Rabelais

Rabelais

Rabelais

Rabelais

Excerpt

Comic writers often feel undervalued by the reading public. P. G. Wodehouse summed it up when he entitled his autobiography Performing Flea. But ironically “Laughter Studies” have been big academic business for millennia, ever since Cicero remarked on the plethora of Greek treatises On the Humorous, which were distinguished only by their humorlessness.

The paradoxical fate of the comic writer is well illustrated by the case of François Rabelais, scourge of Victorian vicarages, supplier of “Bawdy Classics” to Playboy, and currently patron saint of the scatological satire magazine La Grosse Bertha. This latest accolade, from a nihilist organ, reflects the usual French mistrust and marginalization of Rabelais: this pre-classical purveyor of the belly laugh, advocate of untrammeled freedom (“Do What Thou Wilt” is the motto of his Abbaye de Theleme), founding father of the French Revolution, presiding genius at the insurrectionary Events of May 1968, and renegade monk is justly rewarded, in Paris, with the truncated rue Rabelais, a mere side-turning to the north of the elegant avenue Montaigne. Yet more than two hundred scholars, including the cream of French seizièmistes, gathered at Tours in 1984 to celebrate his 500th birthday with a congress of matchless erudition.

The little we know of the historical François Rabelais suggests that the academics were right and the municipal authorities wrong. There is little evidence of an anarchic temperament. Son of a prosperous Chinon lawyer, he was probably born in 1483, though possibly as late as 1494. It is likely that he studied law as a youth, but then entered the religious life, spending at least twenty years as a Franciscan friar and a Benedictine monk. Re-entering the world as a secular priest, he studied medicine at Montpellier University, and was appointed physician to an important hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu in Lyon. There he entered the circle of the influential Du Bellay clan, serving . . .

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