252: Medieval Literature
Polytechnic State University
Gender-Bending in Post-Arthurian
Heldris of Cornwall's
Factual Overview: The Romance
of Silence is a
13th-century French romance
rhyming couplets. Nothing is known of the author other than the name,
of Cornwall, which is given in the opening line and at the beginning
of the epilogue (line 6684, p. 313). It is preserved in a single
manuscript preserved at the Univeristy of Nottingham in England (see
intro p. xxiii). Despite what is stated on the back cover of our
textbook, it is a post-Arthurian romance rather than an Arthurian
one. While Arthur is mentioned (at lines 109, 6154 and 6156), and
the wizard Merlin plays a role at the end of the narrative, the action
occurs during the reign of a (fictional) English king called Ebain (translated
as "Evan"), and both structure and plot diverge from the conventions of
mainstream Arthurian romance. Be able to identify the following names
(and to distinguish between the roles played by each):
Evan, Eufeme, Cador, Eufemie,
Reason, Malduit, Merlin.
Backgrounds: in addition to knowing
the factual information presented above, read the online Introduction
to Medieval Allegory, and be sure you understand the meaning of the
term "allegory" (adjective form: "allegorical"). The allegorical
figures Nature, Nurture and Reason appear several
times in the romance; take note of their appearances, and pay attention
to what they have to say in each case. How do their varying perspectives
merge with and/or diverge from those of other characters in the romance?
with the attitudes and viewpoints of the romance's original audience? with
medieval or modern ideas about appropriate gender roles?
You are also responsible for reading the Introduction
in our textbook (pp. xi-xxiv). This Introduction brings up many
important issues that you should look for in the romance. While I
do advise skimming the Introduction before reading the full text, you are
likely to get more out of it on a second read-through, after you have finished
the primary reading. As you read the Introduction and the romance
itself, be sensitive to the following issues:
In addition to the issues addressed in the editor's Introduction, pay particular
attention to the following:
In the section on "Major Sources and Analogues,"
note that, in addition to our old friend the Romance of Eneas
(referred to by the French title, "Roman d'Eneas"), the editor notes
several important sources: the story of a warrior maiden called
Grisandole found in the Estoire Merlin ("History of Merlin,"
an early 13th-century Arthurian romance in prose); the story of Dolopathos
("he who suffers sorrow) from the Seven Sages of Rome; and
of course, the
stories. The Romance of Silence is thus another excellent
example of medieval translatio,
the process whereby an author reworks elements drawn from a broad range
of literary sources in order to express a new meaning. Note the editor's
comments that in a number of instances, Heldris reworks misognistic
literary sources in order to challenge contemporary ideas about
appropriate gender roles.
In the section on Nature and Nurture,
pay attention to the editor's comments on how these allegorical
figures represent the debate about gender. Is heredity
biological body, i.e. Nature) or environment
education, i.e. Nurture) the determining factor in
gender identity? Can certain behaviors and activities be defined
as "male" or "female"? If so, are the specific spheres of activity
defined as "male" or "female"
innate ("natural") or culturally
defined? Note instances in the text where these issues are explicitly
addressed or implicitly explored.
In the section on "Euphemism and Silence," pay
attention to the editor's comments on the implications of the names
given to the three principal female characters: King Evan's treacherous
wife Eufeme, Cador's wise and virtuous wife Eufemie, and
Cador and Eufemie's gender-switching daughter Silence (known by
the Latin names "Silentius" or "Silentia"depending on whether
she is recognized as male or female: in Latin, words ending in "-us"
are grammatically masculine, while the ending "-a" is grammatically
feminine). As you read, note the ways in which Heldris's use of these names
contributes to the debate on gender within the romance. You will
also want to consider the implications of "Malduit,"
the name Silence assumes when she runs away to become a minstrel in the
episodes of the romance.
The editor connects the episode of "Merlin's
Laughter" to what she calls the "deeply disturbing" contrast between
the revolutionary exploration of gender in the body of the narrative and
its highly conventional conclusion, in which Silence is unmasked and forced
to resume "normal" female gender roles as Evan's wife and queen. Her comment
that Merlin "takes command of the story" (p. xxii) implies that the magician
can again be seen as a figure of the author (as was the case of
Thessala in Chrétien's
But is Merlin really the best representative of the poet within the text?
As you read the end of the romance, think about these contentions.
