(Originally aired 2023/01/21 - listen here)
People who have a passing familiarity with medieval European literature will know about the cycle of Arthurian romances – Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, Merlin, Gawain, Percival, and the like. Perhaps you’ll be familiar with the Roland cycle, built around the historic court of Charlemagne. But there are many less familiar tales of this type—some surviving only in fragments or secondary references, or perhaps only in a single unique manuscript.
The fascinating Romance of Silence certainly deserves to be more widely known, and it’s of particular interest for its startlingly unexpected explorations of gender concepts and gender presentation. Themes that are particularly relevant to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project include gender disguise, characters assigned female who display martial prowess, and situations that flirt with the appearance of same-sex desire due to disguise and/or ignorance. Not all of these themes are unproblematic, as we shall see, but they offer a glimpse into imagined possibilities that medieval authors and audiences were familiar with.
Because most listeners will be unfamiliar with this work, I feel the need to begin by explaining that “Silence” is the name of the central character, though it is also a theme of the work—of the inability to speak of one’s identity or of one’s innocence. In the original text, the name is used in distinct feminine and masculine forms, as “Silencia” and “Silencius,” which adds another layer to the marking of gender identity and presentation.
The Romance of Silence survives in a single manuscript dating to the 13th century, written in French, and attributed to an almost certainly fictitious author Heldris of Cornwall—a name borrowed from a character in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. The translator of the edition I’m using, Sarah Roche-Mahdi, suggests the possibility that the author may, in fact, have been a woman, based on a distinctly feminine sensibility in the text. The attribution of original works to fictitious authors or historical figures was common in medieval literature—rather the opposite of the modern dynamics of plagiarism.
The plot and characters have clear connections with the Arthurian cycle, particularly in the involvement of the wizard Merlin, although King Arthur himself is mentioned only in passing as a historic figure. The action takes place in the time of King Eban of England, who is not a historical figure, and it would be a mistake to try to estimate what relationship the setting has either to Arthurian chronology or actual history.
Here is the plot, in a nutshell. Due to a fatal quarrel at court between two men who married sister-heiresses, King Eban has declared that women may not inherit lands. So when Count Cador of Cornwall and his wife have a daughter rather than a son, they decide to raise the child, named Silence, as a boy for the sake of inheritance. On reaching adolescence, Silence learns of this unusual situation and, after listening to a debate between the personifications of Nature and Nurture regarding which gender to inhabit, Silence decides to live as a man, feeling ill-prepared to live as a woman. Silence runs away to France, becomes a minstrel and then gains fame as a knight, and eventually comes to the court of King Eban and Queen Eufeme. Eufeme is, as we learn, a piece of work, taking multiple lovers, including one man who maintains access to her in disguise as a nun, and sexually harassing young men she’s attracted to, including Silence. Silence rejects her and she takes revenge by accusing Silence of having tried to rape her. As a punishment that is intended to be fatal, Silence is ordered to capture the wizard Merlin who—according to prophesy—can only be taken by a “woman’s trick”. Silence successfully brings Merlin back to court but Merlin reveals Silence’s assigned gender, as well as revealing Queen Eufeme’s adultery. The queen is executed. Silence is required to begin living as a woman and King Eban marries her and makes her queen, as well as restoring the right of women to inherit, in her honor.
So, as you can see, we’ve got some very problematic tropes here, including the idea of men disguising themselves as women for sexual access, the position that anatomy trumps gender identity, punishing women’s sexual transgressions with death, and the notion that marriage to a king is supposed to be a happy ending despite all the foregoing.
But what I want to focus on in this episode are the scenes in which traditional ideas about gender and identity are challenged in ways that are surprising for the era, and on how motifs like gender disguise and accidental same-sex desire are introduced.
I’m going to be providing extensive excerpts—far more than fair use would allow with regard to Roche-Mahdi’s translation. So I’m going to render the meaning in my own words to respect her copyright, but I want to make it clear that my paraphrasing relies very strongly on her work, even when I refer back to her edition of the French text for inspiration.
The treatment of Silence’s gender in the text is eclectic. Sometimes it follows the gender Silence is presenting at the time, sometimes it follows the gender that a point of view character considers Silence to be. And let us keep in mind that Silence is a fictional character whose gender treatment is based on authorial decisions, not a historic person where we are guessing about self-identity. To the extent that the text provides clues about Silence’s internal gender identity, we are seeing the author’s worldview as displayed through a fictional character.
