If you've had the patience to read through the thread I wrote a few months ago about Eleanor Rykener, you'll be familiar with the fact that trans people existed in Medieval Europe, and that they were spoken about in terms that were quite different from the ones we use today.
For this sequel, I would like to offer a complement to Eleanor's story, by following up that account of a real trans woman with the discussion of a fictional transmac person.
What makes Eleanor's trial so fascinating is that very, very few documents have survived which explicitly discuss actual trans people in Medieval Europe. However, even if none of those documents existed, it would still be absolutely certain that trans people did exist in the Middle Ages.
Because when it comes to the fiction people wrote and read, trans people are *everywhere*.
The amount of medieval poetry which deals with stories of gender ambiguity or transgression, or with straight-up transgender experience, is absolutely staggering.
And one major trend which can be observed across all of them is that medieval people believed that you are the gender other people think you are. This is the case in every text I've had the chance to read. And across all of these texts, the pronouns used to refer to trans people are determined by how they're presenting.
Sidenote: This isn't to say that Medieval people didn't have a bioessentialist view of gender. That's its own huge academic can of worms. All I'll say is that it's harder to argue that they were bioessentialists than it is to argue that they weren't.
The most famous Medieval poem about a trans person is Le Roman de Silence. It was written in France in the latter half of the 13th century, approximately 100 years before Eleanor's arrest. And it's generally been considered an excellent example of the verse romance ever since it was rediscovered in 1972.
Silence is assigned female at birth. That's not true. Silence is born with a vagina, and raised as a boy because Silence's father needs a male heir. So, while we'd describe the young Silence today as a trans boy, someone else decided that he would be so on his behalf. In other words, as soon as our story starts, the poem is already getting us thinking about the extent to which gender is a coercive social construct which is interlinked with structures of political and economic power.
A broad summary of this poem would be as follows: Silence is brought up as a boy, becomes a knight, goes on a bunch of adventures, and at the end becomes a woman and marries the king. The poem is fantastic and an absolute goldmine of fascinating questions about gender and sexuality, so feel free to look up more detailed summaries elsewhere. Be warned though, most resources including the wikipedia page are extraordinarily transphobic.
While the majority of writing on Silence so far has been from a TERF perspective, it was the first poem to be singled out by trans-inclusive medievalists as an example of a trans narrative. Many people describe Silence as a trans man, I personally prefer to refer to them as genderfluid because she decides to live the rest of her life as a woman at the end. But either reading seems convincing to me.
This brings us to the reason why this poem, above all the other Medieval poems about trans people, is so widely studied. And the answer lies in the extent to which it not only tells us what Silence is thinking, but tells us all about Silence's thinking *about their own gender*. In other words, this 13th-century poem features long sequences during which a trans person questions their gender identity.
Just writing that out is blowing my mind all over again. Like there's just no way I can express how amazingly valuable this poem is.
So that's what I want to focus on. When Silence reaches puberty, they experience a crisis surrounding their gender identity. In typical medieval fashion, allegorical personifications of Nature and Nurture show up to argue their specific cases. Nature wants Silence to be a girl, Nurture wants Silence to be a boy. The entire debate is fascinating, but I'd like to focus in particular at the moment when Silence makes their final decision.
Silence discusses his gender:
"Truly," he said, "in an evil hour
will I go underneath, when I am on top.
I am on top now, and I would have to go beneath.
Now I am most valorous and strong,
but I wouldn’t be any longer; rather, in faith,
I’d be shamed if I wanted to be like the women.
I thought of it for my own pleasure.
I have a mouth too hard for kissing,
and arms too rough for embracing.
I would quickly be beaten
at the game people play under the covers,
for I am a boy, and not a girl at all."
I could spend hours discussing all the sexual puns in the original French, but I'll spare you that and instead get straight to the point. The reason why Silence decides to be a boy is because he's a top, and he personally thinks that his sexual identity is more compatible with being a man.
HOWEVER, and this is very important, he is not saying that being a top makes you a man. Eleanor Rykener, for example, topped women and was topped by men, all the while remaining a woman no matter what.
Silence simply perceives his sexual identity as being linked to his gender in a way that makes him realise that he is a man. And the emphasis with which he claims this identity is worth repeating:
"I am a boy, and not a girl at all."
This is a transmasc person deciding in the most explicit terms that he'll live as who he truly is, and that the gender he experiences is his true gender, no matter what.
And after that? Well he casually goes on to become a troubadour so talented other troubadours try to kill him, and after that he becomes the literal greatest knight in the world.
So we have an truly excellent 13th-century poem, which tells us not only the story of a transmasc person, but spends multiple pages explicitly focusing on their struggles with their gender identity -- and then just tells us how awesome they are, first at being a man, and then at being a woman! In short, a story about the beauty of our ability to take control of our own lives and identities.
