How a bawdy philosopher made a monkey of “authority”!


“Monk, doctor, writer, botanist, and translator, Rabelais was one of the most enlightened minds of the Renaissance. Behind the comic, laughter-inducing exterior of his work lie some very important issues; war, education, religion, marriage, and the question of the Other. He was a humanist, his writing full of the new ideas both he and Erasmus held dear.”

In his satirical book Gargantua, Rabelais has Gargantua, the giant, discussing the behaviour of monks with his father Grandgousier, the king. It seems to me that his description of monks at that time, (likening them to monkeys) perfectly fits the useless good for nothing politicians in our UK parliament:

“The monkey politician does not guard the house like a dog, does not draw the plough like the ox, does not give us milk and wool like the sheep, and bears no burden like the horse. All it does is to shit over everything and spoil it. That is why everyone jeers at it and cudgels it.”

I quite like Rabelais, not because of any deep philosophy theories, but in the same way that I like Voltaire. Irreverence. That’s the key thought for me, both portrayed complete disdain and irreverence for so called “authority” but in different ways. But both in ways that would have led to them being blasted on social media today or no-platformed in British universities, or even imprisoned or physically attacked. Take a look again at that quoted paragraph above about monkeys and monks, and remember that this was Europe in the 1500s when Catholicism ruled and what might have happened to Rabelais if the clergy had been aware enough to realise they were being lampooned! I fear that today, many philosophers, psychologists, scientists are being “silenced” via political correctness or political ideologies that will lead us into a new Dark Ages. Try to imagine a world today without the courage of Copernicus, Galileo, and Voltaire who stood their ground in the face of crass ignorance and tyranny. Modern day students are “no-platforming” eminent academics because they are offended by or disagree with or wish to “virtue signal” their opinions against their research, their science or their philosophy. We need a modern day Rabelais to lampoon these close-minded idiotic students who have no concept of debate, disagreement or counter argument.

The Rabelais farm museum

The Musee Rabelais is situated in the tiny hamlet of La Deviniere, just 4 miles outside Chinon, France. It was the last day of our July holiday and we had saved our visit so that we wouldn’t (as usual!) just be focusing on getting home! It was only 10.15am as we parked and stepped out into the searing heat already 30 degrees. Walking up a slight incline through the vines towards the farm where Rabelais was born, we could see the Chateau Coudray Montpensier, a place not open to the public but we had once visited by accident and were permitted to explore the grounds. It features in the Rabelais novels as does most of the landscape around here nowadays “painted” with vines, wheat and sunflowers across rolling hills as far as you can see.

Chateau Coudray-Montpensier, near Seuilly, Chinon

Francois Rabelais was born in 1494 and died in 1553, he was the son of Antoine, a rich landowner and lawyer. He spent all of his childhood years at this farm, now a simple but interesting museum which outlines his life and works, most notably his literary work especially the novels Pantagruel and Gargantua. Both are rich in comedy and satire with the royal court and the clergy often the target. They were originally written for a learned audience, but the English translation is very easy to read. Initially he studied law, then became a novice monk, then studied medicine at the University of Montpellier, so his literary work came later and frequently opened him to persecution and prosecution because of his bawdy humour style of lampooning authority figures. But …… he had powerful friends and protectors who must have silently agreed with his satirisation of Charles V (The Holy Roman Emperor), pedagogy, the medical profession and religious doctrine.

It only took around an hour to explore the museum which includes a barn, a dovecote, extensive cellars, living quarters and gardens. The rooms are not furnished as they would have been at the time of Rabelais living here, but rather are filled with displays relating to his complete life such as paintings and sculptures of him, documents, books and manuscripts. The cellars were really quite interesting as well as being extensive, apparently being used for livestock but I’m none the wiser as to why this was. Although it didn’t take long, it was a very atmospheric visit, having read his novels and researched his life a little it was as though I could feel his presence, but maybe that’s because several parts of this landscape are described in those novels.

I’ve written a week ago about recognising French culture and how it is embedded in their towns, streets, bars, statues, and CHINON is the place to recognise it. A statue of Rabelais along the river and at the entrance to the Place General de Gaulle, a street named after him, a wine bar bearing his name, his family vineyard, Clos de L’Echo, run by Domaine Couly Dutheil still going strong, and ….. probably the best red Cabernet Franc based Chinon wine made by Charles Joguet with a famous image of Rabelais on every label. I think he would have approved!


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