Pantagruelion is a plant that was stowed in great abundance — green and raw, as well as confected and prepared — aboard the ships of King Pantagruel’s fleet in preparation for a voyage. The story is told in The Third Book of Pantagruel by François Rabelais, doctor of medicine. Rabelais published the third volume of his chronicle of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel in Paris in 1546[1]. A revised edition appeared in 1552[2]. Rabelais died in 1553, around 70 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[3]. Rabelais treats Pantagruelion as the Roman naturalist Pliny treated flax in his Natural History[4]. 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[5]. Rabelais lauds the products, processes, and inventions that derive from Pantagruelion. Pliny was less sanguine about influence of linen.

Chanvre — cannabis, hemp — is not mentioned directly in Rabelais’s works[6], but Pantagruelion was identified with hemp by Le Duchat[7] in his 1711 edition of the works of Rabelais, and presumably earlier by many readers[8]. 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[9] 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 Rabelais’s debt to Pliny, Abel Lefranc added that “one is however within rights to ask if the writer was not driven by a special circumstance to compose these celebrated chapters”[10].

Pantagruelion is mentioned twice in The Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of Good Pantagruel[11], the chronicle of the royal fleet’s voyage. 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.”

1. Rabelais, François (ca. 1483–1553), Le Tiers Livre des Faictz et Dictz Heroïques du noble Pantagruel. Composez par M. François Rabelais docteur en Medicine, & Calloïer des Isles Hieres. Paris: Chrestien Wechel, 1546. Les Bibliotèques Virtuelles Humanistes

2. Rabelais, François (ca. 1483–1553), Le Tiers Livre des faictz et dictz Heroïques du noble Pantagruel. Composez par M. François Rabelais docteur en Medicine. Paris: Michel Fezandat, 1552. Les Bibliotèques Virtuelles Humanistes

3. Lefranc, Abel (1863-1952), “«Pantagruelion» et «Chenevreaux»”. Revue des Études Rabelaisiennes, 3, 1905. p. 402. Gallica

4. Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD), The Natural History. Volume 5: Books 17–19. Harris Rackham (1868–1944), translator. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1950. 19. Loeb Classical Library

5. Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD), The Natural History. Volume 5: Books 17–19. Harris Rackham (1868–1944), translator. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1950. 19.04. Loeb Classical Library

6. Demonet, Mare-Luce, “Littérature de la Renaissance et informatique. Sur les Électro-chroniques de Rabelais.” In Smith, Paul J., Editer et traduire Rabelais à travers les âges. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997. Google Books

7. Rabelais, François (ca. 1483–1553), Œuvres de Maitre François Rabelais. Publiées sous le titre de : Faits et dits du géant Gargantua et de son fils Pantagruel, avec la Prognostication pantagrueline, l’épître de Limosin, la Crême philosophale et deux épîtres à deux vieilles de moeurs et d’humeurs différentes. Nouvelle édition, où l’on a ajouté des remarques historiques et critiques. Tome Troisieme. Jacob Le Duchat (1658–1735), editor. Amsterdam: Henri Bordesius, 1711. Google Books

8. Rabelais, François (ca. 1483–1553), Le Tiers Livre. Edition critique. Michael A. Screech (b. 1926), editor. Paris-Genève: Librarie Droz, 1964. Introduction.

9. Rabelais, François (ca. 1483–1553), The Works of Francis Rabelais, M.D. The Third Book. Now carefully revised, and compared throughout with the late new edition of M. Le du Chat. John Ozell (d. 1743), editor. London: J. Brindley, 1737.

10. Rabelais, François (ca. 1483–1553), Oeuvres. Tome Cinquieme: Tiers Livre. Édition critique. Abel Lefranc (1863-1952), editor. Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1931. Introduction, p. c.

11. Rabelais, François (ca. 1483–1553), Le Quart Livre des Faicts et dicts Heroïques du bon Pantagruel. Composé par M. François Rabelais docteur en Medicine. Paris: 1552. Athena