had no peer until Molière appeared on the French literary horizont.

We do not know what happened to Rabelais after the publication of this book. According to some rumours, he was incarcerated.38 We know that he renounced the income derived from his two villages. Then in April 1553 he died.

Nine years after his death, (in 1562) his fifth book was published. It was entitled the Ringing Island, but the edition known to posterity came out only in 1564. The experts are still arguing about Rabelais’ contribution to this volume, and the parts added by others.39 This book ridicules canon laws more sharply than the previous books.40

Rabelais’ last book had also been very successful. It is possible that it was put together by someone after the beginning of the great religious wars, which Rabelais did not survive to see. However, there is no observable difference between the style of the last book and the previous ones, and the writer’s imagination does not show signs of deterioration.41

In sum, I had to admit on the basis of the evidence that Rabelais did not want to be a social reformer. Rather, he followed the example set by Erasmus. In later ages, reformers and revolutionaries attempted to discover in him the writer who, as one of their forerunners, wrote criticisms of the contemporary political and social order. If this were true, and according to some literary critics it is not, then Rabelais became a serious critique against his wishes. It is undoubtedly true that his books were read with great delight just as the books of Cervantes and Grimmelshausen, not by the intellectual elites of his times, but by the literate readers of villages and towns who laughed at the adventures of Gargantua, Pantagruel and their companions.

It is also true that the major actors of his books, Frater Jean, Panurge and others, became strictures in world literature, just as other famous imaginary people, like Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Rabelais did not ridicule the institution of the priesthood or of the papacy, but the corrupt priests and popes; like Erasmus, he did not want to abolish these institutions, but wanted to show the corruption and frailty of its members. He could, therefore, never become a follower of Martin Luther or Jean Calvin. In spite of all harassment, he remained within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church.




This presentation was delivered at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on October 31, 2000.


See below.


The complete title of the first book is The Terrible Actions of the famous Pantagruel, son of the Great Gargantua, king of the Dipsodes, which were put into writing by Master Alcofrybas Nasier (This was the pseudonym used by Rabelais).


See Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-revolutionary France (New York, 1996), 203.


Among the documents of the church of St Paul of Paris, dated 1759, there is one according to which ”Francois Rabelais died at the age of 70, on April 9, 1553, and he was buried at the church’s burial ground.” Accordingly, the birth year of our writer would be 1483. However, in a letter written by Rabelais, dated 1521, he calls himself an ”adulescent” which would have been rather strange in the case of a 38 year-old man. Therefore, the assertion, according to which he was born in 1494 or 1495, is much more realistic.


The collected works of Rabelais were published by Abel Lafranc, Ouvres de Francois Rabelais. Édition critique publiée per Abel Lafranc , Jacques Boulenger, et al., (Paris, 1916). Additional data were provided by Société des Études Rabelaisienne, beginning in 1903, and which changed its title in 1913 to Revue du Seizieme siécle.


The list of Latin terms published in the 14th chapter of ”Gargantua” were, in all probability, derived from La Baumette, and students were required to memorize them. The memorizations were a centuries-old method of teaching Latin, as this author can attest to it several centuries later.


It is likely that he became acquainted with the works of Duns Scotus as well as the Sentences of Peter Abelard, as well as the essays on Logic, presented by Pierre Tataret, the Rektor of the University of Paris, because all these works were required readings for Franciscan monks.


Poitiers were often called Poictiers in Rabelais’ time. This city was, together with Paris and Lyons, one of the great urban communities of France. Its university rivalled that of Paris. Although its theological faculty was mediocre, as well as its medical school, its law faculty was well-regarded.


His rendition of this speech included M’arme (par mon ame) (on my soul!); merdé (I say it on God’s mother!) Pé le quaudé! ( Isten testére!), etc. See Andre Sainéan, La langua de Rabelais II; 337.


See Jean Plattard, The Life of Francois Rabelais (New York-London, 1968), 40.


Rabelais signed the registry of the University of Montpellier attesting to his oath made on the rules of the medical faculty. This oath is cited in full by Plattard, 92.


While practicing medicine, he also translated the four books of Hippocrates into Latin; these were The Aphorisms, Praesagia, the Ratio victus in morbis acutis and the Natura Humana. In addition, he corrected the works of Leonicenus, and Cop, and Brantius’ translation of Galen., the Ars Medicinalis-t. At the same time, he translated into Latin the work of Manardi, The Medical Letters. All this contributed to his fame as a physician.


Patrem te dixi, matrem etiam dicerem, si per indulgentiam mihi id tuam liceret, he wrote. Idézi Plattard. i. m., 132, Note 1.


