Yesterday, I completed my first reading of Sarah Roche-Mahdi’s translation of Silence, a thirteenth-century French-language romance by one Heldris of Cornwall. The romance charts the story of Silentius/ia, a person of fluctuating gender presentation and identity. S/he is born to royal parents who decide to present their child as a boy to the kingdom. The reigning monarch has forbade women from inheriting property in his land, and so it behooves the child to present as a man. The narrator is aware of a possible contradiction between identity and presentation, referring to Silentius/ia (often simply referred to as Silence) as “the boy who was a girl” and variations thereof. The narrator switches between he/him and she/her pronouns for Silence whenever (presumably) he thinks it appropriate. This manifests when the child, having entered puberty, becomes the subject of a spirited debate between Nature and Nurture, both allegorical figures in the story. Nature would like for Silence to act “according to her nature” and engage in activities typical of young medieval women (spinning thread and staying out of the sun.) But Nurture, a figure representing the process that we today might call socialization, pushes Silence to continue living as a man–this s/he does to great success. Silence is skilled in minstrelsy, jousting, and warfare–all typically mens’ activities. S/he inspires a queen’s lust, traps the wizard Merlin, and reverses the law against women’s property rights. Oh, and s/he becomes Queen of England. While Silence is an altogether fanciful tale, I believe the author raises some serious questions about gender roles and inequalities as well as the smoke and mirrors of gender presentation. I’m not at a point in my analysis where I think I understand the author’s stance on the questions (presumed) he raises, not to mention my own opinion. More later when I reach that point.
Also, I began the sequel-of-sorts to Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, titled Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. This work is a collection of perspectives from both established and emerging gender outlaws, edited by Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman. I’ve read nearly four perspectives thus far, and find each to be rich and illuminating. I’m excited to read the rest, as well as to track down my next two medieval targets: le Roman d’Eneas and Grisandole.
I’ve finished Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, and overall I’m glad I took the time to learn from her perspective. Throughout her book, Kate mentions several sources from trans activists, scholars, etc. that I’m sure will become useful later on. I benefitted from reading her story in several ways: I had the experience of listening to a unique trans voice full of humor and a lust for life, I was able to read her breakout play Hidden: A Gender, and I got a sense of where the trans community was in the 1980s and ’90s–at least in Kate’s circles. I’ll be going over my notes in detail at a later time.
I was also forwarded a call for papers covering issues of gender and sexuality in French literature from the Middle Ages to today–how perfect is that? Proposals are due July 10. We shall see whether I can organize my thoughts and choose a topic before that time!
Apologies for this segue into material only tangentially-related to my thesis research, but I’ve had a really exciting development in regards to my French term paper.
A professor at a neighboring college (and the director of an Early Music group I sing with) has just linked me to a project he and several other scholars undertook with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities some years ago. It’s called “Teaching the Medieval Lyric with Modern Technology” and it basically involves uploading texts, recordings, source materials, and research on composers within the wide category of French medieval lyric (everyone from the troubadors to Guillaume de Machaut.) In other words, a goldmine for the kind of material I’ll need for my term paper (and possibly my thesis.) The term paper will be focused on the one example of a woman troubador, or trobairitz, with a poem that survives with its original music. I had the honor of performing part of it last Friday, and giving an oral presentation on my own musical analysis of the song. And now it’s the focus of my term paper, and I have access to one of the original manuscripts, some scholarly papers, and recordings of the song. I’m honestly like a kid in a candy store right now.
And the best part is that the database of information will still be there if I ever need it for thesis research. I’m so grateful I showed up to rehearsal early and had the conversation with my director that ended with him sharing this project with me.
Five new books have come into my possession, thanks to my college’s library. They are:
- Medieval French Literature: An Introduction by Michel Zink, trans. Jeff Rider
- Seems like a useful primer for all of the genres and sub-genres of literary and musical composition during le Moyen Âge. Only slightly upset that my library doesn’t carry the original French edition.
- Women readers and the ideology of gender in Old French verse romance by Roberta L. Krueger
- Will likely deal with the “female gaze” (is that a thing?) vis-à-vis literary works from this time; I flagged several chapters having to do with gender politics, sexual identity (which I understand is distinct from gender identity but bear with me here) and how issues of gender are raised in the work of the first professional writer of le Moyen Âge in France who just happened to be a woman (her name is Christine de Pisan and she has a cult following to this day.)
- Gender Transgressions: Crossing the Normative Barrier in Old French Literature, ed. Karen J. Taylor
- The title says it all–supremely excited about this one.
- Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures by Sahar Amer
- This was recommended to me by my thesis advisor–it was the search for this book that brought three of the other four books into my life. Again, while I realize that sexual and/or romantic identity are not indicative of gender identity, I can’t help but wonder what I may find that will have bearing on my thesis. The author may also prove an invaluable contact.
- Before and After Gender: Sexual Mythologies of Everyday Life by Marilyn Strathern
- This “lost novel” was written by a prolific scholar on gender studies, and there’s an afterword by the one and only Judith Butler. Can’t wait to give this a try.
I was inspired to begin this project while reading one of the poems, or lais, of Marie de France (111-1150) entitled “Lanval” (the notion of giving each of these lais a title was something that came around later than when Marie de France was putting them to paper, hence the quotation marks.) It features a character who embodies a mixture of masculine and feminine traits; she is identified as a female, yet she rides a horse, wears armor, and speaks in an authoritative tone (comprised of words and verb tense)–all attributes atypical of women in her time. Granted, this woman also hailed from the land of Avalon, the home of fairies and other magical figures of Arthurian legend. But her story made me wonder: was it her magic that allowed her to adopt and combine masculine and feminine traits, or was this combination part of what made her magical? Or was her gender expression entirely separate from her identity as a magical being? Were there other characters with stories like hers, and in what ways?
Once I had been introduced to this woman’s story, more and more examples of masculinity and femininity coexisting in single entities appeared during my studies. In another of Marie de France’s lais, there was a female deer with antlers who prophesied misfortune for the hero of the story. In prose works, there are several instances in which the bodies of characters identified as women are physically changed so that they present as men. And there are numerous moments within the sung poetry of the first women composers of France where they adopt the roles typically assigned to men composing during the time. Exciting stuff!
My mission now is to gather as many instances of this kind that I can find and hopefully draw conclusions not only on the conceptions of binary gender identities in France at the time, but the general opinion of gender identities that fell outside of the binary. Have you come across anything like this in work from the Middle Ages in France? Do you know of anyone who might have done so? Recommendations are more than welcome! Thanks!
It’s an attempt at bridging the arbitrary gaps between my fields of academic interest and creating something of importance to me personally, to my college, and to interdisciplinary scholarship in general. I believe that this project has the potential to be relevant to today’s world, but I flatter myself to think it will ever reach that level.
For now, it’s an enquiry into the body of work composed in France during the period known as the Middle Ages, or le Moyen Âge. This includes prose, poetry, and poetry set to music–where I will focus within this body of work remains to be seen. I will be combing the work of this place and time in search of instances of gender role reversal, androgyny, and other cross-gender behavior. I use the term “cross-gender” rather than “transgender” because the latter has come to refer to an identity which I doubt will be reflected in all of the material I include in my thesis. I welcome your feedback on the term and suggestions for improving it, as well as any other questions you may have!