26 November 2012

Medicine: Rabelais, the Physician

It is possible to say without hyperbole that Francois Rabelais (circa 1480-1553) is one of the most enigmatic figures of the Renaissance.  He led a peripatetic life. He was monk, scholar, translator, physician, and father.  His written output was impressive:  he lectured on Hippocrates and Galen; he worked on academic treatises; he compiled almanacs (albeit humorous); he authored  Pantagruel, Pantagrueline Prognostication, Gargantua, and  five additional books under the title Pantagruel.   Rabelais’ command of classical languages, along with his devotion to intellectual pursuits, distinguished him as a man of learning, but he scarcely fit the stereotype of a dry scholar.  Earthy, fanciful, nonsensical and, playfully obscene, Rabelais enjoyed poking fun at any number of human failings:  ignorance, hypocrisy, and superstition.  For his efforts, he incurred the displeasure of the authorities on more than one occasion.  He further risked life and limb by performing a public autopsy.  To this day, we cannot separate Rabelais the physician from his comedic writings, for without understanding his enthusiasm for pleasure and merriment, we can’t hope to comprehend that the man who wrote Gargantua never deviated from the position that laughter—even in the face of disease and death—was the best medicine.

Donald M. Frame, in his study Francois Rabelais, provides a fine introduction to the times in which Rabelais lived.  New World “discoveries” exposed Europeans to a world richer and more diverse than previously imagined; the conquest of the Indies (as the Americas were known) changed people’s lives in dramatic ways.  The Atlantic “abyss,” deemed navigable, offered Westerners new trade routes and means of colonization.  Nonetheless, devices for telling time remained scarce.  Knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, and science were nebulous.  During Rabelais’s lifetime, the French had yet to adopt to any great extent Arab numerals.  What we refer to as medicine was then seen as a branch of philosophy—or “humanism” as it was then called.   God, miracles, the supernatural all held sway in human affairs.   The Renaissance, in particular the Incarnation, was meant as a celebration of the divine; it was not to be diminished by discoveries that contradicted religious belief—at least, not if one expected to remain out of trouble.   Rabelais, given his genius and temperament, often seemed determined to court trouble.  As the saying goes, and most obviously if we consider his writings, he was not one to suffer fools—and did so only with the greatest possible glee imaginable. 

In 1530, Rabelais, then a Benedictine monk, left the order to become a secular priest.  His desire to become a physician appears to have been the motivation, although it is not out of the realm of possibility that monastic discipline didn’t appeal to him.  Medicine, at the time, was based primarily in the study of Greek texts.  After years of book learning, it took Rabelais a mere six weeks to become a doctor.  His lectures gained him considerable recognition.  His aim, however, was to practice medicine, and in 1532, he was appointed physician at a large hospital in Lyons.  There Rabelais, under difficult circumstances, tended to the poor and ailing the best he could.  The Hippocratic School, based in the theory of humors (the idea that disease is caused by an imbalance of the four elements:  air, fire, water, and earth), also popularized by Galen, had become an object of dispute by figures such as Paracelsus; he was an advocate of alchemy, one of the earliest forms of chemistry, and took a dim view of Hippocrates.  Neither alchemist nor apothecary, Rabelais was ill-prepared to treat his patients.  Laudanum, credited to Paracelsus, was used for alleviating pain.  Rabelais no doubt had access to other medicines.  He may also have had a basic knowledge of cauterization, but the barber surgeon had to be called in for most operations.   In an era in which drugs--requiring specialized knowledge of chemistry--were beginning to replace herbal remedies, Rabelais made an attempt to study alchemy and botanical treatments. He made no memorable contributions.  In 1534, exhausted perhaps by the miserable conditions at the public hospital and the poor pay, he gave up his post at Lyons to become personal physician to Du Bellay, the bishop of Paris.  He later returned to the hospital at Lyons.

If Rabelais’s practical contributions to medical science were scant, his philosophical and linguistic contributions were, to use his own phrase “gargantuan.”  It is one of many words he coined to enrich the French language (for Rabelais wrote his farcical works in his native tongue).  Derived from the Spanish for “gullet,” Gargantua’s adventures are recounted in the book that bears his name.  He also is the father of Pantagruel (meaning “to thirst”).   The names alone demonstrate Rabelais fascination with the body and its functions.   The reader can expect lessons on biology, zoology, anatomy, alchemy, natural law—the list goes on.  In the preface to “Pantagruel,” Rabelais writes:  “I was not born under planet as to lie or assert anything which was not true…  And so, to bring this prologue to a conclusion: I give myself—body and soul, tripe and innards—to a hundred thousand punnets [a form of measurement] of fair devils if I tell you one single word of a lie in this whole story.”  With all of the references to innards, guts, and genitals, readers should expect many of Rabelais’s characters to have the stuffing beaten out of them; crude, he was, but neither did he shy away from cruel jokes.  At a time when Renaissance painters were busily depicting cherubs, angels, the infant Jesus, and all manner of art devoted to the splendors of the Incarnation, Rabelais’s tastes couldn’t have been more different.  The ideal held little appeal for him; he was a great chronicler of the grotesque.  The grotesque too, he seems to tell us, has its truth, its place in the God-given world—and its own kind of beauty.  The wonders of  the unseemly and obscene become in Rabelais’s work a continuous source of laughter.  For Rabelais, and his admiring readers, there is no healthier sound than a good belly laugh, even in the direst circumstances—and, if we be lucky, that laughter will be accompanied by hefty quantities of wine.

“Experimental Therapeutics in the Renaissance,” editor Stata Norton, http://jpet.aspetjournals.org/content/304/2/489.full.pdf+html  (consulted on 11/16/2012)

Frame, Donald M., Francois Rabelais, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NYC 1977.
Rabelais, Francois, Gargantua and Pantagruel, , trans. and notes M.A. Screech, Penguin Books, New York 2006.

The Rabelais Encyclopedia, editor Elizabeth Chesney Zegura, Greenwood Press, Conn., 2004

Kathryn Kopple is the author of Little Velasquez, a novel of fifteenth century Spain.