The modern-day debate about gender identity can take some lessons from a 13th-century story. Researchers at the University of Warwick worked with a professional storyteller to bring Roman de Silence to new audiences.
In 1911, a box marked ‘old papers – no value’ was discovered in Wollaton Hall, an Elizabethan house in Nottingham, England. Alongside letters from King Henry VII a manuscript was found inside. Within its pages was Roman de Silence, a French medieval romance.
Its story focuses on the life of a character called Silence, a descendent of King Arthur who is gendered female at birth but raised as a boy, switching pronouns to assume a place in a society that does not allow women to inherit. As a young man, Silence goes on to become a runaway, a minstrel, and a champion knight.
“Medieval gender formations are perhaps less binary than people generally assume,” explains Dr Emma Campbell, Reader in French Studies at the University of Warwick. “In centring a character who explicitly questions the gender categories that structure the society they are born into; this text acknowledges the arbitrary nature of such categories. This text, like many other works from the Middle Ages, is interested in questioning binary conceptions of gender as much as it is invested in re-establishing a social order based on those conceptions.”
To help raise awareness of this story, an adaptation of the medieval work was created – Silence, which was performed by Rachel Rose Reid this week at St. Mary’s Guildhall in Coventry’s cathedral quarter.
Speaking at the event, spoken word artist, Rachel Rose Reid, added: “I came across an academic textbook edition of Roman de Silence in the basement of a second-hand bookstore in New York. I was struck that it was written to be spoken aloud, with the storyteller using many techniques still used by modern tellers. It is a powerful story for the way it contends with issues of gender identity and gender inequality, as well as mental and social well-being. On top of this it is also a brilliant story, and I couldn’t believe that I – and almost everyone I spoke with – had never heard of it.
Thanks to my fabulous hosts and collaborators, @liamglewis and Emma Campbell, plus @WarwickSMLC @medievalwarwick and @stmaryguildhall and all who joined us for live storytelling and a workshop, too! So wonderful to see @edward_mills and @DaisyEBlack too! https://t.co/4XznjlZh0C
— Rachel Rose Reid (@RachelRoseReid) April 29, 2023
“The story of Silence is not one that can be left in the 13th century, my aim is that through this performance we will resurrect this story to its rightful place in the canon of British literature, whilst also sparking a positive conversation surrounding 21st-century sexual politics, identity and freedom.”
Funding for the performance came in part from the University of Warwick’s Arts and Humanities Impact Fund and Global Research Priorities ‘Connecting Cultures’ programme.
“What Rachel’s performance brilliantly shows is that medieval texts are part of a long history of supposedly ‘non normative’ gender and sexuality,” adds Dr. Campbell. “The Middle Ages can offer us new ways of connecting with experiences of gender from the past and, in so doing, complicate our own conceptions of modern gender norms.”
You can learn more about Silence from Rachel Rose Reid’s website.
Top Image: Collection of French romances and fabliaux; n.d. late 13th century; Heldris de Cornuälle, ‘Le Roman de Silence’ (ff 188-223) University of Nottingham WLC/LM/6 fol. 203r