In the Roman de Silence (late thirteenth century), Heldris de Cornuälle’s heroine, Silence, who was raised as a man, struggles to reconcile “natural” and constructed identities. Although distinguished by the narrator’s thorough consideration of the dichotomy between biological femaleness and cultural maleness, the Roman de Silence probably has its origins in an episode from the Merlin legend that is recorded in L’Estoire de Merlin (1230), as well as the later English prose Merlin (1450/60) and fragmentary German poem Merlin (early fourteenth century). In these tales, a woman calling herself Grisandole poses as a young man at the emperor’s court until Merlin exposes the sexual transgressions of the court, including Grisandole’s gender disguise.
Grisandole and Silence ultimately choose feminine natures.
The problem of self-perception is perhaps most acute for Silence. At three points in her life, as a child, an adolescent, and a young adult, Silence’s feminine sexuality confronts her.
Falsely charged with sexual impropriety, Silence must undertake the task of capturing Merlin to prevent her own execution. According to Merlin himself no man will ever find him. The adventure merely serves to reveal her sex.
However, because this unwanted disclosure forces Silence to accept Nature over Noreture when compelled to undress publicly, the dilemma of self-perception remains unresolved.
He (Silence) thought to himself that Nature was speaking in sophistries; because the “-us” (the masculine ending of her name, Silencius) was against natural law.
And indeed the heroine’s greatness lies in the multivalency of being silent -that is keeping her secret, “being” Silencius for most of the romance, and finally, in “becoming” Silentia (and silent when exposed as a woman.)
Yet Silence’s antepenultimate statement seems to contradict the silence imposed by her newly exposed femaleness (as well as offering another linguistic conundrum), for she says: “Ne jo n’ai soig mais de taisir.” [I no longer want to keep silent.]
“A woman’s wisdom lies in being silent.”
Valerie R. Hotchkiss, Clothes Make the Man, Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe (New York and London, Garland publishing, Inc.,1996).