This book was published after Rabelais returned from Rome, which will be discussed below.


Francois Rabelais, Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel Transl. By J. M. Cohen. (New York, 1985); later quoted as Penguine edition).


Panurge is a strange character who goes through several metamorphoses in the course of the story. At first, he appears as a swindler then, in the war against the Dipsodes, he turns into a hero, while in the last book he becomes a coward. While staying in Paris, he provides a contrast to Pantagruel, a figure of Villonian dimensions, who cheats everybody except his giant friend. For his character, see Chapter XVI in the Penguine Edition.


Panourgos means, in the Greek language, a swindler, a fraud, a man who is capable of all kinds of tricks. Those who understood Greek at the time, immediately understood Rabelais intentions.


Rabelais obtained the idea from Erasmus’ Adages, III. Vol. 4, 83.; Surdaster cum surdastro litigabat; iudex autem erat utroque surdior.


A description of this episode is given by M. A. Screech in Rabelais (Ithaca, NY,1979), 89. Also see Plattard, 130.


See Michail Bahtyin, Rabelais and his World. Translated by Helene Isvolskiy (New York, 1984.)


Penguine edition, 224–225.


Penguine edition, 275.


The library of Sorbonne, called the Victorian Library, allegedly contained books in Rabelais’ interpretation, such as ”Biga salutis,” (the greeting of the river bass), and ”Malogranatum vitiorum,” (the sin of the pomegranate.)


The letter of Gargantua addressed to his son explains the necessary knowledge for a humanist. (Penguine edition, 8th chapter.) In this part it seems that Rabelais forgot his humour for a time and the chapter is a serious philosophical tract.


Penguine edition, 202.


We must not search for Rabelais’ opinions about the Christian religion in his condemnation of Popes Alexander VI, or Julius II, nor in the tone of his writings when he discusses the explanations of Holy Writ, and not even in the parodies he used in discussing papal edicts; but in the prayer of Pantagruel before his battle with King Anarchus. In this prayer he promises God that, if he were victorious, he will do everything to spread the Gospels. See Plattard about contrasting opinions, i.m., 135, Note 1.


Penguine edition, 277.


Penguine edition, 271.


For this see the interesting book by Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1984).


A close friend of Rabelais, Jean de Boysonné, spoke of the alleged son of Rabelais in a Latin-language poem, and he mentions that the boy died at the age of two. See Screech, 72.


It seems, however, that the reason for the ban of the book was only partly the dirty talk it contained. The law said that every book that contained any reference to religion, had to be presented before publication to the theologians of the Sorbonne for approval; this was not done by Rabelais. See Plattard, i.m., 119.


According to the records, his yearly salary was 120 livres, or 200 gold franc. See Gaston Zeller, „Le séjour de Rabelais á Metz,” Revue XVIe siécle, (Paris, 1927,) fasc.1. It seems, however, that Du Bellay was really ill and needed the administration of a physician.


The title of the critical book was Theotimus sive de tollendis et expungendis malis libri iis (Paris, 1549).


Pengine edition, vol.4, chapter XXXII.


Penguine edition, 550.


Penguine edition, 556–557.


The only remark about his alleged incarceration was made by Denis Lambin in 1552 in Lyons. After inquiring about this in Paris, he wrote to Henry Estienne in Paris that he was unable to find out anything about the fate of Rabelais. See Plattard, 266.


See Plattard, 282–283.


Rabelais attacks the papal ”Decreta,” the collection of canon laws, which were first compiled by a monk from Bologna, Gratian. In 1234, Pope Gregory IX ordered Raymond Pennaforti, his chaplain, to compile the orders of the previous five popes in five books, and these were then called the ”Decretals.” The books were then sent to the Universities of Bologna and Paris, after which the compilations became canon laws. In 1278, a sixth book was added to the collection which became canon law in 1313. In the 15th century, two new compilations, Extravagantes by Pope John XII and Extravagantes communes were added, making them parts of canon laws.


The success of Rabelais’ works was shown by the fact that immediately after his death, a general edition was issued. This collection appeared in 1553, probably without his previous approval. Three years later, another edition was published without the name of the publisher. In 1559, a third compilation appeared also without the name of the publisher and the location of his print shop.


Joseph Held is a well-known author of several books on European and Hungarian history; he is a retired Professor Emeritus of Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA). He was Visiting Professor at the Europa Institute Budapest in September-October 2000. He gave several lectures and did consultations while in Budapest. The lecture presented in this issue was delivered at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on October 31.