Indeed the birds will stop singing and the crickets in summer too before woman finds the strength to hold her tongue

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Indeed the birds will stop singing and the crickets in summer too before woman finds the strength to hold her tongue”

Explore female speech (and if appropriate, female silence) in at least two medieval texts.

Equality and feminism have been relatively modern introductions into the structure of society, both mentally and legally, while female speech has been present throughout history. It is therefore very interesting to examine literature unfamiliar with these contemporary concepts and how they perceived female speech and its relation to power in society. Firstly, looking at the quotation provided and then progressing through some of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, written by both men and women, and finally the female expression conveyed in the poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The analysis will consist of comparisons of direct female speech, and silence as well as male responses to this and finally explore the relationship between speech and power for women.

Firstly, I intend to focus on the quotation above and analyse it to establish the male attitudes towards women and female speech, which were prevalent during Medieval times, and to some extent are still held today. It is clear that Mathieu is mocking and almost chastising women for their lack of verbal restraint. However, it is important to distinguish whether Mathieu is just criticising women’s inability to keep silent or if it is also about what women say. While he appears to be suggesting that what women say is negative, it could equally be said to be a more positive expression. This positive interpretation would corroborate with the choice of birds singing as this is generally considered to be a pleasant sound, thus an indirect simile. It is interesting that this quotation from a work by Mathieu of Boulogne is presented above incomplete; with the missing part it reads:

“Indeed, the birds will stop singing and the crickets in summer too before woman finds the strength to hold her tongue, whatever harm comes of her words.”

This inclusion provides a new reading and eliminates the plausibility of the suggestion that Mathieu considers what women say is positive, chiding them for their hurtful words. On the other hand, another point of interest is that if Mathieu’s surmised wish came true and women did in fact learn to hold their tongues, the birds would stop singing. However, as birdsong is an iconic part of spring and both signal the season for the love and gaiety, the peace from women’s silence would impact on the beauty of spring and love. Mathieu has therefore constructed an interdependence between the silence of women and birds and it is reasonable to deduce that as irritating as men, including the writer, may perceive women’s speech to be, they would still prefer it to the absence of other sounds.

The Canterbury Tales is the crux of female expression in medieval literature, with three of the twenty-six characters being female (The Wife of Bath, The Prioress and Second Nun). Of these characters, The Wife of Bath is certainly one the leading female characters and one of the most memorable and outspoken of all the pilgrims in the collection of tales.

When analysed alongside the Wife of Bath’s depiction of female speech as gregarious and vulgar, both the Prioress and Second Nun approaches towards speech seem overshadowed and easily dispensable, pertaining to no great value of the discussion of female speech. However, this crucial absence of speech, and representation of female silence adds real depth to any academic discussion about this topic. The first encounter the reader has of the Prioress is in the General Prologue, as is the case for all of the characters. This is significant because it is the author and fictional narrator formally presenting each character to the reader in a supposed unbiased way. This ensures that a sufficient amount of knowledge of them is imparted onto the reader so they can “listen” to each tale with an appropriate stance. For example the Wife of Bath, “she koude of that art the olde daunce”1, the Miller and the Marchant, “with a forked berd”2, are all already perceived to be lewd and histrionic people, giving their tales less credibility. Meanwhile, characters who are presented as more noble, such as the Knight, “that a worthy man… he loved chivalyre,/ Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye” and “a good man was ther of religioun,/ And was a povre PERSOUN of a toun… riche he was of holy thought and werk” are immediately disclosed by Chaucer as good and trustworthy people and by extension, reliable storytellers.

This therefore means that the speech of another character, the narrator, informs the reader on the female characters, as well as their personal speech, of the substance and nature of their characters and what this is supposed to communicate about women in general. In addition, the narrator writes considerably substantial descriptions for both the Wife of Bath and the Prioress in the Prologue which indicates he regards them as important characters. As both are women and central characters with equal proportions between them, Chaucer is displaying an interest in female speech by devoting equal effort and lines to both characters. Interestingly, the Second Nun is given only two lines in the General Prologue[Cha05]. This may have been done for a number of reasons, thus meaning, potentially, a range of things all dependent upon how important he regards female silence to be. Initially, this suggests that Chaucer is uninterested in her due to the unequal proportion of lines.

However, this does not necessarily correlate with importance or strength as a character, as is instinctively assumed. In fact, according to Pierre Macherey3, it can be seen as a sign of importance. In “The Text Says What it Does Not Say”, Macherey posits that “silence shapes all speech”[Mac04] While it is not strictly female speech or silence, as the narrator introduces the reader to the female characters, it crucially envisages their nature and manner of speech, with the Wife of Bath having one of the longest excerpts of all the characters reflecting her unconstrained nature.

