1483 or 1494-1553
French monk, physician and satirist
Rabelais was born in or near the town of Chinon in the Loire Valley, where his father was an advocate. Almost nothing is known of his private life. He became a novice of the Franciscan order, and entered the monastery of Fontenay-le-Comte, where he had access to a large library. There he learned Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, studied all the Latin and French authors whose works he could find, and took an interest in medicine, astronomy, botany and mathematics. Eventually he became dissatisfied with the Franciscan attitude to learning, and obtained permission to pass from the Franciscan to the Benedictine order (1524).
He went to Montpellier to study medicine, and in 1532 became a physician in Lyons, then a considerable intellectual centre. There he began the series of books for which he is best known. In 1532 he wrote Pantagruel, a sequel to The Great and Inestimable Chronicles of the Grand and Enormous Giant Gargantua, which was not by him), in which serious ideas are set forth side by side with satirical comment and irreverent mockery. In 1534 he wrote a new Gargantua, which was more serious in tone than Pantagruel. Both books were published under the name of Alcofribas Nasier, an anagram of François Rabelais, and were enormously successful, though disapproved of by the Church due to their irreverence.
In 1533 and 1536 he travelled in Italy with Jean du Bellay, Bishop of Paris, who later became a cardinal. There Rabelais spent his time collecting plants and curiosities, and he gave France the melon, artichoke and carnation. He also received permission to go into any Benedictine house which would receive him, and was enabled to hold ecclesiastical offices and to practise medicine. From 1537 (when he took his doctorate) to 1538 he taught in Montpellier.
From 1540 to 1543 he was in the service of the cardinal's brother, Guillaume du Bellay, partly in Turin (where Guillaume was governor), and partly in France. Guillaume died in 1543, in which year Rabelais was appointed a maître des requêtes, or counsel of the Conseil d'État. In 1546 he published his Tiers Livre ("Third Book"), this time under his own name. It was again condemned, and he fled to Metz, where he practised medicine. In 1548, Jean du Bellay, now in Rome, sent for Rabelais to be his physician, and Rabelais received a living from him for two years. A Quart Livre ("Fourth Book") appeared in part in 1548, and complete in 1552-53; it was again banned by the theologians. A professed fifth book, L'Isle sonante (or L'île sonnante), perhaps founded on scraps and notes by Rabelais, appeared in 1562.
The riotous licence of his mirth has made Rabelais as many enemies as his wisdom has made him friends. His work was appreciated by Montaigne, and was read widely in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries; his reputation then went into decline but revived in the 19th century, when he was admired by Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert. His works remain the most astonishing treasury of wit, wisdom, common sense and satire that the world has ever seen.
Nature n'endure mutations soudaines sans grande violence."Nature does not endure sudden changes without great violence."
- From Gargantua, bk 1, ch.23.
Je vais quérir un grand peut-être … Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée."I am going to seek a great perhaps … Bring down the curtain, the farce is played out."
- Unauthenticated last words.
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