Looking at Failed Masculinity

An Attempt at Reading Medieval Sexuality


  • Anthony Revelle University of Michigan




In this article, I offer to look at Narcisus et Dané and the Roman de Silence, two pieces of Old French poetry which have in common the refusal of the physical love of a noblewoman by the main character, leading to the unveiling of the “male nature” of Narcisus and the hidden female nature behind the manly appearance of Silence. I propose to read these passages as failures of a sexual initiation expected from young noblemen, and thus as a missed step toward an accomplished manhood. From this disruption into courtly narratives emerges the issue of unconventional desire and gender deviance, because the failure is not just a negative act, but also the creation of something unexpected, a different narrative and a new space. Following Judith Halberstam, I interrogate the possibility of a transgender or transversal look into these two stories, especially with the play between gendered expectations and agencies, the blurring of male and female points of identification for the reader and the gaze of Merlin, the wild man who sees the truth of nature under social surfaces. The purpose is to open up toward a more global understanding of what it is to become a man in the Middle Ages, what sexual behavior is expected from young people and how the poetry manages both gendered expectations and their questioning.