Like his contemporary Machiavelli, Rabelais is another writer whose name has given a rise to an adjective. ‘Rabelaisian’ describes a particularly obscene and ribald humour, a form prevalent in Rabelais’ most famous work Gargantua and Pantagruel.
François Rabelais was probably born in 1494 in Chinon, that ancient home of the Angevin King of England Henry II, in the Loire Valley.
The young Rabelais entered the local monastery and took holy orders, but he took leave to study medicine at the University of Poitiers and University of Montpellier. In 1532, Rebalias moved to Lyon to practice medicine. In his spare time he began to write and published a number of small humourous and satirical pamphlets and treatise criticizing the authorities and commenting on social and political events of the day. He was one of the first Frenchmen to learn ancient Greek and his works contain a number of Greek references.
He also began work on the first part of what would become his most famous work. Under the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier (an anagram of François Rabelais), he published the first part of Pantagruel in 1532. The book was an enormous success and immediately drew the attention of the Roman Catholic authorities in Paris who condemned the book. However, King François I was a fan of the book and through his support, and the patronage of the du Ballay family, Rabelias continued to work on his stories, of which four were published to acclaim. Rabelais wrote Gargantua, the prequel to Pantragruel, in 1534.
The death of King Francois meant Rabelais lost an important protector and the French parliament banned the final installment of the book. (That fifth book of the series was published posthumously in 1564, although there is some evidence is was put together by an unknown author from Rabelias’ notes.) Rabelais was forced into hiding in Italy when it was suggested by some powerful people that he was a heretic. Once the talk of heresy died down, Rabelais returned to Montpellier in 1537 and taught medicine until 1547. In 1553 Rabelias died in Paris. Allegedly his last words were "I have nothing, I owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor. I am off in search of a great perhaps."
Gargantua and Pantagruel
While most modern versions publish Rabelias’ work as Gargantua and Pantagruel, the work is actually five novels.
The first two stories follow the adventures of two giants, the father (Gargantua) and his son (Pantagruel) The satirical adventures are full of crude humour, vulgarity and violence. They are full of tales about eating, drinking, sex, excreting and discussing issues of the day and the foibles of humans.
The third book follows Pantagruel and his friend Panurge, who engage a number of people to resolve the question as to whether Panurge should marry. Finally, after failing to find a suitable answer, the two giants begin a sea voyage in search of an oracle to resolve the question.
In book four, the voyage continues in what is a satirical retelling of the Odyssey. The giants encounter strange and weird characters and places -- most of whom are satires of the church, the authorities and political figures of the day.
In the fifth volume the oracle is found and Pantagruel makes some biting points about the journey, the commentaries and the people and societies they have encountered.