Doctor Rabelais Part I: The education of Gargantua
Gargantua visits Paris
François Rabelais is one of the world’s greatest writers, one whose place is in the company of Aristophanes, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Dante. Regarded as the creator of modern French literature, he was a man of the Renaissance, yet emerging out of the Middle Ages and standing between the old world and the new. Born somewhere around 1495, he appears to have been educated by Franciscan monks.
Around 1550 he enrolled as a medical student at the University of Montpellier, attaining a doctorate without leaving the church, thus being allowed to practice medicine but not for gain, neither by use of the scalpel or cautery. He briefly practiced as physician at the city hospital in Lyon, then began to write his Gargantua and Pantagruel. He continued periodically to practice medicine, directing anatomical demonstrations, and lecturing on botanical and pharmaceutical subjects. His writing career was marked by periodic turns of fortune. He was sometimes highly favored, sometimes in danger of being burned as a heretic and his writings suppressed as heretical or obscene. He died around 1553.
Rabelais’ first book is about the giant Gargantua. Most famous in that book are the episodes when he took down the great bell from Notre Dame Cathedral to make jingle bells for his mare’s neck, and when he drowned 26,418 men by relieving himself from the towers of the cathedral.
In a much more sober chapter Rabelais describes Gargantua’s education, how it was so structured so that not an hour of the day was wasted. Awakening at four o’clock in the morning, he would have his attendants rub him down while others read him passages from the Bible. Lessons would be continued while he was dressed, curled, and perfumed, then again during walks, while changing clothes after exercise, at dinner and supper, the emphasis being on repetition so that what was read should be better remembered. Even while he was attending to the “natural excretory functions of the body,” his teachers continued his education, repeating the lessons studied earlier in the day and explaining the more obscure and difficult points. This learning was complemented by exercise, sports, music, and also playing cards—but with cards on which were written many fine points to enhance his knowledge of mathematics. He would also practice drawing, penmanship, and learning the old Gothic and Roman letters. Then, as he was ready to go to sleep, he would once more “repeat briefly all that he had read, seen, done, and heard in the course of the day.”
- Putman, Samuel, ed. The Portable Rabelais. The Viking Press; 13–33, 124–132.