His place of birth was Chinon, a little town of Touraine. His father was a man of humble means. He received his early education in a convent near his home. His progress was very slow and he was removed to another. He promised poorly for future distinction, but at the second convent he was fortunate in making the acquaintance of Du Ballay who afterward became a bishop and cardinal, and whose friendship he retained to the day of his death.
He was again removed to another convent, where he applied himself to the cultivation of his talents. There was, however, no library in the place. Rabelais soon took to preaching, and with the money he was paid for it, he purchased books. His brother monks hated him for his eloquence in preaching, and for his evident learning. He was persecuted by these men and suffered a great deal, principally because he knew Greek. For some alleged slight offered against the rules of the convent, they wreaked their vengeance upon him by condemning him to the prison cell, and to a diet of bread and water. They also applied their hempen cords thoroughly, and this course of treatment soon reduced Rabelais to a very weak condition. His friends were by this time powerful and they obtained his release, and a license from the Pope for him to pass from this convent to another. But he was thoroughly disgusted with convent life, and fled from it, wandering over the provinces as a secular priest. He next gave up this employment altogether, and took to the study of medicine. He went through the different steps of promotion and was made a professor. He delivered medical lectures, and a volume of his—an edition of Hippocrates—was long held in high estimation by the medical faculty of France.
A medical college of Montpellier had been deprived for some reason of its privileges, and Rabelais was deputed to Chancellor Duprat to solicit a restoration of them. The story is told—to illustrate his learning—that when he knocked at the chancellor’s house he addressed the person who came to the door in Latin, who could not understand that language; a man shortly presented himself who could, and Rabelais addressed him in Greek. Another map was sent for, and he was addressed in Hebrew, and so on. The singularity of the circumstance arrested the attention of the chancellor, and Rabelais was at once invited to his presence. He succeeded in restoring the lost honors to the college, and such was the enthusiasm of the students that ever after, when taking degrees, they wore Rabelais scarlet gowns. This usage continued till the revolution.