From a modern perspective, Silence can either be viewed as transgender, but eventually pressured into accepting an assigned gender. Or Silence can be viewed as gender-queer, due to a cross-gender upbringing, and trying on various identities. Or Silence can be viewed as a cis woman, forced by a misogynistic social structure to adopt a male social presentation for specific purposes. Because of these ambiguities, I’ll generally be following the gendered language chosen by the author (Heldris or whoever it was), which will vary between feminine and masculine.
Is that enough of an introduction? Then let’s get on with the fun parts.
You need to understand that Count Cador and his wife (who is also named Euphemie, like the queen, just to confuse the issue, but she’s out of the picture fairly quickly) are very very much in love. There’s, like, over a thousand lines of verse leading up to Silence’s birth that’s all about how much in love they are. And Silence’s mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. When she becomes pregnant, the two discuss the possibility that they might have a daughter rather than a son, in which case their child would inherit nothing. Cador comes up with a plan. When it comes time for the birth, the countess will be attended only by one woman, a cousin of Cador’s who is completely loyal to him and will keep his secrets. If the child turns out to be a girl, they’ll raise her as a boy with no one the wiser.
As we’re waiting for the birth, we get an entire little essay in the voice of the personification of Nature talking about how Nature is going to make the baby into the most beautiful and perfect creation ever made.
Silence is going to be Nature’s own little girl, made from the finest of materials that she’s saved up when making lesser babies. Nature has a chest full of a million baby molds for making different types of babies, but there’s one mold that she’s never used before because she was saving it for a very special baby. We are given a long poetic passage in which Nature describes how she forms each and every feature: curly golden hair, wide-set eyes, red cheeks, a tiny mouth with white teeth, a long neck, small hands with long fingers, a rounded breast and hips and soft legs—I think maybe Nature has forgotten that we’re making a baby here, not a grown woman!
In any event, the child is born, it’s a girl! But the count’s cousin comes out into the hall in the presence of all his barons and proclaims, “Congratulations, you have a son!” When Count Cador goes to his wife and learns the truth, he tells her he loves the child as she is, and wouldn’t exchange her for a son.
Well, except that he turns her into a son. Just in case they have no further children, you know. He describes just how this will be done: they’ll cut her hair short and dress her in breeches and tunics with split skirts. But first they’ll send her off to be raised by a relation of the countess in an isolated house in the woods with only the count’s cousin to care for her. The two adults will know the truth, but there will be no one else who might ask or inspire questions as Silence grows.
Nature vs Nurture vs Reason
We now get a long rant by the personification of Nature, raging about how “You have insulted me by treating Nurture as more powerful than I am! I made Silence into the most perfect girl there could be but they’ve turned her into a boy! Nature will always out! If a man does good things because of how he was nurtured, eventually he will turn out bad if that’s his true nature. And if a good man is hardened and turned bitter because of his nurture, he can be saved though only with great difficulty.” We haven’t met the personification of Nurture yet at this point, but Nature frames Silence’s upbringing as the actions of this personified force.
I think Nature is selling herself short, though, because as Silence grows older and is educated in all the proper learning and skills for a boy, Silence is just naturally better at everything than other children. It’s a gift from God! He’s more valiant and more noble and more honorable, just as much as he’s more beautiful than everyone else. The author is tipping the scales here in Nature’s favor, even when that nature is manifested in male-coded virtues.
But eventually Count Cador decides it’s time to let Silence in on the secret. The text says this happens, “when the child was old enough to understand he was a girl,” which perhaps we may understand to be puberty. Cador explains about the fight over the heiresses, and how King Eban disinherited all the women in England because of it, and that’s why Silence is being raised as a boy. And Silence replies, “Ok, if that’s the way it is, I won’t tell anyone and will continue being a boy.”
Silence is getting more physical training now that they didn’t have to worry about him accidentally revealing or learning about his assigned sex. Riding and hunting, wrestling, jousting, and swordplay. He is twelve years old and better than everyone he meets. But Silence is starting to worry that living as a boy is a form of deception, and that’s when Nature and Nurture show up to have a little chat with her.
