François Rabelais (răb´əlā, Fr. fräNswä´ räblā´), c.1490–1553, French writer and physician, one of the great comic geniuses in world literature. His father, a lawyer, owned several estates, including
near Chinon, the presumed birthplace of Rabelais.
Becoming a novice in a Franciscan monastery early in his life, Rabelais went as a monk to Fontenay-le-Comte. He studied Greek and Latin, as well as science, law, philology, and letters, becoming known and respected by the humanists of his time, including Budé. Harassed because of his humanist studies, Rabelais petitioned Pope Clement VII and received permission to leave the Franciscan order and enter the Benedictine monastery of Maillezais; the monastery's scholarly bishop became his friend and patron.
The facts concerning Rabelais's study of medicine are obscure, but it is probable that he studied in Paris and at other universities before receiving (1530) his degree of bachelor of medicine at the Univ. of Montpellier. In 1532 he went to Lyons, then an intellectual center, and there, besides practicing medicine, he edited various Latin works for the printer Sebastian Gryphius. For another publisher he composed burlesque almanacs.
Gargantua and Pantagruel
At Lyons in 1532 there appeared Gargantua: Les grandes et inestimables cronicques du grand et énorme géant Gargantua, a chapbook collection of familiar legends about the giant Gargantua. Their popularity apparently inspired Rabelais to write a similar history of Pantagruel, son of Gargantua. Pantagruel appeared in 1532 or 1533. His book had great success and he followed it, in 1534, with a romance concerning Pantagruel's father: Gargantua: La vie inestimable du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel.
The third book of the romance, which differed greatly from the first two, was published in 1546; an incomplete edition of the fourth book appeared in 1548 and a complete one in 1552. After Rabelais's death a fifth book appeared (1562); the question of its authorship remains unsettled. Rabelais's novel is one of the world's masterpieces, a work as gigantic in scope as the physical size of its heroes. Under its broad humor, often ribald, are serious discussions of education, politics, and philosophy. The breadth of Rabelais's learning and his zest for living are evident.
Rabelais made several trips to Rome with his friend Cardinal Jean du Bellay; he lived for a time in Turin with du Bellay's brother, Guillaume. Francis I was for a time a patron of Rabelais. Rabelais apparently spent some time in hiding, threatened with persecution for heresy. Du Bellay's protection saved Rabelais after the condemnation of his novel by the Sorbonne. He taught medicine at Montpellier in 1537 and 1538 and after 1547 became curate of St. Christophe de Jambe and of Meudon, offices from which he resigned before his death in Paris in 1553.
The classic translation of Rabelais is that of Sir Thomas Urquhart (Books I–II, 1653, Book III, 1693); Books IV and V were translated by P. Motteux. W. F. Smith made a translation of the five books, with other writings (1893, new ed. 1934). More recent translations include those by J. M. Cohen (1955) and J. Le Clercq (1936, repr. 1963). See biographies by J. Plattard (1931, repr. 1969) and A. Tilley (1907, repr. 1970); studies by A. J. Krailsheimer (1963) and D. G. Coleman (1971).