Did French Renaissance Man Rabelais Smoke Weed?

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IMAGE: Gustave Doré, Triboulet (Rabelais)

Although Rabelais seems to have lived from about 1484 to 1553, I think he would be tickled to know about the internet, and more tickled still to know that his works are freely available on the internet, and he appears to have plenty of fans.


Rabelais bust in Hauts-de-Seine, France

I told a French friend that I was wildly charmed by his clever descriptions of both the botany and the medicinal use of marijuana.  My friend replied that nobody in France thinks much about him anymore.  This was a downer for me, as I have admired Rabelais secretly since I was twelve.

I went to an exclusive private girls’ school in the Boston area.  I may have been one of the last young ladies to get a thoroughly classical education.  So when I was at the age when all girls are curious about sex and such, I remember being told, in Honors French class, that Rabelais, besides being in difficult to read and written in medieval French, was not something that proper young ladies should read.  In other words – it was hot stuff!

Of course, I HAD to read it, so I tracked it down in a major university library.  Not only did I get to read this forbidden material, but I learned to love hanging out in libraries in general and universities too.

My adolescent appetite was whetted. At the same time, and for the same reason, I searched out a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  This also was not to be read by proper young ladies.  But now, 48 years later (hmm .. . I said I was 12 – did I just give away my age?) the only thing I remember from Ovid is that if you drop your toga down a bit over your shoulder when walking through the marketplace, it might help attract men.  This may have been the first “wardrobe malfunction” in history.

But Rabelais was delightful!  Coarse, robust.  It was worth struggling through the medieval French.

"Rabelais," Gustave Doré

“Rabelais,” Gustave Doré

Later research taught me he was a monk, not a recommendation in and of itself.  He was also a doctor, like me, which delighted me.  In those days I suppose nobody knew terribly much, for the study of medicine took only six weeks at the distinguished medical school in Montpellier, the oldest medical school in Europe.

This was the same “Faculty of Medicine” (the term for medical schools in French) where another famous physician had worked.  Maimonides — one of my “peeps” (i.e. Jewish) — who was so famous that he kept prescribing even when he was so old and sick he had to lie in bed to dictate his prescriptions.  He had proclaimed several aspects of hygiene that had not previously been established by science, not to mention by his Jewish religious philosophy.  Maimonedes had the temerity, then, to distinguish religious philosophy from scientific and rational observation of truth.

I wish people could do that in 21st century United States of America.

Rabelais seems always to have been in trouble with everyone.  His works were condemned by religious (Catholic) and governmental (French National Assembly) and even academic authorities (Sorbonne University).

Rabelais is even referenced in Meredith Wilson’s  beloved musical, The Music Man.  In the number “Pick a little/Talk a little” Rabelais is named, between Chaucer and Balzac (pretty good company, if you ask me) as a writer of “dirty books.” To think that Rabelais was as controversial in turn-of-the-20th-Century River City, Iowa as he was in 15th and 16th century France!


Rabelais dissecting society and writing his book

Actually, there is one English Language source that demonstrates excellent scholarship concerning this personality who flourished in a distant past – the writers even seem to have had access to some 19th century sources that I can’t find online – so we must not be deterred by the fact they call Rabelais a “VIP,” which means “Very Important Pothead.”

Indeed, anyone who wrote about marijuana with this man’s passion and exuberance, which I can attest is pretty rare for his time and place…Well, it would be hard to believe that Rabelais did not indulge at least a little.

The world wide web makes it possible to see to Rabelais’ original work, including the part that most clearly describes Cannabis, its botany, and use in medicine.

It’s a pretty sure bet that Rabelais did nothing to bring Cannabis into France, for it seems to have been brought much earlier, probably around the time of the crusades.  Rabelais surely had access to herbals translated from the Arabic.  He knew Latin and Greek.  In those days, it was possible to try to know everything that was known.  I think that is what Leonardo da Vinci wanted.  I know it was I wanted when I was very little, but I figured out quickly I was not going to quite make it.

Denis de Harsy, 1537

Cover of Gargantua and Pantagruel (Denis de Harsy, 1537)

Rabelais’ writings are clever, masquerading as fiction, probably to avoid likely persecution by everyone in sight.  His connected series of five novels features a father and son team of giants.  Gargantua and Pantagruel are not of fixed height, for it seems to be constantly changing, as if to remind us how wild this is supposed to be.  I have even wondered if the epithet “tall tales” comes from this.  Gargantua’s wife dies when birthing Pantagruel, so any civilizing aspects of the feminine (I think that is what we are supposed to be and do – if I remember my Jane Austen) are totally gone, leaving two males who have read everything ever written.

