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The Boy Who Was a Girl: The Romance of Silence

By Minjie Su

Suppose girls cannot inherit, but your only child is a daughter and you happen to have an enormous inheritance, what will you do? Since to try to change the law may be too hard to be a one-man task, it is much easier to dress the girl as a boy and fool everyone. With any luck, you might just get away with it.

This is precisely what Cador, Duke of Cornwell, does when he finds out his new-born heir is a girl, and King Eban of England just banned girl-inheritance not too long ago. Just in case they may not produce a male heir later, Cador and his wife Eufemie decide to bring up the girl as a son. As if to hush her identity, the girl is aptly named Silentius – Silence.

Composed in the second half of the 13th century, The Romance of Silence however has fallen into silence until 1911, when the manuscript (MS. Mi.LM.6, University of Nottingham) was discovered in a box in a manor house in England, marked ‘old papers—no value’. Little is known of the author, except at the end of the poem he identifies himself as ‘Heldris of Cornwall’, which is likely a pen name picked from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain).

The romance stretches over two generations. It starts with King Eban’s marriage with Eufeme, a Norwegian princess, and a fight between two counts over two heiresses which lead to the death of both contestants. Grieving the unnecessary death of good fighting men, King Eban decrees that only sons can inherit in this land as long as he lives. Then the story turns to Cador and an out-of-no-where dragon that barbeques 30 of King Eban’s men. Cador alone has the courage to face the dragon, but he does not strike until the dragon is too heavy with food to move – it seems rather stupid and undignified for a dragon to go down like this, but, as we’ll see later, this detail may not be lazy writing on the author’s part.

Killing a dragon in the 13th century – BSB Cod. germ. 51 fol.67

Having killed the dragon, Cador is rewarded with Eufemie’s hand in marriage and immense wealth, but one problem remains – he does really not have a son. This leads to the aforementioned ruse: Silentius is brought up as a man, well taught in all chivalric skills and just as courteous as any of your favourite knights. He knows fully well that he is a girl, which troubles him a great deal, especially when he is approached and reproached by the personification of Nature, who gets into a fight with Nurture. However, Silentius decides to be practical and listens to Reason instead: if he reveals his true self to anyone, his parents will be dishonoured, while he probably will be put to death. Survival is apparently the most important of all.

But Silentius does more than just survival – he thrives. After a series of adventures in foreign lands, Silentius is brought to Eban’s court and celebrated as a great minstrel. Struck by the youth’s beauty and great skill, Queen Eufeme falls in love with Silentius and desires him – we are told – as much as Iseult longs for Tristan. But we know this Tristan is actually a girl, and she is too loyal a knight to betray the King – this knowledge renders the reference to Tristan and Iseult not only comical but also a fun parody; the medieval audience sure had as good a laugh as we do. Although Silence has managed to dodge the Queen’s advances, unfortunate for him, love soon turns into hate – the Queen now wishes to have Silence killed. A few vain attempts later, she sends him off to capture Merlin, who it is said can never be captured by men.

Now this is one of the ‘No man can kill me’ – ‘I am no man’ moment, which is also the epitome of the romance. The way Silence captures Merlin is parallel to how Cador kills the dragon – here we have the two generations tied together. Instructed by a mysterious wise man, Silence roasts meat but makes it very salty. Although he has been living in the wild like a beast, Merlin is unable to resist cooked food (i.e. proper human food). He swallows the meat before he realises it is not very nicely spiced. Then he spots a jar that Silence places nearby and hurries to it, thinking it is water while it is actually honey; drinking it up just makes the thirst even more unbearable. The second jar is full of milk – still not helpful. The third is wine – this time it helps, but it gets Merlin drunk and sleepy. Just as Cador kills the lazy dragon with ease, Silence captures Merlin.

Merlin in a medieval manuscript of a compilation of texts of astronomy by Alfonso the Wise (c. 1400)

But the parallel not only exists between Cador and Silence, but also between Silence and Merlin. Remember when Nature and Nurture debate over Silence? Nurture was content and thought herself triumphant back then, for Silence decided to be what she had been educated to be rather than what she was born to be. However, now Nurture is furious, for however successfully she has trained Merlin to be beast and to live on herbs and grass, Merlin turns away from all that at the first smell of roasted meat.

With Nature’s final triumph, the time is ripe for unmasking Silence. On his way to Eban’s palace, Merlin laughs at various people for no apparent reason. Attacked by people as a false prophet and pressed by King Eban, Merlin is forced to reveal the reasons behind his laugh: he laughs at a group of lepers begging for alms because they are standing on buried treasures; at a man burying his child with a priest by his side because the child is in fact the priest’s. Finally, he laughs at a nun in the Queen’s entourage because that nun is only a woman in clothing, just as Silence is only dressed up as male. The ‘nun’ turns out to be the Queen’s lover in disguise, while, marvelled by all, Silence reveals why ‘she’ becomes ‘he’. The romance ends with a classic happy ending: the Queen is punished by death, and Silence, now changing her name to Silentia, becomes the new queen.

You can read the entire story in Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance, edited and translated by Sarah Roche-Mahdi.

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

Top Image: A knight depicted in a 13th century manuscript –  British Library MS Royal 20 C VI   f. 4v 

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