silence in medieval romance about women inheriting property

In the horrific Trojan War, thousands of men were slaughtered for the sake of one woman, Helen of Troy. That massive gender inequality in social value has long been treated with silence. Women’s romantic relationships and women’s rights have been of much more social concern than men’s deaths.[1] The medieval Romance of Silence {Roman de Silence} narrates such gender injustice in a story centered on English women losing the right to inherit property and then regaining it.

King Evans of England and King Begon of Norway were engaged in a terrible war. This war had arisen from a trivial dispute that the Roman de Silence doesn’t specify. A thoughtful person might speculate that King Begon or one of his ministers had said something offensive about English women. King Evans was unmarried. Perhaps someone disparaged English women in taunting King Evans for being unmarried.

Whatever the trivial dispute, it led to terrible violence and destruction. The romance narrator Master Heldris of Cornwall said that this war “had lasted a very long time {dura moult longes}.” He explained:

It began over something trivial.
Then many houses were set on fire,
so many cities were put to the torch,
and so many feet and thighs sliced,
and so many people wretchedly scattered.
At that time the country was devastated such
that I cannot recount to you half of it.

{ Et sorst par petite oquoison.
Puis en arst on mainte maison,
Tante vile en fu mise en flamme,
Et colpé tant pié, tante hance,
Et tante gens caitive esparse
Dont la contreë en est arse
Que nel vos puis demi conter. }[2]

This genderless description obscures the reality that this war, like almost all wars, was institutionally ordered toward violence against men. Moreover, a historically frequent pattern in sacking cities has been to kill the men and take the women and children as captives.[3] Many more men than women almost surely were killed in the war.

One marriage resolved the war. King Begon offered the hand of his beautiful daughter Eufeme to King Evans in exchange for peace and an alliance. King Evans readily agreed:

When he heard this, he was overjoyed.
He replied with refined manners to the messengers:
“Now I have fought very well
and well employed my labor
if I can have her as wife.
There is in the world no more dear one to have.
I so want and so desire
by custom to go from the church to lie down with her.
I have suffered long for love of her.”

{ Quant il l’entent, si est haitiés.
Respont as més com afaitiés:
“Or ai ge moult bien guerriié
Et bien mon traval emploié
Se jo a feme puis avoir;
Il n’a el mont si chier avoir,
Que jo tant aim et tant desir
Par us d’eglise od li gesir.
Piece a l’amors de li me poinst.” }

All of King Evans’s counselors agreed to this peace proposal. None complained that men’s lives had been valued so cheaply relative to the life of this one princess.[4]

Despite the material destruction and deprivation from the war, King Evans spent lavishly on the wedding. Surely many of his men had been wounded in the war and were in need of material assistance. Their wounds must have hurt more when they saw what their wounds had bought:

There was a wedding grand and bountiful,
with all kinds of elegant and dainty dishes.
I don’t know how much it cost —
more than anyone could imagine.
The wedding lasted for twelve months,
because such was then their custom.
Then they had lives of complete joy.

{ Noces i ot grans et plenieres
Od més et daintiés de manieres,
Ne sai que conte la despense,
Car plus i ot que nus ne pense.
Les noces durent .xii. mois,
Car tels estoit adonc lor lois.
Entiere avoit adonques joie }

The men maimed and killed in the war didn’t have lives of complete joy. An extravagantly expensive wedding isn’t a humane ending to a terrible war.

Within the silence of this romance, marriage both ended violence against men and prompted it. After Eufeme and King Evans’s marriage ended the war, two counts married the twin daughters of another count. Both newly married husbands claimed to have married the older twin. The older twin had the right to inherit property from her parents. One husband suggested sharing the inheritance equally. The other husband adamantly refused. He insisted that his wife was the older twin. The two husbands ultimately engaged in a personal duel to determine whose wife had the right to inherit. Both men died in their fight.

This dispute over the two women’s inheritance threatened to cause further violence against men. Grief over the two counts’ deaths made for a dangerous situation among their supporters:

Some wanted to start disputes and kill
out of grief for the counts’ deaths.
Then King Evans became very angry.
“Oh! Oh!” he cried, “Great heavens!
What grief on account of two orphaned girls!
I am certainly very upset
that I have lost my lords.
Henceforth by the faith I owe Saint Peter,
no woman shall ever inherit again
in the kingdom of England
as long as I reign over the land.
Such will be the penalty
for this our suffering.”

{ Alquant se voelent esgrocier
Por duel des contes et ocire.
Or a li rois Ebayns grant ire.
“Ahi! ahi!” fait il. “Chaieles!
Quel duel por .ii. orphenes pucieles!
Que mes barons en ai perdus
J’en sui certes moult esperdus:
Mais, par le foi que doi Saint Pere,
Ja feme n’iert mais iretere
Ens el roiame s’Engletiere,
Por tant com j’aie a tenir tiere.
Et c’en iert ore la venjance
De ceste nostre mesestance.” }

A similar loss could arise from twin sons contesting inheritance. King Evans’s repeal of women’s right to inherit is obviously unreasonable as narrow policy on inheritance. It, however, functions to associate women’s rights with men’s deaths. The ultimate effect is to demonstrate that women’s rights are of more social concern than men’s deaths.