“I made you into the most perfect, most beautiful woman,” Nature says, “And you’re ruining it all by running around in the sun and wind, spoiling your beauty. There are a thousand women madly in love with you because of your beauty, but don’t you think they’ll feel deceived if they find out you don’t have the essential thing it takes to be a man?”
There are two interesting things going on here. First up, it’s clear that Nature is annoyingly bio-essentialist. But then, perhaps it’s just in her nature to be so? Little joke. But the second thing is that we’re seeing how ideals of beauty are presented as non-gendered. This is a regular trope in medieval romance (and medieval art, to some extent). The characteristics that are idealized as representing beauty are described in similar terms for both female and male characters. Nature has made Silence exceedingly beautiful, but that beauty is causing women to desire him. It isn’t a different flavor of beauty, just a different audience. And though the text doesn’t pursue this angle, it raises the question of whether those thousand women would still desire Silence if they perceived her as a girl. This, too, is a repeating trope in medieval romances: that superficial appearance as “the opposite sex” is sufficient to trigger desire.
But Nature isn’t just bio-essentialist with regard to appropriate targets of desire, she also has strict opinions about restricting the sexes to gender-segregated behaviors and berates Silence, “You have no business jousting and riding and hunting! Go to a chamber and take up sewing! That’s what you’re supposed to be doing!”
Silence, being obedient and biddable, begins to be swayed by Nature’s arguments and contemplates giving up her hope of inheritance for the sake of learning to sew. But in the nick of time, Nurture shows up and says, “Whoa! Hold on there! What’s going on?”
Silence explains, “Nature has convinced me that I should change my ways—that none of my foremothers have ever behaved as I am. So I’ll take up feminine habits, stop cutting my hair short, stop wearing breeches. I’ll stop hunting with bow and quiver, and I’ll stop playing boys’ games, even though it makes the other boys call me a sissy. As it is now, every time I get undressed, I’m afraid someone will find me out. Perhaps I should let all this go and live quietly as a woman.”
Nurture is outraged. We shouldn’t read too much into the fact that Nurture is personified as female, just as Nature is. This is, to some extent, a consequence of linguistic gender, as the underlying concepts are grammatically feminine. Nurture exclaims, “Leave my child alone, Nature! Silence will always resist you. I can make a thousand people turn from their nature through nurture.” We may wince a bit at Nurture’s next statement, that she has “turned a noble child into a defective male.” But this is the author’s phrasing, we must remember.
A third personification takes the podium. This time it’s Reason, and she lays out the case why, if Silence abandons what she has gained through Nurture to stick only to Nature, it would be as bad as suicide. “Buck up,” Reason says. “If you listen to Nature, you’ll never train to be a knight. You’ll lose your horse and chariot. And never think that King Eban will change his mind about disinheriting you.”
If Nature is an annoying gender-essentialist, and if Nurture (who doesn’t get much air time) seems indifferent to the actual specifics of one’s upbringing, for good or ill, Reason is a pragmatist. “Look, kid,” Reason implies, “we live in a misogynistic world and right now you have the upper hand. Do you really want to give that up?”
And Silence thinks to himself, “If I’m on top, why would I want to step down? As a man, I’m valiant and given honor. Would it be taking the easy way out to be a woman? Besides, I have no practice in being feminine. I don’t know how to kiss or caress softly. And I don’t know how a woman is supposed to act in bed. Besides, I’d turn my father into a liar for telling the world that I’m his son.”
So Silence determines to continue living as a man, but has a certain amount of lingering inner conflict.
Life as a Minstrel
This is the point in The Hero’s Journey where it’s time for our hero to go out into the world, and just in the nick of time, two wandering minstrels headed for Brittany stumble across the manor house in the woods where Silence is being raised. After listening to the minstrels, Silence thinks about how he doesn’t know what the future will bring—whether he will need to live as a man all his life, or whether King Eban will die and women will be able to inherit again. But if he’s not going to learn feminine arts, and if he isn’t certain he could succeed as a knight, maybe he should go with the minstrels and learn their trade so he can make a living that would work either for a man or a woman.
