Birthday: February 4, 1494
Died At Age: 59
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Born Country: France
Born in: Chinon, France
Famous as: Writer
Died on: April 9, 1553
place of death: Paris
education: University of Montpellier (1537), University of Paris, University of Poitiers
Francois Rabelais was a 16th-century French writer, scholar, physician, and literary figure, who gave the French language its nobility. He is remembered for his prodigious gift of verbal invention, as illustrated in his timeless parodic novels ‘Gargantua’ and ‘Pantagruel.’ A wandering monk and physician under the patronage of the powerful Du Bellay family, he was a contemporary of Francois I, the first monarch of the French Renaissance. He lived through the early tensions of the widespread rebellion and reformation against the Church and the clergy. Rabelais was an exceptional scholar of the Greek language and a humanist writer who sparked universal curiosity with his never-seen-before bawdy humor and satire. The first of the great authors of Europe, his genius dominated the Renaissance period along with stalwarts such as Montaigne. So profound is his literary legacy that the term “Rabelaisian” is used even to this day, as a descriptive for a particular style and a particular genre of fiction.
Childhood & Early Life
Rabelais’s life is rather poorly documented. Most of the testimonies regarding his life are unverifiable. His year of birth itself remains a matter of speculation. He was born most likely in 1494, in the Loire valley of France, at the La Devinière estate near Chinon, in the province of Touraine.
His father, Antoine Rabelais, was a wealthy lawyer at the royal headquarters in Chinon. He was a prominent member of the land-owning class and was related to the most influential families in the province.
It is believed that at some point, Rabelias was at the Franciscan monastery of La Baumette in Angers. However, he barely had the temperament suitable for a typical monastic life. Some suggest he was there only to access ancient Greek texts.
Later, he became a monk at the monastery of Puy-Saint-Martin in Fontenay-le-Comte, where he immersed himself in Greek and other humanistic studies. The theologians at ‘Sorbonne,’ including the head of his new monastery, however, were hostile toward Greek. In 1524, Greek texts belonging to him and his close associate Pierre Amy, a Franciscan humanist, were confiscated by the convent.
Due to the efforts of Geoffroy d'Estissac at the Benedictines of Maillezais, Rabelais was chosen as a personal secretary by him. He transferred and continued to pursue his studies with greater freedom.
While with the Benedictines, he became friends with rhetorician Jean Bouchet of Poitiers and Antoine Ardillon, the abbot of Fontenay-le-Comte. Soon, Rabelais discovered an exciting new circle of scholars, jurists, and philologists, consisting of both clergymen and lay people.
In 1527, he renounced monastic life and traveled through France, stopping at several renowned university cities such as Orleans, Paris, and Toulouse.
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Rabelais was next seen at the ‘University of Montpellier’ around 1530, where he pursued medicine. Within weeks, he started delivering public lectures on Hippocrates and Galen from original Greek texts.
In 1532, he was made a physician at ‘Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon,’ a famous hospital. He found the city overflowing with literary activity and got acquainted with Étienne Dolet, Mellin de Saint-Gelais, and Jean Salmon, besides corresponding with Erasmus, whom he revered as his spiritual father.
In the summer of 1532, while editing Greek medical texts for a Lyon printer, Rabelias came across ‘Great and Inestimable Chronicles of the Great and Enormous Giant Gargantua,’ which compelled him to write a sequel, ‘Pantagruel’, which he published in the autumn of the same year. He also published several of his pamphlets and an ironical publication, ‘Pantagruéline Prognostication.’
By 1534, Rabelais was a personal physician to Jean du Bellay, the bishop of Paris, and subsequently a cardinal. Later that year, he published ‘Gargantua’ under the protection of his powerful patron, which was later considered the first book in his anthology.
Rabelais was also a great Greek scholar and lecturer on anatomy. Between creating the volumes of his magnum opus, he received his doctorate in medicine at the ‘University of Montpellier’ in 1537. He remained a highly respected physician for the rest of his life.
After a decade of distractions and turmoil, 1543 saw the Renaissance author lose two of his sponsors and close friends. However, he managed to publish the ‘Third Book’ after a gap of 11 years, in 1546. Though less scornful than his previous two books, this, too, was condemned by the ‘Sorbonne.’