There's so so much more going on in this poem that I won't go into, but suffice to say it's a monument of Western literature, one which I expect will only grow in notoriety as time goes on and more and more people recognise it as the trans story it really is.
And from a historical perspective, it is yet another proof that gender was never irrevocable, that there were always those who questioned it, struggle with it, and, sometimes, even won.
As for the author of this poem, we know nothing at all about them. At one point the poem just says "Master Heldris of Cornwall wrote this verse". That's it. So all it says is that it was written by a man called Heldris. Make of that what you will.
Thank you so so much for reading this ❤️ ❤️ ❤️ I love all of you so so much please don't hesitate to send me all your comments questions etc. anything that passes your mind I wanna hear from you!
@garfiald thank YOU for sharing with us :)
@wintgenstein It's always a pleasure ❤️
@garfiald i know its alot of fuckin effort to write all this shit out and i reallyl appreciate it !! im gonna read thru it all soon !!
@J thank u monarch <3
@garfiald One of these days we're gonna have to talk about that Kalonymus ben Kalonymus poem.
@MordecaiPinhas lol i dont know shit about him
@garfiald this is so cool! Thanks for sharing haha
@loudkid thank you so much for reading!
@garfiald this is SO GOOD fucking every thread you write gets better and better
@laurie omg queen 😭 you're too friggin nice... thank you so much
@garfiald I never expected to be learning about fascinating medieval perspectives on being trans from someone with a garfield icon and username but here we are
thank you for bringing this to our attention, it's really neat!
@garfiald this is fuckin awesome and if you have a link to a good english translated version that would be cool
@t54r4n1 the translation by Sarah Roche-Mahdi is the best. I've been trying to find a pdf for a while, I'll keep you posted
@garfiald What was the place of Cornish people in medieval French poetry at the time? I only vaguely am familiar with the Arthurian connotations such a nationality might mean... But is there any Brythonic substrate to this tale?
Also, is this poem in French or Provenćal?
@Shufei The poem is in French. I realise this is the most disappointing possible answer but most academics believe Heldris and the poem have no connection to present-day Cornwall. There have been multiple candidates for places which the "de Cornuälle" in his name might correspond to, mostly in Eastern France, but nothing conclusive. I do think the name was probably chosen for its connotations of Old-Englishness but I'm not aware of any consideration of Cornwall's specificity in this text
@garfiald Alright, and somewhat disappointing, but heaps thanks all the same for the education! I was hoping there was some way it was demonstrably a Tristram and Isulda detour, though, or had some other interesting influences. But maybe the chap had a similar heritage born of a location with Gaulish overlaid by migration era Germanic...
@garfiald The differences between your shitposts and this are staggering.
This is really cool though, thanks for sharing your thoughts and Garfieldnotes on it.
@violet thank you so much for reading!
@garfiald this is fascinating! Do we get a look at his thoughts about becoming a woman and marrying the king?
@nev eh, not really, it's a very rapid throwaway ending, a lot like Shakespeare's comedies often have, which is why the reading of him as a trans man is so popular
@garfiald ah interesting!
I love the Middle Ages. They are so much richer and colourful and..."modern" than people think.
Silence is 👌🏻👌🏻 the end is such a cop out, it's incredible
Real Sunday dissertation hours huh
@Galdrakinn lol I'm so sorry I didn't get back to you about that... I dont feel like it's worth sending it to you until I've done some last few tweaks... I'm so sorry... I'll get it to you eventually...
I know that feel so hard - there's zero pressure :)
@garfiald awww I wanna hear about the sexual puns
@garfiald can you recommend a good english translation of this work? id love to read those whole thing sometime
@red Sarah Roche-Mahdi's page-facing translation is the one to get iirc. editorial material is terfy but almost everything that's been published about the poem is, unfortunately
@garfiald ordered! thank you for sharing all of this antique trans stuff 🙏
Wow, yeah. Just took a look at the Wikipedia page and there's not even a hint that Silence is anything but a crossdressing woman even for a moment.
@Nezchan yeah it sucks very bad
@garfiald it's like George Sand's play Gabriel
@Absolutely_Blakely damn i need to check that shit out. Tahar Ben Jelloun's L'enfant de Sable also has a similar premise. its a good book also imo
@garfiald i will look into it. i have a paper copy of sand's play if you ever need me to share it. it was a nightmare finding a free digital copy...or any copy
@Absolutely_Blakely hmm, if my uni library doesn't have a copy then we're really talkin' niche
@garfiald i think its considered a bad play lmao
@garfiald *gets out the jiffy pop*
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