François Rabelais was born towards the end of the 15th century near Chinon, France. After receiving an education in French Catholic schools, he became a monk in the Order of St. Benedict, later going on to study medicine. In 1532, he published Pantagruel, followed in 1534 by Gargantua. It is difficult to discern exactly what Rabelais wanted to promote within his texts, but given that he was influenced by humanistic ideas circulating at the time, he at least desired to promulgate a mixture of Catholicism and Humanism. With the character of the illustrious Brother John, Rabelais presents his conception of a monk who incorporates humanistic traits. Rabelais seemingly places himself at odds with Christian precepts in offering this character, a member of a religious order, as one illuminated by the new European secular ideas of the era. Brother John represents Rabelais' ideal person, that is to say a member of a religious order who rejects the austerity of monastic life and accepts the liberal and fraternal ideas of Humanism.
The Catholicism of the past imposed strict social conventions on both the lay and religious communities who normally acquiesced or accepted the decrees of Rome without question. Rabelais perceived that the Catholic authorities of his epoch, the Late Middle Ages, were profiting from their status, while at the same time imposing regulations that were much too severe upon the faithful. One can suppose, à priori, that with his writings, Rabelais was not searching to deride sincere people of any religious conviction. An individual of any faith who desired to help others find peace and salvation would have been completely acceptable to him. However, those who sought to socially elevate themselves by means of religion, or who mixed religion with politics for material gain, evidently offended Rabelais. Guy Demerson writes in 1971, “Pour Rabelais […], l'Église romaine relève de la politique et de la diplomatie, non de la religion, qui est lien avec Dieu” (254). Thus, in Gargantua, with Brother John and the Abbey of Thélème, Rabelais both enlightens and entertains his public with a fictitious alternative to the ascetic cloistered life he knew so well.
All Catholics know they are supposed to respect the office of the pope and other ecclesiastical authorities. However, history shows that there have been certain popes who, under the guise of leading the Church in an honest manner, were in reality attempting to construct their own privileged kingdom on earth. Demerson describes Rabelais' attitude on this subject, stating, “Les Papimanes sont sacrilège de vouloir ajouter un caractère sacré à leurs intérêts temporels” (254). Therefore, it is not surprising to find mockery in Rabelais' work concerning the Church's role in the strict lifestyle required of monks. It is with humor, however, that he condemns the austere Catholic traditions with which he was intimately familiar. Although Rabelais did not appreciate the Church's abuse of power and the hypocrisy of certain religious leaders, he believed in the potential of the individual. Although a monk, he found himself in accordance with the newly emerging ideas of Humanism.
Humanism emphasizes human potential and positive, innate aspects of humankind, thus putting it at odds with basic Catholic teachings and doctrines such as original sin and dependency on God. However, Rabelais' interest in humanistic ideas does not culminate in a renunciation of Catholicism—he remained Catholic for the rest of his life. A total refusal of his religion, which perhaps he did not even consider, would have been an extreme action for any monk of the era. This disenchantment, as well as Rabelais' creative imagination, is reflected in the character of Brother John. In Gargantua, Rabelais describes Brother John as follows:
En l'abbaye était pour lors un moine claustré nommé frère Jan de entommeures, eune, galant, frisque, de hayt, bien adextre, hardi, aventureux, délibéré […], bien fendu de gueule, bien avantageux en nez [...], beau dérideur de messe, beau décrotteur de vigiles, un vrai moine si oncques en fut depuis que le monde moinant moina de moinerie. (140-141)
In depicting Brother John in a light-hearted manner, complete with sexual innuendo, Rabelais presents his conception of the ideal person of his era—a monk more humanistic than holy. This fictitious and audacious monk represents Rabelais' synthesis of Catholicism and Humanism, as elements of both are mixed pell-mell within this character in a curious amalgam.
Conditions were difficult in the Middle Ages, and most could not expect a long and comfortable life. Agricultural labor was hard and exhausting, diseases cut swaths through the population, and with the advent of Protestantism in the early sixteenth century, religious warfare added to the era's hardships. There were distractions, however, from this grim reality. The Church provided fairs and holidays, and these events acted to alleviate the rigors of daily existence by means of gaiety and laughter. In a similar fashion, Rabelais weaves humor throughout his writings. Kathleen M. Hall, in her book Rabelais, Pantagruel and Gargantua (1991), describes “Pantagruelism” and speaks of Rabelais' affection for humanity. She states, “The various definitions of Pantagruelism stress the duty to love—although the word is not used—one another as well as one's duty to desire God's will” (78). Besides writing in a light-hearted manner, Rabelais indirectly helps diffuse a broad-minded and fraternal perspective in the midst of the unsure and divisive Reformation era through the character of Brother John.
