In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section François Rabelais

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Language and Style
  • Genre and Narrative Situation
  • Historical Reception
  • Modern Reception
  • Law and Medicine
  • Relation to Sources
  • Rabelais and his Contemporaries
  • Comic Aspects
  • Religion

Renaissance and Reformation François Rabelais
Bernd Renner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0153


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; Librairie Droz, Geneva; Volume 57 appeared in 2019); this series, published in irregular intervals, is the most important resource for Rabelais scholars and publishes monographs, conference proceedings, and varia. The popularity of Rabelais studies has led to the creation of a second scholarly journal in 2017, the annual L’Année rabelaisienne, publishing varia, thematic dossiers, proceedings from workshops, and creative pieces in the Rabelaisian tradition (Librairie Classiques Garnier, Paris). The monograph section is published in a separate series at the same publisher, titled Les Mondes de Rabelais. Finally, another 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 Modern Reception) 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, 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 as well as, most recently, the study of material aspects, such as Rabelais’s library, his editorial activities, or his influence, aspects that hold important new clues for assessing his writing from fresh angles. Finally, owing to a stronger commitment to combine up-to-date scholarship (on literary, linguistic, and syntactic aspects) and pedagogy, general studies on individual volumes have been published more frequently lately to provide compact manuals for candidates preparing for the demanding French agrégation examinations.

General Overviews

Lazard 1979 and Faure 1999 are the most general introductory texts for the period and Rabelais’s place in it. Demonet-Launay 1988 addresses a more specialized readership and would be suited to students especially. Defaux 2001 and Zegura 2006 are excellent compact overviews of Rabelais’s life and writings. Balmas and Giraud 1997, Jouanna 2001, and Lestringant and Zink 2006 are very detailed overviews of the period that target a specialized audience. Zegura 2004 is an indispensable starting point for any research project on Rabelais.

  • Balmas, Enea, and Yves Giraud. Histoire de la littérature française: De Villon à Ronsard. Paris: Flammarion, 1997.

    Very accessible paperback divided into three parts: society, culture, and religion; literature; and great authors.

  • Defaux, Gérard. “François Rabelais.” In Dictionnaire des lettres françaises: Le XVIe siècle. Edited by M. Simonin, 976–996. Paris: Fayard, 2001.

    Quite substantial encyclopedic entry with a balanced interpretative approach and a good bibliography.

  • Demonet-Launay, Marie-Luce. Histoire de la littérature française: XVI siècle, 1460–1610. Paris: Bordas, 1988.

    Excellent introductory text divided into sections on historical background, intellectual framework, and literature.

  • Faure, Paul. La Renaissance. 11th ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999.

    Concise introductory text from the popular Que sais-je? series covering all aspects of the period (economy, society, technical progress, arts, religion).

  • Jouanna, Arlette, ed. La France de la Renaissance: Histoire et dictionnaire. Paris: Robert Laffont, 2001.

    Two substantial studies on France and the rest of Europe (titled “Rivals, Neighbors, and Partners of France”) are complemented by an encyclopedia and a very extensive bibliography.

  • Lazard, Madeleine. Rabelais et la Renaissance. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1979.

    Basic introduction in the popular series Que sais-je?. Helpful as a starting point, especially for undergraduate students.

  • Lestringant, Frank, and Michel Zink, eds. Histoire de la France littéraire: Naissances, Renaissances; Moyen Âge–Renaissance. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2006.

    Very comprehensive introductory text covering the sociopolitical context and all the main aspects of literary creation; nicely insists on the continuity and the change that characterize the two periods.

  • Zegura, Elizabeth Chesney. “François Rabelais.” In Sixteenth-Century French Writers. Edited by Megan Conway, 334–353. Dictionary of Literary Biography 327. Minneapolis: Thomson-Gale, 2006.

    Encyclopedic entry, the most solid one in English, with a good bibliography.

  • Zegura, Elizabeth Chesney, ed. The Rabelais Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004.

    Mostly short and to-the-point articles on a rather complete array of key words, concepts, episodes, characters, and themes; each article followed by a list of helpful secondary readings.

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