1902 Encyclopedia > François Rabelais

François Rabelais
French writer
(c. 1494 - 1553)




FRANCOIS RABELAIS (c. 1490-1553), the greatest of French humourists and one of the few great humourists of the world, was born at Chinon on the Vienne in the province of Touraine. The date of his birth is wholly uncertain: it has been put by tradition and by authorities long subsequent to his death as 1483, 1490, and 1495. There is nothing in the positive facts of hji life which would not suit tolerably well with any of these iates; most 17th-century authorities give the earliest, and this also accords best with the age of the eldest of the Du Bellay brothers, with whom Rabelais was at school. In favour of the latest it is urged that if Rabelais was born in 1483 he must have been forty-seven when he entered at Montpellier, and proportionately and unexpectedly old at other known periods of his life. In favour of the middle date, which has, as far as recent authorities are concerned, the weight of consent in its favour, the testimony of Guy Patin, a witness of some merit and not too far removed in point of time, is invoked, though perhaps the fact of its being a via media has really had most to do with the adoption. The only contribution which need be made here to the controversy is to point out that if Rabelais was born in 1483 he must have been an old man when he died, and that scarcely even tradition speaks of him as such. And since this tradition is men-tioned it may as well be observed at once that all the anecdotes of Rabelais without exception, and most of the accounts of the facts of his life, date from a period long posterior to his death and are utterly unworthy of cre-dence. Colletet nearly a hundred years later, Antoine Leroy a full hundred, and Bernier nearly a hundred and fifty collected or invented stories which, as far as any actual authority goes, must be regarded as worthless. Bishop Huet's researches were made nearly as late as Bernier's. Throughout this article, therefore, when tradition or any similar word is used without further precision it will be understood that the statements have in themselves only conjectural validity.

With regard to his birth, parentage, youth, and educa-tion everything depends upon tradition, and it is not until he was according to one extreme hypothesis thirty-six, according to the other extreme twenty-four, that we have solid testimony respecting him. In the year 1519, on the 5th of April, the Francois Rabelais of history emerges. The monks of Fontenay le Comte bought some property (half an inn in the town), and among their signatures to the deed of purchase is that of Francois Rabelais. Before this all is cloudlancl. It is said that he had four brothers and no sisters, that his father had a country property called La Deviniere, and was either an apothecary or a tavern-keeper. Half a century after his death De Thou mentions that the house in which he was born had become a tavern. It still stands at the corner of a street called the Rue de la Lamproie, and the tradition may be correct. An indistinct allusion of his own has been taken to mean that he was tonsured in childhood at seven or nine years old; and tradition says that he was sent to the convent of Seuilly, though of course .he could then have taken no definite vows, and there is no evidence whatever that the passage in question, which simply condemns the practice referred to, has any personal reference. From Seuilly at an unknown date tradition takes him either to the university of Angers or to the convent school of La Baumette or La Basmette, founded by good King Ren6 in the neighbourhood of the Angevin capital. Here he is sup-posed to have been at school with the brothers Dn Bellay, with Geoffroy d'Estissac and others. The next stage in this (as far as evidence goes, purely imaginary) career is the monastery of Fontenay le Comte, where, as has been seen, he is certainly found in 1519 holding a position sufficiently senior to sign deeds for the community, where he, as will be seen, certainly, though at an unknown date, took priest's orders, and where he also pursued, again cer-tainly, the study of letters, and especially of Greek, with ardour. From this date, therefore, he becomes historically visible. The next certain intelligence which we have of Rabelais is somewhat more directly biographical than this bare entry of his name. The letters of the well-known Greek scholar Budaeus, two of which are addressed to Rabelais himself and several more to his friend and fellow-monk Bierre Amy, together with some notices by Andre Tiraqueau, a learned jurist, to whom Rabelais rather than his own learning has secured immortality, show beyond doubt what manner of life the future author of Gargantua led in his convent. These letters are partly written in Greek and partly in Latin. In Tiraqueau's book De Legibus Connubialibus, which excited a controversy with another jurist of the west, Bouchard, also a friend of Rabelais, the latter is described as "a man most learned in both languages and all kinds of scholarship above his age, and beyond the wont and, if I may say so, the excessive scrupulousness of his order." The excessive scrupulousness of the order showed itself before long in reference to Amy and Rabelais, the latter of whom had, as this sentence of Tiraqueau's also informs us, translated the first book of Herodotus. The letters of Budseus show that an attempt was made by the heads of the convent or the order to check the studious ardour of these Franciscans; but it failed, and there is no positive evidence of anything like actual persecution, the phrases in the letters of Budaeus being merely the usual exaggerated Ciceronianism of the Renaissance. Some books and papers were seized as sus-picious, then given back as innocent; but Rabelais was in all probability disgusted with the cloister,—indeed his great work shows this beyond doubt. In 1524, the year of the publication of Tiraqueau's book above cited, his friend Geoffroy d'Estissac procured from Clement VII. an indult, licensing a change of order and of abode for Rabelais. From a Franciscan he became a Benedictine, and from Fontenay he moved to Maillezais, of which Geoffroy d'Estissac was bishop. He seems indeed to have been constantly in the company of the bishop and to have made many new literary acquaintances, notably Jean Bouchet, the poet. To him he wrote an epistle in French verse, still extant, which proves that Rabelais, much more truly than Swift, never could have been a poet. The title of this epistle is, however, noteworthy, inasmuch as the author is described in the original (a collection of Bouchet's works published in 1545) as a man of great literary knowledge in Greek and Latin, and as a great orator in Greek, Latin, and French. But even this learned and hospitable retreat did not apparently satisfy Rabelais. In or before 1530 he left Maillezais, abandoned his Benedictine garb for that of a secular priest, and, as he himself puts it in his subsequent Supplicatio pro Apostasia to Bope Paul III., " per seculum diu vagatus fuit." He is met at Montpellier in the year just mentioned. He entered the faculty of medicine there on the 16th of September and became bachelor on the 1st of November, a remarkably short in-terval, which shows what was thought of his acquirements. Early in 1531 he lectured publicly on Galen and Hippo-crates, while his more serious pursuits seem to have been chequered by acting in a morale comédie, then a very fre-quent university amusement. Visits to the Iles d'Hières, and the composition of a fish sauce in imitation of the ancient garum, which he sent to his friend Dolet, are associated, not very certainly, with his stay at Montpellier, which, lasting rather more than a year at first, was renewed at intervals for several years.

