This will be a happy year if everyone who owns a Rabelais gives it a good read. The French have made 1984 ‘L’ Année Rabelais’, treating it as the 500th anniversary of his birth. Glasgow (which has one of the world’s best collections of Gargantua and Pantagruel) got in early, celebrating it last year. But 1983 was Luther year. Luther and Rabelais, committed ex-monks with a genius for writing in their vernacular, have much in common, but each needs a year to himself. Rabelaisian laughter is both a complement to Luther’s scornful vehemence and an antidote to it. Nobody knows when Rabelais was born: 1483 or 1484, in the comfortable house of a rich Touraine legal family, is a good guess. We know that he studied law before he studied medicine; was a Franciscan before he became a Benedictine; was influenced by Erasmus; had three children; travelled abroad; remained a secular priest (an Evangelical Royalist Gallican); lived a life full of incidents, with periods of want in virtual exile as well as periods of comfort in the households of powerful men. About his early years we know nothing, except that, in his first two comic Chronicles, writing about giants brought him to think happily about his own childhood. It often does.

The comic war in Pantagruel is set in Utopia – Rabelais knew his Thomas More and borrowed from him both the thirsty Dipsodes and the obscure Amaurotes. In Gargantua he fits the rivalries between France and the Holy Roman Empire into the tiny world of castle, wood and ford which could be seen from the windows of his childhood home at La Devinière. (It still can.) His wars are like children’s games: he delighted in games, while seeing most of them as ways of wasting time when extended beyond infancy. Great conflicts, treated this way, become good for a laugh: a therapeutic laugh, Dr Rabelais maintains – making for balance and sanity when seriousness returns. We laugh at the wounded and dying in the war against Picrochole (‘Bitter Bile’): but when that tale is over and the Rev. Dr Rabelais thinks of real men in real wars, a ‘tyrant’ such as Charles V, who ransomed the King of France, is condemned and the once-comic figures who egged Picrochole on are treated as ‘seditious’ (a sin as well as a crime) and made to toil in the printing-presses; the wounded are nursed back to health. Rabelais came to see joyful laughter as a means of comforting the sick in body and the sick in soul. In this way he reconciled his twin vocations of priest and doctor. Dr Rabelais, like Father Rabelais, comforts the afflicted.

A Platonising bishop held that the surname Rabelais, by mystical Hebrew etymology, truly means ‘Prince of Mockers’. In 1818 Hazlitt ended his introductory lecture ‘On the English Comic Writers’ not with Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Congreve, Sterne or Garrick but with Rabelais. He was defending the French from one of our bouts of Gallophobia. ‘Even to those who have never read his book,’ he wrote, ‘the name of Rabelais is a cordial to the spirits, and to mention it cannot consist with gravity or spleen.’ Odium criticum can make the last phrase untrue; there are, as always, rival schools of criticism – and some schools place critic above author. But most unite in finding Rabelais a source of joy. Whoever writes or talks about Rabelais soon discovers that joy for Rabelais, like truth for Esdras, is great and shall prevail. Hazlitt knew his Rabelais well – in uncritical editions. He would not have been satisfied with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘Rabelaisian’: ‘Pertaining to, characteristic of, or resembling Rabelais or his writings, which are distinguished by exuberance of imagination and language, combined with extravagance and coarseness of humour and satire.’ Neither this definition nor the examples mention wisdom or laughter. Hazlitt did. He quietly provoked the Gallophobes: ‘The wise sayings and heroic deeds of Gargantua and Pantagruel ought not to be set down as nothing.’ Rabelais loved his glass of piot – there is little reason for believing that the draughts of wine are always allegories of higher things – but when Hazlitt conjured up a picture of Rabelais set among his wine-flagons he also thought of him ‘with his books of law, of school divinity and physic before him, which were his jest books’. And so they were. From them ‘he drew endless stores of absurdity; laughing at the world and enjoying it by turns, and making the world laugh with him again, for the last three hundred years, at his teeming wit and his prolific follies.’ A fine tribute with which to end an introduction to the English comic writers.

