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In my previous post for the Centre for Medieval Studies blog, I promised a much-needed follow-up to my interview with the storyteller Rachel Rose Reid, whose retelling of the medieval French Roman de Silence is currently touring around the country. This week, we’ll be talking about some of the more challenging questions raised by the text, and their impact on how she has interpreted the text and devised her own piece.
Returning to your interpretation of Silence, I was struck by the way in which you begin Part 1 of the story. Why did you start your retelling of Silence by recounting your own story — that is, the story of how you came across this wonderful text?
There were a couple of reasons: firstly, Heldris (the narrator-figure in Silence) doesn’t ‘start the story with the story’ either! Instead, we have this intriguing prologue that offers an invective against avarice. While I don’t begin my retelling in quite the same way, I do think that my own introduction serves a similar purpose — that is, to involve the audience in my storytelling, and to begin ‘weaving’, together with them, the world of the story. Immersion isn’t everything: whenever I come back to moments of honesty like this one, where I tell my own story, I’m being authentically present with the audience. There’s something in that interaction which means that people follow you: they trust you, and you’re able to ‘catch’ them if you feel that they need to be brought back into the story.
… and, of course, Heldris does this throughout their own story, interacting — or at least presenting an interaction — with his own audience. There are points where he’s very direct about this: just before he reaches Silence’s birth, Heldris promises the audience (in the English translation) ‘a lively tale without any further fuss or ado’!
… and this itself raises a fascinating question: why does the story (as Heldris tells it) start so far beforehand? Heldris could easily have started the story with the birth of Silence, but chooses not to: instead, there’s a focus on this question of inheritance, which makes up a large part of the first part of Silence. On a personal level, the inheritance question — which of course ‘sets up’ the motive for Silence to present as a different gender later in the story — is something that I’m very interested in. I’m part of a collective called Three Acres and a Cow, which has really opened my eyes to the different relationships that people have had to land over the centuries; it seems that, although we’re many generations down the line from the world of Silence, there’s still very much a legacy there, and the attitudes towards land and inheritance that Silence documents are still evident in the present day. A few years ago, I visited several Cornish towns with a story about suffrage, and people told us that their own aunts had missed out on inheritances for this same reason: it had gone to particular male relatives, in this case just before changes were made to inheritance law. I’m fascinated by the cultural landscape that informs tales such as Silence, by what it would mean to hear about changes to the law such as these; and by whether Evan’s actions would have been considered provocative or commonplace.
And yet, modern academic work on Silence – with some exceptions – really hasn’t shown the same interest in the inheritance question. One particularly dry description of the opening conflict between the counts sees it as nothing more than a ‘debate over primogeniture’, and in general, it’s the questions of gender that have dominated scholarship, with Simon Gaunt noting (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that Silence ‘appears to engage deliberately with problems that interest modern theorists.’
Questions surrounding gender are more ‘front-and-centre’ in Part 2 of my retelling, of course, but the two ideas about inheritance and women are of course intimately connected. I’m interested in both questions: about who would have listened to this story, and how contentious the material about land ownership would have been. It’s been really satisfying to work with medievalists, including medievalists who aren’t necessarily familiar with the Roman de Silence itself, but who work on the general period during which it was produced. Even if the insights that come out of these conversations don’t make it into my retelling every night, it’s really fun talking to academics who can help to inform my telling of the story, answering some of the more esoteric questions. One question that’s intriguing me at the moment is that of what Cornwall would have meant to the audience of Silence: would it simply have been ‘somewhere far away’, or would it have had a more concrete opening?
That’s a tricky question to answer, but there has increasingly been a tendency in research to stress the ‘connectedness’ of the medieval world, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the audience of Silence to be aware of Cornwall, at least in the context of a lot of the Arthurian material that locates Arthur in this area. The very fact that the manuscript of Silence has survived in Britain at all is testament to cross-Channel movement: it is, after all, written in a dialect of French that shows relatively little Anglo-Norman influence, with far more of a Picard ‘feel’ to it. One theory suggests that the manuscript was composed around the late 13th century as part of a marriage dowry, only reaching England as a piece of plunder late in the Hundred Years’ War.1 Histories of manuscript provenance are, in the end, personal stories — much like the stories that you bring alive in your retelling.
