The Nature-Nurture Debate in Thirteenth-Century France

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Chicago, August 1998

Philip Groff and Laura McRae

The debate over the relative importance of heredity and environment in human development is hardly new. It is a commonplace of the history of psychology that the use of the terms nature and nurture to frame this debate can be traced to Francis Galton. In fact Galton himself, partially lays claim to the phrase in his English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture, first published in 1874. In this work he calls nature and nurture, "a convenient jingle of words, for it separates under two distinct heads the innumerable elements of which personality is composed. Nature is all that a man brings with himself into the world; nurture is every influence that affects him after his birth" (p. 12). Unbeknownst to Galton, his terms of debate were used similarly at least 600 years earlier.

What Galton could not know was that in 1911 a manuscript containing a French romance dating to the 13th century would be uncovered, and that this manuscript would make use of the terms Nature and Noreture (Nurture) to frame this debate along similar lines. The manuscript, Silence, is allegedly the work of an otherwise unknown writer, Heldriss of Cornwall. It relates the story of a young woman, named Silence, raised by her parents and later guardians as a boy, in order to protect her from a new, unjust inheritance law, which forbade inheritance by women. Her training is quite successful, and she soon proves the equal, indeed the superior, of any male peers in riding, hunting, wrestling, skill at arms, and musical talent. During the course of her story, on two occasions the characters Nature and Nurture, allegorical personifications of the influence of heredity and environment respectively, engage in vigorous debate first, for her allegiance, and finally over who is the true author of a person. Before proceeding with the story, it is instructive to examine the sources for this unique tale, and to attempt to place the narrative in the context of medieval literature.

There are a number of sources, or motifs, that may have influenced the idea of Nature and Nurture in the romance of Silence. As Sarah Roche-Mahdi has noted in the introduction to her edition of Silence, a number of plot devices in the narrative appear to come form Dolopathos, or the Seven Sages of Rome. This story was widely distributed over all of Europe and the Middle East, appearing in most of the medieval vernacular languages. In particular, this tale includes a discussion of the training of a young boy and maintains that the prowess given him by nature has been greatly enhanced by his education and upbringing.

A girl disguising herself as a young man is a common plot device in Medieval literature. Usually, a woman will disguise herself as a man in order to join a monastery. Like Silence, the significance of the masquerade is enhanced by an accusation of rape or paternity which could be denied through appealing to the reality of heretofore concealed femininity. In these cases, the female monastic continues her deception, accepting with exemplary humility whatever penalty may be attached to her supposed crime. The deception is usually ended only with the woman’s life: the reality of her biological gender - and guiltlessness - exposed by her physical body as it is prepared for burial.

One classical example of this type of deception actually approaches much closer to the model of a child disguised by her parents, found in Silence. In Ovid’s tale of Iphis, Iphis’ father declares he will only raise a male child and a female child will be killed should his wife produce such a one. When a girl child is born to the queen, her goddess Isis directs her to disguise the infant’s biological gender and to raise it as a male child. When the child, Iphis, reaches young adulthood, his father contracts a betrothal for him. Iphis realizes that such a marriage will inevitably lead to exposure but he both loves his betrothed and cannot conceive how to avoid the situation. His mother again prays to Isis who turns him into a man. The outline of this tale certainly appeals to the author of Silence, Master Heldris of Cornwall’s, discussion of a supposed Latin manuscript from which he translated his tale.

Let us return now to the main thread of the narrative. In the story, King Evan of England, a good and just monarch, has recently wed Eufeme (meaning True Woman), daughter of the king of Norway, thus ending a period of devastating warfare. Shortly after the nuptials, two of Evan’s worthiest knights become embroiled in a conflict over which of them has married the eldest of a pair of twin daughters, and thus is entitled to their inheritance. The argument is settled by combat which proved mortal for both claimants. Having thus lost two of his noblest retainers over this matter, Evan resolves to prevent future calamity by promulgating a law forbidding inheritance of property by women.

Shortly after this decree is passed the King is rescued from a terrible peril (a wandering dragon, no less) by a young knight, Cador of Cornwall. In recognition of this feat, King Evan offers Cador a large estate, and the right to marry the woman of his choice. As it happens Cador is in love with the woman, sent by the king to minister to his wounds, whom the king has promised the husband of her choice if she will only cure Cador. Fortunately this nurse, Euphemie (well spoken), is in love with him and after much seemingly needless angst (the stuff of courtly love, after all), the two are married, and settle down to a happy life in the duchy of Cornwall, given as a wedding gift by the King.

