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The Sound of Silence

The Relationship between Gender Oppression, Performance and Language in Heldris de Cornulles Romance de Silence

This essay was originally submitted for a Medieval Romance class (Fall 2008). This piece won first prize for the Mills College Womens Studies Department Writing Contest (Spring 2009).

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The Relationship between Gender Oppression, Performance and Language in Heldris de Cornulles Romance de Silence

In the 13th century French epic Romance de Silence, attributed to Heldris de Cornulle, the 6,076 lines details the story of Silence, a young woman, who, because of circumstances within the kingdom, essentially becomes a man at the insistence of her own parents. As a man, Silence succeeds in everything she does and eventually comes into the Kings favor. However, with social pressures fighting against her, Silence is set up by King Ebains jealous wife, Queen Eupheme, to retrieve Merlin, who eventually unmasks Silences natural identity. In the most humiliating and degrading scene in the poem, the climax of Silences deception, she is stripped, bare, naked, in the middle of King Ebains court, and revealed as anatomically female. However, in an ironic twist Queen Eupheme could not have predicted, the wicked queen is beheaded, whereas Silence is whisked away and put into a dress, and marries the King in order to become a good woman (6685). On the surface, one might think that the story ends well for hero Silence, for she could have just as easily been killed like Eupheme for her deceit, but Silences adventures are far more complicated than Cornulles fairytale may suggest.

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Throughout the course of the poem, Silence is little more than a puppet, forced to prove her masculine self while contending with the limitations Nature, Nurture and society have placed on her. Cornulle also complicates matters by constantly using language that skews the image of Silences gender and sexuality, while simultaneously praising men for their strength and valor and condemning women as being naturally unrighteous and deceitful. Between all the hoops that Silence faithfully, yet desperately, tries to jump through and sacrifices she makes, all that is left is an un-gendered mess who most dependably lives up to her name: Silence. In her quest to perform the best she can in any role, whether the role is as Silentia or Silentius, she will always truly be Silence because of the constricting factors placed upon her by the language, characters, and social expectations of the authors time. Ultimately, the consequence of Silences ambiguous fate and constant performance is that she can never fully claim her identity as male or female; the woman who works so heroically and diligently can never have the liberty to assume and claim a gender of her own, because, as anatomically female, she has no voice. Perhaps the most subtle way Silence is oppressed is through the structure and language of the poem itself. Cornulle uses the literary devices of acceleration, deceleration and frequency to draw attention to the action and gloss over unnecessary details and broad ideas; however, in the case of the hero Silence, Cornulle reverses these tactics. Instead of decelerating the action

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scenes involving Silence, the author generally accelerates the action and in this way, Silence is both powerful and powerless (Ryder, 22). This unusual use of acceleration and declaration subconsciously questions Silences agency and makes her heroic actions seem insignificant. For example, Silence is a celebrated minstrel, however the first three years of her musical career is compressed into a single stanza: he learned to play instruments so well, he put such effort into it, that before the end of the third year he had completely surpassed his masters, and earned a great deal of money for them. (3139-3143) Furthermore, in the few scenes in which Silence is highly agentive the pace of the poem is exceptionally fast and the scenes themselves do not last long. The slowest pace for an event in which Silence takes an important agentive role occurs when Silence fights with the Count of Chester during the rebellion, 55845633. Yet even this key event occupies only 50 lines. On the other hand, [Queen Eupheme]s first attempted seduction of Silence, 37433895, in which Silence plays an honorable but hardly powerful role, is given three times as much text (153 lines). (Ryder, 25)

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Because of this imbalance of action appropriation to characters, the reader is more so exposed to a Silence who is acted upon by others than a Silence who initiates action himself The