For me, Silence is very much a story about how humans — whether the characters in Silence, or the owners of the manuscript — try to structure the world. Each of us has ways in which we try to structure our world in order to make everything okay; in the case of the characters in Silence, it’s society that has trapped people into certain ways of being. That’s one of the reasons why I try to present Eufeme (King Evan’s Queen, who fulfills the ‘Potiphar’s wife’ trope) as a more rounded character. Heldris might try to give us some understanding of her motivations, but there’s more to be said here: Eufeme might seem to be terrible, but if you look at how she got to be where she is, the only place where she can enact real change is in the personal realm. Only Merlin sits apart from this, and his laughter — which I’ve always read as cosmic, not cruel — seems to me to be saying, ‘look at all these humans, who think they can control and set up these structures.’
Working with Rachel has been an absolute privilege, and it’s been wonderful to re-acquaint myself with the Roman de Silence after a few years, particularly in the form of a retelling as lively, engaging, and powerful as hers. Rachel has transformed a story whose characters are often read as ciphers — ‘Silence’, ‘Euphemie’, ‘Eupheme’ — into an intensely human tale, while preserving its focus on questions that connect the medieval and the modern.
For more information about Silence, see the show’s website.
Rachel has toured Parts 1 and 2 of Silence during 2018, supported by Arts Council England, and is currently writing the final section. She is seeking partners, hosts, and grants to make it possible for her to perform the whole of her adaptation (possibly two sets of two-hour performances, so may require an overnight experience) at various locations during 2019. Please send ideas, suggestions and offers to ; for more information, see silencespeaks.strikingly.com and rachelrosereid.com.
Edward Mills, PhD Student
1 More recent work on the manuscript, however, has argued for an earlier dating of the early 13th century, based on an analysis of paratextual features such as illustration. See Alison Stones, ‘Two French Manuscripts: WLC/LM/6 and WLC/LM/7’, in Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre (eds.), The Wollaton Medfieval Manuscripts: Texts, Owners and Readers (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010), pp. 41-56.
It’s not all that often that some news genuinely makes you jump out of your seat in excitement. One such occasion came for me a couple of months ago, when my email inbox, usually reserved for reminders about overdue library books, served up a cracker: namely, that a storyteller, Rachel Rose Reid, was working on a retelling of the thirteenth-century French text, Le Roman de Silence, and was looking to connect with academics who could inform her work. For someone like me, who works with medieval French texts as part of his PhD, this opportunity was just too good to pass up.
Funnily enough, though, the wave of excitement that the email inspired — and that saw quite possibly the fastest email reply I’ve ever written — was probably not too dissimilar to the eagerness felt at the moment when Rachel’s source text was first uncovered. The story of behind the Roman de Silence is almost as famous as the Roman itself: it survives in just one manuscript, currently in the care of the University of Nottingham’s Special Collections, which was discovered as late as 1911 in a box marked ‘old papers — no value’.
It’s with the narrative of the Roman de Silence, however, that Rachel really works her magic. After King Evan of England declares that no woman shall ever inherit in his kingdom, one of his vassals, Cador, agrees with his wife Eufemie that their newborn daughter, Silence, should be raised as a boy. There follows a debate between the allegorical figures of ‘Nature’, who unsuccessfully attempts to persuade Silence of the folly of their ways, and ‘Nurture’, whose intervention leads to Silence undertaking a range of traditionally masculine pursuits. These questions of gender and upbringing form some of the key themes of this 6,000-line piece, which Rachel has separated into a trilogy. With all this in mind, I jumped at the chance to find out more; still buzzing from the free press ticket to a performance the night before, I sat down to talk to Rachel about how she went about adapting Silence, as well as her own experience with the work.
