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Book Review / Silence: A Thirteenth Century French Romance

This version is translated a little too colloquially in parts for my taste, and not edited brilliantly, but that too can be forgiven, purely for the effort of bringing it to the public (though, noting this translation is not the only one available, it’s just the first I read). The original poem now lives at Nottingham University. Silence went unread and stored away for a long time before it was uncovered with some old letters of Henry VIIIs in an "unimportant documents" box in some manor, but even since its reveal to the world it hasn’t got the merit I think it deserves. It has been a huge inspiration personally for some of my work.

Written in old French it follows the story of an England where King Evan has barred women from inheriting property. Duke of Cornwall Cador and Duchess Eufemie’s heir is, naturally, born female, and so removing the possibility of her claiming her parents’ fortune; it would revert to the crown. Cue Silencia becoming Silencius, add his rise to becoming greatest fighter/jouster/minstrel etc. in the known world, a few death threats, much adventuring, plus Nature and Nurture fighting over Silence’s ‘true’ gender. It does play hard on the notion of ‘good’ women, and the aspects which make one such (Chaucer wrote 'The legend of good women'), which are quite a staple in that era, but it also has some extraordinarily modern ideas, raising questions as to the thoughts and feelings in the tightly woven societies about gender and societal place.

It’s a great poem and for its age it introduces extraordinary ideas and opinions on the feminine and masculine which would put many modern egalitarians to shame. The questions it raises emphasise the superficial way in which we judge each other in terms of mind, body, expectation, potential etc. If the ending had been any different it would probably been too revolutionary for that era. Then again, it could have caused a rebellion of knightly women! All in all a worthwhile book to have on the shelf, for those interested in medieval or post-Arthurian literature, and especially those interested in warrior maidens and a good adventure!

Read the character review of the titular Silence.


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