François Rabelais

Bernd Renner

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:
François Rabelais

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Few writers in world literature have had as considerable an influence on letters and later authors or have garnered as much critical attention as François Rabelais. As the first great French prose author, Rabelais straddles the divide between his indebtedness to Greco-Latin, medieval, and contemporary traditions and the modernity of his style, preoccupations, and approaches. He truly incarnates what has come to be known as the transitional status of the early modern period by illustrating the continuous, gradual evolution of humanist thinking (and not the myth of a radical rupture that had long been identified with the Renaissance) in an age of tremendous religious, social, technological, and ideological upheaval. The modern period of Rabelais scholarship started with the Revue des études rabelaisiennes (1903–1912). Its focus on philology illustrated the need to rehabilitate an allegedly comic or obscene author by insisting on the texts’ heavy erudition and abundant classical sources containing serious hidden meaning. The Revue helped create the series Études rabelaisiennes (1953 to present; Volume 51 appeared in 2011); this series is the most important resource for Rabelais scholars and publishes monographs, conference proceedings, and varia. A noteworthy journal is the Bulletin de l’Association des Amis de Rabelais et de la Devinière (since 1951). The 1953 collective volume commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Rabelais’s death marked the pinnacle of this approach of historical positivism and triggered Leo Spitzer’s famous 1960 polemical article in Studi francesi (“Rabelais et les ‘rabelaisants,’” Spitzer 1960, cited under Problems of Writing and Interpretation) in favor of a reorientation toward literary qualities of aesthetics, style, and language. This new approach dominated the 1960s and 1970s, leading up to the spirited debate on the prologue of Gargantua between “positivists” (represented primarily by Michael A. Screech, Gérard Defaux, and Edwin M. Duval) and “stylists” (led by Terence Cave, Michel Jeanneret, and François Rigolot) in the pages of the Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France (1985–1986), triggered by Duval’s fundamental article in Études rabelaisiennes 28 (1985). The essential question was whether Rabelais had intentionally hidden specific higher meanings in his text that could be found through erudition and philological research or whether the text consciously resists totalizing interpretations and was inherently polysemic and thus prone to constantly generating new meanings. The debate has not only invigorated Rabelais scholarship but has also led to a healthy middle ground between erudition, philology, and aestheticopoetic concerns since around 1990, which has advanced the study of this essential author considerably. Other noteworthy developments of the past few decades are the increasing scholarly interest in the long-neglected Third Book and Fourth Book as well as scrutiny of the controversial Fifth Book that goes well beyond the intriguing question of its authenticity and studies the text for its intrinsic literary qualities.

Article.  17738 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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