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...
The facts concerning François Rabelais’s life are not completely clear, due to lack, loss, or damage of official records. Researchers have pieced together various facts by reviewing ownership documents, land records, educational records, and letters between Rabelais and his friends, family members, and other associates. From all of these sources, experts place Rabelais’s birth happening somewhere between 1483 and 1493. We also know that he was born in the district of Touraine, France. The name of Rabelais’s mother has not been found, but his father has been identified as Antoine Rabelais, who was a high-ranking lawyer in Chinon and he was also the owner of several properties. One of Antoine’s properties, a family-owned farmhouse by the name of La Devinière, is believed to be Rabelais’s birthplace. Rabelais is the youngest of four children. He has two older brothers, Antoine and Jamet, and one older sister, Françoise.
Rabelais is believed to have received his initial education at La Baumette, which was a convent run by Franciscan monks. During his education, he also began the process of becoming a monk, which is often referred to as becoming a novice. As a novice, he would have lived his life as a Franciscan monk, but he would have been under the tutelage of a more experienced monk. According to documents found by Arthur Augustus Tilley, Rabelais completed his period of being a novice monk and took his formal vows as a Franciscan monk sometime prior to the year 1519. During the time that Rabelais studied at La Baumette, Tilley cites that many supposedly Greek experts in the vicinity were more fraudulent than factual, so it would have been difficult for Rabelais and his fellow monks to learn Greek from reputable scholars. Fortunately, there was a large humanist movement going on at the same time, and Tilley notes that such a movement of ecclesiastical scholars and lawyers would have had a great influence on Rabelais’s studies. Unfortunately, Rabelais’s dedication to his education may have created hostilities between himself and his fellow Franciscan monks. Tilley reports that there were allegations of heresy being directed toward monk scholars, including Rabelais. Instead of waiting around, however, Rabelais wrote letters to the Pope and asked permission to relinquish his vows as a Franciscan monk and take on new vows as a Benedictine monk at a neighboring abbey. The Pope granted this request sometime around the early to mid-1520s.
Donald M. Frame’s research indicates that during the latter part of the 1520s, Rabelais went on to study medicine in Paris, and Rabelais’s studies were most likely funded by the Bishop of the Benedictine Abbey, Geoffroy d’Estissac. While in Paris, although Rabelais was not permitted to get married, Frame’s records indicate that Rabelais fathered two children. Out of wedlock, these children would have been recognized as illegitimate, but Frame’s research shows that the children were legitimized in 1535 by order of Pope Paul III. During the early part of the 1530s, Rabelais remained at medical school in Paris, where he lectured and published. He even became a practicing physician. Around this time, Frame explains that Rabelais published his first book about Pantagruel after an anonymous chronicle of Gargantua stories had been so well received. Other writers attempted to produce similar versions of Pantagruel, but Frame implies that these were rather weak interpretations.
Shortly after this initial publication, Frame’s research shows that Rabelais went to Rome as a physician for Bishop Jean du Bellay. During this first visit to Rome, however, there was much hostility between the King of France, the Catholic Church, and the Reformists. To avoid danger, Rabelais left his post in Rome, but failed to provide any notice of his departure. It wasn’t long after Rabelais’s flight from Rome that hostilities settled down, and Bishop du Bellay received the honor of being made into a Cardinal. Du Bellay requested Rabelais’s return as his physician, so Rabelais returned. His devout work as a physician won him much favor with many of the leaders the Catholic Church, including the Pope, who not only legitimized Rabelais’s children, but also forgave Rabelais for leaving his post. Frame states that in 1536 the Pope gave Rabelais permission to continue his work as Du Bellay’s doctor, and the Pope also made Rabelais into a secular priest, which gave Rabelais more freedom to travel.
With more freedom, Rabelais continued his studies and gave lectures at Montpellier. Just before 1540, though, Frame’s notes indicate that Rabelais once again fathered an illegitimate child, although the child died. Rabelais spent the earlier portion of the 1540s as a physician to the governor of Turin, Guillaume, seigneur de Langey, who happened to be the brother of Du Bellay. Due to the state of Langey’s failing health, Frame surmises that not only did Rabelais work with Langey as his physician, but most likely also as his secretary, especially in Turin and on the several trips back to France. In 1543, Rabelais traveled with Langey back to France for the last time, for it was clear that Langey was close to death. Langey died on the journey, but he died within the borders of France. According to Frame, Langey’s death significantly affected Rabelais. A few years later, Rabelais’s other old friend, Geoffroy d’Estissac also passed away.
The later part of the 1540s did not bode well for Rabelais, Frame reports. At that time, many people were accusing ecclesiastical scholars of being secret Muslims. Censorship laws were also reaching new heights, and Rabelais feared he would not be able to publish either his nonfiction or his fiction works. Even with all of the censorship, Frame points out that Rabelais managed to secure a six-year privilege to publish directly from the King of France. Perhaps this privilege to publish made Rabelais too bold, however, for he also published seditious nonfiction materials under his own name. The results of these publications forced him to leave France to stay with friends and family members of Du Bellay. Rabelais also had to ask Du Bellay for money, since his flight from France and the censorship of his materials placed Rabelais in an awkward political position.
As the political policies changed in France, Rabelais was able to return briefly in 1547. At that point, he secured his position as Du Bellay’s physician once again, and the two traveled to Rome together. On the way there in 1548, Frame indicates that Rabelais entrusted an early manuscript of his fourth book with a friend, François Juste. Rabelais stayed with Du Bellay, who was one of his most loyal friends, for some time, even as Du Bellay’s health began to fail. In 1550, Rabelais once again received acknowledgment from royalty. This time the new King of France, Henry II, gave him the royal privilege of publishing whatever he wanted for a period of ten years, and his publications could include previous works as well as new ones. Part of the gift of this royal privilege also included the use of two properties, one of which being situated very close to Paris. With the use of this royal privilege, Frame states that Rabelais published the fourth book of the Gargantua and Pantagruel adventures under his own name in 1552. Not long after that, Rabelais’s health began to fail, and reports indicate that Rabelais gave up his use of the two properties in early 1553. According to Frame’s research, Rabelais passed away sometime around April, 1553. His remains were buried at the Saint-Paul Parish Cemetery in Paris.