Laughter’s the property of man. Live joyfully • Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800
1304—74 Italian scholar and poet Petrarch translates Greek and Roman scrolls, which are the springboard for humanism and the Italian Renaissance.
1353 The 100 stories told by 10 young Florentines fleeing from the plague in Boccaccio’s The Decameron set a standard for Renaissance literature, and influence authors from Chaucer to Shakespeare.
1460 Ploughman of Bohemia, a dialogue between Death and a ploughman, by Johannes von Tepl, is one of Germany’s earliest humanist poems.
1522—35 Dutch humanist Erasmus publishes his own Greek and Latin translations of the New Testament; they are the basis for Martin Luther’s German and William Tyndale’s English translations.
In the five-volume Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais builds a fantasy world around two giants and their companions. The text includes all the elements of medieval folk humour that would have been familiar to contemporary readers — bodily functions, gross sexual behaviour, birth, and death. Rich in satire, the tales are also fuelled by the energy of Renaissance humanism, which spread into northern Europe from Italy. “Humanism” at this time had a different meaning from the modern-day term, being concerned with a resurgence of interest in the wisdom of the classical world. Until this point, education had involved blindly following the Church’s narrow scholastic tradition; the major humanist impetus was to build a complete programme of education that included philosophy, grammar, poetry, history, and Ancient Greek and Latin.
"Time, which diminishes and erodes all things, increases and augments generous deeds …"
Gargantua and Pantagruel
Scholarly and satirical
Poised at the threshold of this rapidly changing world, Rabelais finds ways to weave a humanist agenda into his giant adventures — but he first engages his reader’s attention with scatological humour and absurd fantasy. At the very beginning, the text presents a midwife’s-eye view of the mother in labour, as the baby Gargantua struggles up through her body to be born out of her left ear. The exploits, battles, and quests of Gargantua and his son Pantagruel rattle on, liberally embellished with descriptions of meat feasts and shovel-loads of mustard tossed into cavernous mouths; pilgrims consumed in a salad; massive codpieces; armies washed away by urination; and cannonballs that fall out of Gargantua’s hair after battle.
Yet despite such crude and extreme behaviour, Rabelais ensures that his giant creations will pass easily in the new world of Renaissance humanism by making them fully conversant in the finer points of learning, including medicine, law, and science. In a letter to his son, the old giant Gargantua contrasts his own upbringing in “dark” times with the current age, where “light and dignity have been restored”.
After the arrival of the printing press in the mid-15th century, ordinary people could read the Bible in translation — for the first time they had direct access to the word of God, unmediated by the agenda of the Church. Although he was a priest, Rabelais seized his chance to satirize religious dogmatism. Gargantua’s mighty warrior, Friar John, is given the sumptuous Abbey of Thélème filled with finely dressed nuns and monks who consort freely. “Do what thou wilt” is the rule of the order, as “we all engage in things forbidden, and yearn for things denied.”
Witty, irreverent, and stuffed with intellectual marrow, no other novel is quite like Gargantua and Pantagruel. It has been celebrated by authors across the centuries, and most recently by Postmodern writers, who have found much to admire in the narrative freedom of Rabelais’ great work.
Although Rabelais wrote Pantagruel first, the series is usually published in the order of the story, starting with Gargantua. The first two books are characterized by satire and bawdy humour, the third is more serious, and the fourth and fifth are darkly mocking.
Writer, medic, scholar of Greek, and priest, François Rabelais was an intellectual giant of 16th-century France. Born in the Touraine region probably around 1494, he studied law before taking holy orders with the Franciscans. He then transferred to a Benedictine order, where he studied medicine and Greek. In 1530, breaking his vows, he left the Benedictines to study medicine at Montpellier University. After graduating, he lectured on the works of ancient Greek physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen, whose work he translated, and worked as a physician in Lyon.
Using the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier (an anagram of his name), in 1532 Rabelais published Pantagruel, the first of the five books that would make up Gargantua and Pantagruel, although Rabelais’ authorship of the fifth book is doubtful. All five books were condemned by the Sorbonne and the Church, and despite being protected by powerful patrons, Rabelais was forced to live abroad from 1545 to 1547, fearing persecution. He later received a papal pardon. He died in Paris in 1553.
See also: The Decameron • The Canterbury Tales • Don Quixote • Tristram Shandy