By Philip Groff and Laura McRae
Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (1998)
Introduction: The debate over the relative importance of heredity and environment in human development is hardly new. It is a commonplace of the history of psychology that the use of the terms nature and nurture to frame this debate can be traced to Francis Galton. In fact Galton himself, partially lays claim to the phrase in his English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture, first published in 1874. In this work he calls nature and nurture, “a convenient jingle of words, for it separates under two distinct heads the innumerable elements of which personality is composed. Nature is all that a man brings with himself into the world; nurture is every influence that affects him after his birth”. Unbeknownst to Galton, his terms of debate were used similarly at least 600 years earlier.
What Galton could not know was that in 1911 a manuscript containing a French romance dating to the 13th century would be uncovered, and that this manuscript would make use of the terms Nature and Noreture (Nurture) to frame this debate along similar lines. The manuscript, Silence, is allegedly the work of an otherwise unknown writer, Heldriss of Cornwall. It relates the story of a young woman, named Silence, raised by her parents and later guardians as a boy, in order to protect her from a new, unjust inheritance law, which forbade inheritance by women. Her training is quite successful, and she soon proves the equal, indeed the superior, of any male peers in riding, hunting, wrestling, skill at arms, and musical talent. During the course of her story, on two occasions the characters Nature and Nurture, allegorical personifications of the influence of heredity and environment respectively, engage in vigorous debate first, for her allegiance, and finally over who is the true author of a person. Before proceeding with the story, it is instructive to examine the sources for this unique tale, and to attempt to place the narrative in the context of medieval literature.