So first things first … you’re known as a ‘storyteller’, and work with both children and adults. Many of the people reading this blog might not be all that familiar with what exactly it is that a modern-day ‘storyteller’ does; could you give us a brief introduction of what you try to achieve when you work with stories like Silence?
The first thing to consider when talking about ‘storytelling’ as a vocation is really just how many ideas it encompasses. There are many different storytelling traditions around the world, and these all adhere to their source material to different degrees; I suppose that a Shakespeare performance would be at one end of this spectrum, where going to see (say) Hamlet several times, you’d expect to see a very similar performance on each occasion. In that case, then, there’s got to be something in the performers’ interpretation of the text that would bring it alive for you. At the other end of the scale, we have the folk traditions that are still alive in Ireland and Scotland, where the storyteller will know the ‘marks’ that they have to hit, but won’t be too concerned about sticking rigidly to a certain pace as they move through them. I work with both forms: in performance poetry, my words are the same every time, whereas in shorter storytelling – up to about 20 minutes – I have ‘markers’ and improvise between them. Silence, though, is an epic endeavour, and requires some combination of the two. I’m more certain of what I will be saying and doing, so that I can take the audience on a complex narrative and emotional journey, but my relationship with the audience in my performances is far more porous than you might otherwise expect from the image conjured up by the word ‘performer’. In a way, my work is a combination of the skills of stand-up comedy and guiding group meditative visualisation: even if Silence contains many of the same elements from night to night, every show is made different by the different audiences. I try to create a synergistic relationship between myself as the storyteller and the audience, where can I respond to things that we experience in the room while still remaining inside the ‘landscape’ of the story.
There was one wonderful point in the performance when you actually asked the audience to contribute — you asked us what words we would use to describe a forest scene …
That’s one obvious example, but in storytelling, ‘involving the audience’ is something that also happens even when the audience aren’t speaking! This question of audience participation is actually really intriguing for me in the specific context of how Heldris de Cornuaille, the author named in this text, would have worked: there’s a moment later in the story when the counts of France are debating how their King should react to receiving a letter, and whenever I think of this particular episode, I’m reminded of Grace Hallworth, a storyteller originally from Trinidad, who will always invite her audience to ‘chip in’ with their thoughts at any ‘decision point’ in a story. I’ve always wondered whether this sort of audience interaction would have happened during medieval storytelling: would the performers of texts like these have elicited debate from their audiences? One element in my version of Silence was only added a couple of days ago, and it was done in response to audience engagement: whenever I used to quote Heldris’ line that ‘some people swore in sorrow’ (when asked to swear loyalty to the law that women will be barred from inheritance), audience members used to call out — totally unprompted — that it was the women who were doing it, so I started asking my audiences who they thought it was. We often assume that that questions like these are rhetorical, but I’m not so sure …
I was very struck by one of the modifications that you made to the text: that of the wedding. In Heldris’ text, the wedding (between Cador and Eufemie) finishes before the counts’ feud that leads to women being barred from inheritance, and you weave a wonderful scene with minstrels from different countries telling increasingly elaborate stories …
Medievalists will know that the chivalric interactions between Cador and Eufemie in Silence are essentially a giant send-up of the Tristan and Isolde legend, but my audience — many of whom of course aren’t medievalists — won’t. That’s why I elaborate the minstrel scene when I tell Silence: so I can set up a repeated idea of what a ‘romantic story’ is, before the audience get to see me taking the mickey out of it! What’s more, these stories are the kind of ‘romantic story’ that we’re flooded with in popular culture today — what about rom-coms, where we essentially repeat the same narrative over and over again?
There’s often a contradiction in how people see the medieval period: somehow, popular culture imagines it both as a ‘purer time’ characterised by chivalry and knights in shining armour, and yet also as an epoch of abject misery and filth. What were your experiences of working with this particular period of history?