In 1532, however, and probably rather early than late in that year, he had moved from Montpellier to Lyons. Here he plunged into manifold work, literary and professional. He was appointed before the beginning of November phy-sician to the hôtel dieu, with a salary of forty livres per annum. He edited for Sebastian Gryphius, in the single year 1532, the medical Epistles of Giovanni Manardi, the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, with the Ars Parva of Galen, and an edition of two supposed Latin documents, which, however, happened unluckily to be forgeries. These three works were dedicated in order to his three chief friends of Touraine and Poitou, André Tiraqueau, the bishop of Maillezais, and Bouchard. We also have a Latin letter written on 1st December 1532 to a certain Bernard de Salignac, otherwise unknown.

It is certain that at this time Lyons was the centre and to a great extent the headquarters of an unusually enlightened society, and indirectly it is clear that Rabelais became intimate with this society. A manuscript distich, which was found in the Toulouse library, on the death of an infant named Theodule, whose country was Lyons and his father Rabelais, would seem to show that he here entered into other connexions than those of friendship. Absolutely nothing, however, is known about the child and its mother ; it is enough to say that the existence of the former would have been by the manners and morals of the time very easily condoned. But what makes the Lyons sojourn of the greatest real importance is that at this time probably appeared the beginnings of the work which was to make Rabelais immortal. It is necessary to say "probably," because the strange uncertainty which rests on so much of his life and writings exists here also. There is no doubt that both Gargantua and Pantagruel were popular names of giants in the Middle Ages, though, curiously enough, no mention of the former in French literature much before Rabelais's time has been traced. In 1526, however, Charles de Bordigné, in a satiric work of no great merit, entitled La Légende de Pierre Faifeu, has the name Gargantua with an allusion, and in 1532 (if not earlier) there appeared at Lyons Les Grandes et Lnestimables Chroniques du Grand et Énorme Géant Gargantua. This is a short book on the plan of the later burlesques and romances of the Round Table. Arthur and Merlin appear with Grantgosier, as he is here spelt, Galemelle (Gargalelle), Gargantua himself, and the terrible mare. But there is no trace of the action or other characters of Gargantua that was to be, nor is the manner of the piece in the least worthy of Rabelais. No one supposes that he wrote it, though it has been supposed that he edited it and that in reality it is older than 1532, and may be the direct subject of Bordigné's allusion six years earlier. What does, how-ever, seem probable is that the first book of Pantagruel (the second of the whole work) was composed with a definite view to this chap book and not to the existing first book of Gargantua, which was written afterwards when Rabelais discovered the popularity of his work and felt that it ought to have some worthier starting-point than the Grandes Chroniques. - The earliest known and dated edition of Pantagruel is of 1533, of Gargantua 1535, though this would not be of itself conclusive, especially as we actually possess editions of both which, though un-dated, seem to be earlier. But the definite description of Gargantua in the title as " Père de Pantagruel," the omis-sion of the words " second livre " in the title of the first book of Pantagruel while the second and third are duly entitled " tiers " and " quart," the remarkable fact that one of the most important personages, Friar John, is absent from book ii., the first of Pantagruel, though he appears in book i. (Gargantua), and many other proofs show the order of publication clearly enough. There is also in existence a letter of Calvin, dated 1533, in which he speaks of Pantagruel, but not of Gargantua, as having been condemned as an obscene book. Besides this, 1533 saw the publication of an almanac, the first of a long series which exists only in titles and fragments, and of the amusing Prognostication Pantagrueline (still, be it observed, Panta-grueline, not Gargantuine). Both this and Pantagruel itself were published under the anagrammatic pseudonym of "Alcofribas Nasier," shortened to the first word only in the case of the Prognostication.