Women’s right to inherit in England was restored after massive violence against men. A woman named Silence, raised as a man so that she would be able to inherit, became a mighty warrior.[5] Then King Evans became embroiled in a ferocious battle to suppress a rebellion:

The hand-to-hand combat was so hot
that even the bravest men were afraid.
The blade of a Poitevin sword
was a bad neighbor to some thousand men
who would never retell in their land
about who was inferior in the war.
But I can well tell you in truth
that I have never heard of a greater martyrdom.
Greater? Bah, by God! How greater?
A thousand men with castles and fiefdoms
were killed, whether they were right or wrong,
about which many other men there also died.

{ La commencierent tel estor
Dont li plus hardis ot paör.
Li brant de l’acier poitevin
Sont a tels .m. si mal voisin,
Ja ne rediront en lor tierre
A cui estait pis de la guerre.
Mais bien vos puis par verté dire
C’aine mais n’oï gregnor martyre.
Gregnor! Ba, Dex! comment gregnor?
.m. per de castials et d’onor
I sont ochis, fust drois u tors,
Dont i a moult des altres mors. }

Silence led thirty French men, all highly skilled knights, in battle on behalf of the king. They killed many rebelling men. When the king was knocked from his horse, Silence helped to rescue him. Then through brutal personal combat, Silence captured the man leading the rebellion. The rebel men subsequently were slaughtered as they fled.

After being feted as a war hero, Silence was revealed to be a woman. In gratitude for her service, King Evans restored women’s right to inherit. He also married Silence. The romance doesn’t indicate that King Evans rewarded any men who served him in the war. King Evans was silent about all the men killed in the war.

Massive violence against men continues without gendered concern. In the U.S., anti-men sexism in military draft registration still exists along with intense, highly selective concern about other issues of gender equality. Neither violence against men nor systemic anti-men sexism have ever been concerns of popular romance within gynocentric society.

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[1] Persons have eagerly believed and disseminated the absurd claim that women have long been been treated as men’s property. For some analysis, see my post on primatology and vegetarianism, particularly note [4]. In reality, marriage has required the woman’s consent, and women have owned property throughout history. The story of Roman de Silence depends on social concern about women inheriting property.

[2] Heldris of Cornwall {Heldris de Cornouaille}, The Romance of Silence {Le Roman de Silence} vv. 149-55, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Roche-Mahdi (1992). Subsequent quotes from Roman de Silence are similarly sourced. I’ve modified Roche-Mahdi’s translation to follow more closely the Old French source.

The previous short quote “had lasted a very long time” is from Roman de Silence v. 148. The subsequent quotes above are from Roman de Silence vv. 177-85 (When he heard this…), 249-55 (There was a wedding…), 306-18 (Some wanted to start disputes …), 5463-74 (The hand-to-hand combat was so hot…).

[3] See, e.g. Deuteronomy 20:13-4; Numbers 31:7, 17-8; 1 Kings 11:15.

[4] Women are complicit in compelling men as a gender to fight in wars. In the medieval romance William of Palermo {Guillaume de Palerne}, the ruling Queen Felise told her men of their obligation to fight for her:

You are my men and my lords.
Thus you should always help me.
I am a woman. I do not know how to wage war,
to belt on a sword, to wear a hauberk,
nor how to endure war.
But you who are, beautiful lords,
men raised on such labor,
do it such as you should.

{ Mi home estes et mi baron;
Si me devés toudis aidier.
Feme sui, ne sai guerroier,
Çaindre espee, hauberc vestir,
Estor ne guerre maintenir.
Mais vos qui estes, biau signor,
Gens norrie de tel labor,
Le faites si com vos devés. }

Guillaume de Palerne, vv. 5038-45, Old French text from Michelant (1876), English translation (modified slightly) from Sconduto (2004).

[5] Roman de Silence hints at how boys are taught to tolerate the pain they feel and socialized to engage in violence against men on behalf of gynocentric society:

He led Silence more often outside
in intense heat in order to make him more masculine.

When Silence practiced wrestling,
jousting, or had a skirmish,
he alone made all his peers tremble.

{ Sel mainne plus sovent el halle
Par cho quel violt faire plus malle.

Quant il joent a le palaistre,
A bohorder, n’a l’escremir,
Il seus fait tols ses pers fremir. }

Roman de Silence, vv. 2473-4, 2494-6.

[image] Pours attacks Alexander while women look on from above. Elephants and castles support Alexander’s force. Illumination on folio 58r of the Alexander Romance in Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, pt. I. A scribe wrote this leaf in Picardian French, the dialect of Flanders, in 1338. The Tournai illuminator Jehan de Grise and his atelier illustrated it in 1344.


Michelant, Henri Victor, ed. 1876. Guillaume de Palerne: Publié d’après le Manuscrit de la Bibliothèque de L’arsenal à Paris. Paris: Firmin-Didot.

Roche-Mahdi, Sarah, ed. and trans. 1992. Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Sconduto, Leslie A. 2004. Guillaume de Palerne: An English Translation of the 12th Century French Verse Romance. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland.

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