The other day I was walking in the Marais, in the part down by the Seine, and as I cut up the rue des Jardins Saint-Paul, heading toward the big church of Saint Paul, I couldn’t help thinking about one of my favourite French literary heroes, François Rabelais, who lived on this street in the mid-1550s.
Today we freely banter the adjective of his name, Rabelaisian – “marked by gross robust humour,” as the dictionary says – but let’s not forget that François Rabelais was the first French novelist, famed for The Most Fearsome Life of the Great Gargantua and Pantaguel, rollicking tomes about two brilliant prank-loving giants, father and son, let loose on Renaissance Paris, both books published in the 1530s. Much of the writing consists of wildly comical satire by this off-beat Benedictine lay priest of the strict Catholic-run University of Paris’s theological dogma – this in the early days of the Protestant Reformation. Dissenters were being burned at the stake for far less, Rabelais’s own publisher Etienne Dolet being one of them. But luckily for him, Rabelais had a stalwart protector: the Bishop of Paris.
But the books deal with many other things as well: the Medieval wall of Paris, for instance. Built by King Philippe Auguste at the turn of the 13th century, a 100-yard stretch of it still stands, the largest vestige extant, nine meters high with two round towers standing. It boards on a large sports field just down from the Lycée Charlemagne. In Rabelais’s time it stood directly across from his house on the rue des Jardins Saint-Paul. In Pantagruel, published in 1532, Rabelais makes fun of the ancient ramparts, which were still the first line of defence on the Left Bank of Paris. In it, Pantagruel’s sidekick Panurge (“a mischievous rogue, a cheat, a boozer, a roisterer”) says:
“Oh, how strong they are! They’re just the thing for keeping goslings in a coop. By my beard, they are pretty poor defences for a city like this. Why, a cow could knock down more than twelve foot of them with a single fart.”
In his final years, Rabelais lived on a sinecure, the salaries of two curacies at churches outside of Paris in which he seems never to have set foot. He died in 1553 at age fifty-nine and was buried in a little local cemetery called Saint-Eloï. It no longer exists. In 1791, during the Revolution, it was cleared for real estate development. But unlike the ancient Cemetery of the Innocents in Les Halles, whose skulls and bones were sent to the Catacombs before construction began, houses were built on the land of the former Saint-Eloï cemetery with without the remains having been removed.
So the unquiet ghost of François Rabelais roams the Marais.