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The Unquenchable Thirst to Understand: 
Francois Rabelais’ Satire of Medieval and Renaissance Learning 
In Gargantua and Pantagruel  
by Yvonne Merritt 

In his book Gargantua and Pantagruel, Francois Rabelais uses satire to address the dislocation felt by Renaissance Humanists. By providing an exaggerated fable, comical in nature, Rabelais poses a serious introspection into the extremes of both the Medieval and the Renaissance man. More importantly, however, he brings into question his own ideals of Humanism. Through an analysis of Rabelais’ satirical technique and by examining his social parody of the Medieval and the Renaissance man, we are able to better understand Rabelais’ introspection into the ideals of his own generation and to accept his argument that learning is transitory and often a necessary, yet futile, attempt to understand our world.  

To understand the Gargantua and Pantagruel it is necessary to first understand Rabelais’ use of satire. As a man whose life spans the transition between the Medieval (Middle) Ages and the Renaissance, Rabelais, as most scholars of the time period, had to cope with a huge shift in thoughts and ideals. Between the changes in religion stemming from the Protestant Reformation, the changes in education stemming from the popularity of great philosophical thinkers, the move towards science and humanism, and the questioning of the universe arising from Copernicus’ discoveries, Rabelais felt the immense dislocation of his generation. He used satire, parody, and fantasy as a means to cope with this dislocation. Through the monstrous and grotesque comedy of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais is able to ridicule the institutions of his world without necessarily being offensive. He entices his readers to laugh at the events and human thoughts of his generation. 

In his Prologue to the Book First: Gargantua, Rabelais gives this warning to his readers: “It teaches little, except how to laugh / […] Because to laugh is natural to man” (47). Yet, Rabelais also provides them with a word of caution: “Following the dog’s example, you will have to be wise in sniffing, smelling, and estimating these fine and meaty books […] you should break the bone and suck the substantific marrow” (49). Like the dog who chews a bone, Rabelais tells his readers to look beyond the humor to the true meaning of the stories. Thus, he seems to suggest that Gargantua and Pantagruel is not just a comedy but a commentary. He seems to reinforce this idea in his glib statement: “If you don’t believe it, I don’t care; but a good fellow, a man of good sense, ought always to believe what anybody tells him and whatever he sees in print” (69).  The reader can assume that Rabelais’ sarcasm is not just meant to be funny, but to be a warning. Rabelais suggests that the reader shouldn’t take anything at face value but should keep focused on discovering the true meaning behind his writing.  

 With that warning, Rabelais then begins his fantastic story and satire of giants who possess the qualities of humans strikingly similar to the humans of the Medieval Ages. He begins Book First: Gargantua with a genealogy of Gargantua that echoes the epic catalogues: “From the Assyrians to the Medes; / From the Medes to the Persians; / […] From the Greeks to the French” (54). The list is extensive and is offered as a parody of the Medievalist preoccupation with lineage as opposed to the Renaissance focus upon Virtue and individual status. Rabelais’ satire of the scholars of Medieval times is even more poignant in his presentation of Gargantua’s education by a ‘Sophist in Latin Letters.’ Rabelais writes:  

Accordingly, they had him instructed by a great doctor, a sophist, Master Tubal Holofernes by name, who taught him his alphabet so well he could say it backwards and by heart […] to write all his Greek letters by hand […] and he carried around with him, ordinarily, a big writing desk, weighing more than seven hundred thousand pounds […]. (92) 
The focus by Gargantua’s teacher upon memorization, as opposed to analysis, is in direct opposition to the thinkers of the Renaissance. This parody of Medieval scholars is further reinforced by Rabelais’ list of texts supposedly read to Gargantua. He writes, “Then they read him […] the commentaries of Windjammer, Stoopandfetchit, Toomany, Gualehaul, John Calf, Badpenny, Pussybumper, and a lot of others” (92). Rabelais’ obvious word play is humorous yet critical of the medieval texts that they satirize.  

