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Roman de Silence (Heldris de Cornuälle)

13th century French romance featuring a cross-dressing female knight. The story directly addresses issues of gender identity as innate versus performative. In one episode, she is the object of a queen’s adulterous desire.

LHMP entry

In the chansons de geste, women might don male garb for a variety of reasons, especially for safety, but also to be able to participate in masculine activities or join male groups. There is a repeating motif of the woman who disguises herself as a knight and succeeds in winning great renown in that guise. A common twist then has her dealing with the amorous or matrimonial desires of another woman, as in the story of Yde and Olive.

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.

This review will necessarily be somewhat cursory, as the entire book is relevant to the LHMP project. In general, I will summarize data not covered in detail elsewhere, and include references to the rest.

“Travesty” comes literally from “cross-dress” with the theatrical term later picking up its sense of general transgression. Anyone familiar with theater and opera from Shakespeare onward is aware how popular it was to include gender disguise in its many forms and consequences. The two most common expressions both revolve around anxiety about female-female desire: a woman disguised as a man who attracts female romantic attention, or a man disguised as a woman to gain intimate access to a woman who then worries about the ensuing “wrong” erotic attraction.

The article begins with a survey of the discussion of, and attitudes toward distinguishing biological sex and gender behaviour in professional literature. Especially in distinguishing transvestism, transexualism, gender non-conformity, and more situational uses of cross-gender behavior. This article focuses more on those situational uses rather than cross-dressing as a feature of gender or sexual identity.

While the academic “queer studies” movement has analyzed a great many “high culture” works in literature and art, looking for evidence of same-sex impulses, this approach has been less useful for (or perhaps less interested in) an understanding of the ordinary lives of average people who might have had those same impulses. For this purpose, identifying lesbian motifs in works like the Roman de Silence or interpreting nuns’ adoration of vulva-like images of the wounds of Christ as homoerotic is somewhat beside the point.

A survey of unmarried female characters in medieval French courtly romances. The article begins with a consideration of the character of Silence (see Roche-Mahdi 1999) who, having been raised as a boy for inheritance purposes, debates whether to retain the social privileges of a male role. The focus of Silence’s story is on her exploits in a male role and her eventual return to a female role at the resolution is perfunctory. Using this as a starting point, Krueger explores representative scenarios involving characters who have adventures as women.

Chapter 3

This chapter compares similarities and differences in a related group of stories from both French and Arabic sources that use cross-gender disguise as a bridge to the possibility of same-sex relations. The French tales and their Arabic counterpart share enough themes and tropes to suggest a common inspiration, but the attitudes of the characters and the resolutions reflect their respective cultural differences.

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