Their happiness is only marred by the fact that their first child is a daughter. In order to see that she is not disinherited, they spread the word that Euphemie has had a son, who is sickly and must be reared in seclusion in the country. They christen the child Silentius, a masculine derivative of silence and arrange with a pair of trusted servants to have the child raised as a boy. When Silence reaches an age where he begins to question his gender, the parents meet with him, explain the reasons for the deception, and secure his promise to maintain his silence, and progress with his study of masculine arts.

At the age of twelve, presumably triggered by the onset of puberty, Silence finds himself in a period of grave disturbance about his adopted gender role. At this point, Nature appears to persuade the lad that he should return to a role appropriate to his biological gender. This sparks the first debate between Nature and Nurture (2500-2655).

Nature laments her lost handiwork, for she claims she endowed Silence with all the attributes necessary to make her the envy of all other women, and the object of desire for all men. These attributes are being squandered, argues Nature, by Silence’s lifestyle, that of a rambunctious young man:

This is a fine state of affairs,

You conducting yourself like a man,

running about in the wind and scorching sun

when I used a special mold for you,

when I created you with my own hands,

when I heaped all the beauty I had stored up

upon you alone! (2502-2509)

Nature nearly, or quite, convinces Silence to drop her facade, and take up more suitable pass-times; a decision to which Silence seems initially inclined, by her strong moral conviction that her constant act of deception must be in some way wrong. We are told that:

She wanted to go and learn to sew,

just as Nature demanded of her;

she should not cultivate such savage ways

for fief or inheritance. (2542-2545)

and later she laments:

"Was any female ever so tormented

or deceived by such vile fraud

as to do what I did out of greed?

I certainly never heard of one!" (2583-2586)

At this point, Nurture arrives on the scene and banishes Nature with the angry words:

"Nature, leave my nursling alone,

or I will put a curse on you!

I have completely dis-natured her. (2593-2595)

Nurture then persuades Silence with the help of Reason (another allegorical personification) to continue her life, as is, for three reasons: first, in order to avoid bringing shame on her family; second, to fulfill her oath to her parents; and third, and perhaps most tellingly, in order to maintain her current status in society. Silence concedes that he has learned no skill at traditional women’s arts, and thus could only make a feeble pretense at femininity anyway. More importantly, Silence is enjoying his lifestyle, and looks forward to his eventual knighthood and inheritance. At the conclusion of this debate Silence is resolved to remain Silentius saying, "if I’m on top, why should I step down." (Silence, 2640)

Shortly after this, Silence runs away from home with a pair of jongleurs, traveling minstrels, and for a period of four years travels with them, mastering their art. Indeed, his perseverance and natural intelligence are such that he soon exceeds his masters in both ability and fame, leading to resentment and the expected betrayal. Escaping death, and returning to England, our hero becomes a retainer of King Evan. While at court he comes to the attention of Queen Eufeme, who in an episode reminiscent of Potifar’s wife, schemes to bed the youth. On being repeatedly rejected by Silence, she manufactures a rape scene and demands the King’s justice. Wishing to keep the peace at court, while not angering his friend Cador, Evan agrees to send Silence away to the court of France.

Queen Eufeme contrives to switch the letter of introduction written for Silence, in an effort to have him killed (Foreshadowing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). He is spared, because his courtly manners, and evident good character convince the King of France that the letter must be an error, or at minimum worth delay. Confirmation of the inauthentic nature of the warrant is obtained from Evan, and Silence begins his life in the French court. Here he learns more courtly manners, and more importantly excels at all martial pursuits, so that he is soon knighted by the French king, and wins renown in all the tournaments of Europe.

Silence, and a company of French retainers, return to England when word reaches France of a rebellion against King Evan, lead by several of the nobility. During a fierce battle, Evan is nearly killed by the rebels, until rescued by the timely arrival of our hero, who slays the leader of the rebellion and puts the others to flight. On return to the English court, Silence once again finds himself the focus of the Queen’s unwanted attentions, and embroiled in her nefarious schemes. Her advances again spurned, she contrives to bring the wrath of King Evan down upon the lad. He agrees to her demand that Silence be sent on a quest to find the wizard Merlin, or die in the attempt. Eufeme is certain that revenge is now hers, for before his disappearance many years ago, Merlin announced that he would go to live as an animal in the woods, unable to be caught except by a woman’s trick.