This busy and interesting period of Rabelais's life was brought to a close apparently by his introduction or réin-troduction to Jean du Bellay. They had been, it has been said, schoolfellows, but Bellay does not appear among the list of Rabelais's friends in the first years of his emancipa-tion. From 1534, however, he and the other members of his family appear as Rabelais's chief and constant patrons during the remainder of his life. It was just before Christ-mas that Jean du Bellay, passing through Lyons on an embassy to Rome, engaged Rabelais as physician. The visit did not last very long, but it left literary results in an edition of a description of Rome by Marliani, which Rabelais published in September 1534. It is also thought that the first edition of Gargantua may have appeared this year.
In the spring of 1535 the authorities of the Lyons hospital, considering that Rabelais had twice absented himself without leave, elected Pierre de Castel in his room ; but the documents which exist do not seem to infer that any blame was thought due to him, and the appointment of his successor was once definitely postponed in case he should return. An epigram of Dolet shows that at least once and probably about this time he per-formed a public dissection. At the end of 1535 Rabelais once more accompanied Jean du Bellay, now a cardinal, to Rome and stayed there till April in the next year. This stay furnishes some biographical documents of importance in the shape of letters to Geoffroy d'Estissac, of the already-mentioned Supplicatio pro Apostasia, and of the bull of absolution which was the reply to it. This bull not only freed Rabelais from ecclesiastical censure but gave him the right to return to the order of St Benedict when he chose, and to practise medicine. He took advantage of this bull and became a canon of St Maur. The monastery having but recently become collegiate, there seems to have been some technical difficulty which necessitated a new suppli-cation. In the next year (1537) we find Rabelais present at a dinner where the friends of Etienne Dolet met to congratulate him on his pardon for the homicide of Compaing. The luckless printer has left a poem on the occasion, and two other writers, Salmon Macrin and Nicholas Bourbon, have also left poems of this date expressing the regard in which Rabelais was generally held. Now, too, he took his doctor's degree at Montpellier, lectured on the Greek text of Hippocrates, and next year made a public anatomical demonstration. During these two years he seems to have resided either at Montpellier or at Lyons. But in 1539 he entered the service of Guillaume du Bellay-Langey, elder brother of Jean, and would appear to have been with him (he was governor of Piedmont) till his death on 9th January 1543. Rabelais wrote a panegyrical memoir of Guillaume, which is lost, and the year before saw the publication of an edition of Gargantua and Pantagruel, book i., together (both had been repeatedly reprinted separately), in which some dangerous expressions were cut away. Nothing at all is known of his life, whereabouts, or occupations till the publication of the third book, which appeared in 1546, " avec privilege du roi," which had been given in Septem-ber 1545.





Up to this time Rabelais, despite the condemnation of the Sorbonne referred to above, had experienced nothing like persecution or difficulty. Even the spiteful or treacher-ous act of Dolet, who in 1542 reprinted the earlier form of the books which Rabelais had just slightly modified, seems to have done him no harm. But the storm of persecution which towards the end of the reign of Francis I. was fatal to Dolet himself and to Despériers, while it exiled and virtually killed Marot, did not leave Rabelais scatheless. There is no positive evidence of any measures taken or threatened against him; but it is certain that he passed nearly the whole of 1546 and part of 1547 at Metz in Lorraine as physician to the town at the salary of 120 livres, that Sturm speaks of him as having been " cast out of France by the times " (with the exclamation ______ ) in a contemporary letter, and that he himself in a letter, also contemporary, though it is not clear whether it is of 1546 or the next year, gives a doleful account of his pecuniary affairs and asks for assistance. At Francis's death on 31st March 1547 Du Bellay went to Rome, and at some time not certain Rabelais joined him. He was certainly there in February 1549, when he dates from Du Bellay's palace a little account of the festivals given at Rome to celebrate the birth of the second son of Henry II. and Catherine de' Medici. This account, the Sciomachie as it is called, is extant. In the same year a monk of Fontevrault, Gabriel du Puits-Herbault, made in a book called Theotimus the first of the man}' attacks on Rabelais. It is, however, as vague as it is violent, and it does not seem to have had any effect. Rabelais had indeed again made for himself protectors whom no clerical or Sorbonist jealousy could touch. The Sciomachie was written to the cardinal of Guise, whose family were all-powerful at court, and Rabelais dedicated his next book to Odet de Chatillon, afterwards cardinal, a man of great influence. Thus Rabelais was able to return to France, and was presented to the livings of Meudon and St Christophe de Jambet. It may, however, surprise those who have been accustomed to hear him spoken of as " curé de Meudon " and who have read lives of him founded on legend to find that there is very little ground for believing that he ever officiated or resided there. He certainly held the living but two years, resign-ing it in January 1552 along with his other benefice, and it is noteworthy that at the episcopal visitation of 1551 he was not present. To this supposed residence at Meudon and to the previous stay at Rome, however, are attached two of the most mischievous items of the legend, though fortunately two of the most easily refutable. It is said that Rabelais met and quarrelled with Joachim Bellay the poet at Rome, and with Ronsard at Meudon and elsewhere, that this caused a breach between him and the Pléiade, that he satirized its classicizing tendencies in the episode of the Limousin scholar, and that Ronsard after his death avenged himself by a libellous epitaph. The facts are these. Nothing is heard of the quarrel with Du Bellay or of any meeting with him, nothing of the meetings and bickerings with Ronsard, till 1699, when Bernier tells the story without any authority. The supposed allusions to the Pléiade date from a time when Ronsard was a small boy, and are mainly borrowed from an earlier writer still, Geoffroy Tory. Lastly, the epitaph read impartially is not libellous at all but simply takes up the vein of the opening scenes of Gargantua in reference to Gargantua's author. There is indeed no reason to suppose that either Ronsard or Du Bellay was a fervent admirer of Rabelais, for they belonged to a very different literary school ; but there is absolutely no evidence of any enmity between them or even of any acquaintanceship which could have given rise to enmity.
Some chapters of Rabelais's fourth book had been pub-lished in 1548, but the whole did not appear till 1552. The Sorbonne censured it and the parliament suspended the sale, taking advantage of the king's absence from Paris. But it was soon relieved of the suspension. This is the last fact we know about Rabelais. It is supposed that he died in 1553, but actual history is quite silent, and the legends about his deathbed utterances—"La farce est jouée," "Je vais chercher un grand peut-être," &c.—are altogether apocryphal. The same may be said of the numerous silly stories told of his life, such as that of his procuring a free passage to Paris by inscribing packets "Poison for the king," and so forth.

