Without Magic or Miracle shows how Silence upturned gender

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Professor Masha Raskolnikov of Cornell University speaks about the prehistory of genderqueerness in literature in Oak Hall Friday afternoon. Students, faculty, and the speaker engaged in a robust dialogue about the subtle nuances of our interpretation of medieval texts and how these texts help shape our understanding of history.  Photos by Kevin Lindstrom / The Daily Campus.

Professor Masha Raskolnikov of Cornell University speaks about the prehistory of genderqueerness in literature in Oak Hall Friday afternoon. Students, faculty, and the speaker engaged in a robust dialogue about the subtle nuances of our interpretation of medieval texts and how these texts help shape our understanding of history. Photos by Kevin Lindstrom / The Daily Campus.

Masha Raskolnikov, an associate professor at Cornell, was brought to Oak Hall Friday by the Medieval Studies program to read her article “Without Magic or Miracle: The ‘Romance of Silence’ and The Prehistory of Genderqueerness” which uses her background in queer studies to explore the prehistory of genderqueerness as shown in the 13th century French poem “Romance of Silence.” 

Silence was assigned female at birth, but was raised male by her parents. They went on in the poem to combine traditionally feminine and masculine traits to become both a successful minstrel and knight, dressing at times in the fashion of men and women. While Silence sees their assigned female gender as their true identity, they thrive in their life as a man by being the best musician, strongest knight and the object of desire for the queen. 

Raskolnikov sees an interesting genderqueer subject in Silence, in that it isn’t that Silence doesn’t connect with their assigned gender, but that another gender was pushed on them. Silence struggles throughout the plot with their wish to be a girl inwardly and outwardly, but they don’t want to give up the high status of being a male in medieval French society. Their choice to be a man is thus pragmatic. And so, their story goes against the usual “born-in-the-wrong-body” narrative, in that they can treat their gender through rationale, despite their psychological desire to appear female. 

“It’s ‘I want to be in a place where no women are allowed,’” Raskolnikov said. 

Heldris de Cornuälle, the author of “Romance of Silence,” undercut the concept of female and male, by making a woman who is concerned about their ability to succeed as a female due to their extreme success as a male. Yet, Raskolnikov doesn’t believe Silence should be considered transgender, despite their extensive cross-dressing and outward male persona, since their identity was formed completely by their parents. 

“I think I learned about genderqueer[ness] and [how] gender can be constructive to culture, and even though we have [sexual identities], it’s determined by your environment and how you learn to be a woman or man and not determined by the sex,” Jinjin Jing, a seventh-semester actuarial science major, said. 

As Raskolnikov moved on to the parent’s backstory, she joked about the irony of how she had to explain the genderqueerness of a character through the nature of someone else’s heterosexual relationship. Silence’s father Cador has the ability to marry any woman he desires, and yet he feels the need to get the agreement of Eufemie, his eventual wife. Being that he sees the need for equality as they move forward in their relationship, both Cador and Eufemie proceed romantically in the slowest increments for fear that the other doesn’t consent to move further. Basically, they’re two passive people hoping the other will take the lead, which means both are given the same male gender role in the relationship. 

Eufemie has more equality also in her skill, as she is described to be “like a doctor” and able to act as a doctor in a doctor’s absence. The fact that someone assigned female is able to hold a “male role” in society, again undercuts the idea of male and female. Unfortunately, Cador’s marriage to Eufemie acts as a joining of minds and wills, thus destroying the equality their relationship had once held. Cador uses this to raise their daughter male, despite Eufemie’s protests. 

Raskolnikov believes Eufemie and Cador’s relationship foreshadows the nature of their genderqueer child. Cador’s argument of merged wills and minds also can be interpreted as “hermaphroditic,” as their male and female bodies are combined. Being that this relationship could be seen as “hermaphroditic,” it almost makes sense it led to a “hermaphroditic” child, almost makes sense. At the same time, Silence is assigned their gender solely for their father’s fear that they wouldn’t be able to inherit the family’s significant fortune, and not due to a naturally-inherited “hermaphroditic” identity. 

“I loved the talk,” Breann Leake, a lecturer in UConn’s Department of English, said. “I think this is such important work that Masha is doing about how we approach the past and how we think about trans and queer lives historically and also in the present.” 

Raskolnikov concluded that Heldris’ work reveals how sexism affected women in medieval French society, but also how little gender should matter in the ability of a person. These opposing conclusions can be mapped onto our present society, with our continuous sexism and heteronormativity, and thus demonstrates the importance of the ability of older texts to show how the thinking of the past persists today. 


Rebecca Maher is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.l.maher@uconn.edu.

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