Rabelais, François

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Rabelais, François

(răb`əlā, Fr. fräNswä` räblā`), c.1490–1553, French writer and physician, one of the great comic geniuses in world literature. His father, a lawyer, owned several estates, including "La Devinière," near Chinon, the presumed birthplace of Rabelais.

Early Life

Becoming a novice in a Franciscan monastery early in his life, Rabelais went as a monk to Fontenay-le-Comte. He studied Greek and Latin, as well as science, law, philology, and letters, becoming known and respected by the humanists of his time, including Budé. Harassed because of his humanist studies, Rabelais petitioned Pope Clement VII and received permission to leave the Franciscan order and enter the Benedictine monastery of Maillezais; the monastery's scholarly bishop became his friend and patron.

The facts concerning Rabelais's study of medicine are obscure, but it is probable that he studied in Paris and at other universities before receiving (1530) his degree of bachelor of medicine at the Univ. of Montpellier. In 1532 he went to Lyons, then an intellectual center, and there, besides practicing medicine, he edited various Latin works for the printer Sebastian Gryphius. For another publisher he composed burlesque almanacs.

Gargantua and Pantagruel

At Lyons in 1532 there appeared Gargantua: Les grandes et inestimables cronicques du grand et énorme géant Gargantua, a chapbook collection of familiar legends about the giant Gargantua. Their popularity apparently inspired Rabelais to write a similar history of Pantagruel, son of Gargantua. Pantagruel appeared in 1532 or 1533. His book had great success and he followed it, in 1534, with a romance concerning Pantagruel's father: Gargantua: La vie inestimable du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel.

The third book of the romance, which differed greatly from the first two, was published in 1546; an incomplete edition of the fourth book appeared in 1548 and a complete one in 1552. After Rabelais's death a fifth book appeared (1562); the question of its authorship remains unsettled. Rabelais's novel is one of the world's masterpieces, a work as gigantic in scope as the physical size of its heroes. Under its broad humor, often ribald, are serious discussions of education, politics, and philosophy. The breadth of Rabelais's learning and his zest for living are evident.

Later Life

Rabelais made several trips to Rome with his friend Cardinal Jean du Bellay; he lived for a time in Turin with du Bellay's brother, Guillaume. Francis I was for a time a patron of Rabelais. Rabelais apparently spent some time in hiding, threatened with persecution for heresy. Du Bellay's protection saved Rabelais after the condemnation of his novel by the Sorbonne. He taught medicine at Montpellier in 1537 and 1538 and after 1547 became curate of St. Christophe de Jambe and of Meudon, offices from which he resigned before his death in Paris in 1553.


The classic translation of Rabelais is that of Sir Thomas Urquhart (Books I–II, 1653, Book III, 1693); Books IV and V were translated by P. Motteux. W. F. Smith made a translation of the five books, with other writings (1893, new ed. 1934). More recent translations include those by J. M. Cohen (1955) and J. Le Clercq (1936, repr. 1963). See biographies by J. Plattard (1931, repr. 1969) and A. Tilley (1907, repr. 1970); studies by A. J. Krailsheimer (1963) and D. G. Coleman (1971).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Rabelais, François


Born circa 1494, near Chinon, Tou-raine; died Apr. 9, 1553, in Paris. French writer.

Rabelais was born on the estate of his father, a lawyer and landowner. As a young man he was a monk. After leaving the monastery in 1527, he studied law, topography, archaeology, and medicine. He became a doctor of medicine in 1537. A humanist, he led the life of a traveling lecturer and physician. In 1532, Rabelais published Pantagruel as a continuation of a popular chapbook about giants. Over the next 20 years he published three more books of the novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, which was enthusiastically received by his contemporaries. Each part of the novel was banned for its outspoken, daring freethinking, and the author often had to go abroad to escape persecution. The Fifth Book of Pantagruel, published posthumously, in 1564, under Rabelais’s name, was written by an unknown writer, who probably used materials left by Rabelais.

Rabelais’s great novel is truly an encyclopedia of French Renaissance culture, encompassing religious and political life, pedagogical and scientific thought, everyday life, and the aspirations of man. His laughter at an obsolescent world is all-encompassing and merciless, but at the same time Rabelais has limitless faith in the renewal of life and in scientific and social progress. This faith takes the form of predictions of great discoveries and inventions or the form of a Utopian free society (the description of the abbey of Thélème). Behind the unbridled fantasy and seemingly chaotic structure of the book, “le plus merveilleux livre du monde” (A. France, Oeuvres complètes, vol. 17, Paris, 1928, p. 45), one senses the remarkable sobriety and harmony of a universal humanist world view. Rabelais himself defined his Pantagruelism, that is, his humanism, as “a certain lightness of spirit compounded of contempt for the chances of fate” (Gargantiua and Pantagriuel’, Moscow, 1966, p. 437).

