Francois Rabelais earned his living as a physician, and earned his fame as a writer of the satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel. His name in the form of an adjective, Rabelaisian, has come to denote literary works or ideas, “marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of character, or bold naturalism. “ Although not abandoning religious piety completely, the book brings an earthy materialism as part of its atmosphere, aesthetics, and themes. Rabelais brought his knowledge of anatomy directly into his fictional book, which often displays an obsession with the physical processes of the body. Pages upon pages are dedicated to farting and defecation. If Rabelais didn’t invent the fart joke, he made a strong attempt at perfectly it.
A good example of this use of anatomical descriptions and physical pleasures of the body can be found early on during the birth of Gargantua. These early chapters are dedicated to Grandgousier, the sire of Gargantua, and his wife, Gargamelle, enjoying a feast of tripe and booze out in the fields. The consumption of too much tripe causes Gargamelle to go into a painful labor. It is so painful that she threatens to chop off her husband’s genitals so that she never has to experience anything so painful again, but then concedes that she is jesting as she quite enjoys his intimate parts. Then finally comes Gargantua’s miraculous birth from Gargamelle’s ear!
“By this misfortune the cotyledons of the matrix were loosened at the top, and the child leapt up through them to enter the hollow vein. Then, climbing through the diaphragm to a point above the shoulders where this vein divides in two, he took the left fork and came out by the left ear (52).”
Here the description allows Rabalais to show off his learning as a physician, while also describing her body as a veritable maze and serving a playful take on the miraculous birth narrative found in so many ancient sources. Meanwhile, these opening chapters that involve feasting on delicacies, drinking, arguments about body parts, and a fairly graphic birth sets the earthy tone for the rest of the work with its focus on the pleasures, pains, and physical realities of this life. All these fart jokes, bodily pleasures, and descriptions of anatomy serve a crucial purpose in the narrative. They are there to remind us that although God and the afterlife are important, we must also not forget to enjoy the physical pleasures of this life. Indeed, each book begins by addressing his audience as a bunch of wine-guzzling drunks. The ethos of the book might be described as: drink today and enjoy life with all its varied pleasures and colorful cast of characters, for tomorrow you may die!
Gargantua and Pantagruel consists of five books. The first two books explore the birth, childhood, education, and victory in battle by both Gargantua and Pantagruel respectively. Gargantua defeats his former friend and ally, Pirochole, who invades Gargantua’s lands after the latter overreacts to an incident between their peasants over a bunch of cakes. This leads to many funny incidents; in particular, the extremely bad advice Pirochole receives from his advisers that he should use this military invasions as the beginning of world conquest and that his victory over the rest of the world is assured. The final three books involves the cowardly and wily Panurge, a friend and companion of Pantagruel, who wants to get married, but fears becoming a cuckold. Pantagruel convinces him to consult different oracles and omens in an attempt to learn what will happen should Panurge choose to get married. All the omens point to the fact that he will be a cuckold, beaten, and robbed by his future wife, but Panurge keeps interpreting these same omens as being favorable to him. At last, Pantagruel, Panurge, and their other companions go to seek the advice of the Oracle of the Bottle, which leads them to brave dangers at sea and visit many strange islands.
The Renaissance saw the birth of the Humanistic spirit through the rediscovery of Ancient Greece sources and forgotten Latin ones, especially new works by Cicero. Like the essayist Montaigne who often developed his thoughts on a topic by turning to the Ancient writers as exemplars for a deeper perspective, the characters throughout Gargantua and Pantagruel quote ancient sources from the Greek, Latin, and sometimes the Bible as support for their arguments about life. Cicero is an especial favorite, and is not only treated as a talented rhetorician, but a topnotch philosopher, reflecting his important status for the Renaissance Humanists.
This new learning and its contrast with the old ways is a major theme within the book. Gargantua is originally being “educated” by Sophists and this causes him to lead a wasteful life gaming and boozing, and doing little of value. Similarly, the old-style of medieval education, even particular textbooks, are castigated in favor of learning to read Latin and Greek, and reading the original ancient sources. In the Humanist tradition, Rabelais hints that the point of education is to make virtuous human beings who enjoy life, but also balance it with wisdom, bravery, and other desirable attributes. After receiving a better education, Gargantua comes to embody many of these characteristics, but it is Pantagruel, his son, that represents the epitome of this educated virtuous human. It is Pantagruel who is celebrated for his learning, who shows prowess and bravery in battle, but also honors his friends, and maintains an appropriate balance between religious sentiments and enjoying the pleasures of this life. Pantagruel is the righteous and rational anchor that balances the narrative’s bawdiness and some of the characters’ less virtuous and irrational tendencies, especially Panurge, who shows a wily and cowardly nature, and whose pranks on those who irritate him sometimes lead to their death or extreme humiliation.
The final books where they visit many strange islands is a forerunner of Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and reflects the age of exploration. At one point, Canada is mentioned explicitly as is the Protestant reformation. The islands are full of strange wonders, giving us a sometimes over the top depiction of how Europeans must have viewed these new “worlds” full of “strange” peoples, while also allowing Rabelais to satirize his own culture, such as when they land on an island full of Papists who are obsessed with Papal decretals as if these official decrees by the Popes over the ages are even more important than the Bible itself.