Posts Tagged ‘medieval French literature’

In Woollaton hall, Nottingham, UK, was a crate labelled ‘Unimportant Documents.’
It was only rediscovered in 1911. Among these documents was a letter by King Henry VIII. Also there, was the only surviving copy of an old French roman, dating from the latter half of the Thirteenth Century. That was La Romance de Silence, written in octosyllabic verse, and coming in at around 365 pages.
A translation was published for the first time in 1927, and another edition in 1972.

See, also, Sarah Roche-Mahdi’s book on the work from 1992, with facing-page translation:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Silence-Thirteenth-century-Romance-Medieval-Studies/dp/0870135430

1

Le Roman de Silence is unique, so far, in romance literature.

Silence is a girl who is brought up as a boy, and sworn to silence lest she betray her real gender, and lose all inheritance rights.
It is a tale of cross-dressing and gender-transformation, as modern parlance would cast it. These descriptions do not do justice to the tale, though.

Silence was the daughter of Cador, Earl of Cornwall, and his wife, King Evan’s daughter, Eufemie.
The English king of the time, Evan, did not recognise female inheritance of titles or estates.
In order for the line of Cador to continue, their daughter, who had no name up to that point, had to therefore assume male roles, and take on a male heir’s character and duties. These included a knight’s training.
Nature had stepped in early on and made Silence of most beautiful appearance. One characteristic he/she was also known for was the ability to sing and play the harp with great sweetness. This was the accomplishment of the aristocratic knight, of course, but in this as in courage and fighting ability, Silence proved  more than capable.

It would become necessary, in time, to marry; the complications of the role built up as time went on and social and familial duties and demands become more urgent.
And always, in the sidelines, Nature personified, was reaching out an imperious hand in order to right the order of things.

What was the right order of things? Was it right for King Evan to disinherit women? The ‘order’ of the time of composition was already being questioned in such works as this. Earlier, Marie de France had set her own period against the reflection of an older more noble, chivalrous time: the Arthurian template. No doubt Arthurian times, had they existed, would have been found wanting against another, older period.

The narrative goes on: Silence absconded with a group of Jongleurs her mother and father had invited to their court. In grief all Jongleurs were banished from the land. For four years under the name of Malduit, Silence learned their trade, but outshone them. Jealousy crept in, and to avoid being killed by them once again he/she had to run. She re-entered her father’s court unrecognised. Her mother took a fancy, however, and tried to seduce him/her. Silence once again had to leave – this time to the French court. His/her mother had sent a letter requesting the French king behead Malduit/Silence.
War had broken out in England, and Silence the knight was summoned home. The story was then discovered.

Somewhere undisclosed along the line of the narrative Cador and Eufemie, Count and Countess of Cornwall, had become the English King and Queen.
Why this new king did not revoke the inheritance ruling is not questioned. The order of things must be kept, perhaps, and such as a revocation was seen as a contrary measure. War, fighting, and beheading of suitors who reject advances was normal.
Normality, it is indicated, was violated early-on when Cador was struck low by dragon venom before he and Eufemie were married, and Silence conceived. Here is the source of the tragedy, the supernatural agency of a dragon.

To get back to Silence: the Queen once again, even knowing his/her identity, made a pass at Silence in his/her role as a hugely successful knight. It had to be rejected. Thereby began the undoing: she cajoled the King to send Silence on a mission to capture Merlin. Which she also accomplished – however, it was part of Merlin’s magic that he could only be captured by a woman.
In turn, though, Merlin revealed that the Queen was having an affair, and that her lover was a man who was able to meet her because he dressed as a nun.

Silentius, the man, was revealed publicly to be Silentia, a woman.

2

There are a number of literary instances of women taking on men’s guises – often in pirating, to enter that most hyper-male of male roles: Anne Bonny; the ballad Sweet Polly Oliver…. Shakespeare makes heavy use of instances of ambivalence. But men taking on women’s guise? That is portrayed as a great deal more unsettling.

To assume a male role is to step up; to assume a female’s role, to step down. Status. Female impersonatators are a source of fun, ridicule, mockery, and beyond ‘normal’. They are funny because they mock further the ‘weak’ who cannot protect themselves. Women’s only armour is their tongue: a woman’s tongue. Here we hear echoes of the split tongue of the snake, of That snake. But the woman of the Roman is silenced; this is a further subversion of roles. Without the power of position, as Queen, Silence must take on the strength and skill of a man. And that can be learned, by either gender.
This is what G R R Martin fudged, with Arya Stark in Song of Ice and Fire: she never quite achieved the bodily strength to be a knight. An assassin’s role was very different.

Male impersonators carry a different charge, also unsettling but to a different degree, and more dangerous because more hidden. It is as though the sacrosanct has been sacked, secrets raided. Tiresias is a classic example; here we have all the indications of the deepest secrets that hold order in place being revealed. Tiresias is the Prometheus of the social rather than cosmic order.

The classic Scottish ballad, The Wife of Auctermuchty, is a case of role reversal. As usual with ballads of this type the wife in the male role outdoes him in strength, skill and endurance.
It could be said that these ballads help stabilise order by preventing male engrandisement from tipping the keen and even balance between the sexes. The male has to learn to laugh at his pretensions, that way the tension is eased, and relations find a more sure, I would like to say equal, footing.

A work like La Roman de Silence uses the basic structure of these ballads, but develops it, complicates the issues, introduces wider references and ramifications.

So what of our own call for greater acceptance of diversity? Trans and gender ambivalence have always been part of humanity: degrees of gender identity are all that exist. And even those degrees fluctuate constantly; all is in motion. Do we conceive of the universe in our image, or our image in what we discover of the universe?
Ambivalence, surely, is the real natural order.

3

Arthurian names and scenes permeate the romance. It is probably a later off-shoot of the French Arthurian vulgate of material.
The author of the Romance is credited to be Heldris of Cornwall, and the Cornish setting and connections tie-in with the Arthurian settings, as well as the great work, Tristan and Iseault.
I think we need not trouble ourselves over the character of G R R Martin’s Brienne of Tark, from his Songs of Ice and Fire marathon. Brienne’s gender identity was never in question, whereas Silence has none of the recognised woman-identifiers such as sewing, which was so essential a craft-necessity of the period.

Henrietta Leyser, in Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England 450-1500 (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1995), writes:
… the triumph of Nurture over Nature, in the form of Silence’s successes as a hero, serves to demonstrate that, however different the parameters, medieval interest in debates about the roles which women and men were brought up to play could be every bit as keen as our own.‘ (P 141)

For further resources, see:
http://medievalsourcesbibliography.org/sources.php?id=2146115303

For stylistic analyses promising to resolve some of the inherent ambivalences of the character role of Silence, see:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/27870893?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Here are many stimulating essays on the work:
https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/22811

Wiki, as always, has much valuable material, as well as links, on the work:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Roman_de_Silence

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