Perhaps the most critical depiction of the Medieval scholar, however, is found in Rabelais’ description of Gargantua’s lifestyle while studying under this sophist teacher. The giant is ill mannered; one who travels to Paris to improve his education but instead climbs the towers of Notre-Dame’s church only to urinate on the crowd below. Rabelais describes,  “With this, he smilingly unbuttoned his handsome codpiece; and drawing out his mentula, he drenched them all with a bitter deluge of urine that he thereby drowned 
two-hundred-sixty-thousand-four-hundred-eighteen, not counting the women and little children” (103). Rabelais continues the description of the barbaric Gargantua: “Then he did his business, urinated, puked up his guts, belched, farted, yawned, spat, coughed, hiccuped, sneezed, and blew his nose like an arch-deacon” (120). Gargantua’s study habits were no better: “Then he would study for a miserly half-hour, or there-abouts, with his eyes fixed on his book. But (as the comic poet says) his soul was in the kitchen” (121). While the entire episode is hilarious, Rabelais is also criticizing a school of thought, specifically Medieval scholasticism, in an attempt to portray Renaissance learning as a more enlightened school of thought.  

Once Grandgousier recognizes the limitations of this ‘medieval’ education being provided to his of his son, Gargantua, he switches to an ‘enlightened’ teacher, Ponocrates, thus allowing Rabelais to shift gears and begin his description of Renaissance scholasticism.  Ponocrates quickly recognizes the flaws in Gargantua’s lifestyle and education but is weary to enforce a quick change, dreading the severe dislocation that will be caused by the shift in thought. Rabelais seems to be commenting on his own dislocation, stemming from his generation’s move from Medieval to Renaissance thought. Rabelais writes, “As Ponocrates grew familiar with Gargantua’s vicious manner of life, he began to plan a different course of instruction for the lad; but at first he let the latter go his own way, remembering that nature does not endure sudden changes without great violence” (124). In fact, Ponocrates is only able to create this change in Gargantua by providing him with a magical herb: “Master Theodore proceeded, in canonical fashion, to purge the youth with Anticyrian hellebore [… making] Gargantua forget all that he had learned under his former teachers” (124). Of course, the reader recognizes that this transition is not realistic and can assume that Rabelais must wish that he, too, could be purged from his previous, Medieval learning. In fact, Rabelais portrays this new style of learning as more favorable than the other: “Ponocrates introduced the pupil to such learned men as were on hand […] he [the boy] conceived a desire to study in a different manner from the one to which he had become accustomed; he began to want to make the most of his talent” (124). Thus begins Rabelais’ description of Gargantua’s enlightened education by a Renaissance scholar.  

Yet, as is characteristic of Rabelais, he is unable to depict this Renaissance education as enlightened without also satirizing its extreme ideals. His humorous, exaggerated description of Gargantua’s day is a case in point. Over and over, Rabelais reinforces the idea “How Gargantua was instructed by Ponocrates in such a manner that he did not waste an hour of the day” (124). What appears, at first, to be a serious description of Gargantua’s study, soon develops into a comical parody:  

This done, Gargantua was dressed, combed, curled, trigged out, and perfumed, during which time they would repeat to him the lessons of the day before. He would say them by heart, making certain practical and human applications, and this would sometimes be prolonged for two or three hours, although ordinarily it ended when Gargantua was fully dressed. And then, for three solid hours, they would read to him. (125) 
Gargantua’s day is described as a never ending lesson, practiced and reinforced over and over again from before sun up until after sun down. The lessons covered philosophy, science, mathematics, exercise, sports, astronomy, music, gymnastics, and, even, the skills of a knight–at–arms. Everything that Gargantua does in his day is done to an extreme. Whether he is swinging a battle-ax or running up and down a mountain, he is constantly keeping busy with the job of improving himself and being perfectly well–rounded. This is an obvious parody of the obsessed efforts of men in Rabelais’ time period to be the ideal, ‘Renaissance Man.’  