Pantagruelism thrived on the Renaissance, which F. Engels called “the greatest progressive upheaval that mankind had experienced until that time” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, p. 346). It is represented in the novel’s two chief characters: Pantagruel and Panurge. The giant king Pantagruel (“all-thirsting” for knowledge), who is eternally imperturbable before the vicissitudes of fortune and “the chances of fate,” is the personification of the ideal future of mankind. Panurge, Pantagruel’s bosom friend and companion, an eternally doubting, restless rogue, is the personification of the actual people of that transitional era. The two represent a symbolic union between humanism’s progressive quest, on the one hand, and mankind’s own restless seeking, which is the material force of progress, on the other. The last three books of the novel are based on this union. The upbringing and youth of the giant Gargantua, Pantagruel’s father, are depicted in several chapters of the first book, chapters that are famous in the history of pedagogy; Pantagruel’s childhood is described in the second book.

The same union is at the basis of the allegorical, yet easily comprehended, journey of the Pantagruelists to the Oracle of the Divine Bottle (Truth) for answers to the question that comically troubles Panurge—to marry or not to marry—and to all painful questions. During an adventurous sea voyage, the Pantagruelists encounter all kinds of misfortunes and visit various islands, whose satire-provoking inhabitants personify stagnation, fanaticism, and absence of reason—all vestiges of the old world that serve as the contrary proofs encountered by the thirsting and searching Pantagruelists in their quest for truth.

In world literature, Rabelais is one of the greatest geniuses of the comic. Like the plot of his novel, which is the continuation of a folk novel, Rabelais’s laughter is rooted in the sources, techniques, and spirit of folk literature. The folkloric genres of the tale, fabliau, farce, and saying, as well as grotesque devices of language and imagery, all form part of his novel. His humor is based on particularizing the incorporeal in the manner of folk poetry and on the ambiguous nature of his protagonists’ “thirst,” a thirst for both wine and knowledge. Rabelais rejects the medieval ideal of asceticism and self-denial, glorifying the complete satisfaction of physical and spiritual needs and the unlimited development of the individual personality, “for between the body and soul there is an indissoluble sympathy” (Gargantiua and Pantagriuel’, Moscow, 1966, p. 321). A favorite comic technique of Rabelais is the exaggeration of vices (“the offspring of Antiphysis,” that is, Antinature) into fantastically one-dimensional, monstrous, palpably obvious, and therefore particularly comical, grotesques.

On the whole, Rabelais’s profoundly life-affirming and versatile humor is not satire. Rabelais approaches satire only in his choice of material—vices—not in his tone. This tone is gay and mirth-provoking; it mocks evil but does not fear it and is unconcerned with the course of life or the outcome of comic conflicts. Rabelais’s laughter is festive, like laughter at a carnival. It has many shades of meaning but is always vigorous, joyous, and purely comic, lacking the sorrow or melancholy over human weakness characteristic of humor. It is based on the age-old popular belief that laughter signifies happiness, contentment, lightheartedness, and health. Laughter, according to Rabelais the physician, also has another side. It heals and revives, dissipating sorrow, disharmony with life, and morbidity of spirit. Laughter attests to and at the same time bestows a healthy, clear spiritual vision. In Rabelais’s view, it frees us from all that beclouds our consciousness, thus playing a therapeutic role in our cognition of life. The influence of Rabelais’s comic style on the subsequent development of French literature, from La Fontaine and Molière to R. Rolland (Colas Breugnon), has been immense.


Oeuvres complètes. Text established and annotated by J. Boulenger. [Paris, 1934.]
In Russian translation:
Gargantiua i Pantagriuel’. Translated by N. Liubimov. Moscow, 1966.


Evnina, E. M. F. Rable. Moscow, 1948.
Pinskii, L. “Smekh Rable.” In his book Realizm epokhi Vozrozhdeniia. Moscow, 1961.
Bakhtin, M. Tvorchestvo F. Rabie i narodnaia kul’tura srednevekov’ia i Renessansa. Moscow, 1965.
F. Rabelais: Ouvrage publié pour le 400 ans de sa mort. Geneva, 1953.
Tetel, M. Rabelais. New York [1967]. (Contains bibliography.)
Claude, C. Rabelais. [Paris, 1973.]


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.