Gender-Bending in Thirteenth-Century Literature: The Roman de Silence

Do genetics or environmental factors determine one’s gender identity? The question may seem a distinctly modern one. Indeed, premodern people — and especially medieval ones — are often considered naively incapable of even pondering such concepts. We assume it was a simpler time, long before the theoretical legwork of social constructionism and so much feminist and queer scholarship or the much-publicized transition of Caitlyn Jenner. And, in any case, certainly the all-powerful Church — that monolithic, persecutory machine — would not have allowed it; you would have been burned at the stake had you claimed that gender was “constructed” or “performative” in such a strictly regulated, deeply Christian society, right?

Medievalists will surely cringe at that last bit, filled as it is with the discredited stereotypes and generalizations that follow from and reinforce a periodization scheme that has often labeled these years a culturally and intellectually stagnant “dark age.” Still, I would guess that most people today assume medieval individuals never thought deeply about gender — neither their own nor that of others — as we do now in the age of bathroom bills. Of course, like most assumptions about the European Middle Ages, this is wrong. A striking exploration of the roles played by nature and nurture (in Old French, nature et noreture) appeared in the first half of the thirteenth century, written by an otherwise unknown (and possibly pseudonymous, perhaps even female) Heldris of Cornwall. It is known as Le Roman de Silence — the Romance of Silence.1

Medieval Romance: A Genre and its Subversion

King Arthur (Nouailher, 1541/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A medieval romance was not necessarily a tale of romantic love, but rather a fictional narrative in prose or verse. Plots often revolved around chivalric adventures, and Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian works may be some of the best-known examples. Courtly love had a place in this genre, but it was rarely the primary focus. In many ways, the medieval romance was the precursor to the modern novel, an indication of which is the modern French word for novel: roman.

What distinguishes Heldris’s Roman de Silence, however, is that its protagonist — accomplished minstrel, handsome courtier, famous knight, and paragon of chivalry — is a woman. Born shortly after the King of England had outlawed female inheritance, her parents decide to raise the child as a boy so that she might retain the family lands. They name him Silence and he is brought up to follow all the manly pursuits expected of an aristocratic lad. So great is his reputation, so complete his mastery of the masculine arts, that the king himself — the very man who had outlawed female inheritance — recruits the knight to his court.

Nature, Nurture, and Reason

Silence, however, is nagged by doubts. Never quite comfortable with his gender identity, he wonders if it is best to abandon the deception and live as a woman. At this point, Heldris explores the roles of nature and nurture in determining gender, and he (or she) does so in the best tradition of medieval allegory. Two figures, Nature and Noreture, enter the discussion and proceed to argue their cases. Nature’s argument owes much to (and parodies) Alain of Lille’s moralizing Plaint of Nature. The retort of Nurture, on the other hand, is rather unique to the text. There is no clear winner, but after the advice of a third figure, Reason, Silence is persuaded to stay the course:

Heldris de Cornuälle, ‘Le Roman de Silence’ (University of Nottingham)
Then he began to consider
the pastimes of a woman’s chamber–
which he had often heard about–
and weighed in his heart of hearts
all female customs against his current way of life,
and saw, in short, that a man’s life
was much better than that of a woman.
“Indeed,” he said, “it would be too bad
to step down when I’m on top.
If I’m on top, why should I step down?
Now I am honored and valiant.
No I’m not, upon my word–I’m a disgrace
if I want to be one of the women.
I was trying to make life easy for myself,
but I have a mouth too hard for kisses,
and arms too rough for embraces.
One could easily make a fool of me
in any game played under the covers,
for I’m a young man, not a girl.
I don’t want to lose my high position;
I don’t want to exchange it for a lesser,
And I don’t want to prove my father a liar.2

Reason has certainly convinced him of the power of the patriarchy, but there is also a very real sense that Nurture has won — that performance has transformative power. Silence’s active, masculine lifestyle has left him with a man’s body that is more than capable of accomplishing stereotypically masculine feats. Even Merlin, who ultimately outs Silence as biologically female, claims that “Silence is wise and valiant … I don’t know any man, however strong, who could have conquered him in combat.”3 Has Silence triumphed over a biological and cultural determinism that would see her “keep to women’s ways”?4

What’s in a Name: Female Speech, Men’s Discourse, and Natural Law

A central theme of the romance is women’s voice (or lack thereof). This appears most clearly in the names of female characters: Silence herself, who must keep the secret of her biological gender; her mother, Euphemie (meaning the use of good speech, derived from the name of the Greek goddess, Eupheme); and the evil queen, Eufeme, derived from the same divine moniker, but in which Latin and French readers might discern Heu-femme (“Alas! Woman!”).

