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French Forum 26.1 (2001) 1-19
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Androgyne, Agape, and the Abbey of Thélème
To many a modern nose, Rabelais’s work overall has an odor of misogyny. There are multiple sources of this, starting perhaps with Rabelais’s early friendship with Tiraqueau whose legal scholarship insists on woman’s inferiority to man. The same strain is reflected in the Tiers Livre, where Rabelais creates Doctor Rondibilis who can wonder without detectible irony if women should be classified as people or animals.1 The impression is deepened by the paucity of female characters. Pantagruel briefly has a lady-love who, however, figures in the novel only when his interest in her is past. The Dame de Paris appears briefly first as a sex-object for Panurge and then for the dogs of Paris.2 Badebec conveniently dies giving birth to Pantagruel; presumably to avoid outright repetition, Gargamelle, Gargantua’s mother, lives on, ignored, until the start of Chapter 35, where she is dismissed by the narrator when Gargantua returns from war: "Car Supplementum Supplementi Chronicorum dict que Gargamelle y mourut de joye. Je n’en say rien de ma part, et bien peu me soucye ny d’elle ny d’aultre femme qui soyt." [For the Supplement to the Supplement of the Chronicles says that Gargamelle died of joy at that point. Personally, I know nothing about it, and care little for her or any other woman.]3 I grant that most of this is not, strictly speaking, misogyny, since with the exception of Rondibilis, these examples say nothing negative about women.4 They do suggest an ambiant attitude epitomized by the narrator’s response to Gargamelle’s passing: "bien peu me soucye ny d’elle ny d’aultre femme qui soyt." Woman, whether as mother, potential wife, or whore, is seen as body. Issues of this sort raised in modern feminist criticism, interesting in their own right, are beyond the scope of the present discussion. While the evidence does not support the accusations of misogyny, nevertheless, it seems fair to say that the general temper of Rabelais’s fictional universe understands real people to be male.
Thélème, where women are deliberately included and occasionally [End Page 1] privileged, may be the exception that proves the rule. Despite the considerable scholarly attention that has been devoted to the Thélème episode, the cause of this exception to Rabelais’s usually jaundiced attitude toward women has not to my knowledge been questioned; the presence of women is taken merely as one of the elements marking Thélème as an anti-abbey.5 Women are included alongside men as an inversion of the rule of abbeys in the real world, which accepted gender/sexual segregation as a necessary principle of their organization. That would account for the inclusion of women, but it does not explain the fact that the rules of the Abbey systematically treat them as men’s equals. The Abbey is a satirical anti-abbey, and at the moment of Gargantua’s composition, such satire is not to be taken lightly. Yet satire is an appropriate but insufficient explanation for Thélème. As so often in Rabelais’s polyvalent creation, the comic is also serious. The playful inversion of the ways of the world is immediately apparent and there is much to laugh at in the Thélème chapters. The graver implications may require more reflection and they are the central concern here. Since the Abbey is named in the chapter title, we know its name (and the message that comes with it) before we learn any of its satiric aspects. Thélème, the space in which thelema, the will of God, reigns, is inhabited by a community of Christians living in the spirit of the New Testament, free of the old Law. 6 And this, as I will attempt to demonstrate, is the source and pattern of the depiction of women in this episode. The distinction between sex and gender as it was commonly understood in medieval and Renaissance thought is...