The herb Pantagruelion appears in a novel known as Le Tiers Livre (The Third Book), written by François Rabelais, doctor in medicine, and published in Paris in 1546. A revised edition was published in 1552, a year before the author’s death. At the end of The Third Book the protagonist King Pantagruel, descended from a line of giants, oversees the provisioning of his fleet for a long and hazardous voyage. The narrarator of the story records the equipping of the ships with seamen, artisans, soldiers, victuals, artillery and munitions, clothing, money, and stuff.

Among other things I saw that he had loaded great abundance of his herb Pantagruelion, as well green and raw, as confected and prepared.

The final chapters of The Third Book are devoted to the herb that Pantagruel called his own. The narrator, Rabelais, expounds upon the plant’s appearance, cultivation, preparation, nomenclature, utility, and prospects. He extolls the unquenchable spirit that Pantagruelion, likes its namesake, embodies.

Rabelais gives a botanical description of the herb Pantagruelion. In appearance, it cannot be distinguished from hemp, Cannabis sativa, “chanvre” in French.

Although it has powers that go beyond those of the hemp plant, the herb Pantagruelion is very similar to hemp, Cannabis sativa. In its green and raw state, Pantagruelion has medicinal uses. Confected and prepared, the fibres of Pantagruelion, “in which consist all the dignity of the herb,” provide rope, cloth, nets, tents, paper, and sacks. But above all, Pantagruelion provides the hangman’s noose. Rabelais spends the next four chapers (of the 1532 edition) expounding upon Pantagruelion’s desciption, cultivation, preparation, usage, nomenclature, and its unbelievable ability to withstand fire.

While observing the loading of a great foison of Pantagruelion aboard Pantagruel’s ships, Rabelais as the narrarator launches into a description of the plant. Rabelais treats the plant in the manner established by the Greek botanist Theophrastus, whom Rabelais acknowledges. Rabelais’s description of Pantagruelion reveals a plant valued for its fibres, echoing the Roman naturalist Pliny’s description of flax[4]. Rabelais differs from Pliny in his assesment of the uses to which the fibres of the plant are put.

Rabelais describes Pantagruelion’s botanical form and its preparation and utility. He explains why it’s called Pantagruelion. He praises to the heavens Pantagruelion Carpasian Asbestin, a variety that cannot be consumed by fire. He ends the book with a short poem extolling Pantagruelion and the happy realm of France that abounds in it.

In form, préparation, and utility, Pantagruelion is similar to hemp (Cannabis sativa, chanvre in French). Hemp was an important source of fibre for Europe in the 1500s, as it had been across Eurasia for centuries. The stalk of Pantagruelion is full of fibres, “in which consist all the dignity of the herb..” Rabelais’s father and grandfather grew hemp on the family estate in the Loire valley.[5]

In speaking of flax, the source of linen, Pliny stressed that the essence of the plant is its fibre, which is used in the production of rope, cloth, and paper. Pliny (who died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79) described a type of flax that is not consumed by fire, probably referring to asbestos.[6]

Chanvre is not mentioned directly in these chapters, not anywhere else in Rabelais’s works[7], but the identification of Pantagruelion with hemp was attested by Le Duchat[8] in his 1711 edition of the works of Rabelais, and presumably earlier by many readers[9]. Pantagruelion, according to Le Duchat, can be recognized as referring to 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[10] of Le Duchat’s note]. Those who were 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, and Henry II, who succeeded him in 1547.

The qualities that Rabelais ascribes to Pantagruelion and the enigmatic character of the presentation have led to numerous additional 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”[11].

Pantagruelion is mentioned twice in The Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of Good Pantagruel[12], 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.”

(See Notes for complete citations.)

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. L’auteur susdict supplie les Lecteurs benevoles, soy reserver a rire au soixante & dixhuytiesme livre. Paris: Chrestien Wechel, 1546. Les Bibliotèques Virtuelles Humanistes

2. Rabelais 1546.

3. Rabelais, François (ca. 1483–1553), Le Tiers Livre des Faicts et Dicts Heroïques du bon Pantagruel: Composé par M. Fran. Rabelais docteur en Medicine. Reueu, & corrigé par l’Autheur, ſus la cenſure antique. L’Avthevr svsdict ſupplie les Lecteurs beneuoles, ſoy reſeruer a rire au ſoixante & dixhuytieſme Liure. Paris: Michel Fezandat, 1552. Les Bibliotèques Virtuelles Humanistes

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. Lefranc, Abel (1863-1952), “«Pantagruelion» et «Chenevreaux»”. Revue des Études Rabelaisiennes, 3, 1905. pp. 402-404. Gallica

6. Pliny the Elder 1950. 19.04.

7. 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

8. 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

9. Rabelais, François (ca. 1483–1553), Le Tiers Livre. Edition critique. Michael Andrew Screech (1926-2018), editor. Paris-Genève: Librarie Droz, 1964. Introduction.

10. 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.

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

12. 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