François Rabelais (1494-1553): Letter from Gargantua to his son Pantagruel


So famous is the wildly obscene humor of Gargantua and Pantagruel that its author's name has given rise to an adjective--"Rabelaisian"--to describe just such humor. Rabelais was a monk and a physician, but in his writings he celebrated his real loves: scholarship and drinking, with the latter often serving as a symbol of the former. As a beneficiary of the age of the printing press, he was intoxicated by the sudden availability of all manner of books. As much as any of the Renaissance Humanists, it is Rabelais who articulates their view that a new age has dawned. If his portrait of the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition is grossly exaggerated (and it is), it nevertheless helps to convey the excitement of the Humanists during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This passage, a letter from father to son advising him on his education, is written in the elaborate, balanced style of formal prose in the period, quite unlike the tumbling, bawdy narrative that surrounds it. Read aloud, with appropriate pauses at the punctuation marks, it conveys a grand rhythmic majesty.

Of what invention of the Renaissance does Gargantua not approve?

But even though my late father Grandgousier, of blessed memory, strove with all his ability that I should profit from and learn political knowledge, and even though my labors and studies matched or even surpassed his desires, nevertheless, as you can well understand, the times were not fit or favorable for learning as is the present; and I did not have the abundance of such instructors as you have had. The times were still dark (1), and reflected the misery and calamity of caused by the Goths (2) who had destroyed all good scholarship. But, through divine grace, during my life light and dignity have been restored to learning; and we witness in them so much improvement that now I would have trouble being accepted into a children's beginning class, I who in my maturity was reputed (and not wrongly) the most learned man of the time. I do not say this out of vain boasting--even though I could properly do so in writing to you as you may understand by the authority of Marcus Tullius Cicero in his book Old Age, and the teachings of Plutarch in his book titled How to Praise Oneself Honorably (3)--but to inspire in you the desire to strive for the highest achievements.

Now all the disciplines have been restored, languages revived: Greek, without which it is shameful for a person to call himself learned: Hebrew, Chaldean (4), and Latin. Elegant and correct printed editions are available, the result of a divinely-inspired invention of my time, as are in contrast guns--the product of diabolical suggestion. The world is full of learned men, fine teachers, ample libraries; and it is my opinion that neither in the time of Plato (5), nor of Cicero (6), nor of Papinian (7) were there such opportunities for study as we see today; and no one should now go out in public who has not been well polished in Minerva's workshop (8). I see the robbers, hangmen, freebooters and grooms of today more learned than the theologians and preachers of my day. What can I say? Even women and girls (9) aspire to the honor and celestial manna of good learning. Things have changed so much that at my advanced age I have had to learn Greek, which I had not rejected like Cato, but which I had not had the leisure to learn in my youth; and I delight in reading the Morals of Plutarch, the beautiful Dialogues of Plato, the Monuments of Pausanias, and the Antiquities of Athenaeus as I await the hour at which it may please God, my Creator, to summon and order me to leave this world.

Translated by Paul Brians


Notes

(1) The Humanists were fond of referring to the Middle Ages as dark, but this must not be confused with later definitions of the Dark Ages which ended centuries before the Renaissance.

(2) The Goths, headed by Alaric, sacked Rome in 410. This invasion is often considered to have marked the end of the classical world and the beginning of the Dark Ages (although many historians reject this latter term). The Humanists used the term broadly to mean barbaric, and considered the artistic styles which sprung up in their wake barbaric as well, calling the great cathedrals of the High Middle Ages Gothic as an insult.

(3) Like the other Humanists, Rabelais delights in making references to ancient Latin works.

(4) The language of the Biblical Babylonians, famed for their astronomical and astrological studies.

(5) 5th Century BCE, Greece.

(6) 1st Century BCE, Rome.

(7) 3rd Century CE, Rome. Papinian was a great authority on Roman law.

(8) Minerva (Greek Athena) was the goddess of wisdom, so her workshop is scholarship.

(9) Rabelais was a great friend and admirer of the queen and writer, Marguerite de Navarre, to whom he dedicated one of his books.


This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by American Heritage Custom Books.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 2.


Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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