But not everybody likes Rabelais. Young Calvin did. The later Calvin did not. Nor did the Council of Trent – where the French were a tiny minority. Rabelais’s Christian comedy was too much for Pius IV. His Index Tridentinus (1564) casts Rabelais among the ‘forbidden authors of the first class’. He was ranked with Luther and Calvin. (Erasmus was in a different category.) Later he was joined by Montaigne, Pascal, Balzac and others, until the silly enterprise was laughed out of existence. To read, without prior permission, a ‘first-class’ author entailed excommunication. Or so they said. But French Catholics never stopped reading Rabelais. Only Protestants or Anglicans could print him openly. Protestants dropped his attacks on Calvin or turned them into anti-monastic gibes, so managing to divert Rabelais’s Gallican via media into channels pleasing to the Eglise Réformée. Rabelais the Gallican Anti-Papalist has often been taken over this way, but he would not have lasted a year in Calvin’s Geneva – or in Mao’s China, for that matter.

Rabelais was, for generations, read only in distorting editions which generated jokes of their own. All his Greek was turned into gibberish; careless arrangement of material by printers led Sterne to believe that Rabelais was sporting typographically with his reader by displacing a poem or by leaving blanks – hence the blanked-out chapter in Tristram Shandy. These editions – sometimes printed clandestinely in France – kept Rabelais alive but helped to create a ‘Rabelais legend’ which had nothing to do with the works he wrote. Montaigne enjoyed Rabelais, finding him at least ‘simplement plaisant’ (‘straightforwardly delightful’). Molière assumed that his audience enjoyed him too. And they did. For many Frenchmen Rabelais embodies that Gaulois humour which they love to see as a permanent element in the national character.

There is a Gaulois element in all four of Rabelais’s definitely authentic Chronicles. His brand of humour owes more than a little to French farces such as Pathelin, which delighted Francis I when acted at Court. As a student at Montpellier, Rabelais played in a farce and remained proud of the fact. ‘Medieval’ farces were the relaxation of Renaissance kings and the sport of the Renaissance intelligentsia, who (as students) used them for satire and as a means of laughing at themselves and their professions. The cycle of the liturgical year has its moments for sport and laughter. Quite a lot of Rabelais’s laughter arises out of the concerns of Court and College. When it does, farce is often given pride of place. But Rabelais’s forays into professional knowledge made him into a competent légiste. Guillaume Budé, the best Greek scholar of his age and a legal giant, praised his knowledge of the law. Rabelais’s Gaulois laughter is given form and body by legal humour. Medical humour adds its part as well, but it is a smaller part.

All of this matured in the mind of a Catholic priest living irregularly, as many did, protected by the highest in the land, who had roots in his part of France. Bishop Geoffroy d’Estissac helped him study medicine. Jean du Bellay, the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, was a man with the ear of Francis I, a friend of Thomas Cromwell, a defender of the Henrican divorce, a sympathiser with many of Luther’s doctines and an admirer of Melanchthon. He protected Rabelais as author and employed him as doctor. Rabelais was protected, too, by Guillaume du Bellay, the statesmanlike brother of Jean. The earlier Chronicles propagate ideas dear to Melanchthon, as part of the du Bellay brothers’ strategy of preparing France to receive that Preceptor of Germany who was invited to Paris by Francis I in 1535. (He was unable to come.) Rabelais reads at time like a Lutheran, laughing at the things which Luther inveighed against. (Cardinal Jean was accused of Lutheranism.) Rabelais’s last patron was the princely Cardinal Odet de Châtillon, who personally assured him that he continued to enjoy royal support – an important assurance, since Henry II reversed many of the policies of Francis I within minutes of the latter’s death. Rabelais could go on jesting at tyrants and ignorant monks, championing Evangelical attitudes, defending oppressed Evangelicals from the deadly interests of the Sorbonne, guffawing at the Council of Trent, or at papimanes who turned the Pope into an idol in contempt of Christ’s summary of the law.