Extending from his parody of the Renaissance scholar, Rabelais also seems to satirize Renaissance Humanism. It is this element of Rabelais writing that makes him so genuine. Rabelais did not only criticize, or satirize, institutions of which he was cautious. Instead, as expected of a Renaissance scholar who is self-conscious in his questioning, Rabelais also poses a serious introspection into his own Humanistic ideals. For instance, Humanism focused on humans, as opposed to God, and focused on man’s attempt to define an individual pathway, usually through enlightenment and education. This is the path that Gargantua has taken while studying under Ponocrates. Yet, as described, this path is satirized through the illustration of its extreme. In fact, Gargantua’s struggle for education and enlightenment and his desire to increase skills, thus establishing his ‘Virtue,’ is symbolized by his never-ending thirst. Rabelais even justifies the name, Gargantua, by the giant’s thirst. In a chapter written to describe how Gargantua got his name, Rabelais writes, “but in a loud voice, he bawled ‘Give me a drink! a drink! a drink!’” (69).  This parody is evident in Rabelais’ description of a group of drunkards who, much like the philosophers of the Renaissance, engage in a question – answer conversation about thirst. One drunkard asks, “’Which came first, thirst or drinking?’” and the other drunkard replies, “’Thirst, for who would have drunk if he wasn’t thirsty in the good old days?’” (60). The ‘good old days’ mentioned here seems to refer to the Medieval Age and serves to highlight Rabelais’ argument that the medieval scholars may have understood the need for limits, with regard to enlightenment and education. Rabelais continues this drunken discourse by interjecting comments from the drunkards that sound similar to philosophical quotes: “’Appetite comes with eating, says Hangest of Mans; thirst leaves with drinking’” (64). Yet, the thirst of the drunkards (and philosophers, we can assume) is not quenched by the drinking, as is evident in their desperation when they run out of alcohol: “‘Fall to! Don’t leave a drop’” (65). Thus, Rabelais is reflecting upon the desperation of Humanistic, Renaissance scholars to quench a seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge.  

Evident from this desperation, as portrayed in the endless thirst of Gargantua to be enlightened, Rabelais seems to suggest that the Renaissance scholars and Humanists are overwhelmed and should recognize that their own school of thought, like that of Medieval scholars is transitory, and in a sense, a futile attempt to understand the world.  This assertion is most evident in his Book Third: Pantagruel. Rabelais tells the story of Diogenes, a blind philosopher, who decides to keep himself busy by carrying a barrel up a hill and tossing it down, repeatedly. When questioned about this, seemingly, futile task, Diogenes replied “that having been given no other duty to perform for the republic, he thus mauled his barrel in order that, amid a populace so fervently occupied, he might not seem to be the only laggard and lazy one” (390). This preoccupation with not being ‘laggard and lazy’ led Diogenes to spend his days performing a task that was essentially a waste of time. This depiction is characteristic of the Renaissance scholar, who like Gargantua, becomes so obsessed with staying busy that he does not focus upon the importance of the lesson. In fact, Rabelais, speaking as the author in his Prologue, writes of his own desperation:  

In like manner, I, while I may be out of the clutter, am by no means out of the flutter, when I perceive that I have been given no worthy task, and when I see, throughout this most noble realm of France, on both sides of the mountain, everybody busy today, training and working […]  I have felt that it was a more ordinarily shameful thing to be looked upon as an idle spectator […] without bestirring myself to finish this nothing that is left me, but that is my all. (390-391) 
Like Diogenese, Rabelais sees himself as a man, dislocated by a shift in thought, who attempts, desperately, to remain busy and to find understanding: “Having made this choice and decision, I have thought that it would not be a useless or impertinent business if I were to set in motion my own Diogenic barrel, which is the only thing that remains to me from the shipwreck of the past” (391-392).  In fact, Rabelais extends the symbolism of the barrel to that of quenching the thirst for knowledge. He writes, “Every good drinker, every good and gouty one, if he is thirsty, let him come to this barrel of mine” (395).  In the end, Rabelais suggests that, like the comical giants of his stories, we are characterized by the desire to know, sometimes beyond our ability to understand.  

In conclusion, through his depiction of the giant in his Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais effectively satirizes two periods of thought, Medieval and Renaissance, and creates the argument that each, in its extreme, is limited. By comparing these two ages in the same satirical manner, Rabelais suggests that both schools of thought are transitory and that learning is often a necessary, yet futile, attempt to understand our world.  

 Work Cited 

Putnam, Samuel, sel., transl., and ed. The Portable Rabelais. New York: Penguin Books, 1946.  


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