Francois Rabelais (1494 – 1553)

Francois Rabelais was a French monk and physician who wrote several volumes of a huge novel, The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a story about a giant and his son. Satirical, amusing and over-the- top, it has influenced the style of writers like James Joyce, Lawrence Sterne and almost any writer who has attempted novels or plays containing the adventures of comical characters, including Shakespeare.

Rabelais was the first great prose author. He surprises one with the ‘modernity’ of his style and preoccupations while at the same time writing within the traditions of medieval literature.

One of the things that makes Rabelais an important and influential writer is that, in his writing we see the evolution of the humanist thinking that was to make writers like Cervantes and Shakespeare such powerful representatives of Renaissance literature, both to a large extent influenced by Rabelais. There are few writers in the history of literature who have had such an influence on later writers as had Rabelais.

Francois Rabelais portrait

Francois Rabelais portrait

In the four books of The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel Rabelais’ purpose was to entertain his educated readers with the follies, overindulgences and exaggerations of his times. Such things as the evils of a corrupt monasticism, the profuse litigation of crooked lawyers, the ignorance and deceit of greedy physicians, are the subjects of the work. Rabelais was a friar and able to observe monastic life first hand; his father had been led on by lawyers to waste his money on a long case with a neighbour over some trivial water rights and, as a surgeon himself, Rabelais saw at close quarters how thin the line was between genuine physician and quack. Rabelais’ masterpiece, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, is full of amusing incidents. It begins in a lighthearted way and continues with some belly-laugh events but, also like Don Quixote, it is a serious work – a quest for the genuine inner life.

Rabelais’ lasting influence has nothing to do with his view of himself as an author. He had a view of his own times and was struck by its absurdities. He was very much a man of his time: his heart was very much in the Mediaeval mode but with a compelling curiosity about the new learning and so with those two elements firmly embedded in him he married the two in his writing. His absurd, ridiculous inventions are mediaeval in essence even though he is mocking mediaeval acceptances. It is the mixture of all of that that makes him an entertaining and above all, a great and wise writer.

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