RABELAIS, Francois

(c. 1494-1553)
Francois Rabelais was a French humanist and a prominent figure in the French Renaissance. Rabelais's most famous work is the satirical prose novel Gargan­tua and Pantagruel. Little is known about the life of Rabelais. There is dis­agreement, for example, regarding when he was born. An entry in the records of a Paris church says that Rabelais died in 1553 at the age of seventy; however, many scholars contest this evidence, for this would imply that Rabelais had his three illegitimate children while in his late forties and early fifties, and that he did not even begin to write his books until his fifties. Most scholars generally accept 1494 as a more probable birth date. What is known of Rabelais is that he was a priest in the Franciscan order, though later he transferred to the Ben­edictine monastery of Saint-Pierre de Maillezais. The abbot of this monastery, Geoffroy d'Estissac, the bishop of Maillezais, became Rabelais's first patron. In 1527 or 1528 Rabelais gave up the monk's robe and directed his energies toward medicine, and in 1530 he enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier.
Rabelais later moved to Lyons, where he continued to practice medicine and began writing and editing books. While he was in Lyons, he met Jean Du Bellay, the bishop of Paris. Du Bellay was an important force in Rabelais's life and enabled Rabelais to enter the Benedictine monastery in the capacity of a doctor. Du Bellay was also instrumental in the publication of Rabelais's masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34), a book that immediately brought fame to Rabelais. In the last couple of years of his life, Rabelais had frequent battles with the king and then the pope regarding his books, and on more than one occasion his books were banned. In the midst of such a battle to keep his books from being banned, Rabelais died sometime in 1553.
In many ways, Rabelais is an enigmatic figure. Not only is little known about his personal life, but there is also little consensus on the significance or meaning of his work. Some see Rabelais's writing as the rantings of a drunken buffoon or as a case for a psychoanalytic interpretation; others see in Rabelais the highest expression of humanism and an overflowing exuberance and joy for worldly things and life. What is accepted is that Rabelais had a mastery of language that was and perhaps is still unequaled. Rabelais's style was certainly unique, and his studies of excess and largess have forever left their mark on the cultural mind-set with such words as "gargantuan" and "Rabelaisian." This emphasis upon the joys and excesses of earthly pleasures places Rabelais squarely into the tradition of the French Renaissance. Rabelais was to become a major influ­ence upon the French philosophes of the eighteenth century, for example, Vol­taire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Julien Offray Ide La Mettrie. An emphasis on what humans can do and on the power of the mind and body in this world, as opposed to the more medieval view that stresses the priority of God's judgment and the life hereafter: this view, as found in Rabelais, has been a constant theme throughout the modern era. The wide popularity of Ra­belais while he was alive must deserve some of the credit for this shift in world view. Consequently, regardless of how one may view the quality of Rabelais's works, few dispute the claim that Rabelais exemplifies a shift in perspective, the results of which are still with us to this day. The sixteenth century is a critical period in the history of Western culture, for it is a pivotal turning point to the world view that led to the explosion of scientific knowledge and tech­nologies. In compiling a list of crucial figures about this new world view, Ra­belais most certainly deserves to be included.
Bibliography
D. Frame, Francois Rabelais, 1977.
A. L. Prescott, Imagining Rabelais in Renaissance England, 1998.
Jeffrey A. Bell

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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