So Silence sneaks off and goes with the minstrels to Brittany, leaving his parents and guardians in deep despair. Silence is, once more, the best at everything he tries, and within three years he’s better at minstrelsy than his companions, which makes them jealous and angry. At the court of the Duke of Burgundy, Silence gets all the praise and adulation and the other minstrels plot to kill him, but…well, we’ll make a long story short and say it doesn’t happen and his former companions take themselves off.
Silence has become homesick and heads back to Cornwall, traveling as a minstrel. But there’s this problem: you see, the Count of Cornwall has a grudge against all minstrels because a pair of minstrels kidnapped his only child years ago, and minstrelsy is punishable with death! Silence is hauled before the Count for judgment, but fortunately an old man recognizes him, and by means of a unique birthmark, Silence proves his identity and is joyfully welcomed.
King Eban’s Court
King Eban—you remember King Eban, the one who disinherited all women?—hears of Silence’s fame and summons Silence to his court to join his household. But immediately there is trouble because Queen Eufeme falls in lust with Silence and schemes to get him alone when the king goes out hunting. Now perhaps—our narrator says—if Silence had looked like a girl, the queen wouldn’t have desired him, and much could have been avoided. This brings us back to the question of what it means to “look like a girl” if both male and female beauty is described in similar terms. Throughout the romance, the only absolute gender marker is clothing, given that appearance is ungendered and Silence’s behavior is consistently male-coded. But in any event, the queen gets Silence alone and confesses her desire for him though, the narrator notes, she’d never get more from him than a kiss and would only be even more upset once she learns Silence can’t perform sexually as a man.
The queen embraces and kisses Silence. “Just relax,” she says, “and kiss me.”
Silence, recognizing the hazard of making the queen angry, kisses her chastely on the forehead. The queen goes back for five more very passionate kisses and when Silence tries to get away, she protests that she’s offering her body to him completely. She starts to undress. Silence protests, “Look, lady, I’m your husband’s vassal. What you’re asking me to do is sin and treason.”
“What a monk!” the queen jeers. “Go tell your father you’re ready to take your vows.” She turns sweet and angry by turns. Silence is in an impossible situation. She could reveal that she is a girl and be free of the queen’s lust, but then she would lose her inheritance. The queen, seeing she’s not making any headway, says, “Ha ha, just joking. If I’d really been serious you wouldn’t have refused me.” But she’s furious and determined to get back at Silence. She can’t understand why Silence would refuse her. It can’t be out of a sense of honor and duty, it must be because he’s gay. Yep, the medieval text actually says that. Which is interesting because while the author recognizes that a man might have an exclusive homosexual orientation, there’s nowhere any hint that the “thousands” of women who desire the male-presenting Silence might continue to desire Silence-as-a-girl.
In any event, the queen assures Silence that the whole episode was just a test to find a vassal who was the most loyal and honorable for a special assignment, and Silence passed the test, so they’re all good, right? “Thank God,” says Silence and naively thinks everything’s ok. But the next time the king goes off hunting, the queen gets Silence alone once more and when Silence again rebuffs her, the queen hits herself until she bleeds, and tears her clothing, and screams rape until the king comes back and the queen can accuse Silence of assaulting her. She demands the king’s vengeance, and meanwhile Silence feels like she can’t say anything because it would be disobedience to the queen.
But the king doesn’t want to put Silence to death. After all Silence is the son of one of his important vassals. Besides which, he argues, if he punishes Silence severely, then people will believe that the queen was, in fact, compromised, and surely she wouldn’t want that, right? The queen fumes but can’t find a good argument. The king says, “I’ll send Silence to the French court, that should take care of things.” Which, if you think about it, had Silence actually sexually assaulted the queen, that’s the sort of shell game that we still see so often when men in power abuse their authority.
In any event, the king has his chancellor draw up a letter of recommendation to the French king, suggesting that Silence should be welcomed and knighted, and at the same time the queen writes her own letter, which she substitutes for the king’s, which says, “Kill the bearer of this message.”
