The hour of reckoning

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Author and journalist Eugene Byrne examines the much-loved writer, physician and philosopher François Rabelais who was known in France for his satirical and smutty jokes, songs and writings. This week’s offering involves King François I of France and the ‘Rabelais’ quarter of an hour’

The joke

King François I of France was approached by the captain of his guard. The man was clearly very nervous.

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“Your Majesty,” he said. “We are holding Maître Rabelais prisoner. We believe that he was plotting to assassinate you, and other members of the royal family.”

“What!?” said the king. “There must be some mistake! François Rabelais is my friend! We laughed together over his Gargantua stories! This is ridiculous!”

“I’m afraid there is proof, your Majesty. He has been brought back from Lyon where he was staying at an inn. The innkeeper found these three packets in his room.”

The Captain handed the king three paper envelopes, one marked “Poison for the King”, another marked “Poison for the Queen” and the third, “poison for the Dauphin.”

“Have him brought here at once!” exclaimed the king.

Half an hour later, the captain and four guards brought Rabelais into the king’s chamber. As soon as he saw the king, Rabelais started laughing. The king couldn’t help laughing, too.

The captain repeated the charge. “Bring me a glass of water,” said Rabelais.

He asked the king to give him the packets, and he poured the white powder in all three into the glass. With his finger he stirred it thoroughly, and then drank it all down in one go.

“So, Maître … ?” said the king.

“Sire,” said Rabelais. “I regret that I was in a little financial difficulty. The innkeeper in Lyon is a thief, and he presented me with a bill which I could not possibly pay. So I made up three packets of sugar and marked them as poison for the royal family and left them on the table in my room where the innkeeper would see them. The man may be a scoundrel, but he loves Your Majesty as we all do, and immediately reported me to the authorities in Lyon. So here I am; I have had a free trip to Paris, and I have avoided paying my hotel bill!”

The king collapsed in fits of laughter.

Several minutes later he said, “All the same, Maître Rabelais, you must have had an unpleasant quarter of an hour when the soldiers came to arrest you?”

“On the contrary, Sire. The unpleasant quarter of an hour was when I saw the innkeeper’s bill.”

The story

The writer, physician and philosopher François Rabelais (?1494 – 1553) remains a much-loved figure in France for his satirical and smutty jokes, songs and writings. Rabelais is best known for his stories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, two giants whose adventures include much crude, bawdy and scatological humour. Rabelais has passed into the English language, too; we talk of having a ‘gargantuan’ appetite or of having a ‘Rabelaisian’ sense of humour.

King François was indeed a fan, though this story is a canard. It does, though, provide what used to be a common French expression – le quart d’heure de Rabelais.

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“Rabelais’ quarter of an hour” means the unpleasant time when one has to face up to the consequences of one’s actions, whether being hauled before a judge or simply having to pay a restaurant bill. Any native French speakers out there know if the expression is still used nowadays?