What is key to me, in bringing this story alive, is for my 21st-century audience to find the many connections that exist between our own experiences, those of Heldris, and those of the characters. We’re not doing faux medieval re-enactment here: I don’t want the audience to be scratching their heads over obscure terminology, or despairing over sections that seem over-egged to the modern ear. However, I’ve found that the plot points at the heart of Silence only need minor alterations for them to be understood today. Heldris has so much to say about topics that are both thrilling and troublingly familiar for us to hear today: equality, identity, religious dogma, sexual abuse, the damage done by an overbearing patriarchal structure … The legal matter of land and title is still going strong, too, both in our unspoken social norms and in the aristocratic echelons around which Heldris centres the story. Sometimes I think that the reason the text went missing for a few hundred years was simply that it was exhausted … In this text, I’ve been delighted to discover that this medieval writer-storyteller uses so many of the techniques that my peers and I use: satire, flippancy, sarcasm, self-deprecation, timing, and alternating between colloquial chat and grand dramatic imagery. I’m not planning to perform in rhyming couplets, but in working on this project, I have found great joy in discovering the world of medievalists, too. I’m looking forward to sharing this adventure with more medievalists, and I hope that by 2019 we will have several places where the entire story can be told.
As you can tell, Rachel and I certainly had a lot to talk about — so much, in fact, that we’ve decided to split this interview over two blog posts! In the second part of our interview, we’ll be talking a little more about some of the more specific challenges posed by retelling Silence, specifically how Rachel responds to the challenging topics addressed by the text.
Rachel Rose Reid has toured Parts 1 and 2 of Silence during 2018, supported by Arts Council England, and is currently writing the final section. She is seeking partners, hosts, and grants to make it possible for her to perform the whole of her adaptation (possibly two sets of two-hour performances, so may require an overnight experience) at various locations during 2019. Please send ideas, suggestions and offers to ; for more information, see silencespeaks.strikingly.com and rachelrosereid.com.
Edward Mills, PhD Student
As an undergraduate, I spent quite a lot of time in and around Emmanuel College, Cambridge. One of my best friends was a student there, and in the spirit of putting inter-collegiate rivalries aside, we visited each other fairly frequently.
A not-insignificant portion of my undergraduate dissertation was written, as was his, in the throes of ‘writing sprints’ in his room, fuelled by gallons of tea and the constant reminder that the College canteen did excellent desserts. One place I barely set foot in, though, was the College library; as a member of another College, I wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway, and even the most cursory of tours felt somewhat transgressive.
It was something of a surprise, then, when I realised that I’d need to go back to ‘Emma’ in the course of my PhD research. At the moment, I’m investigating the tradition of so-called ‘courtesy books’ produced in Anglo-Norman, and specifically the text known as Urbain le courtois. Urbain survives in 11 manuscripts, ranging from the sumptuous and meticulously-produced to the altogether-less-impressive (such as MS Douce 210), but only nine of them have been edited. By the standards of many medieval texts, such comprehensive coverage would warrant a pat on the back and a sense of pride at a job well done, but in the case of Urbain, the fact that two manuscripts remain excluded from discussion becomes something of a problem. These two additional manuscripts – one of which, as you will probably have guessed by now, is at Emmanuel College – remind us that medieval manuscripts can often be characterised by what Bernard Cerquiglini has termed variance. Urbain is effectively a compilation of fairly pithy advice on how to behave at court – kneel before your superiors, don’t drink to excess, and so on – but the order in which an individual scribe presents his material, as well as the decisions that are made regarding what to include and what to leave out, can tell us a great deal about how the didactic process was imagined in Anglo-Norman texts. The two manuscripts that remain unedited could, I thought, offer valuable clues for unpicking the relationships between the various witnesses to the text of Urbain, and with this in mind, I realised that investigating the manuscript held by Emmanuel College in person would be an essential step in looking to understand the textual history of this peculiar piece.
For any manuscript to have survived to the present day is a remarkable achievement, and one that can be largely put down to the tireless work of the many Special Collections departments up and down the country. As custodians of works that are hundreds of years old, manuscript libraries are well within their rights to set their own rules about who can access their collections, and what you’re allowed to do with them during your visit. The rules at Emma are fairly standard for smaller libraries: no liquids or pens were to be brought into the room, and I was to be supervised by a member of staff at all times while consulting the manuscript. I was also asked to provide a letter of introduction, signed by my supervisor (and, in a charming throwback to an age before email, printed on University-headed paper). The only surprise came when I was told photography would not be permitted, a policy which many larger collections are increasingly relaxing in the age of ubiquitous smartphone cameras.
