How to Man Up, Medieval Style: Cross-dressing Women and the Perils of Accidental Lesbianism

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The Luttrell Psalter. London, BL, MS Add. 42130, f. 202v. England, c. 1330

Appropriately, since I’ve gone quiet on this blog for a couple of weeks, this post is about a medieval French story called the Roman de Silence, the Story of Silence. I came across it while I was busy fuming about the recent Sky Sports twitter chat with Beth Tweddle, which Laura Bates has written up for the Guardian. Now, I happen to think Beth Tweddle is amazing. But, predictably, you put a woman on twitter to talk about sport (ie., not about men! Imagine!) and you find a load of wankers bombarding her with innuendo and making hilarious jokes about child rape (no, really).

So, when I’d finished smoking from the ears, I started thinking about why women who take part in something we still stupidly see as ‘masculine’ – ie., sport – there’s always someone who tries to bring the subject back to women and what they’re really good for: heterosexual innuendo. And I reckon you can see the roots of this quite nicely in medieval romances.

As you can see, the picture above is a page from a medieval prayerbook and it shows a knight – the owner of the manuscript, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell of Irnham in Lincolnshire – attended by his womenfolk. It is a completely hierarchical image: there’s Sir Geoffrey, mounted on horseback, bending down to the women who gaze up at him. One of these women is his daughter-in-law, the focus of all Geoffrey’s hopes of a son to carry on the male line.

This picture is probably not too dissimilar to what you visualize when you think about knighthood in medieval England. Men charging around on horses; women in trailing sleeves waving them off to battle or sitting at home waiting to get pregnant and have the next heir. The essential role women play in this narrative is to procreate successfully. But that doesn’t mean everyone was happy to imagine things this way. A story I’ve recently come across gives us a way to imagine medieval women (and men?) kicking back, or at least questioning why these gender roles existed.

Although it’s written in French, the Roman de Silence is set in England. The story begins by describing how the king of England passes a new decree, that only boys will be able to inherit property in England. Now, you might think that was pretty standard for the medieval period, but it wasn’t. Women could inherit and own property and – rather more importantly for medieval aristocrats – you could also marry a woman and hold lands and titles in her name.

Anyway, the king’s decree enrages his nobles, especially those who happened to have daughters. The romance comments ‘cil qui na mais une fille’ (those who had only a daughter) were filled with ‘rancure’ (bitterness) at the decision. You can see, by the way, that the French isn’t completely different from modern French.

The Roman de Silence. Nottingham, WLC/LM/6, f. 203r

The Roman de Silence. Nottingham, WLC/LM/6, f. 203r

So, one couple – Lord Cador of Cornwall and his wife – decide they’re not putting up with this. They name their daughter ‘Silentius’ (‘Silence’) and raise her as a boy. This is very successful: she learns all the knightly arts better than her male peers. Over a hundred years before Joan of Arc, she’s already walking the walk.

 Painting, c. 1485. An artist's interpretation, since the only known direct portrait has not survived. (Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, AE II 2490)

Joan of Arc. Painting, c. 1485. An artist’s interpretation, since the only known direct portrait has not survived. (Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, AE II 2490)

At age 12, though, Silence is visited by Nature. Nature is furious, telling the young woman she’s selfishly wasting all the lovely feminine gifts innate to her (where have we heard this before?), and shouldn’t be dressing like a man. Nature tells Silence that hundreds of women are falling in love with her left, right and centre, “for you are so convincing as a man – they think you have something that you don’t”. Nature finishes up by commanding Silence:

“Go to your chamber and sew!”

The place for women is the bedroom and the activity that defines them is sewing.

Nature then tells Silence that she’s not much of a catch as a woman because she’s rubbish at sewing. So, she’ll have able to use her gender-neutral skills of playing musical instruments to entice men. Cos that’s the really important bit, enticing men.

You notice that what really pisses Nature off isn’t just that Silence is engaging in traditionally masculine types of behaviour. Her crime is that she’s avoiding her proper role as the target of male sexual attention, and worse than that, she’s now leading other women astray by getting them to fall in love with her. That’s right, the problem here isn’t just gender roles, it’s the devious threat of accidental lesbianism. And you thought the Christian Right were paranoid.

Italian Women, c. 1380. Yes, I'm sure they're not really twiddling their nipples at each other, but it did give me pause for a moment.

Italian Women, c. 1380. Yes, I’m sure they’re not really twiddling their nipples at each other, but it did give me pause for a moment.

Anyway, this leads me back to the nature of the comments against Tweddle and other women in sport. They’re effectively a form of heterosexual ‘correction’ presumed necessary to remind these women that, though they may temporarily be allowed on our TV screens doing something that doesn’t involve playing audience to adoring men, they shouldn’t get uppity about it. What I noticed in the comments under the Guardian article was something I’ve seen again and again. Some person, probably some well-meaning person, always comments ‘yeah, but love, it’s just trolls innit. They’d be the same for men.’ I’m not quite sure how it’s supposed to be comforting that you’re the victim of equal-opportunities trolling when you’re listening to people talking about sex with your seven-year-old self, but there we go. The point is: it’s bollocks. I have never yet seen a male sportsman talking seriously about his childhood training be interrupted by other (straight) men making cracks about what a slut he was as a kid. Even medieval writers of romance knew that.

Note

I’m always amazed at how precarious the survival of some medieval manuscripts is. The only manuscript of the Roman de Silence was discovered at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham in 1911 … in a box marked ‘unimportant documents’!

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7 thoughts on “How to Man Up, Medieval Style: Cross-dressing Women and the Perils of Accidental Lesbianism

    • Well, since you ask …! 😀 I’m planning to do another post on it as it’s a cracking story. I just didn’t want this one to get too long.

    • I’m glad you liked it! I’m going to post the ending of the story later today.

      I’m sure you’re right it’s the same gesture. I have seen it elsewhere (we have icons at home), so I was pretty sure it wasn’t actual nipple-twiddling! 😀 But I am sure some medieval folk were just as mind-in-the-gutter as I am …

      (I love that blog, btw, I’ll remember to come back to it. Thanks!)

      • I didn’t really think you thought it was 🙂 Getting far too complicated now…

        I used to know a little bit about religious imagery, but it all seems to have seeped out of my brain over the years. Thank you for prompting me to revisit it (and discovering that blog), will have to dig some of my old books out too.

  1. I know. 🙂

    I love religious imagery – especially when it generates those amazing ‘sorry …. what?!’ moments where you realize there’s so much more going on in a picture.

  2. Pingback: In the ‘Medieval Mud’: When you’re a Male Renaissance Genius, it doesn’t matter if your Facts are Wrong. | Jeanne de Montbaston

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