A monk with a dirty mind, François Rabelais started his clerical life as a Franciscan friar, later became a Benedictine scholar of Greek, Latin, and philology, and finally quit monasticism to become a physician.
His lasting achievement, however, is the bawdy and satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel, a mock-heroic tale of the fantastic adventures of two giants. It is filled with satirical jabs at religion and social propriety, scatological jokes, and sexual innuendoes, and it was widely regarded as obscene and heretical--giving rise to the adjective Rabelaisian. Rabelais prudently thought it was a good idea to publish it initially under a pseudonym—Alcofribas Nasier—an anagram of his real name.
Rabelais was born around 1490 (nobody bothered to record exactly when) near Chinon in western France. His father was a vintner and innkeeper, inspiring young François with his lifelong appreciation of the restorative properties of wine. “There are more old drunkards than old physicians,” he wrote.
Unmarried, he led a nomadic existence, moving among several academic and medical jobs in Montpellier, Lyon, Metz, Turin, Rome, and Paris. In Lyon (and possibly elsewhere) he fathered two children in an affair with a widow (whose name nobody bothered to record).
Skirting the edge of heresy with his scandalous writings, Rabelais was protected from ecclesiastical censure by several high-ranking church officials who were his longtime friends. He offended not only Catholics but also Protestants and was roundly denounced by John Calvin. Although there is no reason to think that Rabelais did not remain a faithful Roman Catholic, it is clear that his views were deeply influenced by humanism and skepticism.
Rabelais died in Paris on April 9, 1553, in his mid-sixties, probably of a heart-related ailment. His will flippantly stated, “I have nothing and I owe a lot—the rest I leave to the poor.” Irreverent until the end, his last words reportedly were “Draw the curtain, the farce is played out.” Then, with his typical doubt-tinged faith in an afterlife, he added, “I go to seek the Great Perhaps.”