François Rabelais was known to his contemporaries as a humanist, a monk, and an extraordinarily funny author (except to the faculty at the Sorbonne who apparently didn't find him funny at all and banned his books). Today, however, it is primarily for his distinctive writing style that he is remembered. The term 'Rabelaisian humour' can be generally taken to mean humour whose basis is any of the body parts (particularly the naughty ones), bodily noises, bodily functions, and the appetites including, of course, randy sex1. He was a satirist and while his prose was sublime for its sheer inventiveness, he did not typically trouble himself with double entendre or any other form of subtlety. Instead, he elevated pure bawdiness to art, with a capital F. Conversely, it might also be said that, for Rabelais, there was no ideal so lofty that it could not be explained in basic if somewhat rude terms. Subsequent authors who were clearly influenced by his style included, most notably, Jonathan Swift and, perhaps less notably, John Barth. There are, of course, many others too humorous to mention.
Master Alcofribas2, Abstractor of the Quintessence, as he refers to himself in his first book, is just as much a piece of work. He was born in Chinon sometime between 1490 and 1494. He died somewhat more certainly in Paris in April 1553. In the meantime he was a Renaissance man and spent a life of unbridled intellectual pursuit whether wearing the monk's hood, or the citizen's codpiece. His relationship with the Church was made uneasy - surely due to his merciless satiric assaults on its theology and theologians. During his life he was denounced by no less than John Calvin. (Since Rabelais was a humanist and Calvin was a calvinist some amount of friction was inevitable).
It is supposed that Rabelais would have received his early education at the Benedictine monastery of Seuilly. In 1520, probably in his mid-twenties, Rabelais joined the Franciscans (arguably the more obscurantist of the orders), and promptly began learning Greek in order to study the New Testament in the original language. This was made inconvenient by the fact that the study of Greek had been forbidden by the faculty in Paris at that time. Apparently this had something to do with annoying questions raised by Erasmus3, (with whom Rabelais corresponded), regarding the Church Canons and which were based on his reading of the Greek epistles. So, after Rabelais' texts were confiscated, he petitioned Pope Clement VII to allow his return to the more liberal Benedictines and received permission. Eventually he left the Benedictines too and became a secular priest and finally took the Hippocratic Oath (probably in Greek).
Rabelais certainly wrote four books, and there is some doubt about the fifth book. Not necessarily in order of their appearance, they are:
- The First Book of the Most Fearsome Life of THE GREAT GARGANTUA - Father of Pantagruel
- The Second Book - PANTAGRUEL - King of the Dipsodes
- The Third Book of the Heroic Deeds and Sayings of THE GOOD PANTAGRUEL
- The Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Sayings of THE NOBLE PANTAGRUEL
- The Fifth and Last Book of the Heroic Acts and Sayings of THE GOOD PANTAGRUEL
They are, as their author promises, full of Pantagruelism, by which he simply means Rabelaisian humour4.
Of the paternal bloodline of Pantagruel, and according to Master Alcofribas, who never lied:
'The first was Chalbroth, who begat Sarabroth5, who begat Faribroth6... ...who begat Vit-de-grain7, who begat Grandgousier (Greatgut), who begat Gargantua, who begat the noble Pantagruel.'
It is of some note that the birth of Gargantua was preceded by a false birth which caused much excitement, but which turned out instead to be a great quantity of tripe and which fell from the wrong canal. One could argue, after a careful study of the begats, (someone else's careful study - you probably skipped over them, and the footnotes probably put you up to it8), that Gargantua was born on the cusp between the the old school of medieval learning, which could easily be mistaken for, well, tripe, and the new Renaissance - but then again, there is probably no compelling reason to read too much into this. However, if one were to read too much into this, then one could also argue that Gargantua's offspring would fully represent the new Renaissance man - at least in parody, as indeed Pantagruel is written to be.
While his books may contain a few references that only a historian or classical scholar might find risible, they can still be thoroughly enjoyed by the modern reader. In them we find art (rudely) imitating life, life (very rudely) imitating art, and even art (in the rudest sense) imitating art.
Art Imitating Life
Anyone who has ever witnessed two learned scholars engaged together in serious debate, (by which we mean, of course, two ignorant toads wrestling over pond rights), will appreciate How Panurge confounded the Englishman who argued by Signs, found in Book II, Chapter 19. It was a finely and successfully executed debate by Panurge, on behalf of Pantagruel, against an Englishman named Thaumaste, a learned scholar, (you know), on propositions made too obscure to ever understand.