Ten years after the publication of the fourth book and nine after the supposed date of the author's death there appeared at Lyons sixteen chapters entitled L'Ile Sonnante par Maistre François Rabelais, and two years later the entire fifth book was printed as such. In 1567 it took place with the others, and has ever since appeared with them. But from the beginning of the 17th century there have never been wanting disbelievers in its authenticity. The controversy is one of some intricacy, but as it is also one of capital importance in literary history the heads of it at least must be given here. The opponents of the book rely (1) on the testimony of a certain Louis Guyon, who in 1604 declared that the fifth book was made long after Rabelais's death by an author whom he knew, and who was not a doctor, and on the assertion of the bibliographer Du Verdier, about the same time, that it was written by an "écolier de Valence"; (2) on the fact that the anti-monastic and even anti-Catholic polemic is much more accentuated in it ; (3) that parts are apparently replicas or rough drafts of passages already appearing in the four earlier books ; (4) that some allusions are manifestly posterior to even the farthest date which can be assigned for the reputed author's decease. On the other hand, it is urged that, though Guyon and Du Verdier were in a sense contemporaries, they wrote long after the events, and that the testimony of the former is vitiated, not merely by its extreme vagueness but by the fact that it occurs in a plaidoyer, tending to exculpate physicians from the charge of unorthodoxy ; that Du Verdier in another place assigns the Pantagrueline Prognostication to this same unknown student of Valence, and had therefore probably confused and hearsay notions on the subject ; that the rasher and fiercer tone, as well as the apparent repetitions, are sufficiently accounted for on the supposi-tion that Rabelais never finally revised the book, which indeed dates show that he could not have done, as the fourth was not finally settled till just before his death ; and that it is perfectly probable, and indeed almost certain, that it was prepared from his papers by another hand, which is responsible for the anachronous allusions above referred to. But the strongest argument, and one which has never been attacked by authorities really competent to judge, is that the " griffe de l'aigle" is on the book, and that no known author of the time except Rabelais was capable of writing the passage about the Chats fourres, the better part of the history of Queen Whims (La Quinte) and her court, and the conclusion giving the Oracle of the Bottle. To this argument we believe that the more com-petent a critic is, both by general faculty of appreciation and by acquaintance with contemporary French literature, the more positive will be the assent that he yields.