Silence undertakes the quest and after numerous adventures in keeping with the genre of French medieval romance, locates the woods in which Merlin is dwelling in a feral state. With the help of an old man he meets at the woods edge, Silence contrives a plan to trap Merlin. He will place a joint of meat, roasting upon a spit. When the smell of the roast has enticed Merlin to eat, he will discover the saltiness of the meat. Silence will provide three beverages at increasing distance from the roast, a measure of honey, one of milk, and finally one of strong wine, each designed to further increase Merlin’s thirst, and feeling of sluggishness. The plan begins to work, and Merlin, who has been living naked and feral in the woods approaches the spit. This engenders the second debate between Nature and Nurture. Nurture appears and scolds Merlin, saying that he has been living as a wild deer, on roots and berries, and has no need of roasted meat. Nature appears and claims that it is human nature to desire cooked food, and in particular the flesh of animals. They begin to argue about which of them is the true author of a person. Nurture attempts to win by bringing up the example of Adam and Eve, who though lacking parents, and thus presumably nurture, are nonetheless capable of committing original sin. Nature turns this ploy to her advantage arguing that in their natural state Adam and Eve were without sin. It was only the undue environmental influence of the serpent the caused the fall of humanity. Nature thus wins this round by means of a sophistic trick, though it should be noted that while this debate is couched in theological terms, its conclusion has to do with the moral character of a person, as the true nature of an individual. This is a theme to which we will shortly return.

To make a long story short, the trap works and Merlin is captured. Silence now returns to King Evan with his prize. Once in court, after proving his identity through a number of wise observations, Merlin begins to set things right. He reveals the true character of Queen Eufeme, though in all fairness Evan was beginning to suspect, and unfrocks her latest lover, a man living as a nun in the queen’s chambers. He then goes on to reveal Silence’s true gender, as well as the reasons for her deception. King Evan has Eufeme and her lover arrested, restores the inheritance of England’s women, and takes Silence (now Silentia rather than Silentius) as his new queen. Cador and Euphemie return to court and are forgiven, and all live happily ever after.

The question then remains, as to what conclusions can be drawn from this medieval romance, in particular in reference to the debate between nature and nurture. Of course, this tale uses allegoreosis to illustrate the internal battle of nature and nurture over the behaviour of Silence. Medieval Allegory in the technical sense, actually refers to tales which personify aspects of the internal deliberations or emotions of an individual. Personifications, the bodily images of abstract ideas, were also popular, and often appeared with actual allegorical figures, especially in less capable hands. Prudentius’ Psychomachia set the premise for the internal battle of ideas when it dramatizes the battle of virtues and vices for a human soul. Later examples of the allegorial tendency include the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris.

Nature is among the most frequently allegorized of personified figures in early medieval literature. Alan de Lille, in his twelfth century De Planctu Naturae , treats nature - as the School of Chartres as a whole treats her - as the idea of natural fate. This idea of Nature is obviously far too encompassing to present an actual individual allegory. Her status in Silence appears to exemplify both possibilities. She is natural fate who originally endows creation with attributes, but her conflicts with Nurture clearly place her in the role of one internal force exerting influence upon Silence.

Nurture (Noreture), however, appears, as far as we can ascertain, in no other medieval allegory. As mentioned above, the concept of upbringing ornamenting natural attributes has appeared in other places but the actual allegorizing of that force had not been attempted. Moreover, the opposition of Nature and Nurture as forces in conflict has not really appeared in earlier literary endeavors. The allegorization of these forces who appear to argue over the adolescent Silence’s psyche shows a here-to-fore unexampled view of these forces as elements of individual development, particularly with respect to gender.

More informative than either of the two actual debates in the manuscript, are a number of authorial intrusions in which Master Heldriss gives us some insight into his views on human development. The picture that emerges is that innate moral character is the chief author of a person, though by no means solitary in power. An inherently poor character can only be partially remedied by good treatment, but poor treatment has tremendous destructive potential for one of even the highest moral nature. As Heldriss states:

I can prove it by this example:

a little tumbler-full of gall

would harm a measure of honey

more than a measure of honey

could improve a quart of gall, if you poured it in.