With everyone attending and listening in perfect silence, the debate commenced thus:
'The Englishman raised his two hands separately high in the air, clenching all the tips of his fingers in the form that is known in the language of Chinon as the hen's arse, and...'
And after much histrionics and waving of impossibly long codpieces9, it ended so:
'Whereupon Panurge placed his two forefingers at each corner of his mouth, drawing it back as wide as he could and showing all his teeth. Then with his thumbs, he drew down his eyelids very low, making rather an ugly grimace, or so it seemed to the spectators.'
Rabelais, by way of a satisfactory explanation of the entire matter, offers this:
'As for the significance of the propositions set out by Thaumaste, and the meaning of the signs which they used in argument, I would have expounded them to you, but I am told that Thaumaste has made a great book of them, printed in London, in which he explains everything without exceptions. Therefore, I refrain for the present.'
Life Imitating Art
What can be said of a Judge who decides cases by the fall of the dice? Only that he is not alone. In Book III, Chapter 39, we find Judge Bridlegoose in the middle of explaining himself thus:
'...I then place on the end of the table in my chamber all the defendant's bags of documents, and I give him the first throw. This done, I put down the plaintiff's bags of documents at the other end, face to face. Then, likewise, and turn for turn, I throw for him too. I pronounce in favour of the party to whom fate first awards a good throw of the judiciary, tribunian, and praetorial dice.'
While strictly illegal, deciding cases by chance is not unheard of in US Courts of Law. There is the example of a Michigan judge in a custody hearing. After the issue was raised of where the children would spend the Christmas holidays and when the judge learned that the parties were unable to resolve the matter by themselves, she made the legal determination based on the flip of a coin. Judges are not the only ones - there is the case where a Kentucky jury flipped a coin to decide whether to convict a man for murder or manslaughter.
With a statement uniquely suited to human nature, Judge Bridlegoose advises, 'In difficult cases, always take the least consequential course.'
Art Imitating Art
Gustave Doré (1832-1883), originally of Strasbourg, moved to Paris in 1848 and by 1853 had begun creating illustrations for the books of Rabelais on his own initiative without any commission. By no means his finest illustration is that of Pantagruel judging the litigation between the Lords of Baisecul (Kissarse) and Humevesne (Sniff-fart). Art imitating art? Yes, indeed. The subject litigation, by the way, is found in Book II, Chapter 11 and is a must-read for all law students as it is very possibly the most incomprehensible case ever put onto paper.
In John Barth's 'The Sot Weed Factor' is an apt example of art imitating art wherein the fictional character of one author considers the advice of the fictional character of another in a moment of crises. In this case the learned laureate Ebenezer Cooke has befouled his britches from fright, reluctantly handed them over to his colleague Burlingame and received this cheery advice in return:
'Adieu, now: thy servant will return anon, if the pirates do not get him. Make shift to clean yourself in the meantime.'
'But prithee, how?'
Burlingame shrugged. 'Only look about good sir. A clever man is never lost for long.'
Whereupon Barth's hero searches his education for any kind of help - from the classics of history, philosophy, physics, astronomy, until he realises that it is Literature among all of the arts that:
'...considers the entire range of man's experience and behaviour - from cradle to grave and beyond, from emperor to hedge-whore, from the burning of cities to the breaking of wind - and human problems of every magnitude: in literature alone might one find catalogued with equal care the ancestors of Noah, the ships of the Achaians -'
'And the bum-swipes of Gargantua!' he exclaims aloud. He reviewed with joy that chapter out of Rabelais wherein the young Gargantua tries his hand, as it were, at sundry swabs and wipers - not in desperation, to be sure, but in a spirit of pure empiricism, to discover the noblest for good and all - and awards the prize at last to the neck of a live white goose; but hens and guineas though there were a-plenty in the yard around the stable, not a goose could Ebenezer spy. 'Nor were't fit,' he decided a moment later, somewhat crestfallen, 'save in a comic or satiric book, to use a silly fowl so hardly, that anon must perish to please our bellies. Good Rabelais must have meant it in jest.'
So it is with this, as with so many other subjective treatments of the works of Rabelais, that we reach the end, as it were, with the bum-swipes of Gargantua.
About a hundred years after Rabelais' death, Sir Thomas Urquhart translated the first two books and a portion of the third - this work was completed (poorly, some would say) by Peter Anthony Motteax. However, J.M. Cohen's is a more accessible and, well, funnier translation. It is published as a Penguin Classic and is the source of the Rabelais quotes in this entry. There are more translations available which will be of use to the learned scholar (you know), but we will leave that to them.