On this day in 1553 the French monk, physician, humanist scholar and writer, Francois Rabelais died. His influential and much-imitated satiric masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel (five books, 1532-52) is in the mock-quest tradition, with the emphasis decidedly on the 'mock.' The author's lampoon of religious orders, lawyers, Sorbonne pedants and just about every other power-group going brought condemnation and censorship in the author's lifetime; modern readers marvel more at the style, that exuberant combination of humor, sex and scatology now deemed "Rabelaisian." This is easily and most often illustrated through the chapter devoted to the search for the ideal toilet paper (conclusion: the neck of a goose, well-downed), but almost any passage will do.
The first book in the series, The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua, follows the hero's education and rise to friendly gianthood. In book two, The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Renowned Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes, the focus is on Gargantua's son, the "all-thirsty" Pantagruel, and on his sidekick, Panurge. Among Pantagruel's thirsts is that for learning; even a very edited list of the learned tomes which he finds in a renowned Parisian library can give us a good idea why Rabelais was so often in hot water with the authorities (and remind us of Monty Python):
The Codpiece of the Law.
The Churning Ballock of the Valiant.
Marmotretus de baboonis et apis, cum Commento Dorbellis.
The Niddy-noddy of the Satchel-loaded Seekers, by Friar Bindfastatis.
The Ape's Paternoster.
The Hotchpotch or Gallimaufry of the perpetually begging Friars.
The Skinnery of the new Start-ups extracted out of the fallow-butt,
incornifistibulated and plodded upon in the angelic sum.
The Flimflams of the Law.
The Prickle of Wine.
The Spur of Cheese.
The Tailpiece-Cushion, or Close-breech of Discipline.
The Rasping and Hard-scraping of the Cardinals.
The said Author's Apology against those who allege that the Pope's
mule doth eat but at set times.
Books three, four and five are concerned with a journey to Cathay via some NorthWest Passage, undertaken so that Panurge might consult the Oracle of the Holy Bottle. The hope is that Panurge will find relief for what has become his all-consuming worry: whether he should marry -- or, more precisely, whether, once married, he should be cuckolded.
The answer to such a question lies beyond the land of Pettifogging; beyond Ringing Island, where the bells perpetually peal over the caged clerical birds (monkhawks, abbothawks, cardinalhawks, and one pope-hawk); beyond the Islands of Tools, Ignoramuses, For-ward Folks, Lies and Queen Whim. Beyond, almost, comprehension: having passed through the door to the Temple of the Bottle (above which is inscribed, 'In Vino Veritas'), and having undergone elaborate initiations, and having finally posed the momentous question, the only answer is: TRINC. To Panurge's puzzlement, the Holy Bottle offers the elaboration that "trinc is a panophean word, that is, a word understood, us'd and celebrated by all nations, and signifies Drink." Though some commentators gloss "trinc" as the drinking of knowledge, truth and love, many readers enjoy a literal interpretation.