Rabelais and His World  

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Gargantua eating six pilgrims from Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais, as illustrated by Gustave Doré
Gargantua eating six pilgrims from Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais, as illustrated by Gustave Doré

"This image of the [grotesque] body acquired a considerable and substantial development in the popular, festive, and spectacle forms of the Middle Ages: in the feast of the fool, in charivari and carnival, in the popular side show of Corpus Christi, in the diableries of the mystery plays, the soties, and farces."--Rabelais and His World (1965) by Mikhail Bakhtin, (p.27 tr. Hélène Iswolsky)

"Rabelais collected wisdom from the popular elemental forces of the ancient Provencal idioms, sayings, proverbs, school farces, from the mouth of fools and clowns. But refracted by this foolery, the genius of the age and its prophetic power are revealed in all their majesty. If he does not discover, he foresees, he promises, he directs. Under each tiny leaf of this forest of dreams, the fruit which the future will harvest lies hidden. This entire book is a golden bough." --Bakhtin quoting French historian Jules Michelet in Histoire de France, vol. 10 (tr. Hélène Iswolsky)

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Rabelais and His World (1965) is a book by Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin. A classic of Renaissance historiography, the study explores Gargantua and Pantagruel of the French Renaissance writer François Rabelais.

The key concepts are the carnivalesque and the grotesque body, seeing the latter especially as an agent of a number of processes characterized by the prefix re-: renewal, rebirth, regeneration, reconstruction, revitalization and ultimately Renaissance.


History of the text

Bakhtin submitted a dissertation on Rabelais in 1940 to receive his Candidate of Sciences degree. Some members of the committee, including Boris Tomashevsky were favor of awarding Bakhtin a higher degree, Doctor of Sciences. However, because the tumults of World War II, the thesis defense took place after the war between 1946 and 1949, and since the controversial ideas discussed within the work caused disagreement, VAK decided Bakhtin receives (only) Candidate of Sciences degree. Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance was published in a rewritten form in 1965, at which time it was given the title, Rabelais and His World.


The Indiana University Press English translation by Hélène Iswolsky has The Fat Kitchen by Pieter Bruegel on its cover.

Blurb from the Indiana University Press edition

This classic work by the Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895—1975) examines popular humor and folk culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, especially the world of carnival, as depicted in the novels of François Rabelais. In Bakhtin's view, the spirit of laughter and irreverence prevailing at carnival time is the dominant quality of Rabelais's art. The work of both Rabelais and Bakhtin springs from an age of revolution, and each reflects a particularly open sense of the literary text. For both, carnival, with its emphasis on the earthly and the grotesque, signified the symbolic destruction of authority and official culture and the assertion of popular renewal. Bakhtin evokes carnival as a special, creative life form, with its own space and time.
Written in the Soviet Union in the 1930s at the height of the Stalin era but published there for the first time only in 1965, Bakhtin's book is both a major contribution to the poetics of the novel and a subtle condemnation of the degeneration of the Russian revolution into Stalinist orthodoxy. One of the essential texts of a theorist who is rapidly becoming a major reference in contemporary thought, Rabelais and His World is essential reading for anyone interested in problems of language and text and in cultural interpretation.

Table of contents

Based on the 1968 edition, tr. Hélène Iswolsky, Rabelais translations by Jacques LeClercq.

Introduction 1

On understanding Rabelais, Bakhtin says that one needs to understand folk humor (Bakhtin also uses the term 'folk culture'):

The manifestations of this folk culture can be divided into three distinct forms.
1. Ritual spectacles: carnival pageants, comic shows of the market-place.
2. Comic verbal compositions: parodies both oral and written, in Latin and in the vernacular.
3. Various genres of billingsgate: curses, oaths, popular blazons.
These three forms of folk humor, reflecting in spite of their variety a single humorous aspect of the world, are closely linked and interwoven in many ways.

On carnival:

"In fact, carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators.... Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it."

For Bakhtin, carnival is associated with the collectivity. Those attending a carnival do not merely constitute a crowd; rather the people are seen as a whole, organized in a way that defies socioeconomic and political organization. According to Bakhtin, “[A]ll were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age” (p. 10). The carnival atmosphere holds the lower strata of life most important, as opposed to higher functions (thought, speech, soul). At carnival time, the unique sense of time and space causes individuals to feel they are a part of the collectivity, at which point they cease to be themselves. It is at this point that, through costume and mask, an individual exchanges bodies and is renewed. At the same time there arises a heightened awareness of one’s sensual, material, bodily unity and community.

On the grotesque body:

Bakhtin criticizes previous definitions of the grotesque, most notably that offered in Geschichte der grotesken Satire by Heinrich Schneegans. He says of Schneegans that he "fails to grasp the positive regenerating power of laughter." (45)

Bakhtin offers his definition of the grotesque body:

"Contrary to modern canons, the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world. This means that the emphasis is on the apertures or convexities, or on various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose. The body discloses its essence as a principle of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation. This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body, the link in the chain of genetic development, or more correctly speaking, two links shown at the point where they enter into each other. This especially strikes the eye in archaic grotesque". (p. 26 tr. Hélène Iswolsky)

Rabelais in the history of laughter 59

history of laughter

Bakhtin opens this work with a quotation from Alexander Herzen: "It would be extremely interesting to write the history of laughter".

One of the primary expressions of the ancient world's conceptions of laughter are the apocryphal letters of Hippocrates about Democritus. The laughter of Democritus had a philosophical character, being directed at the life of man and at all the vain fears and hopes related to the gods and to life after death. Democritus here made of his laughter a complete conception of the world, a certain spiritual premise of the man who has attained maturity and has awakened. Hippocrates finally perfectly agreed with him.

Lucian is mentioned throughout the book. In this chapter Bakhtin remarks:

"Lucian's work "Menippus, or the Descent into Hades" had an essential influence on Rabelais, more precisely on the episode of Epistemon's journey to hell in Pantagruel. Another important influence was Lucian's "Dialogues." Here are a few characteristic excerpts from the "Dialogues": "Menippus, Diogenes advises you, if mortal subjects for laughter begin to pall, come down below, and find much ..." (p. 69)

The language of the marketplace in Rabelais 145

marketplace, street cries, billingsgate

Popular-festive forms and images in Rabelais 196


Time is a playing boy who moves the draughts.
Domination belongs to the child

Banquet imagery in Rabelais 278

banquet, table talk

The grotesque image of the body and its sources 303

Images of the material bodily lower stratum 368

Rabelais' images and his time 437

Index 475

See also

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