In his work L'œuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen Âge et sous la Renaissance (1972), Mikhail Bakhtine insists on the importance of both laughter and parody during the Middle Ages, as well as their connection to Catholicism. He writes, “La parodie médiévale […] vise moins que toute chose les aspects négatifs, certaines imperfections du culte, de l'organisation de l'Église, de la science scolaire, qu'elle voudrait ridiculiser et anéantir” (92). Parody is strong and unbridled in both Gargantua and Pantagruel, specifically with Brother John, Rabelais' literary instrument employed to ridicule the Church's strict monastic rules. However, even more daringly, he mocks the royalty of his time, as the characters of Grandgousier and Picrochole represent the rivals Francis I and Charles V, respectively.
The character of Brother John, a strong, valiant warrior monk, plays a vital role in Rabelais' satire of inter-European warfare. His broad-reaching humor encompasses both the sacred and the profane, which combine often and with fluidity in Gargantua and Pantagruel. Brother John, responding to others commenting on his large nose declares:
Selon vrai philosophie monastique, c'est parce que ma nourrice avait les tétins mollets. En la laitant, mon nez y enfondrait comme en beurre et là s'élevait et croissait comme la pâte dedans la met. Les durs tétins de nourrices font les enfants camus. (Gargantua 201)
Brother John is not only lewd and earthy, but as Rabelais shows his readers, incredibly violent. At a certain point in Gargantua, during the war between the forces of Grandgousier and Picrochole, the author states that Brother John “Es uns escarbouillait la cervelle, es autres rompait bras et jambes […], fendait les mandibules, enfonçait les dents en gueule” (143). Warfare, without a doubt, was part of life during the Middle Ages in Europe, and the violent scenes would not have come as much of a surprise to readers of the time. However, the extreme brutality portrayed in Rabelais' texts is more a powerfully satirical statement of his disapproval of religious strife and war than an attempt to entertain. For Rabelais, violence was a distinct affront to both Christian and Humanistic principles and precepts.
Brother John receives what he asks of Gargantua as recompense for having helped Grandgousier's army during the war against Picrochole. Brother John requests: “Octroyez-moi de fonder une abbaye à mon devis” ( Gargantua 253). What is surprising is that Rabelais' Brother John, with the land Gargantua grants him, constructs a monastery without walls, resembling more a utopian society than a Catholic abbey. In addition, this monastery also admits women, albeit only certain women: “[…] fut ordonné que là ne seraient reçues sinon les belles femmes, bien formées et bien naturées, et les beaux, bien formés et bien naturés” ( Gargantua 255). This humorously reflects the author's broadminded perspective as he fuses Catholicism with Humanism—with the emphasis more often than not placed upon the latter. However, certain categories of people are not allowed at Thélème. The inscription above the entrance warns, “Ci n'entrez pas hypocrites, bigots […], méchants […], vous usuriers chicars” ( Gargantua 261-63). The sign at the entrance, however, also welcomes certain types, “Ci entrez vous et bien soyez venus […] tous nobles chevalier […], tous gentils compagnons […], vous qui le saint évangile en sens agile announcez” ( Gargantua 265).
Brother John, a young and rugged religious, incarnates all that Rabelais envisages as the ideal monk, and Thélème, a spiritual community that exists free from rules imposed by the Church, is the author's conception of a society free from religious constraints. This early Reformation era author, who believed that Christianity did not require an austere life style, reflected free-thinking points of view in his work. “Toute leur vie était employée non par lois, statuts, où règles, mais selon leur vouloir & franc arbitre. Se levaient du lit quand bon leur semblait” ( Gargantua 275). Life for the monks of Thélème differs radically from reality. There is only one posted rule at the monastery, clearly visible in large letters at the entrance: “FAIS CE QUE VOUDRAS” (275). At Thélème, seriousness, austerity, and obedience to authority are neither demanded nor desired.