Cardinal Châtillon arrived in England with ‘Madame la Cardinale’ after the publication of the decrees of the Council of Trent. (When Pope and Archbishop knelt the other day at the high altar of Canterbury, the body nearest to them was Châtillon’s.) From the earliest times Rabelais’s works have been particularly at home in England. The translation of Urquhart and Motteux is a delight – though often false to the original. The clergy have long had a soft spot for Rabelais, his influence on authors as diverse as Dean Swift and the Rev. Charles Kingsley is there for all to see. Interesting editions of Rabelais are to be found in cathedral libraries. Royalist Gallicanism, when sponsored by cardinals such as du Bellay and Châtillon, is close to the Anglicanism of the Elizabethan settlement. The Platonic element in Rabelais’s Christianity, which also endeared him to Anglicans, was one of his debts to Erasmus. It won him the support of Queen Margaret of Navarre, the sister of Francis I, a fluent versifier, a Platonising Evangelical and a considerable wit – her Heptaméron makes good leisurely reading and can be quite ‘Rabelaisian’. Le Tiers Livre de Pantagruel (1546), Rabelais’s most learned book, is dedicated to her ‘ecstatic spirit’.

Having queens and cardinals for patrons was fine. But even they could not offer absolute protection. In 1534 and 1535 all Evangelicals were smeared with heresy after the twin ‘Affaires des Placards’ had seen Zwinglian posters scattered abroad, protesting against the ‘idolatry’ of the Mass. In February 1535, Rabelais walked straight out of his hospital and fled to Cardinal Jean in Italy. It was a prudent move. On another occasion he lived in virtual exile in Strasbourg. Yet he ended his life in comfort, thanks partly to du Bellay, and was buried with honour in St Paul’s Church in Paris. (When that church was demolished they managed to lose his body.) To the end of his life he proudly remained priest and doctor. Of all his books, the text most widely found in older libraries is not one of the volumes of Gargantua or Pantagruel but one or other of his editions of Hippocrates’s Aphorisms. Some copies are smothered with notes. He was an authority to be reckoned with.

The comic field of a man such as Rabelais is as wide and as deep as his interests. The only limit is the capacity of his readers to follow him. In a contribution on ‘Language and the Mind’ published in Volume 295 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, A.J.P. Kenny critically examined Arthur Danto’s notion (approved by Chomsky) that there might in principle be such a thing as a ‘Spanish Pill’ which (given the structure of the human brain) would have the property of endowing those who swallowed it with a mastery of Spanish. A knowledge of Spanish means, I suppose, not an ability to order a glass of Rioja and a plate of paella on the Costa Brava but to read Cervantes and Ortega with understanding and pleasure. I wonder what properties a ‘French Pill’ would have to have if it were to enable you to read and enjoy Rabelais. A ‘Linguaphone Pill’ wouldn’t do. Neither would a ‘French Pill’ which gave you the kind of French which ordinary literate Frenchmen read and speak today. Nobody who had mastered modern French, and no more, could read all of Rabelais with understanding and enjoyment. Neither could most of Rabelais’s contemporaries, come to that. A ‘Rabelais Pill’ would need to give its lucky swallower the linguistic science of Kurt Baldinger and the historical empathy of Frances Yates. Danto’s pill would take a lot of swallowing. It would still be no good if the swallower was not already endowed with a lively perception of the ludicrous. Knowledge without humour gets you nowhere with Rabelais.

