Silence speaks a thousand words
Researchers at the University of Warwick are working with a professional storyteller to bring a 13th century story about nonbinary gender identity to new audiences.
Silence is an adaptation of the medieval French romance, the Roman de Silence. Rachel Rose Reid, ‘Queen of the new wave storytellers’, will perform one part of her adaptation of the epic tale at St. Mary’s Guildhall in Coventry’s cathedral quarter.
The manuscript containing the Roman de Silence was kept in a box marked ‘old papers – no value’ alongside letters from King Henry VIII, until it was found in 1911 in Wollaton Hall. The manuscript has been worked on by scholars, but the text is not widely known outside academic circles.
On April 28th, the story will be brought to life through Rachel Rose Reid’s performance, thanks to funding from the University of Warwick’s Arts and Humanities Impact Fund and Global Research Priorities ‘Connecting Cultures’ programme.
The story focuses on the life of a character called Silence, a descendent of King Arthur who is gendered female at birth but raised as a boy, switching pronouns to assume a place in a society that does not allow women to inherit. As a young man, Silence goes on to become a runaway, a minstrel, and a champion knight.
Dr Emma Campbell, Reader in French Studies at the University of Warwick, said: “Medieval gender formations are perhaps less binary than people generally assume. In centring a character who explicitly questions the gender categories that structure the society they are born into; this text acknowledges the arbitrary nature of such categories. This text, like many other works from the Middle Ages, is interested in questioning binary conceptions of gender as much as it is invested in re-establishing a social order based on those conceptions.
“What Rachel’s performance brilliantly shows is that medieval texts are part of a long history of supposedly ‘non normative’ gender and sexuality. The Middle Ages can offer us new ways of connecting with experiences of gender from the past and, in so doing, complicate our own conceptions of modern gender norms.”
Speaking at the event, spoken word artist, Rachel Rose Reid, added: “I came across an academic textbook edition of Roman de Silence in the basement of a second-hand bookstore in New York. I was struck that it was written to be spoken aloud, with the storyteller using many techniques still used by modern tellers. It is a powerful story for the way it contends with issues of gender identity and gender inequality, as well as mental and social wellbeing. On top of this it is also a brilliant story, and I couldn’t believe that I - and almost everyone I spoke with - had never heard of it.
“The story of Silence is not one that can be left in the 13th century, my aim is that through this performance we will resurrect this story to its rightful place in the canon of British literature, whilst also sparking a positive conversation surrounding 21st century sexual politics, identity and freedom.”
The performance is part of a three-day programme of events exploring sustainable approaches to teaching Medieval French, hosted by the University of Warwick.