The character of Brother John and the Abbey of Thélème pique intellectual curiosity. Is Rabelais alone in his convictions or are there others of like mind? In No Man is an Island, the Cistercian (Trappist) monk Thomas Merton declares: “A society whose whole idea is to eliminate suffering and bring all its members the greatest amount of comfort and pleasure is doomed to be destroyed” (83). However, shortly thereafter in the same book, Merton presents opinions that ring harmoniously with those of Rabelais concerning religious austerity. He writes, “But self-denial should not make us forget the essential distinction between sin, which is a negative, and pleasure, which is a positive good” (106). Merton, like Rabelais, does not accept that all human actions and endeavors must be categorically designated as either good or bad. Merton also states, “There is no necessary connection between sin and pleasure: [that] there can be sins that seek no pleasure, and other sins that find none” ( No Man is an Island 106).
With the character of Brother John, Rabelais conceives a monk far from the norm—a monk carnal and violent. However, the lack of text depicting anger hated suggests that Brother John exists and acts without malice, seemingly guided by an internal moral compass. This negates the need for external regulation. From a humanist standpoint, Brother John would possess, by nature, the desirable qualities that lead to proper actions and decisions. A Christian approach, however, would perhaps credit the Sacrament of Baptism and the assistance of the Holy Spirit for proper comportment. With his unique creation, a monk who is a mysterious mixture of both mindsets, Rabelais takes all the liberties possible to express his personal beliefs and perceptions.
The monks of Thélème marry, live a secular lifestyle, and are free to act as they wish at any given moment. In Gargantua and Pantagruel, all are encouraged to drink and enjoy themselves. The injunction to amuse oneself and enjoy life is openly threaded throughout both novels. In Rabelais, a Study in Comic Courage (1970), Thomas Greene writes that for Rabelais, drinking signifies an acceptance and receptiveness of life. “To drink, in a Rabelaisian context, has something to do with an openness to the pleasure of the senses . . . with intellectual curiosity, with an affable and poised urbanity, a fundamental tolerance and warmth towards others” (39). Rabelais shocks conservative and religious readers through his use of Brother John, the Abbey of Thélème, and his monks' fondness for wine and for women. As Martin Luther, a former Augustinian monk had renounced his vow of celibacy along with Catholicism and married a former nun, Rabelais was treading on potentially dangerous ground.
Rabelais and other members of religious orders surely knew well that monks were encouraged to practice mortification and avoid laughter. But Rabelais was also aware that laughter and the carnal pleasures—of which he often writes—were not necessarily associated with sin. Centuries before, Augustine expressed as much in The City of God (410), “But if anyone says that the flesh is the cause of all vices and ill conduct, in as much as the soul lives wickedly only because it is moved by the flesh, it is certain that he has not carefully considered the whole of man” (443). With Brother John, Rabelais creates a character who, in his opinion, contains qualities desirable for both a monk and a lay person; that is, an individual with both spiritual and moral qualities who functions in an uninhibited fashion in the temporal world. Rabelais is, in effect, endorsing Humanism while not condemning religion.
Rabelais's conception of a Franciscan monk with the demeanor and comportment of a medieval knight would seem to be a complicated and unorthodox character. However, Rabelais' semi-Christian, semi-Humanist monk would not necessarily stand in contrast to modern Catholic Church teachings or principles. In a recently released book, Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio (2013), when asked about the chasm between Church rules and the ways that Catholics live, the newly elected Jesuit pope states,
I need to take a few steps back to answer that. The ethical path, which forms part of the human being, is pre-religious. No person, be they a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist, can avoid the demands of what is ethical, which range from the most general principals—the most basic of all: “Do good and avoid evil”—to the most specific. (98)
This twenty-first century post Vatican II pope finds common ground with Rabelais and his sixteenth century fictitious monk. With his work, in addition to indirectly promulgating Humanism, Rabelais advocates against taking everything too seriously while passing through worldly existence.
As Bakhtine explains, laughter and parody during the Middle Ages served to vanquish the fear of authority and expose the truth (L'œuvre de François Rabelais 100). Rabelais seemingly utilizes Thélème and Brother John to enlighten his intransigent and ultra-conservative public without directly confronting the Church. Rabelais encourages his readers to recognize the inherent dangers associated with adhering too closely to the letter—rather than the spirit—of the law. With his earthy Franciscan monk, Rabelais proposes that religious dogmas and decrees are of minimal importance; this rings harmoniously with both humanistic ideas and the tenets of the Reformation. In addition, Rabelais unveils the folly and harm associated with following religious precepts to the point where love could be supplanted and replaced with intolerance, hatred, and even war. With Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais places himself at the forefront of new ideas and perspectives of the sixteenth century. These ideas would eventually diffuse throughout Europe and the world, challenging narrow definitions of religious dogmata as well placing earthly delights and pleasures not in opposition to Christianity, but in harmony with it.