Rabelais’s one and only tool was language: a language which, whilst classifiable as French most of the time, he partly invented himself. And he goes into Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English, Scots or Danish, with excursions into invented languages, into apparently nonsensical concatenations of sound or into naturally significant onomatopoeias. Posh collectors’ editions of Rabelais often have illustrations. Nice as they are, they get in the way. The only work of Rabelais to be ‘illustrated’ from the outset is the so-called ‘partial’ Quart Livre (1548), which he did not see through the press and whose job-lot of woodcuts was lifted from another book. A ‘Rabelais Pill’ would need to ensure that we had the property of looking at rare words and phrases and enjoying their sound and the etymological clues to the senses or nonsenses with which they are endowed. This language of Rabelais is linked by allusion, reference, reminiscence and context to the worlds of Medieval and Renaissance culture as well as to the colourful workaday world of contemporary song, proverb, jargon, jest or cliché. A ‘Rabelais Pill’, then, would have to give us the property of recovering senses of words and phrases which are anchored in worlds we have lost. Rabelais uses more words, more new words, unknown words, words that have changed their meanings, than any other French writer. He uses these words with precision – or else in a kaleidoscope of punning imprecision. He can make you think of James Joyce – who came late to Rabelais and often uses similar techniques for other ends. Sainéan showed that many words found in Gargantua and Pantagruel were either not attested before Rabelais or became known through him. The same applies to quite a few English words, which entered literate English through Urquhart and Motteux. Randle Cotgrave’s Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611) – surely the most enjoyable and readable of dictionaries – drew heavily on Rabelais. Much of the pleasure in browsing through it derives from that. But Cotgrave can nod. He blandly translates as ‘Gentleman’ the Rabelaisian portmanteau word Janspillommes, which packs gentilhommes into gens-pille-hommes (‘pillagers of men’)! He did not feel obliged to list au-cul-passion –Rabelais’s fundamental deformation of occupation.

Rabelais was a master of rhetoric, curious about language as such, about the aural and visual signs of speech, writing and gesture. For stimulus in such matters he turned to the standard authors – to Aristotle, Plato, Ammonius Hermaeus and Ficino among them but, equally, to the dense Latin of the legal glossators. Most of the glossators discuss theories of language and meaning. Rabelais follows them in detail. The pharmacokinetics of the ‘Rabelais Pill’ will matter less than the numerous cycles of knowledge it must instantly convey if we are to appreciate Gargantua and Pantagruel with no effort on our part. We do not need to know Rabelais’s sources – not often, at any rate – but we do need to know what he is talking about when he is talking sense and even when he is talking nonsense. A lively awareness of comedy and of fun, combined with an ability to jump a paragraph or two, a page or so, a chapter or two, can do more than humourless drudgery to make Rabelais live again. Watching one’s own children grow up helps too. Some of Rabelais’s most uproariously comic chapters are those where bodily sounds and movements, as well as languages and signs, are used to hide, reveal, distort, pervert and betray good sense or good morals. Scholarship can result in Rabelais being both funnier and more satisfyingly comic than he appears when first read innocently and ignorantly in the bath (or in the air-raid shelter, where I first read him).

When Hazlitt came to list the ‘four chief names of comic humour out of our language’ he cited ‘Aristophanes and Lucian among the Ancients, Molière and Rabelais among the Moderns’. A good choice. Rabelais is at ease in such company. He was the kind of author who digests and transmutes others. His debts to Lucian’s irreverent laughter are clear. He often read his law books, medical books, philosophers, theologians, rabbis, Breviary and Bible through Lucianesque spectacles. His Hurtaly riding astride Noah’s Ark and being fed through a funnel was inspired by Rabbi Eleazer – and then intertwined with liturgical memories of Og, the King of Basan and of Lucian’s Icaromenippus. We have lost the manuscripts, but we do know that Friar Rabelais had translated works of Lucian into Latin. The influence of Lucian became richer as the Chronicles progress. The scheme of the Tiers Livre, which links philosophical dialogue to complex comedy, is indebted to Lucian, as Rabelais copiously acknowledged. Even more successfully, perhaps, the prologue to the Quart Livre of 1552 develops Aesop’s fable of the Woodcutter and the Axe in ways which link the virtue of humility to the Golden Mean. The result is a comic sermon of extraordinary power. Rabelais could read Homer, Plutarch, Ovid, Genesis, the Psalms or the Gospels through the eyes of Lucian and then spin round on his toe and present them to us in a more straightforward way.

