Rabelais now went to Lyons, and still later to Rome as the physician to Du Ballay, who was ambassador at that court. Some writers claim that he went as buffoon instead of physician, but this is unsupported by evidence. Many stories are told of his buffooneries at the court of Rome, but unquestionably the majority were entirely untrue. One story told, however, is good enough to be true. The pope expressed his willingness to grant Rabelais a favor. The wit replied that if such was the fact, he begged his holiness to excommunicate him. The pope wished to know the reason. The wit replied that some very honest gentlemen of his acquaintance in Touraine had been burned, and finding it a common saying in Italy when a fagot would not burn “that it had been excommunicated by the pope’s own mouth,” he wished to be rendered incombustible by the same process. It is asserted that Rabelais offended the pope by his buffooneries, but the assertion can scarcely be believed. When he had resided for a time in Rome, Rabelais went to Lyons, then returned to the holy city, and after a second visit went to Paris, where he entered the family of Cardinal du Bellay, who had also returned from Rome. He confided to Rabelais the government of his household, and persuaded the pope to secularize the abbey of St. Maurdes-Fosses, and conferred it upon the wit. He next bestowed upon him the cure of Meudon, which he retained while he lived.
One of the first of Rabelais’ books was entitled “Lives of the great Giant Garagantua and his Son Pantagruel". To it he owes a great deal of his reputation and popularity. It created a vast deal of talk, and was both highly praised and bitterly attacked. The champions of the church criticised his book with great severity. Calvin the reformer also wrote against it with much earnestness. The Sorbonne attacked it for teaching heresy and atheism, and it was condemned by the court of parliament.
The subjects held up for ridicule were the vices of the popes, the avarice of the prelates, and the universal debaucheries of the monastic orders. It was a wonderful book for the times, and it required great courage in Rabelais to venture upon its publication. He would have lost position, and perhaps his liberty, had it not been for the monarch Francis I., who sent for the volume, read it, and declared it to be innocent and good reading, and protected the author. The sentence against the book amounted to nothing after this, and it was everywhere read and admired. Rabelais was set down as the first wit and scholar of his age.
The character of the book we have noticed cannot be defended. Its irreverent use of scripture quotations, and loose wit, are not to be overlooked, but there was no advocacy of atheism in it. Indeed we must look upon Rabelais as acting the part of a reformer. If he had sought simply popularity and the favor of the court and church, he would certainly not have written a book which is a scathing attack upon pope, prelate, and monk. The book is full of dirty expressions—but the age was a very impure one, and we should not judge him too severely. He was a Frenchman, and French wit in all ages has taken great liberties with decency.