Romance de Silence incorporates language that consistently diminishes the audiences perception
of Silences power only fifteen percent of the references to Silence as an actor or agent are actually highly agentive (Ryder, 25, 36). Not only is Cornulle diminishing Silences actions, but her impact as well. Another literary device Cornulle utilizes in Romance de Silence is frequency, but similarly to acceleration and deceleration, this device is not used to benefit Silence, or the image conveyed to the reader. [Silences] most agentive deeds, those during the rebellion, though referred to afterwards thirteen times, are not mentioned even once before the battle takes place. [Silences] most frequently repeated actions (seventy-three times) are those involving [her] capture of Merlin, including [her] preparations for the trip, Merlins entrapment, and their trip back to court. None of these actions evidence a high level of agency since Silence is forced to set out on the trip, instructed how to trap Merlin (and provided with supplies), and never challenged by Merlin on the trip back. Thus, in contrast with other characters in the text, Silences most often primed undertaking, [her] capture of Merlin, is one of

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[her] least agentive as it unfolds in the text, while references to [her] most powerful actions are seldom repeated. (Ryder, 27) Although she is touted as being a very successful man, this use of frequency or lack there of again skews the readers perception of Silence and her abilities. In addition, when Silences important actions are mentioned, they are described in the most generic of terms, which subconsciously denies Silence extensive participation in those activities by refusing to allow the reader/audience to see [her] engaged in them (Ryder, 29). At the most generous interpretation, of all the references to Silences actual actions in the text (347), barely more than a quarter (ninety-three) refer to actions that Silence both wants to do and does without being ordered to do. (Ryder, 30) Cornulles bare-bones use of deceleration and frequency to describe Silences activities prejudices the reader against viewing Silence as a powerful figure. At the same time, the text makes extensive use of acceleration to decrease the impact of events in which Silence is agentive (Ryder, 27). Cornulle also seals Silences ambiguous fate through the limitations and paradoxical nature of her name; it can hardly be coincidence that the root word for Silences name, silence, has a masculine connotation in the French language, while the individual is actually anatomically

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female. The contradiction of Silences name extends into the paradox of her identity, and the difficulties she will face while crossing these gender borders. When Cador first names his daughter, it is obvious that there is intentional reasoning for the root name Silence: We shall call her Silence, after Saint Patience, for Silence relieves anxiety. May Jesus Christ through his power keep her hidden and silent for us, according to his pleasure! (2067-2072) Not only does Cador name his daughter Silence in order to assuage his own anxieties that his daughter may not receive her inheritance because she is female, but also to seal her into metaphorical and physical silence against their treachery of lying and denying Nature her masterpiece. The child's name will be a continual reminder of the secret that she must keep at all costs, a secret that is designed to relieve the anxiety of her parents about this deception, even as the child herself relieves their anxiety about having an heir. (Terrell, 39)

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Cador completely disregards the emotional and psychological effect this sex change may have on his daughter, an indication of the prevailing male ideologies of the time. When discussing what will happen if Silence can become a woman again, Cador speaks as if changing the gender of a person were as simple a matter; all that needs to be done is to change the suffix of Silences name (Terrell): I can't think of a better plan. He will be called Silentius. And if by any chance his real nature is discovered, we shall change this -us to -a, and she'll be called Silentia. (2073-78) Cador does not think that his actions will have any lasting consequences for anyone involved, yet the threat of the root word silence is still meant to seal Silence away from her true identity. These consequences, however, caused by the change in the gender of Silence's name, still necessitates an equal alteration in that it will eventually pervade every aspect of Silences life (Terrell). As [Silence] transforms from female to male and back again, the consequences are

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largely determined by gendered codes of speech and silence, which are a large part of what separates the male and female worlds in the poem. (Terrell, 40) Raised as a boy, Silence has the opportunity to experience the natural outspokenness of male privilege, but does not fully recognize this privilege because she must deny her female identity. In this sense, Cador is right: the name Silence is appropriate for her either as a boy or a girl, because either way she will be forced to conceal a vital part of herself. As a boy, she must conceal her body and live without expressing her sexuality; as a girl, she must relinquish her voice and live without expressing her thoughts. This paradoxical social role is appropriately reflected in the paradox of her name: to speak the name Silence is to violate its meaning. (Terrell, 41) In addition, just as Cador predicted if Silence was indeed discovered as female, the English court symbolically re-baptizes Silence according to her anatomical sex: They dressed Silence as a woman. Once he was called Silentius: they removed the us, added an a, and so he was called Silentia. (6664-6668)