Gargantua and Pantagruel, notwithstanding their high literary standing and the frequency with which certain passages from them are cited, are, owing partly to their archaism of language and partly to the extreme licence which their author has allowed himself, so little read that no notice of them or of him could be complete without some sketch of their contents. The first book, Gargantua, describes the birth of that hero (a giant and the son of gigantic-parents), whose nativity is ushered in by the account of a tremendous feast. In this the burlesque exaggeration of the pleasures of eating and drinking, which is one of the chief exterior notes of the whole work, is pushed to an extreme,—an extreme which has attracted natural but perhaps undue attention. Very early, however, the author becomes serious in contrasting the early education of his hero—a satire on the degraded schools of the Middle Ages—with its subsequent and reformed stage, in the account of which all the best and noblest ideas of the humanist Renaissance in reference to pedagogy are put with exceptional force. Gargantua is recalled from Paris, whither he had been sent to finish his education, owing to a war between his father, Grandcosier, and the neighbouring king, Picrochole. This war is described at great length, the chief hero of it being the monk, Friar John, a very unclerical cleric, in whom Rabelais greatly delights. Picrochole defeated and peace made, Gargantua establishes the abbey of Thelema in another of Rabelais's most elaborate literary passages, where all the points most obnoxious to him in monastic life are indicated by the assignment of their exact opposites to this model convent. The second book, which introduces the principal hero of the whole, Pantagruel, Gargantua's son, is, on any other hypothesis but that already suggested of its prior composition, very difficult to explain, but in itself it is intelli-gible enough. Pantagruel goes through something like a second edition (really a first) of the educational experiences of his father. Like him, he goes to Paris, and there meets with Panurge, the principal triumph of Rabelaisian character-drawing, and the most original as well as puzzling figure of the book. Panurge has almost all intellectual accomplishments, but is totally devoid of morality : he is a coward, a drunkard, a lecher, a spiteful trickster, a spend-thrift, but all the while infinitely amusing. This hook, like the other, has a war in its latter part; Gargantua scarcely appears in it and Friar John not at all. It is not till the opening of the third book that the most important action begins. This arises from Panurge's determination to marry — a determination, however, which is very half-hearted, and which leads him to consult a vast number of authorities, each giving occasion for satire of a more or less complicated kind. At last it is determined that Pantagruel and his followers (Friar John has reappeared in the suite of the prince) shall set sail to consult the Oracle of the Dive Bouteille. The book ends with the obscurest passage of the whole, an elaborate eulogy of the "herb pantagruelion," which appears to be, if it is-anything, hemp. Only two probable explanations of this have been offered, the one seeing in it an anticipation of Joseph do Maistre's glorification of the executioner, the other a eulogy of work, hemp being on the whole the most serviceable of vegetable products for that purpose. The fourth and fifth books are entirely taken up with a description of the voyage. Many strange places with stranger names are visited, some of them offering obvious satire on human institutions, others, except by the most far-fetched explanations, resolvable into nothing but sheer extravaganza. At last the Land of Lanterns, borrowed from Lucian, is reached, and the Oracle of the Bottle is consulted. This yields the single word "Trinq," which the attendant priestess declares to be the most gracious and intelligible she has ever heard from it. Panurge takes this as a sanction of his marriage and the book ends abruptly. This singular romance is diversified by or, to speak more properly, it is the vehicle of the most bewildering abundance of digression, burlesque amplification, covert satire on things political, social, and religious, miscellaneous erudition of the literary and scientific kind. Everywhere the author lays stress on the excellence of " Pantagruelism," and the reader who is himself a Pantagruelist (it is perfectly idle for any other to attempt the book) soon discovers what this means. It is, in plain English, humour. The definition of humour is a generally acknowledged crux, and till it is defined the definition of Pantagruelism will be in the same position. But that it consists in the extension of a wide sympathy to all human affairs together with a comprehension of their vanity may be said as safely as anything else. Moroseness and dogmatism are as far from the Pantagruelism of Rabelais as maudlin sentimentality or dilettantism. Perhaps the chief things lacking in his attitude are, in the first place, reverence, of which, however, from a few passages, it is clear he was by no means totally devoid, and an appreciation of passion and poetry. Here and there there are touches of the latter, as in the portrait of Quintessence, but passion is everywhere absent—an absence for which the comic structure and plan of the book does not by any means supply a complete explanation.

For a general estimate of Rabelais's literary character and influence the reader may be referred to the article FRANCE (vol. ix. p. 652). But some detailed remarks must be given here. The life and works of Rabelais, despite the considerable number of publica-tions of which they have been the subject, have hitherto been less fully and satisfactorily treated than the life and works of any author who occupies an equally important place. As will have been seen from the foregoing attempt to give the actual facts, a whole legend has grown up round the scanty details recorded of him, and many, if not all, of the particulars of that legend can be shown to be false. But no one hitherto has undertaken in a satisfactory fashion the construction of a rigorously critical life. In the same way there are many questions in reference to his main work which have never been thoroughly and finally sifted by a critical intelligence equal to the task. Limits of space, to say no more, prevent any such attempt being made here ; but there are three questions with-out the discussion of which this notice of one of the foremost writers of the world would not be worthy of its present place. These are —What is the general drift and purpose of Gargantua and Panta-gruel, supposing there to be any ? What defence can be offered, if any defence is needed, for the extraordinary licence of language and imagery which the author has permitted himself? What was his attitude towards the great questions of religion, philosophy, and politics ? These questions succeed each other in the order of reason, and the answer to each assists the resolution of the next.

