Date of Award
Angela Jane Weisl, PhD
Donovan Sherman, PhD
gender, queer, romance, genre, heteronormativity, silence
How does a contemporary audience handle medieval queerness? What, exactly, constitutes medieval queerness, and how does the medieval literary genre of romance impact it? This thesis attempts to grapple with these questions, and many more, utilizing the 13th-century Old French romance Le Roman de Silence by Heldris de Cornuälle. Medieval romances are particularly fruitful for this analysis because, on one hand, the genre consistently re/turns to cisheteronormativity, and, on the other, because scholarship generally has not applied queer theory to the study of romance. Silence follows Silence, a young Englishwoman who is raised as a boy to protect her family’s inheritance. As King Evan of England has outlawed women’s abilities to inherit, Silence’s parents raise Silence as a boy rather than a girl. What follows is that Silence embodies masculinity—performing as a better man than any of the other men in the poem—yet takes on multiple, sometimes conflicting, identities simultaneously. She eventually finds herself at King Evan’s court, where Queen Eufeme accuses Silence of raping her. From there, King Evan commands Silence to strip naked—to find out which genitals she has. King Evan is surprised to see she is assigned female; realizing why Silence disguised herself for so long, he reverses his inheritance decree, executes Queen Eufeme, and marries Silence.
What is particularly stunning about Silence is the extent to which the genre constricts her trans/formation into a man. She cries out that “I am Scilentius, / As I view it, or I am nude,” yet the end of the poem not only finds Silence back into compulsory heterosexuality, it also finds her completely silenced, unable to say anything more (2527-8). The romance seems to favor—and even necessitate—this trajectory for Silence: if King Evan allows women to inherit again, then there is no reason for Silence to continue embodying queerness. In effect, Silence silences Silence, offering little to no recourse for her ambitious genderplay. The genre of romance appears to erase queerness because it is not equipped to handle such dis/configuration of the body. The implications of this practice not only reflect romance’s aristocratic sympathies, but also parallel contemporary attacks against the LGBTQ+ community. This study cannot speak for non-Western bodies, but it nonetheless challenges one of the most popular medieval genres for how it handles marginalized bodies and marginalization.
Thus, this thesis will argue that gender—constrained by genre—becomes an irreconcilable category for medieval romance writers to negotiate through their works and words, suggesting that the rigidity of gender within romance is a chaotic force for both the story and genre. Hence, the poet confines gender into a strict system that, through the actions of each character, paradoxically risks slippage. As a result, queerness becomes a threatening force to the stability of the story. Erasing queerness and replacing it with cisheteronormativity illustrates romance’s inability to handle queer bodies.
Gaydo, Kyle, "Queer Not: Medieval Romance's Toll on Queerness" (2023). Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). 3094.
European Languages and Societies Commons, French and Francophone Literature Commons, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies Commons, Medieval Studies Commons, Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Commons, Other French and Francophone Language and Literature Commons, Women's Studies Commons