Before consulting any manuscript, it’s a good idea to look up its entry in the catalogue to get a sense of its layout and contents. Many medieval manuscripts, in spite of containing multiple texts, didn’t come equipped with contents pages in the way that we might expect today, and so the catalogue, whether it’s a fully searchable web database, a dusty print volume, or somewhere in between, plays a vital role in telling you where to look for the item that you’re after. In my case, the catalogue as I consulted it was an intriguing mix of the old-school and the modern, taking the form of a digital scan of the 1903 paper ‘handlist’, freely available through the wonderful Internet Archive. There are, of course, many things that a catalogue, print or otherwise, cannot help you to expect, and one of these was the remarkable dimensions of the manuscript. My eyes having somehow managed to skip over the small note on the size of the manuscript, I walked into Emma’s Special Collections reading room expecting to meet a book of similar dimensions to MS Douce 210: approximately A4 size, or possibly slightly smaller. What I didn’t expect was to be handed a book that could sit comfortably in one hand, measuring just 11cm by 7cm, into which the scribe had somehow managed to cram up to 200 words on each individual page.
This was my first time investigating a manuscript without having the luxury of a photo to fall back on later, and I have to confess that this constraint led me to interact with the manuscript in a surprisingly different way. My main task was the same as it often is when consulting manuscript versions of texts – transcribe its contents for comparison with other manuscript witnesses – but this time, I found myself transcribing in a much more conservative manner. Abbreviations were left unexpanded: for now, the question of whether qe .referred to q[e] or to q[ue] would have to wait, as I sought to record as much information as possible, as accurately as possible. In short, I realised, I was trying to create a photograph without actually taking my phone out of my pocket. This kind of ‘slow photography’, however, was in its way more useful, and more engaging, than any 5000 x 3000-pixel JPEG ever could be: correction and every decoration, I was engaging with the manuscript in a much closer fashion, treating it as far more than just a repository of folia containing potential image data. It took me approximately 90 minutes to fully transcribe two and a half folios out of the approximately 200 that make up the manuscript, and in that time I found myself realising just how intricate, and how time-consuming, the medieval scribal process could have been.
There was, however, one more task for me to complete before MS 106 was returned to its box. One curiosity of Emma’s library is its own copy of the catalogue: readers consulting Special Collections are invited to leave their mark on this unique copy, which is printed with blank leaves in between each standard page in order to allow space for readers to add notes. These usually take the form of publication announcements, with pencilled-in additions indicating that (say) item no. 36 from a given manuscript has recently been published in the 2009 edition of a major medieval studies journal. Occasionally, however, a more personal story would emerge, and as I added my own note to the catalogue, one of these presented itself to me. While I was clarifying the contents of item no. 13 in MS 106, I came across a letter on the opposite page from a certain Ruth J. Dean, informing the Librarian that she has discovered details of the context to one of the pieces in this very same manuscript. More information would be available, she noted, ‘in my forthcoming revision and updating of John Vising’s Anglo-Norman Lannguage and Literature, which I hope may be finished in the course of another year.” If the letter can be dated, as the top-left indicates, to 1983, then Ruth Dean’s optimism about the speed with which her work could be finished was somewhat misplaced, with Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts not being published until 1999. Nevertheless, it was a great pleasure for me, as someone who uses Dean’s life-work on an almost daily basis, to add my own reference to Emmanuel’s catalogue using a numbering system that she herself devised.
Thanks to Dr. H. C. Carron at the Library of Emmanuel College, Cambridge for allowing me to consult MS 106, and to all of the Library staff for their warm welcome and willingness to answer my innumerable questions.
Edward Mills, PhD Student, Modern Languages