There have been few more remarkable instances of the lues commentatoria than the work of the editors of Rabelais. Almost every one appears to have started with a Rabelais ready made in his head, and to have, so to speak, read that Rabelais into the book. Those who have not done this, like Le Duchat, Motteux, and Esmangart, have generally committed the error of tormenting themselves and their author to find individual explanations of personages and events. The extravagance of the last-named commentator takes the form of seeing elaborate allegories ; that of some others devotes itself chiefly to identifying the characters of the romance with more or less famous historical persons. But the first blunder, that of forming a general hypothetical conception of Rabelais and then adjusting interpretation of the work to it, is the commoner. This conception, however, has singularly varied. According to some expositors, among whom the latest and not the least respectable is M. Fleury, Rabelais is a sober reformer, an apostle of earnest work, of sound education, of rational if not dogmatic religion, who wraps up his morals in a farcical envelope partly to make them go down with the vulgar and partly to shield himself from the consequences of his reforming zeal. According to others, of whom we have had in England a distinguished example in Mr Besant, Rabelais is all this but with a difference. He is not religious at all; he is more or less anti-religious ; and his book is more or less of a general protest against any attempt to explain supernaturally the riddle of the earth. According to a third class, the most distinguished re-cent representative of which was M. Paul Lacroix, the Rahelaisian legend does not so much err in principle as it invents in fact. Rabelais is the incarnation of the " esprit Gaulois," a jovial careless soul, not destitute of common sense or even acute intellectual power, but first of all a good fellow, rather preferring a broad jest to a fine-pointed one, and rollicking through life like a good-natured undergraduate. Of all these views it may be said that those who hold them are obliged to shut their eyes to many things in the book and to see in it many which are not there. The religious part of the matter will be dealt with presently ; but it is impossible to think that any unbiassed judge reading Rabelais can hold the grave philosopher view or the reckless good fellow view without modifications and allowances which practically deprive either of any value as a sufficient explanation of the book and its writer. Those who, as it has been happily put, identify Rabelais with Pantagruel, strive in vain on any view intellectually consistent or morally respectable to account for the vast ocean of pure or impure laughter and foolery which surrounds the few solid islets of sense and reason and devotion. Those who in the same way identify Rabelais with Panurge can never explain the education scheme, the solemn apparition of Gargantua among the farcical and fantastic variations on Panurge's wedding, and many other passages ; while, on the other hand, those who insist on a definite propaganda of any kind must justify themselves by their own power of seeing things invisible to plain men. But these vagaries are not only un-justifiable ; they are entirely unnecessary. No one reading Rabelais without parti pris, but with a good knowledge of the history and literature of his own times and the times which preceded him, can have much difficulty in appreciating his book. He had evidently during his long and studious sojourn in the cloister (a sojourn which was certainly not less than five-and-twenty years, while it may have been five-and-thirty, and of which the studiousness rests not on legend but on documentary evidence) acquired a vast stock of learning. He was, it is clear, thoroughly penetrated with the instincts, the hopes, and the ideas of the Renaissance in the form which it took in France, in England, and in Germany,—a form, that is to say, not merely humanist but full of aspirations for social and political improvement, and above all for a joyous, varied, and non-ascetic life. He had thoroughly convinced himself of the abuses to which monachism lent itself. Lastly, he had the spirit of lively satire and of willingness desipere in loco which frequently goes with the love of hooks. It is in the highest degree improbable that in beginning his great work he had any definite purpose or intention. The habit of burlesquing the romans d'aventures was no new one, and the form lent itself easily to the two literary exercises to which he was most disposed,—apt and quaint citation from and variation on the classics and satirical criticism of the life he saw around him. The immense popularity of the first two parts induced him to con-tinue them, and by degrees (the genuineness of the fifth book at any rate in substance is here assumed) the possibility of giving the whole something like a consistent form and a regular conclusion presented itself to him. The voyage in particular allowed the widest licence of satirical allusion, and he availed himself of that licence in the widest sense. Here and there persons are glanced at, while the whole scenery of his birthplace and its neighbourhood is curiously worked in ; but for the most part the satire is typical rather than individual, and it is on the whole a rather negative satire. In only two points can Rabelais be said to he definitely polemic. He certainly hated the monkish system in the debased form in which it existed in his time ; he as certainly hated the brutish ignorance into which the earlier systems of education had suffered too many of their teachers and scholars to drop. At these two things he was never tired of striking, but elsewhere, even in the grim satire of the Chats fourres, he is the satirist proper rather than the reformer. It is in the very absence of any cramping or limiting purpose that the great merit and value of the book consist. It holds up an almost perfectly level and spotless mirror to the temper of the earlier Renaissance. The author has no universal medicine of his own (except Pantagruelism) to offer, nor has he anybody else's universal medicine to attack. He ranges freely about the world, touching the laughable sides of things with kindly laughter, and every now and then dropping the risibilc and taking to the rationale. It is not indeed possible to deny that in the Oracle of the Bottle, besides its merely jocular and fantastic sense, there is a certain '' echo," as it has been called, '' of the conclusion of the preacher," a certain acknowledgment of the vanity of things. But in such a book such a note could hardly be wanting unless the writer had been a fanatic, which he was not, or a mere voluptuary, which he was not, or a dullard, which he was least of all. It is, after all, little more than a suggestion, and is certainly not strengthened by anything in the body of the work. Rabelais is, in short, if he be read without prejudice, a humourist pure and simple, feeling often in earnest, thinking almost always in jest. He is distinguished from the two men who alone can be compared to him in character of work and force of genius combined—Lucian and Swift—by very marked characteristics. He is much less of a mere mocker than Lucian, and he is entirely destitute, even when he deals with monks or pedants, of the ferocity of Swift. He neither sneers nor rages ; the rire immense which distinguishes him is altogether good-natured ; but he is nearer to Lucian than to Swift, and Lucian is perhaps the author whom it is most neces-sary to know in order to understand him rightly.





