Pantagruelion is a plant that was stowed in great abundance aboard the ships of King Pantagruel’s fleet, as chronicled in The Third Book of Pantagruel by François Rabelais, doctor of medicine. Rabelais published the third volume of his history of the giants Pantagruel and his father Gargantua in Paris in 1546. A revised edition appeared in 1552. Rabelais died in 1553, around 60 years of age.
The final four chapters of The Third Book, chapters 49 to 52, are devoted to a description of Pantagruelion’s botanical form and its preparation and utility. Dr. Rabelais explains why it’s called Pantagruelion and how plants obtain their names. He praises to the heavens a type of Pantagruelion that cannot be consumed by fire. He ends the book with a poem heaping praise on Pantagruelion and the happy realm of France that abounds in it.
Rabelais’s description of Pantagruelion reveals a plant identical to hemp (Cannabis sativa), for thousands of years an important fibre crop. His father and grandfather grew hemp on the family estate in the Loire valley. Rabelais treats Pantagruelion as the Roman naturalist Pliny treated flax in his Natural History. According to Pliny, the essence of flax is its fibre, linen, used in the production of rope, cloth, and paper. Rabelais describes a type of Pantagruelion that is not consumed by fire, but rather cleansed and invigorated. Pliny described a similar kind of incombustible flax, probably referring to asbestos.
Chanvre, hemp, is not mentioned directly in Rabelais’s works, but Pantagruelion was identified with hemp by Le Duchat in his 1711 edition of the works of Rabelais, and presumably earlier by many readers. Pantagruelion, according to Le Duchat, can be identified as hemp not only by its botanical resemblance but “In as much as it is of that Plant the Cord is made which is used for the strangling of those who are so unhappy to be Gibbeted” [Ozell’s translation of Le Duchat’s note]. Those so unhappy were thousands of religious dissidents executed during the reign of François I, king of France at the time of The Third Book’s initial publication.
The qualities that Rabelais ascribes to Pantagruelion and the enigmatic character of the presentation have led to numerous interpretations. Acknowledging their deby to Pliny, Abel Lefranc said that “one is however within rights to ask if the writer was not driven by a special circumstance to compose these celebrated chapters”.
Pantagruelion is mentioned twice in The Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of Good Pantagruel, the chronicle of the royal fleet’s voyage in search of the Oracle of the Bottle. The Fourth Book begins by recounting how the fleet was equipped and loaded with Pantagruelion. Later in the voyage, while the fleet lay becalmed, Panurge, “his tongue in a stem of Pantagruelion, blew bubbles and gurgled.”
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