Matt's Reviews > Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance

Silence by Unknown
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Mar 29, 08

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Read in March, 2008

** spoiler alert ** This is a 13th century romance written in Old French. It was discovered only in the last century in a box of old papers marked "No value."

Silence is the story of a girl born into an aristocratic family who is raised as a boy so that she can inherit her parents' property when they die. She is raised in almost complete isolation from society, but eventually makes her way to the outside world (including France and England) and becomes successful as both a jongleur (traveling musician) and a knight. In fact, she is described as the most adept in the land at both of these, which raises questions about gender roles if a woman makes for a better man than other men.

There are several arguments in the work between the personifications of Nature and Nurture, and the entire work deals with the interplay between these two influences. Nature appears to win out in the end, but along the way Silence queers the gender norms with her cross-dressing and successful public life. This work is remarkable for its discussion of nurture and exploration of the differences between biological sex and socialized gender in such an early text.

I would argue that, in the end, a strong sense of irony purposely undermines the supposedly happy ending (where Silence is married off to the king). She expresses repeatedly her desire to live life as a man. And not only is she as a woman the most capable man, but in the end the things she is valued for as a woman are the things she accomplished as a man. So, the woman-who-is-a-man-who-is-a-woman reveals the artificiality of gender norms and the tragedy that ensues from the imposition of "natural" norms.

And all this in rhyming octosyllabic couplets!
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