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Changing Silences name may have been easy, but transforming a young man into a woman cannot nearly be so flippant. Silence, in the wake of the thoughtlessness of her name, is still metaphorically, and will always be physically, silenced and limited by the cultural restrictions of womanhood. In light of the ambiguous nature of her identity, and how easily she can be altered, Silence experiences an identity crisis. Even before her discovery, Silence voices her inner turmoil over the deception of her name and gender: Was any other female ever so tormented or deceived by such vile fraud as to do what I did out of greed? I certainly never heard of one! (2583-2586) Silence also laments that she is not suited for womanhood and is deeply disturbed (2497) when she learns about the deception her parents arranged. While she contemplates whether she should follow natures path, she asserts who she is (I am a young man, not a girl (2650)) and emphasizes the importance of the masculine form of her name: I am Silentius [] or I am no one (2537-2538). She eventually realizes that a mans life is much better than that of a woman (2637-2638): I dont want to loose my high position; / I dont want to exchange it for a

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lesser (2650-2652) and decides to continue the ruse and, up until her discovery, performs as a man. However, when her identity is revealed before the court, she automatically begins performing as the ideal woman: obedient and honest. Truth does not permit me, to keep anything from you, nor do I care to keep silent any longer. Do with me what you will. (6625-6628) While the act of publicly revealing Silence in such a manner would undoubtedly be humiliating and frightening, in a sense Silence no longer has to keep the bonds her parents tied her to and is able to express her sex. It is important, however, to note how ironic her speech about silence is here, because after this point, Silence transforms into Silentia and becomes virtually silent for the rest of the poem, and the audience is no longer privy to her innermost thoughts and feelings (Ryder, Terrell). Ultimately, the limitations of the language and the epics content lends way to the many contradictions within the story. The most evident contradiction within the poem is that between Silences apparent masculinity and femininity. Many a knight unhorsed by Silence,

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if he knew 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 stuck him down with her lance. (5157-5164) This passage, which attempts to address Silences masculinity and femininity, contradict one another by describing the event of jousting, which Silence is undeniably very good at, with her impractical feminine whiles. The reader is left to question how a tender, soft, faint-hearted woman could unhorse even the mightiest of knights and doubt Silences abilities. Mary Ellen Ryder and Linda Marie Zaerr argue in their article, A Stylistic Analysis of Le Roman de Silence, that the contradictions of the poem itself make Silence, while the reader may be wary of her abilities, a more compelling character: Since a manuscript is silent and a performance is noisy, the character of Silence at the heart of the tale is by its very nature conflicted. Silence, who is a woman, becomes a man; then Silence, which can make no sound, becomes a minstrel. These contradictions

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consistently clash in the audiences perception of Silences power, his ability to act in male dominated and performance dominated contexts. (Ryder, 24) Another contradiction is Silence herself, in comparison to the other dominant female characters in the epic, her mother Euphemie and Queen Eupheme. Throughout the poem, women are praised for their silence and rebuked for their outspokenness, a commonly male trait. While Silence in sense follows both of these two avenues, Euphemie is generally silent (the good woman) and Queen Eupheme is more outspoken (the wicked woman). Best put by King Ebain: There is no more precious gem, / nor greater treasure, than a virtuous woman, and Euphemie fits into that category of virtuous woman. Even when she first questions Cador about the scheme to lie about their daughters gender, he tells her: Since, my sweet, our flesh is one, let our will be one as well. since our blood is one, let us be of one mind. The lady replied to him, Sweet lord, Nothing that your heart desires will I refuse you. (1721-1727)