On his third trip to Rome with Jean Du Bellay, he wrote ‘Relation of the Feasts Given on the Occasion of the Birth of Louis, Duke of Orleans.’ On his return to Lyon, he got a portion of the ‘Fourth Book’ (1548) printed, which eventually got published in its entirety in 1552.
‘Les horribles et épouvantables faits et prouesses du très renommé Pantagruel roi des Dipsodes’ (‘The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Renowned Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes’), published in 1532, was the first of the five in the ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’ series, the comical masterpiece that made Rabelais the literary giant he became in the centuries to come.
‘La vie inestimable du grand Gargantua’ (‘The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua’), published in 1534, was a prequel to the first book and the progenitor of the legend of ‘Gargantua.’
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‘Tiers livre des faits et dits héroïques du noble Pantagruel’ (‘Third Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of the Noble Pantagruel’), published in 1546, is widely considered Rabelais’s most profound work.
‘Quart livre des faits et dits héroïques du noble Pantagruel’ (‘Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of the Noble Pantagruel), published in 1552, was the longest of all five books in the series.
The authenticity of the last part, ‘Cinquiesme et dernier livre’ (‘Fifth and Last Book’), published in 1564, has always been questioned. Published after a decade of Rabelais’s death, it is believed to be based on his lost drafts. However, a lot of people describe is as a total fabrication.
Rabelais’s literary influence is ever-present in European literary tradition and history. Even his critics have been greatly impacted by his literary prowess, which is evident from the “counterculture” literature published by them. Protestant pamphleteers often asked for his help to confuse their opponents using his words.
Few authors in the history of literature have had such great influence on future writers. From James Joyce to Cervantes and Shakespeare, he inspired pretty much every author who came after him.
The “libertines” of the following century did not fail to appreciate him either, as he became the role model of several burlesque poets, such as Saint-Amant, Sarasin, and Scarron. Moliere and La Fontaine owe him a great deal, and Voltaire, too, read his works religiously.
Anatole France extensively lectured on him. John Cowper Powys, DB Wyndham-Lewis, and Lucien Febvre (founder of the French historical school ‘Annales’) have all written books on him. Mikhail Bakhtin admittedly adopted the concepts of the “carnivalesque” and the “grotesque” from Rabelais’s works.
Honoré de Balzac got the inspiration for ‘Les Cent Contes Drolatiques’ (‘The Hundred Humorous Tales’) from Rabelais. He paid homage to him by quoting him in more than 20 novels and short stories of ‘La Comédie Humaine’ (‘The Human Comedy’).
Rabelais dominated Kenzaburō Ōe's acceptance speech for his ‘Nobel Prize in Literature’ in 1994. Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio termed him "the greatest writer in the French language" during his 2008 ‘Nobel’ lecture.
Milan Kundera considers him, alongside Cervantes, the founder of the literary device known as the novel.
His alleged birthplace in modern-day Indre-et-Loire, the La Devinière estate, houses the famous ‘Musée Rabelais’ (‘Rabelais Museum’).
The Asteroid ‘5666 Rabelais’ was named in his honor in 1982.
There is a Rabelais bust in Meudon, where he served as a priest. There is also a monument dedicated to him at Montpellier's ‘Jardin des Plantes.’
The public university of Tours in France, ‘Université François Rabelais,’ is named after him.
Graduates at the ‘University of Montpellier's ‘Faculty of Medicine’ can undergo convocation only by taking their oath under Rabelais's robe. Other traditional tributes to him at the university include its “faluche,” a student headcap with four bands of colour emanating from the center.
Family & Personal Life
During his training and practice as a physician between 1530 and 1532, Rabelais got involved with an unnamed widowed woman, with whom he had two children: François and Junie. Both children were given their father’s name by Pope Paul IV in 1540.
Nothing is known of the cause of or the circumstances surrounding his death. He obtained the “curé” for Saint-Martin de Meudon and Saint-Christophe-du-Jambet, in Sarthe. Later, he had the privilege to print all his works freely by the recommendation of Cardinal de Chatillon. However, he gave up both the positions in January 1553 and died later that year in Paris.