The French Court
But remember that Silence just has this shining charisma that makes everyone love him, so when he hands the letter to the French king’s chancellor, the chancellor thinks, “OMG, I can’t allow this noble youth to be executed, I should lie to my king about what the letter says, but that would be dishonorable and maybe get me killed, what shall I do?” He brings the dilemma to the king and explains that he thinks it would be a dreadful thing to kill such a noble youth. And the king has also fallen for Silence’s charisma, but he’s already welcomed Silence to his court and given him the kiss of peace and his reputation would be shot if he turned and executed him after that. The king consults with his advisors and they spend pages and pages of verse arguing over whether the more honorable thing to do is to kill Silence or to let him live. Finally one advisor says, “Look, this is a bit out of character for King Eban. What’s the chance the letter is a forgery, created by someone with a grudge against Silence? Maybe you should write back to King Eban for confirmation and include the original letter?”
So while Silence is all in ignorance of this, the query is sent off and King Eban says, “What the fuck?” and throws his chancellor in prison for screwing up the letter so badly. But the chancellor, after wracking his memory for a while, recalls that the queen had handled the letter before it was sealed and dares to suggest to King Eban that maybe his queen was the one who was trying to get Silence killed. Yeah, that makes sense, thinks the king to himself, but he still wants to conceal what happened between the queen and Silence so he blames someone else. But he sends his chancellor to France to explain the mixup and that they’re all good.
So Silence joins the French court and, as usual, is better at everything than everyone else. The French king knights him. And our narrator seems to be softening a little toward the side of Nurture, noting, “[One] might well say that Nurture can do a great deal to overcome Nature, if she can teach such behavior to a soft and tender woman. Many a knight unhorsed by Silence, if he had known the truth at the time she knocked him down, would have been terribly ashamed that a tender, soft, faint-hearted woman, who had only the complexion, clothing, and bearing of a man, could have struck him down with her lance. And do you know what I really think? One should behave properly every day… Many act dishonourably every day, but if they…had been raised with [honor] from infancy, they would reject base deeds. If they behave improperly, they can’t help it; they’re only practicing what they’ve learned. Silence had no regrets about his upbringing, in fact, he loved it.” In other words, if Nurture guides you into correct behavior, it becomes an inherent part of you. You aren’t stuck with exactly and only what Nature gave you.
Back to England
But in the meantime, war broke out in England against King Eban and he decided he needed as great a warrior as Silence had become, and never mind how the queen felt about it. So Silence returned to King Eban’s court with a troop of thirty warriors. With their help, King Eban defeated his opponents (though this takes many more words in the original than I’m using here) and the French troops were sent home with gold and glory.
That leaves Silence back in the same court as Queen Eufeme. And the queen still bears a grudge. She tells the king that Silence is still pestering and harassing her, and suggests that the way to deal with him without sullying either the queen’s or king’s reputations is to send him on an impossible quest. Merlin the magician, she says, is wandering the woods as a madman and it’s said that he could never be captured except by a woman’s trick. So tell Silence that you need Merlin to interpret a dream for you, and send him out with instructions to bring Merlin back or never return. That way we’ll be rid of him.
Silence realizes that this is all Queen Eufeme’s doing and is in despair. I guess either Silence hadn’t heard the bit about a “woman’s trick” or thinks it doesn’t apply to her? In any event, Silence wanders in the woods for half a year and then happens to encounter a man with long flowing white hair at the edge of a grove. Now you might think that this was Merlin, but no, this is the mysterious old man who explains to Silence how to capture Merlin.
“Here’s the deal,” he says. “I’ll give you wine, milk, honey, and meat. Go to this place where Merlin hangs out and start a fire and start grilling the meat. That will attract Merlin. When Merlin shows up, fade back into the woods. Oh, and make sure the meat is very salty, so it will make him thirsty. Now place the honey, the milk, and the wine at intervals leading away from the fire so that he encounters them in that order. He’ll drink the honey first, then the milk, which will make him bloated and even more thirsty. Then he'll drink the wine straight down. And because he’s no longer accustomed to drinking wine, he’ll go right to sleep. Then you can grab him.”
As Silence begins following the old man’s instructions, Nurture and Nature show up and start quarreling again. I keep envisioning this as a comic bit in a stage play. In any event, Merlin is being tempted by the roasting meat but Nurture tells him, “Look, you’ve been living off raw plants and herbs in the forest for years and have become accustomed to them. Nature may tell you to eat cooked meat, but surely Nurture will trump that and you’ll walk away from the fire.” Which is a rather odd argument, when you think about it, because surely eating random raw foods direct from the land is what Nature gives us, while the cooking of meat is a cultural skill that we’re taught by Nurture? Let us not forget that the author’s ideas of Nature and Nurture are themselves culturally conditioned.