Do you agree that the ending of the story is disturbing? Does the
way in which the narrative is resolved prove that gender (and appropriate
gender behavior) is ultimately determined by biology (i.e. that Nature
ultmately triumphs over Nurture)? If not, how else can the ending be interpreted?
Why does the narrative end with Silence's assumption of traditional feminine
roles? Since the story ends there -- in effect "silencing" Silence -- one
way of understanding the ending is to conclude that in the thirteenth century,
at least, the only way for a woman to have a public voice or to attain
autonomy was to give up her feminine identity. But is that the only
way to read the ending of the romance?
While the romance has little in common with mainstream Arthurian romances,
the Cornish setting strongly invites comparison with the Tristan
stories (recall that Tristan's uncle Mark was King of Cornwall). It is
not surprising, then, that the Romance of Silence both incorporates
explicit allusions to the Tristan stories and contains numerous parallels
to them; as editor/translator Sarah Roche-Mahdi notes, in the Romance
of Silence, "the matter of Tristan" is "everywhere" (p. xiii).
As you read, be sensitive to both explicit and implicit references
to Tristan, Isolde and/or to other characters and situations found in the
Tristan tradition. (Refer back to your Béroul textbook and the online
reading on the Tristan tradition
to help you recognize and note parallel elements.) Then, look for
more subtle translatio
transformations of elements or situtations found in the Tristan stories.
You may find it helpful to review the ways in which Chrétien "translatio"-ed
the Tristan stories in Cligés.
Some parallels to look for and consider:
Gender and Misogyny: Towards the end of her
Prologue, the Wife of Bath claims that
"if women had but written stories" (WBP p. 120), the face of literature
would be very different. By drawing on their own experience
instead of the "authoritative" writings of misogynistic auctores,
she asserts, women would paint a truer picture of womankind (and of marriage)
than is found in the misogynistic (and misogamous) clerical tradition symbolized
by Jenkins's Book of Wicked Wives.
As you read the Romance of Silence, note passages that deal explicitly
with misogynistic stereotypes, either to assert or to refute them
(e.g. references to Adam and Eve, comments on bad qualities supposedly
characteristic of all women, etc.) In what contexts do these statements
appear? Whose point of view do they seem to contain?
Should they be taken seriously? Are they borne out by the events
recounted in the romance as a whole? What do you make of the wickedness
of Eufeme, who like the Guenevere of Marie de France's Lanval,
falsely accuses the "youth from Cornwall" of attempted rape when he does
not respond to her advances? Do you agree with editor Roche-Mahdi's
suggestion (pp. xx-xxi) that the "good" Eufemie and the "bad" Eufeme are
almost interchangeable? What do you make of Evan's statements, p.301, that
"a woman's role is to keep silent" (l.6398)? What about Heldris's
comments on women in the closing lines of the poem (pp. 313-5)?
Structure 1 -- Prequel / Main Story:
Both the original Tristan stories and Chrétien's
begin with a prequel telling the story of the hero's parents;
this prequel in some sense prefigures the destiny of the hero.
The unhappy fate of Tristan's parents, who both died in "occupational accidents"
(on the battlefield and in childbirth) around the time of his birth, is
emblematized in Tristan's very name, which means "sadness." This
name becomes a symbol of the hero's tragic destiny: Tristan will
never find happiness, since he can be united with the woman he loves only
in death. Is Silence's name as symbolic of her/his
destiny as Tristan's was? In Cligés,
Chrétien reversed the significance of the parallels between the
prequel and the main story by showing how the happy and legitimate
marriage of Alexander and Soredamors prefigures Cligés and Fenice's
ultimate marital happiness and legitimacy. Note how
this prequel / main story structure is duplicated in the Romance
of Silence. Does Heldris's use of this dual structure seem closer
to the model found in the Tristan romances, or to that found in Cligés?
In what regards does the Romance of Silence seem closer to each
of these works?
Structure 2 -- Midpoints: Recall also
the significance of the midpoint episodes in both of Chrétien's
romances, which as we have previously noted, typically provide insight
into the underlying message of the romance and/or resolve questions concerning
the hero's identity. What is going on in the
episodes of the Romance of Silence? What do these episodes
tell us about the author's message? about the underlying identity of the
hero? about the underlying "meaning" of the romance?