If this general view is correct (and it may at least claim to be founded on nothing but the reading of Rabelais himself without prejudice and with a tolerable apparatus) it will probably condition to some extent the answer to be given to the two minor questions stated above. The first is connected with the great blemish of Gargantua and Pantagruel,—their extreme coarseness of language and imagery. It is somewhat curious that some of those who claim Rabelais as an enemy of the supernatural in general have been the loudest to condemn this blemish, and that some of them have made the exceedingly lame excuse for him that it was a means of wrapping up his propaganda and keeping it and himself safe from the notice of the powers that were. This is not complimentary to Rabelais, and, except in some very small degree, it is not likely to be true. For as a matter of fact obscenity no less than impiety was charged against him b}r his ultra-orthodox enemies, and the obscenity no less than the supposed impiety gave them a handle against him before such bodies as the Sorbonne and the parliaments. As for the extreme theory of the anti-Rabelaisians, that Rabelais was a ' ' dirty old blackguard " who liked filth and wallowed in it from choice, that hardly needs comment. His errors in this way are of course, looked at from an absolute standard, unpardonable. But judged relatively there are several, we shall not say excuses, but explanations of them. In the first place, the comparative indecency of Rabelais has been much exaggerated by persons un-familiar with early French literature. The form of his book was above all things popular, and the popular French literature of the Middle Ages as distinguished from the courtly and literary literature, which was singularly pure, can hardly be exceeded in point of coarseness. The fabliaux, the early burlesque romances of the Audigier class, the farces of the 15th century, equal (the grotesque iteration and amplification which is the note of Gargantua and Pantagruel being allowed for, and sometimes without that allow-ance) the coarsest passages of Rabelais. His coarseness, moreover, disgusting as it is, has nothing of the corruption of refined voluptu-ousness about it, and nothing of the sniggering indecency which disgraces men like Pope, like Voltaire, and like Sterne. It shows in its author a want of reverence, a want of decency in the proper sense, a too great readiness to condescend to the easiest kind of ludicrous ideas and the kind most acceptable at that time to the common run of mankind. The general taste having been consider-ably refined since, Rabelais has in parts become nearly unreadable, —the worst and most appropriate punishment for his faults. As for those who have tried to make his indecency an argument for his laxity in religious principle, that argument, like another men-tioned previously, hardly needs discussion. It is notoriously false as a matter of experience. Rabelais could not have written as he has written in this respect and in others if he had been an earnestly pious person, taking heed to every act and word, and studious equally not to offend and not to cause offence. But no one in his senses would dream of claiming any such character for him.

This brings us to the last point—what his religious opinions were. He has been claimed as a freethinker of all shades, from undogmatic theism to atheism, and as a concealed Protestant. The last of these claims has now been very generally given up, and indeed Erasmus might quite as reasonably be claimed for the Reformation as Rabelais. Both disliked and attacked the more crying abuses of their church, and both at the time and since have been disliked and attacked by the more imprudent partisans of that church. But Rabelais, in his own way, held off from the Reformation even more distinctly than Erasmus did. The accusa-tion of freethinking, if not of directly anti-Christian thinking, has always been more common and has recently found much favour. It is, however, remarkable that those who hold this opinion never give chapter and verse for it, and it may be said confidently that chapter and verse cannot be given. The sayings attributed to Rabelais which colour the idea (such as the famous "Je vais chercher un grand peut-être," said to have been uttered on his death-bed) are, as has been said, purely apocryphal. In the book itself nothing of the kind is to be found. Perhaps the nearest approach to it is a jest at the Sorbonne couched in the Pauline phrase about " the evidence of things not seen," which the author removed from the later editions. But irreverences of this kind, as well as the frequent burlesque citations of the Bible, whether commendable or not, had been, were, have since been, and are common in writers whose orthodoxy is unquestioned ; and it must be remembered that the later Middle Age, which in many respects Rabelais represents almost more than he does the Renaissance, was, with all its unquestioning faith, singularly reckless and, to our fancy, irreverent in its use of the sacred words and images, which were to it the most familiar of all images and words. On the other hand, there are in the book, in the description of Gargantua's and Pantagruel's education, in the sketch of the abbey of Thelema, in several passages relating to Pantagruel, expressions which either signify a sincere and unfeigned piety of a simple kind or else are inventions of the most detestable hypocrisy. For these passages are not, like many to be found from the Renaissance to the end of the 18th century, obvious flags of truce to cover attacks,—mere bowings in the house of Rimmon to prevent evil consequences. There is absolutely no sign of the tongue in the cheek. They are always written in the author's highest style, a style perfectly elo-quent and unaffected ; they can only be interpreted (on the free-thinking hypothesis) as allegorical with the greatest difficulty and obscurity, and it is pretty certain that no one reading the book without a thesis to prove would dream of taking them in a non-natural sense. It is not, indeed, to be contended that Rabelais was a man with whom religion was in detail a constant thought, that he had a very tender conscience or a very scrupulous orthodoxy. His form of religious sentiment was not evangelical or mystical, any more than it was ascetic or ceremonial or dogmatic. As regards one of the accepted doctrines of his own church, the excellence of the celibate life, of poverty, and of elaborate obedience to a rule, he no doubt was a strong dissident ; but the evidence that, as a Christian, he was unorthodox, that he was even an heretical or latitudinarian thinker in regard to those doctrines which the various Christian churches have in common, is not merely weak, it is practically non-existent. The counter testimony is, indeed, not very strong and still less detailed. But that is not the point. It is sufficient to say that there is absolutely nothing within the covers of Rabelais's works incompatible with an orthodoxy which would be recognized as sufficient by Christendom at large, leaving out of the question those points of doctrine and practice on which Christians differ. Beyond this no wise man will go, and short of it hardly any unprejudiced man will stop.

