Silence by Heldris of Cornwall

Continuing on Ms Reid's recent theme of medieval romances that actually have fascinating, strong women in them, Silence is a poem of the thirteenth century telling the story of it's eponymous heroine, a girl born during a time when women are declared ineligible to inherit property. Her parents, wanting her to be able to keep the family lands, dress her and raise her as a boy from her infancy, letting no one in on the secret except her nurse. Of course, much hilarity ensues.

I won't spoil the plot by going into details, but I did want to talk about a few interesting themes in this book - partly because thinking was my main reaction to this book, and partly because I would hope that you, oh gentle reader, might contribute more information on these themes, with your superior knowledge.

Women in Medieval Europe

I. Would. LOVE to read a good book that talks about the role of women in medieval Europe, because it was SO complex! On the one hand, you have the traditional idea of women: the Guinivere type, that on the one hand is meant as a sort of decorative attachment to the man, and on the other is the whorish temptress, unable to control her passions. On the other, though, the Middle Ages had a number of very strong women: religious women like Teresa of Avila (who I'm reading next year), political women like Eleanor of Aquitaine, even a surprising number of military heroes like Joan of Arc (look at this fascinating timeline for example. I love the bare breasted Saxon women throwing themselves against Charlemagne's army).

History of Political Speech

In some ways (or maybe I'm reading too much into this) sections of this book felt like the sort of carefully worded political satire that I would expect from Johnathon Swift, many hundred years later. I know that Dante, for example, wrote politics into the Divine Comedy - putting his enemies in Hell, for instance. But generally, I'd love to know more and see how people wrote about the injustices and stupidities of their times, before the last few hundred years.

History of Medieval Romans

So, I know a little bit about King Arthur, and all, but I don't the history of the form itself, past the faintest bits of knowledge about what a troubaour is and what not. Why are all these Arthurian knight stories written in French? Were they written by Normans in England? And, how did they become so popular?

Overall, I enjoyed this book, kind of the way I enjoy a romantic comedy, only in a poem - it wasn't the BEST I've ever read, it didn't shatter the world, but it was lots of fun, and very interesting as an artifact, more than intrinsically as piece of poetry.

BTW, just as a note, apparently this book wasn't discovered until the early 20th century - someone, quite literally, found the manuscript in their attic in Britain, alongside some old letters. All my attic has in it is insulation...


Aarti said...

It looks like you left off your post in mid-thought. I am so intrigued to know the end of your last question!

You bring up really good points. It's true that Medieval women are often kind of pushed into the background when they probably played a much bigger role in things, and not always behind the scenes. If only more of them could read and write, how different our perspectives might be now...

Also think it would have been fun because I feel women would put more of the personal, catty stuff into their memoirs or stories, which could tell us a lot about the underlying tensions and the like.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Aarti - do you think so? Honestly, alot of the writing by MEN feels a little bit 'catty' to me - some of the digs in Dante, like I said, were quite literally a 'go to hell', or Shakespeare has a lot of little snarking conversation especially in his comedies. In contrast, when I think of women writing from the period, most of the ones I think of are actually far more 'serious': a lot of mystic texts for instance.

Rebecca Reid said...

It sounds very intersting, and I'd love to know how it all resolves, and how the hilarity ensues....maybe I need to find it.

But it does sound like it ultimately was a little disappointing. Bring up issues, without resolving. Maybe when I feel like reading another Medieval french romance with a strong woman...