Parallel characters: Unlike
the Romance of Silence does not rewrite ("translatio")
the Tristan stories by duplicating an actual or potentially adulterous
triangle of King, Queen and King's nephew / best knight. While Silence
does become King Evan's best knight, s/he is not his nephew (or his niece);
moreover, s/he resists Queen Eufemie's advances, and the queen instead
has an adulterous affair with a man masquerading as a nun. Nonetheless
Silence, who is repeatedly referred to as the "youth from Cornwall," is
in many ways more closely modelled on Tristan (prince of Cornwall) than
was Cligés. How do Silence's talents and exploits echo those
of his/her famous literary precedessor? What changes does Heldris
make in the elements borrowed from the Tristan tradition? What are
the implications of those changes? Consider e.g. the fact that after
drinking the potion, Tristan is motivated entirely by erotic love:
his passion for Isolde is the only thing that matters to him. By
contrast, Silence never falls in love, and her marriage at the end of the
romance comes out of the blue and strikes many as an unsatisfactory ending.
What do you make of this discrepancy? Is it accidental or deliberate?
What are its implications?
Plot elements: Look for other plot
elements or motifs common to the Romance of Silence and to the Tristan
stories. How many can you find? Do any of them present deliberate
transformations of the original stories? Do either the similarities
or the changes add up to anything of significance? (Do they contribute
to a coherent message or meaning that Heldris would seem to be trying to
communicate in this poem?) To get you started, here are a few Tristan
elements to look for: heros who win brides by fighting dragons; heroines
skilled in the healing arts who cure heros of poisoning; puns on being
in love and being in distress; heros who are highly skilled musicians;
heros who are model knights and save the day in the kingdom's hour of need;
the constant use of disguises and ambiguous words . . . What other
Tristan-like elements can you find? Make a list, note page numbers, and
be prepared to share some in class.
Bearing these considerations in mind, consider
the question of the romance's authorshop. As noted above,
nothing is known about the author called "Heldris of Cornwall" beyond the
two instances where the name is recorded at the beginning and at the end
of the romance. What if Heldris, like Silence, was a woman
masquerading as a man? Could a gender-bending author help explain
any puzzling elements of the text, beyond the obviously gender-bending
hero(ine)? As you read, look for passages or plot elements that might
suggest a feminine perspective: the presence of elements that are
not typically included to in chivalric romances (e.g. descriptions of pregnancy
and childbirth; references to "women's work" such as child-rearing, sewing
or baking); or passages which present an atypical take on conventional
romance occurences (e.g. comments on the human suffering caused by war,
rather than e.g. the glory attained by the victors); or any others which
you find significant.
With these points in mind, reconsider the
episode of the Romance of Silence: the adventures
of the minstrel "Malduit" (roughly translatable as "improperly educated"
in lines 3175-80, p. 149 -- a suitable epithet for a girl raised as a boy?)
If Heldris of Cornwall was in fact a woman masquerading as a man, would
it not be fitting that the romance's midpoint -- a location where
medieval authors typically addressed questions of identity and which
frequently provide the key to a romance's underlying meaning or message
-- contains the story of a girl dressed as a boy who becomes the best
minstrel of all (recall that a minstrel was a story-telling musician-poet).
Silence's dual roles as best minstrel-poet and, later, as best knight,
recall the deliberate parallels in the Knight
of the Cart between the romance hero Lancelot (who uses
his chivalric prowess to serve his lady, the Queen) and the romance
poet Chrétien (who puts his poetic prowess in the service
of his lady, the Countess of Champagne -- the twin domains of human
activity symbolized by translatio
studii and translatio
imperii.) It is worth noting that at the midpoint of the
of the Cart, Lancelot's previously hidden identity is revealed
in a passage which also points to the underlying "meaning" of the romance:
it demonstrates the power of love to transform an individual for the better.
Heldris may also be thinking of the midtpoint of Chrétien's Cligés,
a romance which seems to be as much "about" the literary processes of translatio
as it is the story of its two main characters. In each case, the
dual structure (prequel/sequel) divides the audience's interest between
two heros; only the poet is a constant presence throughout both
parts of the narrative. Thus, one could almost say that the poet supplants
the hero as the central figure in the romance. In this regard, it is
interesting to recall that the midpoint of Cligés
contains an account of the female magician Thessala brewing her
magic potions -- a metaphor for the magic of translatio,
the poetic processes whereby Chrétien has created his romance.
If Heldris was indeed a woman, the poet-like role played by the male magician
Merlin at the end of the romance may be a subtle reminiscence of the way
in which Chrétien used a female magician to symbolize the
literary "magic" of his own poetic craft.
Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2005
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