A little bad nurture

harms a good nature more

than lengthy instruction in doing good

can mend a heart intrinsically evil. (2334-2342)

Those familiar with English Men of Science will certainly find a great deal of similarity between these lines, and those of Galton:

[T]he highest natural endowments may be starved by defective nurture, while no carefulness of nurture can overcome the evil tendencies of an intrinsically bad physique, weak brain, or brutal disposition. Differences of nurture stamp unmistakable marks on the disposition of the soldier, clergyman, or scholar, but are wholly insufficient to efface the deeper marks of individual character. (Galton, p.13)

The point is not that Galton in some sense plagiarized the views of this thirteenth century poet. Indeed it would have been impossible, or at the least extremely unlikely for him to have even been aware of this document. As stated the manuscript was not even uncovered by modern scholars until 1911, until which time it had been buried in a locked box, marked "Old Papers -- No Value", in the manor house of a British nobleman. Rather it suggests something of the timeless nature of the questions being addressed and perhaps also says something of the sorts of answers to these questions that seemed possible in both Victorian England and Medieval France.

The similarity between some of Master Heldriss’ thoughts and some of Galton’s must not be over-stressed. Their outlook on life was quite different with, surprisingly, Heldriss’ seeming closer to our own. Throughout the poem, the author makes occasional reference to Silence’s transgenderism as a form of deception, yet equally it is clear that the author considers it a genuine transformation of sorts. Throughout the narrative, Silence is referred to by either masculine or feminine pronouns depending upon whether Nature or Nurture is seen to be ascendant at that point. Gender roles, for Heldriss, are a matter of upbringing and habit. What then, is the true nature of Silence which is revealed at the end of the story?

More important than her biological gender is the quality of her character. What impresses Evan is not that this young woman is beautiful, but that she has proven herself a trusted companion. Her loyalty to her parents and king are made apparent, as are her quick wits, inquisitive mind, and confident but humble, demeanor. It is thus her fortitude that is rewarded at the conclusion of the tale. Given the view of moral character asserted above, Heldriss’ concluding thoughts, and presumably the true theme of the piece are thus quite poignant. In his own words:

Master Heldriss says here and now

that one should praise a good woman

more than one should blame a bad one.

And I will tell you why:

a woman has less motivation,

provided that she even has the choice,

to be good than to be bad. (6684-6690)

Given the terrible social constraints placed upon women in his society, Heldriss seems to say it is a wonder that any turn out good at all. These constraints are represented in the poem not only in the form of the unjust inheritance law, but in the constant, obvious fact that our heroine has had such extraordinary opportunities for self actualization, only by virtue of her continual silence about her femininity. In sharp contrast to Silence’s good character we have Queen Eufeme, whose name you will remember means "true woman", and all her intrigues. The alternatives presented are quite clear. Given the social constraints of the time, a good nurturing environment, allowing women to develop their potential, is completely lacking. A woman in this society, we are shown, has really only two options; to pursue a life of constant scheming and eventual moral bankruptcy, or to suffer in silence.

In the person of our heroine we are presented with a plea for emancipation. If moral character is the true nature of an individual then perhaps society should be constructed to allow nurture of those of high moral character, without stereotyped gender or social roles. This theme, in combination with the occasional authorial intrusion in which the author decries the injustice and corruption of court life in his day, has caused some scholarly speculation that Heldriss of Cornwall, may indeed have also been a woman, choosing to live and work as a man in order to have a voice in society. In the absence of further evidence, and it must be remembered that we know nothing of Heldriss aside from this one work, such an idea must remain mere speculation. Such considerations aside, the text remains a decidedly post-modern fable from the pre-modern world. It is to be hoped that this brief excursion into the world of medieval romance, can add a brief footnote to our views on the history of psychology, and in particular the history of thought on human development and gender roles. At a minimum I hope the story was found somewhat diverting. And thus to paraphrase the concluding words of Master Heldriss:

I wish to bring my story to a close …

And as for those – male and female – who listened to it,

may [they be] grant[ed] their dearest wish.


Galton, Francis (1874). English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture. London: Macmillan and Co.

Heldriss of Cornwall (c. 1250-1300 | 1992). Silence. Roche-Mahdi, Sarah (ed. and trans.). East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press Ltd.