But not even Lucian shared Rabelais’s keen awareness of the comedy inherent in the human condition. Man is tragic, if you like: an immortal soul plunged into the clogging prison of a body. Or else he is comic: a thing of food, farts and faeces with a silly soul aspiring high and projecting error, deceit and hypocrisy into all eternity. Comedy helps us to hold both views in health and sanity. Sex is a God-given privilege, allowing mankind, in marriage, to make up for death, the lot of corruptible, and hence generating, Man until the End of the World. Aristotle and St Paul can be called on to give weight to this doctrine, which Gargantua expounds to his son in a letter from Utopia. But even marital sex is a matter of two bare bums in a bed. And Plato’s Androgyne, Gargantua’s symbol for Pauline agape, is given two bums. Sexual activity can never be entirely aetherialised since the same organ serves for copulation and micturition. Comedy reminds us of this. Apart from ecstatics like Margaret of Navarre, nobody can be almost all soul. Even when the great make their stately progress through a doorway, their belly goes in first – especially when they are fat.

The legal humour which dominates much of Pantagruel came as no surprise to the first readers (in 1532?). For the first edition Rabelais’s printer got his hands on the original frame used for contemporary Latin lawbooks and still used for them afterwards. How on earth did he do it? It was as though Private Eye were to come in the guise of Bibles authenticated by the OUP. Gargantua, two years later, is less donnish. It was aimed at Court and Town rather than at Chambers and Gown. Many still find its humour more accessible. But attempts to see it as popular shrewdness mocking the great and the pompous with the carnivalesque wisdom of the marketplace are not quite adequate. Rabelais’s carnival spirit remains courtly and erudite. Even Gargantua belongs to a world which can leave the Latin-less puzzled, not rolling about with laughter: a joke explained is nothing like a joke perceived.

Translations and modernisations can help. Urquhart was no Rabelais but he does often catch his tone. Apart from certain specific chapters, Rabelais was never deliberately hermetic. Most of what he seems to demand from us we can acquire from enjoyable reading of other books. But he does count on his readers or hearers being initiated into Renaissance culture. It does not really matter how we break into that circle, as long as we do somehow. Read Erasmus first, and parts of Rabelais spring into sharper relief. Read both and then, suddenly, parts of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, David, Matthew or Paul take on new life as provokers of laughter or suppliers of depth or authority. As time went by Rabelais deepened his sense of comedy and its problems. In Pantagruel and Gargantua he is aware of the cruelty of comedy but seems untroubled by it. In the Tiers Livre and the Quart Livre things are different. They are Humanist books printed in the new Humanist type and acknowledged in their Royal Privileges as major contributions to literature.

Is there anything you should not laugh at? Anything you cannot laugh at? A Right Reverend Doctor wrote to the Times protesting against Mr Reagan’s joke about bombing the Russians. ‘There are some things,’ he asserted, ‘which “should not be joked about”.’ He listed terminal cancer and starvation of children. But another clergyman, the Rev. Dr Swift, raised laughter – moral laughter – on the subject of starving Irish children. The Rev. Dr Rabelais gets comedy out of a dying wife. Her giant of a husband called her ‘his dear little cunt’, even though it covered an acre or so. Death from syphilis, quite a horrible death, is comic in Rabelais. So is dying from the butt-end of an old cross stuck up your arse. This particular episode leads to a little sermon about Frere Jean; he is, we are told, a ‘parable’ about comforting the afflicted and succouring the needy. And I, for one, am convinced. But the laughs come first. When the Rev. Dr Rabelais tells the tale we can split our sides as bailiffs die with their teeth bashed down their throats and their jaws torn from their faces or when a parish priest, who dared to refuse to lend a surplice to Villon, is dragged to his death like Hippolytus in Phaedra: only his foot came home, in his fancy sandal caught up in the stirrup of his fat old mule. Cruelty is everywhere in comedy. And Rabelais knew it. We have our modern theories which try and explain it all. (Some of them are quite laughable.)

