Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #4 – Roche-Mahdi 1999 - Silence

Full citation: 

Roche-Mahdi, Sarah. 1999. Silence. Michigan State University Press, Lansing. ISBN 0-87013-543-0

There are several medieval romances (in the literary sense) that seem to me to cry out for invoking authorial privilege to tweak the endings to a more satisfactory conclusion. The tale is Silence is one of those, with its elements of gender-bending, a heroic woman in disguise, and tantalizingly passionate (if problematic) encounters between a female pair. Like many French romances, the story is rambling and not always entirely coherent. I've focused specifically on the events relevant to my project.

While the story, at face value, would seem to contradict any lesbian interpretations, the reason for including it in the Motifs Project is the ways in which those interpretations are set up and spelled out in order to contradict them. Women are expected to fall in love with a woman who presents in a male gender role. The possibility of homosexuality is evoked as a reason for unexpected erotic responses or the lack thereof. The queen is erotically drawn to an individual who -- underneath the disguise -- is a woman. There are erotic interactions between them, and Silences’s objections are much more strongly framed as ethical than as from lack of attraction. Even more, the discussion of gender roles as being a realm where nurture may over-ride nature provides a counterbalance to more conventional notions of medieval attitudes.

* * *

Edition and English translation of a 13th c. French Arthurian romance. Roche-Mahdi has a brief preface giving the history and context of the manuscript and a brief synopsis of the major themes.

The king of England has proclaimed that no woman will be allowed to inherit, so Silence (the primary character) the daughter and only child of Cador and Eufemie of Cornwall is raised as a boy to get around the law. On reaching adolescence she engages in a debate with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture as to whether she should continue in a male role (Nurture) or take up a female role (Nature). The arguments presented shed interesting light on attitudes towards gender roles.

In part, Silence is enculturated in a male role simply by being treated as a boy. There is an emphasis on physical activity (riding, wrestling, and martial arts) but not perhaps more than an actual son would have received.

Nature’s argument is that the male role is a deception and a waste. Nature specifically invokes the possibility that women will fall in love with Silence to their regret: “There are a thousand women in this world who are madly in love with you because of the beauty they see in you -- you don’t suppose they think something’s there that was never part of your equipment at all? There are those who love you now who would hate you with all their hearts if they kew what you really are! They would consider themselves misused having their hopes so cruelly dashed.”

Silence responds that she can’t be other than who she is, and this is how she’s always known herself. She begins wavering but then Nurture arrives to argue the other side and Silence reasons that it would make no sense to go from the powerful and respected life as a man to the “lower” life as a woman, and that furthermore she would make a bad woman as she has no practice at it.

Deciding to continue in the male role, she runs away to become a minstrel and then a knight and so arrives at the royal court where she wins great fame. As Nature predicted, women fall in love with her, including the queen who makes sexual advances toward Silence. They kiss: the queen passionately and Silence trying to maintain a chaste response. The reason Silence gives for rejecting the advances is that it would be treachery against the king, though it is also noted, “She [the queen] began to embrace him [Silence -- there is a great deal of pronoun alternation] but he wasn’t at all interested, because his nature kept him from responding.” The queen, unhappy at the rejection (and after contemplating the possibility that Silence must be gay, not to be aroused by her), falsely accuses Silence of assaulting her to get revenge. After various complications, Silence is given what is meant to be a hopeless quest: to capture Merlin and bring him to court. Silence succeeds but with “a woman’s trick” and is thereby unmasked, but all ends well as the king is so impressed by Silence (and the queen’s treachery is discovered) that he reverses the ban on women inheriting.

Time period: 

Add new comment