Le Roman de Silence
Le Roman de Silence
Le roman de Silence (The romance of Silence), by the otherwise unknown Heldris de Cornuälle, is a thirteenth-century romance surviving in a single manuscript and consisting of 6,706 lines of octosyllabic verse in rhyming couplets. The foundational medieval romance for the study of cross-dressing and transgenderism and now firmly established in the canon despite its recent rediscovery, Silence relates the story of a girl whose parents decide to raise their daughter as a boy because King Ebain of England has declared that women may not inherit property. They name the child Silentius, with the idea that the masculine -us, although it is against the us, or custom, of nature, can be easily altered to -a if Eufemie and Cador—the mother and father—should have a son.
The text stages a self-conscious debate over gender identity when the personification of Nature, revolted by the couple's decision, quarrels inconclusively with her counterpart, Noreture (Nurture), as to which of them has the stronger claim over the child. Sent to an isolated location to be brought up male, the "boy who was a girl" remains ignorant of the sex/gender split until the age of reason, when his father tells "him"—Heldris is remarkably consistent in using male pronouns to refer to his cross-dressed protagonist—that he is in fact a girl. An obedient child, the ambiguously named Silence adheres to her parents' wishes, wearing breeches and excelling at wrestling, skirmishing, and jousting, while carefully concealing her sex from her companions. When Silence reaches the age of twelve, Nature enjoins her to abandon her assumed gender, to "go to the chamber and learn to sew," activities assumed to be "natural" to women. Though troubled at the thought of living a life of deception, Silence decides that being a boy puts her "on top" and that womanhood would be a demotion. Recognizing that there is nothing feminine about herself, she worries, in what may be a veiled reference to sodomy, about what her role as a boy would be in the "game under the covers."
Silence's cross-dressing takes on new complications when, jumping class and perhaps race distinctions, she darkens her skin with an herb from the forest to run away with two minstrels. Ironically, her excellence at minstrelsy ultimately poses a greater threat to her well-being than her cross-dressing—her comrades, jealous of her success, conspire to kill her—just as her prowess as a knight, after her return to Ebain's court, exposes her to the designs of the wicked queen Eufeme (whose name can be read as meaning "Alas! Woman!"), the negative image of her mother Eufemie ("use of good speech").
After banishment to the French court, where her chivalric valor wins the admiration of the French king, Silence is given the impossible task of capturing Merlin. When she succeeds and brings the magician to the court, he reveals Silence's subterfuge as well as the queen's, whose lover is cross-dressed as a nun. Ebain pardons Silence, who declares that she wishes to remain silent no longer and to live according to her biologically assigned sex. Nature reclaims her rights, transforming the handsome warrior into a fair maiden who is married to Ebain while Eufeme is drawn and quartered. Despite its unconventional approach to gender and the sympathetic portrayal of its queer main character, critics have argued that Silence ultimately reveals a deep-seated misogyny, but the conclusion's neat reinscription of sanctioned gender roles in no way diminishes the text's insistent interrogation of medieval culture's assumptions and expectations regarding gender.
Heldris de Cornuälle. 1972. Le roman de Silence: A Thirteenth-Century Arthurian Verse-Romance, ed. Lewis Thorpe. Cambridge, UK: Heffer.
Heldris de Cornuälle. 1991. Le roman de Silence, trans. Regina Psaki. New York: Garland.
Heldris de Cornuälle. 1992. Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance, ed. and trans. Sarah Roche-Mahdi. East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press.
Kinoshita, Sharon. 1995. "Heldris de Cornuälle's Roman de Silence and the Feudal Politics of Lineage." PMLA 110(3): 397-409.
McCracken, Peggy. 1994. "The Boy Who Was a Girl: Reading Gender in the Roman de Silence." Romanic Review 85(4): 517-536.
Psaki, F. Regina, ed. 1997. "Le roman de Silence." Spec. issue, Arthuriana 7(2).
Robert L. A. Clark