In the dixain prefixed to Gargantua Rabelais wrote:

’Tis better to write of laughter than of tears,
For laughter is the property of Man.

That idea he owed to the ninth-century scholar Ysaac the Arab (or Ysaac the Jew). After the dixain comes ‘VIVEZ JOYEUX.’ But ‘living joyfully’ is hard in the world as it is. Comedy must shape the world to its own fancy or see the world from its own angle. Pantagruel was given a new hate-ridden ending in 1534. In Gargantua we laugh at the idea of burning the syndic of the Sorbonne and are brought to laugh at his deformities: he was a real man, lame in both legs and a hunchback. But Rabelais did more than jest when the persecution concerned Christians holding views like his own. Laughter has its place even then, though: under Platonic influence, laughter is aroused at the expense of those who deserve no pity – a theoretical commonplace – or of the filthy and the ugly who personify wickedness. Apart from kings, Popes and suchlike, Rabelais never attacked individuals first. Even comic symbols such as Janotus de Bragmardo may be treated quite kindly in the end. But when the Sorbonne tried to censure Rabelais he mocked its syndic without mercy. When Calvin, the orientalist Postel and Gabriel Dupuysherbault (a censoring monk) attacked him, he answered back.

The Tiers Livre shows that Rabelais had pondered over Erasmus’s contention that the world is divided into two sets of madmen laughing at each other. Laughter is the act of a madman; Mr Badman laughs at Christian: Christian laughs at Mr Badman. All seem mad: the worldly-wise seem mad in the eyes of God; the Christians, in the eyes of worldly men. Rabelais guides our laughter into the Christian channel, but by no means directly. In the Tiers Livre we laugh at Panurge because he is mad: a man possessed by the devil, dominated by self-love and sliding down the slope of melancholy mania into stupor. In the Tiers Livre the scheme is far more complex than in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. Both worldly and Christian fools seem comic, until Rabelais turns the tables on us. For Rabelais there are not two sorts of fool but an infinite number. There still remains the great divide, but we can be caught out, putting it in the wrong place. Without the guidance of the truth and authority inherent in Rabelais’s cultural assumptions no reader of Rabelais would see much difference between the complacent folly of the magician Her Trippa and the divine folly of Judge Bridoye, who in his simplicity and humility dottily decides all his cases by casting dice – as the Disciples did when they chose Mathias.

Rabelais does give us guidance. But in the course of all this Pantagruel, the funny giant, becomes an agelaste, who never laughs. In the Quart Livre the problems of comic cruelty are worked out partly by theory but mainly through practice. Rabelais did not like agelastes, yet there was his giant becoming one. Without warning, language, knowledge and sense are made to disintegrate unless touched by the dew of Revelation. Plato, Plutarch, St Matthew are made to attest to this. Rabelais then turned to Calcagnini for help and advice. Few read Calcagnini now, but he was one of the great teachers at Ferrara, a polygraph whose works Rabelais exploited in detail, and a major writer of apologues or ‘myths’. Rabelais saw his own role in a new light, as an inventor of comic myths. His final myth lifts laughter for a while out of the realm of human cruelty. Renaissance science accepted the doctrine of occult sympathies. A plant may have strange powers from the workings of sympatheia, a kind of ‘fellow-feeling’. This sympathy can make the yawning of one man affect another; make one string resound when another is plucked; draw iron towards the lodestone; draw straw towards amber or draw gold up out of wells towards the dried flesh of the remora-fish. Rabelais suggests that human laughter may also act sympathetically on the heavens. The very weather may improve. Such sympathies make wise men grateful. But they make foolish men only passingly so. Laughter, cruel laughter, will always be needed to mock the man whose passing words are of God in moments of fear or contentment but whose delight is in gluttony, lechery or filth. While others preached against gluttony, sloth and lust, Rabelais laughed at them. Platonic philosophers taught the goodness of Beauty: Rabelais made error laughably ugly.

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