The dates of the original editions of Rabelais's works have been given where possible already. The earlier books were repeatedly reissued during the author's life, and always with some correction. What may be called the first complete edition appeared in 1567 at Lyons, published by Jean Martin. It is computed that no less than sixty editions were printed before the close of the 16th century. A very considerable time, however, elapsed before the works were, properly speaking, edited. Huet devoted much pains to them, but his results were not made public. The first edition which calls for notice, except in a complete bibliography, is that of Le Duchat (Amsterdam, 1711). Le Duchat was a very careful student, and on the whole a very efficient editor, being perhaps, of the group of students of old French at the beginning of the 18th century, which included La Monnoye and others, the most sober, critical, and accomplished. But at that time the knowdedge of the period was scarcely far enough advanced. The next important date in the bibliography of Rabelais is 1823, in which year appeared the most elaborate edition of his work yet published, that of Esmangart and Johanneau (9 vols.), including for the first time the "Songes Drolatiques," a spurious but early and not uninteresting collection of grotesque figure-drawings illustrating Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the second edition of M. de l'Aulnaye, containing a bad text but a useful glossary. From this time the editions have been very numerous. Among them may be mentioned those illustrated by Gustave Doré, first on a small scale (1854), afterwards more elabo-rately (1870) ; that of the Collection Didot by Burgaud des Marets and Rathery (1859, second edition 1870) ; the Bibliothèque Elzévir-ienne edition by MM. Lacour and A. de Montaiglon ; that of the Nouvelle Collection Jannet (seven small volumes, 1867-74), com-pleted by M. Moland ; and lastly, the edition of M. Marty-Laveaux in the Collection Lemerre (1868-81), which is unfortunately not yet completed, but which when finished will undoubtedly be the handsomest, the most accurate, and the most complete in the scholarly sense yet published. At present the most realty useful edition which combines a handsome form with cheapness is that of the Nouvelle Collection Jannet, though that of MM. Burgaud des Marets and Rathery is not to be despised. Commentaries on Rabelais, independent of editions, have been especially numerous of late years ; the work of MM. Reville, Noel, Mayrargues, and Gebhart may be mentioned. But the best recent book on the sub-ject in French is that of M. J. Fleury (2 vols., Paris, 1876), which, though deficient in exactitude as to many points of detail, and sacrificing something to a desire of presenting Rabelais as a great social philosopher, is, on the whole, very sensible and complete.

Rabelais was very early popular in England. There are possible allusions to him in Shakespeare, and the current clerical notion of him is very unjustly adopted by Marston in the words "wicked Rabelais"; but Bacon described him better as the great jester of France, and a Scot, Sir Thomas Urquhart, translated the earlier books in 1653. This was not worthily completed till the luckless Motteux, or, as his compatriots call him, Le Motteux, finished it with an extensive commentary. Criticism of a scattered kind on Rabelais in English is abundant, that of Coleridge being the most important, while the constant evidence of his influence in Southey's Doctor is also noteworthy. But he was hardly treated as a whole before Mr Besant's book on the subject in the Foreign Classics for English Readers (1879), which the author has since followed up with Readings from Rabelais (1883). Mr Besant has too readily adopted (probably from Michelet) the apocryphal scandals as to the difference between Rabelais and the poets of the Pléiade, and is committed (it is not quite clear why) to a view of Rabelais as a non-Christian thinker and preacher for which it is impossible to discover solid justification. But otherwise his books form the best introduction possible for a modern English reader to this great author. (G. SA. )



The above article was written by: George Edward Bateman Saintsbury, M.A.; Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature, Edinburgh University, from 1895; author of A Short History of French Literature, The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory, A Short History of English Literature, etc.



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