In any event, Nature and Nurture get into the verbal equivalent of a knock-down drag-out fight over which of them is responsible for the Fall of Adam and Eve. And whether the logic and theology is sound or not, in the story, Nature wins the argument, then grabs Merlin by the scruff of the neck (literally, I mean, that’s what the medieval text says), and shoves him toward the meat roasting over the fire. He gobbled the meat, then drank down the honey, milk, and wine in turn, then passed out drunk.
Silence grabs him and as Merlin is going, “Wait…what?” the plot takes an unexpected turn. Silence proclaims, “I want to kill you, because you caused the death of my ancestor Gorlain, duke of Cornwall, when you disguised King Uther in Gorlain’s appearance so he could seduce Gorlain’s wife and conceive King Arthur.”
Merlin (who seems to have gotten over his wild-man phase) says, “So what? The ends justify the means and King Arthur was a highly justified end.”
And somehow Silence is ok with that and drops the matter, simply hauling Merlin back to King Eban’s court. Merlin is ok with that because he’s looking forward to stirring up a few hornets’ nests. There’s this interesting sub-plot as they return where Merlin bursts into laughter at three seemingly inappropriate circumstances. He’s brought into the king’s presence laughing uncontrollably and uproariously. King Eban is furious that Merlin won’t explain why he’s laughing and throws the magician in prison to think about it for a while. In a few days, he hauls him out and Merlin is more amenable to talking but demands that the king won’t punish him for anything he says, because he isn’t going to like it.
So Merlin explains the hidden meaning behind the three things he laughed at. The king is somewhat mollified, but protests, “But Merlin, you’re a false prophet, because you prophesied that you would never be captured except by a woman’s trick and yet here you are. You lied!”
In the meantime, Silence is standing there sweating because she knows what’s coming. She’s brought her own doom to court. And Merlin explains that he was captured only because he was tricked into thinking that Silence was a man, but that she is a girl under her clothes and that was the woman’s trick. (There’s also a sidebar where Merlin exposes the queen’s male lover who has been hanging out in her apartments disguised as a nun. But we’re coming to the climax so let’s not get distracted.)
The king is furious at various of them for various reasons. He has both the nun and Silence brought forth and stripped to expose the bodies beneath the clothing. Silence is required to explain herself (though one hopes that she was allowed to put something on first) and not only the reason for her gender disguise but the basis for the queen’s enmity is laid out.
King Eban says, “Silence, you’re loyal and virtuous – a precious treasure. You have saved yourself, and on your behalf I’ll reverse the law against women’s inheritance. But Queen Eufeme, you have betrayed me. Both you and your lover will be executed. Oh, and Silence, since you’re so beautiful and virtuous, you’re going to be my next queen.”
And so ends our story. This isn’t a story with clear conclusions or morals about gender and virtue. Not even really about Nature and Nurture. But it’s a medieval romance that talks more about issues of feminist interest than most do. And if the triumph of Nature within the framework of the story doesn’t align well with modern notions of gender identity, the simple fact that the author is framing gender as something where the influence of nature and nurture can be debated is intriguing.
One shouldn’t interpret gender-crossing characters like Silence as indicating a completely open mind about women who cross-dressed or who engaged in male-coded behavior. Even in the context of the story, Silence is very aware of how people would react to her if her full story were known. Medieval people were ok with praising fictional gender-crossing characters while looking askance at those who behaved similarly in real life. But a story like the Romance of Silence can expand our understanding of the medieval imagination and the identities they could conceive of existing, even if they didn’t embrace them.
When I read stories like this, I’m often inspired to think of ways they could be adapted with just a little tweaking into something that retains the feel of the original but is more queer-friendly for a modern audience. I’m not the only person to have reimagined Silence in this way and authors have envisioned Silence with a variety of gender identities and story outcomes. My own version is titled “All is Silence” and will be featured in a special bonus fiction podcast next week, to celebrate hitting episode number 250. I hope you’ll enjoy it!
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online