The only contemporary person, real or fictional, who seems to have read so much might be Woody Allen.  I can only aspire.

Title page of Rabelais, Pantagruel (Lyon, 1532)

Title page of Pantagruel, 1532

At any rate, this father and son team has read everything, but they are not out to work in religion or government. Pantagruel does sometimes seem to be practicing law, and argues a bunch of really stupid cases, but sometimes he is so tall he can barely fit in the courtroom anyway.  Pantagruel has a buddy to help him party hearty, Panturge.

So Pantagruel takes off  in his ship, from what seems to have been somewhere in Brittany, a coastal port in France.  He explores the world in a ship filled with his favorite herb, “Pantagruelion,” which from its description could only have been Cannabis.

Of course, hilarious hijinx ensue.  That is why I’ve linked above to original texts online, in case you think this is as much fun as I did when I was an excessively classically educated age 12.  For now, we focus on the Cannabis:

La Pantagrueline Pronostication de François Rabelais, 1532.

Pantegrueline, 1532

After the earlier references to literature in Greek and Latin, you get to a fairly precise physical description of the herb itself, in chapter 49 of Book 3, toward the end.  It should suffice to say the description of the “Pantagruelion,” explains that the plant is “delicious to songbirds” and has  “male and female” plants, and has to be sown each year when the swallows come back (I can only wonder if that assertion still works in Capistrano, California) and harvested when the “grasshoppers start to get hoarse.”

Among other things, it is said this herb is similar to Eupatoria, and there is indeed a Eupatoria cannabinum. (Even though some say Eupatoria belongs more in the aster type family, and it is a garden plant grown in many places, I would NOT rush out to grow it).

It seems doubtful that the relationship with Cannabis is more than “looks-like,” although I have been unable to find any DNA verification of the Linnaean classification.  Oh come on, you remember learning in school about Carolus Linnaeus who classified living things.

You can tell Linnaeus is really important or else he would not have a page at Berkeley.  At any rate, don’t go the Eupatorium route, as it is unlikely you could ever find anything more interesting to consume than Kansas ditchweed, which consumers told me when I did my doctoring in that state was sorry stuff indeed.

Chapter 50 tells how to prepare and use the Pantagruelion.

Retting Hemp in a Stream, Theodor von Hörmann (1840–1895)

Retting Hemp in a Stream, Theodor von Hörmann (1840–1895)

As far as I can figure, the description Rabelais gives of “water maceration” and “separating fiber from wood” is a process called “water retting” (I guess they did not run around smoking back then) which must have at least a little bit of contemporary interest in Italy, as they have published a bit about it. Water retting is the separation of fibers, which may have had useful chemical content, from the woody stalks, which likely had little or none.

Also in France, relics of water retting  have been traced archaeologically.  The process was used until at least 1850.

Most more modern references refer to this method for the preparation of industrial hemp.  Although I honor history, I recommend vaporizing (to anyone legally seeking to indulge, of course) as better than trying to follow Rabelais at this point.

In Chapter 51 Rabelais says labor is made more tolerable by this herb.  I will leave to those so inspired cutting through the mythological metaphor, but no celestial adjectives are spared in the description of this herb.


Mystical, magical plants

In Chapter 52, Rabelais makes reference to its use when burned, as on ancient Roman funeral pyres.  This is only one of the examples of what the author calls “Pantagruelion asbestos;” this herb is not burned nor consumed by fire.  This suggests a lot of possible literary allusion; but for now, let’s just say it sounds as if it could be smoked and some benefits gleaned from burning.

By Chapter 53, there is wild praise of this “noble” and “admirable” thing, for we are moving to the conclusion that a whole kingdom or country might be made happy by this herb.

Legalization might help.


France’s first cannabis physician?

Rabelais does have at least one fan page in modern French. I have not yet found a Facebook or Twitter account for him, but would sign on if I could.

That would make him happy, even happier than knowing of his English language websites and that I found him.

Yes, I am sure.

Technology has advanced, it is true, but newer things are not always better ones, either.  Cannabis and its consumption have been viewed as both medically helpful and philosophically precious for many centuries.

Me, well, I have discovered that I may not be the first French-trained Cannabis physician, now that I know about Rabelais’ training at the medical school at Montpellier,  but the rich history of Cannabis ennobles me, too, and makes me proud to be a Cannabis doctor.