Francois Rabelais (1494 - 1553) was a Franciscan Monk with a qualification as a Bachelor of Medicine. He is one of the central figures of the Humanist literary movement, and had a firm belief in learning for learning's sake. He can be looked at as one of our great satirists and parodists-- ranking up there with Aristophanes in his unrelenting assaults. His most famous works are the cycles of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a must read for anyone interested in the French Renaissance or satire in general. While his prose, stylistically, did not hold up against the poetry of the era, it is eminently readable and skips along quite pleasantly. Rabelais was persecuted for his ideals, as many others are. His work holds a strong corollary to modern events and institutions. You can find him in the Penguin Classics section of your store. The best translation is by J.M. Cohen. It is from Rabelais that the adjective 'Rabelaisian' derives.

"I never drink without thirst, either present or future... I drink for the thirst to come. I drink eternally. This is to me an eternity of drinking, and drinking of eternity. Let us sing, let us drink, let us tune our roundelays."

-Gargantua and Pantagruel, Chapter 1. V The Discourse of the Drinkers.


Reading the works of Rabelais, it's hard to believe this was a medieval monk and doctor, one of the most respected intellects of his age. Hundreds of pages of erudite French, Greek and Latin in celebration of eating and drinking, fucking and feasting, pissing and shitting and dancing and singing. The language troubles censors and translators four centuries on; one of the reasons the work was first published under the anagrammatic pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier.

Mikhail Bakhtin developed his idea of "the carnival" and "the grotesque" from a study into Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. The social institution of the carnival with its shared space, time and ritual engenders a sense of community. The grotesque body with its animal needs provides a literary mode for a celebration of life and mockery of the ruling powers. In later work, Gulliver urinating on the palace of the Lilliuputians comes to mind - an episode Swift borrowed directly from Rabelais, who has Gargantua drowning Paris in piss.

Rabelais was a funny guy right to the end. It's said his last will and testament read :

"I have nothing, I owe a great deal and the rest I leave to the poor."


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