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Although Euphemie had once been a well-respected physician, since her marriage to Cador, she follows everything he tells her to do, even if that means causing emotional and psychological damage to their daughter and putting her in compromising situations that could have ended her life. Euphemies desire to be a doting wife and good woman supersedes her motherly instincts. In the case of Queen Eupheme, she is considered a treacherous and wicked woman, who accuses Silence of raping her and conspires to have her killed. She orchestrates the plot to bring Merlin to King Ebains court to humiliate Silence, but in an entirely different sense. As a result of her scheming, however, she is put to death: The king despised Eufeme. he had no wish to spare her, nor did anyone ask him to. In accordance with royal decree, the queen was drawn and quartered. Thus was the kings justice accomplished. The queen was caught in the trap she had set for Silence.

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No one was sorry for Eufeme (6651-6654, 6656-6659, 6663) Silence, otherwise, is an anomaly to these two ideas about women because she is a loyal and virtuous woman, like Euphemie, but she is also treacherous as she lies about her identity, like Queen Eupheme. Ultimately, what saves Silence from a fate like Queen Euphemes is that she is a performer, and her previous performance as a successful man, coupled with her apparent successful performance as an obedient and virtuous woman, keeps her from the gallows. With her lack of agency, Silences only form of self-preservation is to perform in the roles that will keep her out of harms way. As a child, she was made to perform as a boy to assuage the anxieties of her parents in regards to her inheritance. Silence continued to perform as a man because she recognized the benefits of remaining male, until she was discovered: his secret thoughts and desires were tormenting him What a fool I was, he said, why did I bring Merlin here? What a catastrophe! Ive acted like the sergeant who goes himself to fetch the club with which he will be beaten (6439-6445)

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With proof of Silences own inner thoughts, realizing that she is in danger, she must quickly think of how to behave and perform from here on as a woman. Now stuck being female, Silence soon becomes the best woman she can be evidenced by her lack of speech until end of the poem. The reader never knows how Silence feels again, but it can be implied through Silences previous statements about womanhood that she is less than thrilled to loose her power and to move into a lesser position, but that she will be dedicated to being a good woman in order to protect herself in the only way she knows how. The physical limitations placed on her by Nature prevent Silence from fully becoming male, but her behavioral limitations placed on her by Nurture also prevent her from fully becoming female, but she will perform in either role. Combined with Cornulles literary devices that diminish Silences agency and question her abilities, Silences story is not conventionally different from the other Arthurian romances of Romance de Silences time. Ultimately, a womans role is to remain silent (6398), and Silence will continue to perform that role with as much enthusiasm as she would as a knight or minstrel, even if that means loosing the freedoms and liberties she had gained as a man. Silence is silenced in every sense of the word: physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually.

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Works Cited Callahan, Christopher. "Canon Law, Primogeniture, and the Marriage of Ebain and Silence." Romance Quarterly 49 (2002): 12-21. ProQuest. F.W. Olin Library, Mills College, Oakland. 14 Nov. 2008 < me=pqd>. Groff, Philip, and Laura McRae. "Annual American Psychological Association Meeting." American Psychological Association, The Nature-Nurture Debate in Thirteenth-Century France, Aug. 1998, Chicago, Illinois. American Psychological Association. 21 Nov. 2008 <>. Roche-Mahdi, Sarah, trans. Silence : A Thirteenth-Century French Romance. New York: Michigan State UP, 1997. Print. Ryder, Mary Ellen, and Linda Marie Zaerr. "A Stylistic Analysis of Le Roman de Silence." Arthuriana 18 (2008): 22-40. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Project MUSE. F.W. Olin Library, Oakland. 21 Nov. 2008. Keyword: Roman de Silence, Gender.

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Terrell, Katherine H. "Competing Gender Ideologies and the Limitations of Language in Le Roman de

Silence." Romance Quarterly 55.1 (2008): 35-49. ProQuest. F.W. Olin Library, Mills College,
Oakland. 15 Nov. 2008 < me=pqd>.