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The life of this celebrated French writer is full of obscurities. He was born at Chinon in Touraine in 1483, 1490. or 1495. According to some his father was an apothecary, according to others a publican or inn-keeper. He began his studies with the Benedictines and finished them with the Franciscans near Angers. He became a Franciscan in the convent of Gontenay-le-Comte, where he remained fifteen years and received Holy orders. But the spirit of his order not being favourable to the studies then esteemed by the Renaissance and for which he himself displayed great aptitude, he left the convent. Through the mediation of Bishop Geoffroy d'Estissac he secured pardon from Clement VII, who authorized him to enter the Benedictine abbey of Maillezais. In 1530 he was at Montpellier as a medical student, and the following year professor of anatomy at Lyons and head physician at the hospital of Pont-du-Rhône. At Lyon he was much in the society of Dolet and Marot, and became the father of a child who died young. In 1534 Cardinal du Bellay brought him to Rome as a physician, and in 1536 he obtained from Paul III an indult which absolved him from his infractions of conventual discipline and allowed him to practice medicine. The next year he received the degree of Doctor of Medicine at Montpellier. In 1540 the pope permitted him to abandon the conventual life and to join the canons of St-Maur-les-Fossés. He took advantage of this to resume his wandering life. In 1541 he was at Turin as physician to the governor, Guilliaume du Bellay. Perhaps through fear of persecution which his works might draw upon him he went in 1546 to practice medicine at Metz, where he was in the pay of the city, but Cardinal du Bellay, being again sent to Rome, induced him to go thither. Du Bellay returned to France at the beginning of 1550 and secured for him the benefices of St-Martin-du-Meudon and St-Christophe-du-Jamber, both of which he resigned two years later, after having, it is said, fulfilled his duties with regularity and seriousness. He died most probably in Paris, either, as in generally thought, in 1553, or in 1559. Statements regarding his last moments are contradictory. . According to some he died as a free-thinker and jester, saying, "Draw the curtain, the farce is played out", according to others his end was Christian and edifying.
Rabelais wrote various works, including almanacs, but he was chiefly known for the celebrated romance entitled "La Vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel". This work comprises four books which appeared from 1532 (or 1533) to 1552; a fifth, the most daring in its ideas, appeared after the death of its author (1562-64); it is not certain that it is his. This history of giants is a chaos wherein are found learning, eloquence, coarse humor, and extravagances. It is impossible to analyse it.
Rabelais was a revolutionary who attacked all the past, Scholasticism, the monks; his religion is scarcely more than that of a spiritually-minded pagan. Less bold in political matters, he cared little for liberty; his ideal was a tyrant who loves peace. His strange fictions seem to be a veil behind which he conceals his ideas, for he desires his readers to imitate the dog to whom a bone has been thrown and who must break it in order to reach the marrow. But many of his gigantic buffooneries were merely the satisfaction of a vast humor and boundless imagination. He took pleasure in the worst obscenities. His vocabulary is rich and picturesque, but licentious and filthy. In short, as La Bruyère says: "His book is a riddle which may be considered inexplicable. Where it is bad, it is beyond the worst; it has the charm of the rabble; where it is good it is excellent and exquisite; it may be the daintiest of dishes." As a whole it exercises a baneful influence.
Ed. MARTRY-LEVEAUX, Opp. (Paris, 1872); STAFFER, Rabelais (Paris, 1889).