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 favorite French literary heroes, François Rabelais, who lived on this street in the 1550s.Today we freely banter the adjective of his name, Rabelaisian – “marked by gross robust humor,” 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 Pantagruel, rollicking tomes about 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 offbeat 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. Luckily, Rabelais had a stalwart protector: the Bishop of Paris.
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, 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.”