In the General Prologue, the narrator gives the reader a lot of information about the Prioress; her smile is described as being “ful simple and coy”. While it was written centuries later and he chastises her for being reserved, Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” contains so much vigour and passion in trying to persuade her to bend to his will and frustration with her, all without the reader hearing her utter a single word. This poem is effectively written against her silence as she fulfils the role as the unattainable and cruel mistress constructed around the popular medieval notion of courtly love. In “The Miller’s Tale”, Chaucer presents the more comic form of courtly love with Absalon swooning over Alison and is subject to a cruel prank which ends when he “kiste hir naked ers/ Ful savourly”. This comic moment is performed with female silence and then only followed by “tehee, qouth she”. This lack of female speech shows the flexibility women have of undermining male authority. Instead of rebutting him with words, she is able to trick him into doing something desperate and degrading.

Both the Prioress and Second Nun are presented as more righteous women than the Wife of Bath and the female characters mentioned in the tales themselves. This is most probably due to their lifestyle as quiet and obedient servants of God. As both come from a nunnery, an environment void of men or patriarchal authority which “invokes a tradition of powerful women in the past”[Stu83], they are fostered under female- established authority of their superiors as well as the saints and female martyrs, like the later Joan of Arc. More importantly, they are taught that the source of authority can be found in silence. For even God himself in Biblical history rarely uses speech to express himself, it is instead his silence that holds such omnipotence and so they extrapolate that this is also the case for females and mankind. Spending much time in silent and reflective prayer allows them to strength their characters and opinions and feel the power of God’s silence and so both women are confident enough to express themselves, but even bolder, to do this through silence. Chaucer particularly reveres the Prioress as he intricately describes her mannerisms including her extremely good table etiquette. While this description can be seen as tedious and irrelevant, it is a demonstration of her social status, which at the time was the most important asset in society, as she has been educated and taught the social graces that come with her appropriate station. Being a prioress in itself displays a certain degree of wealth in order for her to have been received into such an institution.

This concept of silence being of equal or even greater importance than speech, “not a lack to be remedied” and “silence becomes the centre and principle of expression, its vanishing point” and so “silence reveals speech”. While at first this seems an alien concept, on reflection, it is possible to think of numerous circumstances in life and in texts, including Medieval, that reveal a degree of truth to this suggestion. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, [Ano05] one of the moments with greatest suspense is when Lady Bertilak sits on the end of Sir Gawain’s bed and simply stares upon him as he pretends to be asleep. For both Gawain and the reader, countless thoughts pass through the mind while she remains silent and creates far more tension than any dialogue could. This tension mounts so much that Gawain feels obliged to pretend to wake up as he would rather ascribe speech to the incident than remain in silence. This shows a certain amount of power resides in silence, and this may be truer for women than men.

The main reason for this is that the historical oppression and silencing of women prevented them from expressing themselves through writing, acting, and to some extent talking as their opinions were disregarded by patriarchal medieval society; their only form of expression was in silence. For Macherey, this is not necessarily a limiting factor. He views “silence as the source of expression” suggesting that female silence is a purer form of communication as it “shapes all speech”. Moreover, silence is infinite and is forever debatable while “speech eventually has nothing more to tell us”, implying that a woman’s silence contains more intellectual depth than anything verbally expressed by another woman or man. This controversial, and almost humourous, claim empowers women for being dutiful wives and members of their community whilst having all the same opinions as men. In addition, as speech consists of language, Macherey also sees that “this language reveals only… itself; it has… its own limits”. This notion of speech as enclosed and subject to boundaries, social and physically as it must bridge the gap between thought and language proposes it is speech that oppresses its users, not those who choose to express themselves through the diverse medium of silence.



Cha05: , (Chaucer, 2005),

Mac04: , (Macherey, 2004),

Stu83: , (Sturges, 1983),

Ano05: , (Anon, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2005),

1 Translated in the edition of the Canterbury Tales, see bibliography, as “knowing all the old tricks” which can be easily read to mean she is very sexually experienced after “housbandes… she hadde five”, depriving her of any status as a respectable and chaste widow.

2 Alluding to satanic imagery of the devil’s pitchfork and the forked tongues of serpents, the iconic depiction of the Devil in Eden.

3 A French Marxist literary critic, and student of Louis Althusser

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