While a man, Silence participates — often and wittily — in men’s discourse. Once outed by Merlin, however, he is literally silenced. His virtue and loyalty convince the king to again allow women to inherit, but it comes at the cost of his masculine identity and personal agency:

They dressed Silence as a woman.
Lords, what more can I say?
Once he was called Silentius:
they removed the -us, added an -a,
and so he was called Silentia.5
Wool tapestry depicting six courtiers in a rose garden. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Nature “recovered her rights,” our protagonist is thoroughly feminized, and the king takes her as his wife.6 Silence speaks no more. Many will find this ending deeply unsatisfying, perhaps even explicitly conservative and antifeminist. Some scholars, however, point to Silence’s masculine achievements. As Simon Gaunt puts it, “Silence’s success as a knight serves to articulate precisely what the poet ostensibly seeks to repress, that is, that women may indeed have the ability to take on the cultural role of men.”7 Similarly, for Peggy McCracken, “a cross-dressed heroine’s appropriation of a masculine identity is successful enough to subvert her assumption of a female identity at the end of the story.”8 Lorraine Kochanske Stock goes even further, suggesting that the text “ultimately repudiates the reliability of any stable system of gender difference.”9

Still other scholars emphasize the historical context of the poem, and highlight the connections between gender and law within it. Indeed, there is a clever wordplay hinging on the masculine –us ending to Silentius (Old French: Scilensiüs), for the word us also means custom or law, often natural law. Adding the –us at Silence’s birth makes up for the perversion of natural law (us) caused by the king’s banning of female inheritance; its removal signifies the resumption of natural law.10 Sharon Kinoshita, for example, has consistently argued that the romance served as a space to discuss the feudal politics of lineage and its manipulation by the monarchy.11 The disruption of “natural” law caused by both disinheriting daughters and “mis-gendering” female bodies required the action of the sovereign, who makes the politics of feudal lineage work for him by marrying a feminized Silence (thereby obtaining the inheritance he had just returned to her!). It is, indeed, good to be the king.

As you can see, there are a great many interpretations of the text. But even if the romance challenges the “naturalness” of traditional gender categories only to ultimately reaffirm it, the Roman de Silence — at the very least — proved that the question was open to debate, and 800 years ago to boot, in the “dark ages” of medieval Europe. Modern society has justifiably generated a plethora of theories and theorists of gender. Just as promising, and no less interesting, is the deeper history of gender and its discontents.

Notes

  1. Heldris of Cornwall, Silence: A Thirteenth-Century Romance, ed. and trans. Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1992. Subsequent references include page and line numbers of the English translation (original Old French is on the facing page). Return to text.
  2. Silence, 123-125, ll. 2632-2653. Return to text.
  3. Ibid., 307, ll. 6541-6544. Return to text.
  4. Ibid., 121, l. 2558. Return to text.
  5. Ibid., 313, ll. 6664-6668. Return to text.
  6. Ibid., 313, ll. 6669-6680. Return to text.
  7. Simon Gaunt, “The Significance of Silence,” Paragraph 13 (1990): 203. Return to text.
  8. Peggy McCracken, “The Boy Who Was a Girl: Reading Gender in the ‘Roman De Silence,” Romanic Review 85.4 (1994): 517. Return to text.
  9. Lorraine Kochanske Stock, “The Importance of Being Gender ‘Stable’: Masculinity and Feminine Empowerment in Le Roman de Silence,” Arthuriana 7.2 (1997): 8. Return to text.
  10. First noted by R. Howard Bloch, “Silence and Holes: The Roman de Silence and the Art of the Trouvère,” Yale French Studies 70 (1986): 81-99. Return to text.
  11. Sharon Kinoshita, “Heldris de Cornuälle’s Roman de Silence and the Feudal Politics of Lineage,” PMLA 110:3 (1995): 397-409; idem, “Male-Order Brides: Marriage, Patriarchy, and Monarchy in the Roman de Silence,” Arthuriana 12:1 (2002): 64-75. See also Erika Hess, “Inheritance Law and Gender Identity in the Roman de Silence,” ed. Robert S. Sturges in Law and Sovereignty in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 217-235. Return to text.

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