Text: Le Roman de Silence, by Heldris of Cornwall – a 13th century poem in Old French.
This version is a translation by Sarah Roche-Mahdi.
“I swear that never again will a woman inherit in the kingdom of England.”
Le Roman de Silence is bloomin’ amazing story for its age, and Silence more so as its lead. Warrior maidens have been sprinkled in fiction throughout history, and thankfully to a greater extent nowadays, but this tale in particular captured my attention because despite a true era where masculinity was, and forgive the expression, king, a positive story about a female who defies all the restrictions of her sex and enforces the notion that anyone can embody the ideal morality if they act with courage, honour, valour and humility, and also be revered for it (you heard it). This from the Middle Ages. The 13th century. Seven to eight-hundred years ago. I know, right?!
And so, first, Nature creates the most perfect female ever to have existed. So perfect in fact, Nature is quite aware that everyone will be jealous of the fact and does it anyway. She’s proud of herself because Nature knows she not only rocks but owns you from birth. Then, upon birth into a kingdom where women are barred from inheriting, Silence’s parents, of course, have her raised as a boy, properly exciting Nurture. Nature wants to backslap someone.
Once discovering she’s a girl, and though our hero has a little inner turmoil, Nurture practically high-fives Reason when Silence decides she doesn’t care and heads off on adventure. She goes on to become the finest jouster, fighter and hunter in the land, become a master of minstrelsy, knighted by the king of France, the winner of a great battle for the king of England and beloved by practically the entire world. She’s inadvertently exposed in the end by Merlin (yes that Merlin) by carrying out a deed only a woman should be able to do (but she doesn’t know that): bring the magician into court from his hiding place in the woods. By that point Silence is so far gone caring who knows the ‘deception’ she tells the king to bring it on and do what he must. But in a nice way, she’s polite, you know. So he marries her.
‘There never was a woman less reluctant to engage in armed combat.’
What I love about Silence is that she proves herself not only equipped with marshal skills but charm and eloquence, primarily using words instead of the blade (unless absolutely necessary) to encourage change, even managing to stop her own murder in the process. Her status in hiding gives her the possibility of learning skills she definitely would not have but for the disguise. She’s also not trying to be male, everyone just decides she is purely because of her outfit – she’s just herself and the lifestyle suited her fine. It’s also interesting to see the dangers a male life of freedom brings to Silence, just as a female one would have brought a kind of imprisonment. People become jealous and possessive of his beauty and skills, even murderous, towards him, and feel they own him in some way because they are in awe or in love with him. It seems the perfection Nature put into creating the most superficially beautiful woman in the world was actually ‘reassigned’ into physical and mental skill once Silence had been denied the female sheen, and also brought on a different kind of envy. One of the most exciting questions in this tale is whether the narrator sees men and women sharing identical potential which itself is silenced depending on how they are assigned at birth. Seriously, I half believe this was written last year. It wasn’t, it was found with some forgotten letters from Henry VIII around the 19-noughties.
‘A woman’s role is to keep silent…’
And, so yes, the ending. The bit where she marries the king. Let’s do that because on first read it’s a bit…disappointing.
After all her feats of strength and honour Silence is returned to her ‘natural’ state – that of a woman. Nature wipes away all the blemishes of being male on the external and puts her in a dress and she hooks up with His Grace. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing – I don’t think it was written as her shunning all she was. Stay with me. And pretend you’re from the Middle Ages.
Silence as a youth is afraid that being exposed as female will lose her the heights that she has gained as a boy, but as an adult, and when exalted to being the king’s chosen wife (thus queen) she has actually achieved the very highest status for a woman, and on the merits she has gained in masquerading as a man. But exaltation to queenship and being respected and honoured by the king (the supreme master of everything if you ignore God back then) would be the ultimate honour, especially for a woman, and unbelievably so for a woman who had disguised herself and been exposed. Silence would never have achieved this state if she was not given some autonomy in disguise, and so it is not necessarily being a woman that causes incapability, it’s just being seen as a woman where everyone’s prejudice lies, because women are automatically presumed as such. So Silence is not giving up who she is, she is just embracing all she is, as is everyone else by that point. Wearing a dress is not a euphemism for weak, it’s just a piece of clothing. Ironically, the king is actually pretty fecking weak, but nobody questions him because he is the king and a man and so beyond it. Maybe he can learn a bit from his new wife about…well, everything.
Silence was great on first read, and even though I thought, dammit, she’s totally sold out at the end, luckily human beings as we are gifted with perspective on further visits. Let’s not forget there are many, many ways to interpret words, from eras long gone and our own (and you should definitely go and and read more of Silence from other perspectives), and it’s not the way I would end this story. But like I said, eight-hundred years ago. We are blessed to be able to pull out the parts that inspire us most and sweep the other stuff under the carpet if it’s not to our taste, ’cause it’s fiction! Regardless, she continues to be one of my favourite and most inspiring fictional incarnations of a female knight, a warrior maiden, and a damn badass lady. Plus, you know, there’s dragons in it.