Although the five books of Gargantua and Pantragruel are often presented chronologically, François Rabelais actually wrote the second book first, which is the story of Pantagruel. Research by Donald M. Frame indicates that Rabelais wrote his story about Pantagruel in the early 1530s after an anonymous writer wrote and published a successful story about a giant by the name of Gargantua. Other writers also tried to write stories related to this anonymous writer’s version of Gargantua, but Rabelais’s version has stood the test of time. According to Frame, Rabelais wrote his own version of Gargantua somewhere around 1534 or as late as 1535, which is now the story found in the first book.
There is much speculation as to why Rabelais waited nearly 16 years between writing the first two books and the third book. Frame speculates that Rabelais’s reasons may have been related to the sociopolitical climate of Paris, France at the time. There were many Catholic-based groups who were afraid that Reformers could gain significant power in France. Therefore, they instituted censorship on anything that could possibly pose a threat to the Catholic Church. Many ecclesiastical scholars were also accused of heresy, and some were accused of being supporters of other faiths, such as the Muslim religion. Writing fictitious stories that satirized the church proved a dangerous business for Rabelais, and there were many times where he had to flee France to avoid being imprisoned or burned at the stake.
Some researchers, including Frame, also postulate that Rabelais may have waited such a long time between projects because he did not know how to continue the story after the close of Book Two. After all, Rabelais received much fame and acolytes for the way that he provided a satirical treatment of the typical hero’s adventure framework. Furthermore, in his writing of Gargantua, he found ways to test the limits of the genre by stepping out of the framework and including more humor, which was also very well received. Therefore, it is not surprising that after writing such well loved tales about the adventures of giants, Rabelais may have felt extreme pressure to achieve the same level of success with the rest of his writing. There is some evidence of Rabelais’s trepidation, and Frame points that out by citing Rabelais’s prologue to the third book. Much like the prologue Rabelais wrote for Books One and Two, the prologue for the third book reminds readers to remember that it is a satire, but the prologue also warns readers that while an author may attempt to present one thing, audiences may see things completely differently.
Although the sociopolitical scene in Paris was dangerous, and despite any of Rabelais’s potential trepidations, he went ahead with the publication, largely because of the support he received from the French monarchy. Frame points out that Rabelais was given a six-year privilege to publish, and this privilege came directly from the King of France. In recognition of the monarchy’s support, Rabelais dedicated the third book to Queen Margaret of Navarre.
Rabelais wrote two different manuscripts of the fourth book, with one manuscript being written in 1548 and the other in 1552. According to Frame, the first manuscript was really a first draft, as it contains the first 25 chapters of book four. The second manuscript, written in 1552, includes sections from the initial first draft and a completed version of the story.
The final and fifth book in the collection, however, may not have been written by Rabelais. Arthur Augustus Tilley conducted much research into the publication of the fifth book, particularly into the authenticity of the authorship. Tilley comments that a volume was printed in 1562, nearly a decade after Rabelais’s death, but the volume did not have any indication as to which printer published it. Granted, this 1562 version was not the complete version currently published. The complete version currently in circulation was initially printed in 1564, according to Tilley. This more complete version was printed under the pen name of “Nature quite,” which Tilley points out was a common anagram used by Jean Turquet. Besides the pen name on the 1564 version, there was no printing house stamp. Tilley speculates that Jean Martins of Lyons produced this 1564 version, since Martins produced a 1565 version with nearly identical formatting and type font.
Handwritten manuscripts of the fifth book have been found and preserved, but Tilley points out that the handwriting could not belong to Rabelais. For one thing, the time in which it was written was after Rabelais’s death. Handwriting comparisons between these manuscripts and actual documents written by Rabelais also stood as evidence that Rabelais did not write the entire fifth book's manuscript, or at least not this version. Rabelais’s own bibliographer, Antoine Du Verdier, emphatically denies that the fifth book was written by Rabelais. Tilley notes that, in 1604, Du Verdier published a document insisting that someone else wrote the fifth book as a way to demean the Catholic Church in a most vicious manner, which was not the way Rabelais presented his satire.