ENGL 252: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Gender-Bending in Post-Arthurian Romance:
Heldris of Cornwall's Romance of Silence

Factual Overview:  The Romance of Silence is a 13th-century French romance in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. Nothing is known of the author other than the name, Heldris 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): Heldris, Evan, Eufeme, Cador, Eufemie, Silence, Nature, Nurture, 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 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 Tristan 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 (one's biological body, i.e. Nature) or environment (one's 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 midpoint 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 Cligés).  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?
In addition to the issues addressed in the editor's Introduction, pay particular attention to the following:

Tristan elements:  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:

  • Structure 1 -- Prequel / Main Story: Both the original Tristan stories and Chrétien's Cligés 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 midpoint 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 Cligés, 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.
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)?

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 midpoint 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 Knight 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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