The Renaissance came to France from Italy early in the sixteenth centrury. Rabelais--Benedictine,
doctor of medicine, scholar, author--was the first great Renaissance intellectual in France. His
sprawling four-volume The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel (the first
volume was published in 1534, the fourth in 1552) is a monument to the impact of the new ideas and
new learning. The work is bursting with erudition, overflowing with extravagant imagery; it is earthy
and vulgar, poetic and profund all at the same time. The principal characters are benevolent giants
and everything they do is "over the top." They revel in the bounty of life around them.
"Bounty," for me, brings to mind a Rabelasian feast, so I went to Rabelais for some brief excepts.
How the giant, Gargantua, got his name at birth (Book I, Chapter 7)
'Hearing his newborn son cry, in a deafening wail, "Wine, wine!" the father (Grandgousier)
exclaimed "What a big throat you have!" [="Que grand tu as!", or in modern French, "Que tu as un
grand gosier!"] Hearing this, those present said that truly the child should be called Gargantua since
that was the first word spoken by the father after the child's birth, thus following the example of the
Gargantua as a young boy, has lunch (Book I, Chapter 21)
'Then [Gargantua] would study for a meagre half hour, his eyes fixed on his book, but--as the comic
writer Terence would say--his soul was already in the kitchen.
'He would sit down at the table and, because he was phlegmatic by nature, he would begin his meal
by a few dozen hams, smoked beef tongues, servings of Mediterranean fish eggs, chitterling saugages,
and other similar pre-wine appetizers. While he ate, four of his servants, one after another, were
continually tossing into his mouth generous shovelfuls of mustard. Then he would drink a
horrifically large draft of white wine to soothe his kidneys. Then, according the the season, he
consumed his fill of meats, sating his appetite; he only stopped eating when his stomach began to feel
stretched. His drinking, governed by absolutely no rules, never ceased, for he said that the only
measures and limits where when the soles of the drinker's slippers rose by half a foot into the air.'