When Rabelais was Born

“When Rabelais was born, printing and paper-making had been in force for fifty years, but their evolution had been slow; they had but lately got on their feet as commercial undertakings. When they did so, however, the production of books started up at great speed in all the countries of Western Europe almost simultaneously. Any one who is fifty years old can make a comparison, though a very weak and imperfect one, with the development of the means of transportation and communication in his own lifetime. As a boy, Rabelais saw probably very few books, but by the time he was thirty, they were relatively quite abundant; and naturally, the dissemination of books immensely facilitated and promoted the study of Greek and Roman literature, which had long been in fashion. All this literature, however, had previously been available only in manuscripts, mostly the treasure of kings, popes, and monasteries. Instruction in it was given from these manuscripts orally, supplemented by the pupils’ handwriting. We have a survival of that practice in the name ‘lecture-system’, which is still commonly given to this method of teaching. But by the first quarter of the sixteenth century, books became a property of the bourgeois, as well as of the nobility and of the monasteries, and even students of the poorer sort might hope to possess a book or two of their own.

“The revival of Greek and Latin studies, which was the main expression of the spiritual life of the sixteenth century, goes by the appropriate though recently coined name of ‘humanism’. These literatures gave the longest, most complete, and most nearly continuous record available of everything that the human mind had ever been busy about, in all departments of its activity. They exhibited ‘the best that had been thought and said in the world’, and it was for this reason that they were laid hold of with such eager curiosity by the aspiring genius of the period. One could not come into contact with Greek and Roman letters without touching philosophy, history, poetry, sculpture, drama, painting, architecture, agriculture, physics, mathematics, religion, medicine, law, and astronomy. Hence there was no activity of the human spirit, except music, that they did not directly and powerfully stimulate. A great renewal of interest in the study of Greek and Latin literature began in Italy, in the fourteenth century; by the sixteenth century it had covered Europe. It reached France rather late. Two teachers, one of them a man of considerable eminence, gave lessons in Greek more or less irregularly in Paris, towards the end of the fifteenth century; and in the first decade of the sixteenth century, the University of Paris offered some kind of instruction in Greek, but this lasted only about four years. At this time, too, there was but one printer in Paris who could set Greek type — indeed, the first printing-press in Paris, a small affair, was set up as late as 1470 — and by 1520 he had managed to publish only five or six Greek books; with these inconsiderable exceptions, the Greek books used in France were imported, most of them coming from Italy.

“So, Rabelais’s youth and maturity were roughly contemporaneous with the youth and maturity of the great art of printing. To relate him further to the status of art, science, and letters, and show what his setting was in the general movement known as humanism, we may mention that when Rabelais was born, Leonardo da Vinci had still twenty-five years to live, and Michelangelo was already twenty years old, Raphael was a boy of twelve, Titian a youth of eighteen, and Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, at the age of twenty-four, was beginning his mighty career as an engraver. Luca della Robbia and Donatello had been dead but a few years. Erasmus of Rotterdam, the dominating force in humanism, whose spiritual kinship with Rabelais was extremely close, closer probably than that with any other man before or since his day, was nearly thirty. Budé, who was the chief promoter of Greek studies in France, had himself begun the study of Greek the year before, at the age of twenty-six. Copernicus, the forerunner of modern astronomy, was twenty-two. Machiavelli, the founder of modern political science, was twenty-six. In the year that Cervantes was born, Rabelais was shaping up the Fourth Book of his great narrative, and getting it ready to send to the printer. Rabelais’s death in 1553 preceded by nine years the birth of Lope de Vega, who, one may say, established the art of the modern drama in Europe, for it spread from Spain over all Europe with great rapidity; and by but eleven years, the birth of Shakespeare.” (Albert Jay Nock, 1929, Rabelais: The Man and His Work)