Rabelais, Francis

, a celebrated French wit, was the son of an apothecary, and born about 1483, at Chinon, in the province of Touraine. He was bred up in a convent of Franciscan friars in Poictou, the convent of Fontenaile-Comte, and received into their order. His strong inclination and taste for literature and the sciences made him transcend the bounds which restrained the learned in his times so that he not only became a great linguist, but an adept in all branches of knowledge. His uncommon capacity and merit soon excited the jealousy of his brethren. Hence he was envied by some others, through ignorance, thought him a conjuror; and all hated and abused him, particularly because he studied Greek; the novelty of that language making them esteem it, not only barbarous, but antichristian. This we collect from a Greek epistle of Budaeus to Rabelais, in which he praises him highly for his great knowledge in that tongue, and exclaims against the stupidity and malice of the friars. | Having endured their persecutions for a long time, he obtained permission of pope Clement VII. to leave the society of St. Francis, and to enter into that of St. Benedict but his mercurial temper prevailing, he did not find any more satisfaction among the Benedictines, than he had found among the Franciscans, so that after a short time he left them also. Changing the regular habit for that which is worn by secular priests, he rambled up and down for a. while and then fixed at Montpellier, where he took the degrees in physic, and practised with great reputation. He was universally admired for his wit and great learning, and became a man of such estimation, that the university of that place, when deprived of its privileges, deputed him to Paris to obtain the restitution of them, by application to the chancellor Du Prat, who was so pleased with him, and so much admired his accomplishments, that he easily granted all that he solicited. He returned to Montpellier and the service he did the university upon this occasion, is given as a reason why all the candidates for degrees in physic there, are, upon their admission to them, formally invested with a robe, which Rabelais left; this ceremony having been instituted in honour of him.

In 1532, he published at Lyons some pieces of Hippocrates and Galen, with a dedication to the bishop of Mailezais in which he tells him, that he had read lectures upon the aphorisms of Hippocrates, and the “ars medica” of Galen, before numerous audiences in the university of Montpellier. This was the last year of his cootinuance in that place for the year after he went to Lyons, where he became physician to the hospital, and joined lectures with practice for some years following. John du Bellay, bishop of Paris, and afterwards cardinal, with whom he had been acquainted in his early years, going to Rome in? 1534, upon the business of Henry VIITs divorce from Catherine of Spain, and passing through Lyons, carried Rabelais with him, in quality of his physician who returned home, however, in about six months. He had sometime before quitted his religious connections for the sake of leading a life more suitable to his taste and humour; but now renewed them, and in a second journey to Rome, obtained in 1536, by his interest with some cardinals, a brief from pope Paul III. to qualify him for holding ecclesiastical benefices. John du Bellay, had procured the abbey of St. Maur near Paris to be secularized; and into | this was Rabelais, now a Benedictine monk, received as a secular canon. Here he is supposed to have begun his famous romance, entitled “The lives, heroic deeds, and sayings of Gargantua and Pantagruel.” He continued ifi this retreat till 1545, when Du Bellay, his friend and patron, and now a cardinal, nominated him to the cure of Meudon, which he is said to have filled with great zeal and application to the end of his life. His profound knowledge and skill in physic made him doubly useful to the people under his care and he was ready upon all occasions to relieve them under indispositions of body as well as mind. He died in 1553. As he was a great wit, many witticisms and facetious sayings are laid to his charge, of which he knew nothing and many ridiculous circumstances are related of him by some of his biographers, to which probably little credit is due.

He published several productions but his chef tfteuvre is “The History of Gacgantua and Pantagruel;” a most extravagant satire, in the form of a romance, upon monks, priests, popes, and fools and knaves of all kinds. Wit and learning are scattered here in great profusion, but in a manner so wild and irregular, and with a strong mixture of obscenity, coarse and puerile jests, profane allusions, and low raillery, that, while some have regarded it as a firstrate effort of human wit, and, like Homer’s poems, as an inexhaustible source of learning, science, and knowledge, others have affirmed it to be nothing but an unintelligible rhapsody, a heap of foolish conceits, without meaning, without coherence a collection of gross impieties and obscenities. There seems to be much truth in both these opinions, and throughout the whole such a degree of obscurity, where he is supposed to allude to persons or events, that no commentary can easily satisfy the reader’s curiosity *. The monks, who were supposed to be the chief object of his satire, gave some opposition to it when it first began to be published, for it was published by parts

* Warton, in his “Essay on Pope,” follies they stigmatize, are perished

says, “Rabelais was not the inventor and unknown.” This may be true, but

of many of the burlesque tales he in- how are tasle and virtue improved, or

troduced into his principal story; the vice depressed, through such a mefinest touches of which, it is to be dium of coarse obscenity, as cannot

feared, have undergone the usual and be read aloud in any language?" We

unavoidable fate of satirical writings; may here remark that Sterne most

that is, not to be tasted or understood, have “given his days and nights” t

when the characters, the facts, and the the perusal of Rabelais. | in 1535; but this opposition was soon overruled by the powerful patronage of Rabelais among the great. The best edition of his works is that with cuts, and the notes of Le Duchat, 5 vols. 12mo, and De Monnoye, 1741, in 3 vols, 4to. Mr. Motteux published an English translation of it at London, 1708, with a preface and notes, in which he endeavours to shew, that Rabelais has painted the history of his own time, under an ingenious fiction and borrowed names. Ozell published afterwards a new translation, with Duchat’s notes, 5 vols. 12mo, printed afterwards in 4 vols. We know not which is worst in point of vulgar obscenity of style, both are execrable. 1


Life prefixed to Ozell’s edition. —Chaufepie.Niceron, vol. Xxxji.