Manuscripts and Special Collections

Nature or Nurture: View Documents

Click on the links to view images of the original document, alongside transcripts and translations where available.

Transcripts and translations for manuscript items are also available for download:


Document 1

WLC/LM/6, f. 201r: Heldris de Cornuälle, ‘Le Roman de Silence’, lines 2500-2530 (early 13th century, French) View image with transcript/translation

Nature made the girl Silence extremely beautiful, but she has been brought up as a boy. Silence, aged 12, can’t decide whether it is best to be a boy or a girl. This extract is part of a longer passage in which Nurture, Nature and Reason all give their opinions. In these lines, Nature argues that Silence’s beauty is wasted and that the women who are in love with ‘him’ will be angry and disappointed when the truth comes out.

The extract reveals the contrast between the skills expected of young men and women. Silence has been learning the three skills expected of young noblemen – ‘lancier’ (jousting), ‘traire’ (training newly moulted hawks), and ‘berser’ (firing or shooting an arrow). These skills are often mentioned in medieval courtesy books (books of manners). It is noticeable that they are all practised outside. Nature, though, thinks Silence should ‘Go to the bed-chamber and stitch a seam’. But is it genetics or upbringing that determines what a girl should be best at?


Document 2

WLC/LM/6, f. 215r: Heldris de Cornuälle, ‘Le Roman de Silence’, lines 5145-5164 (early 13th century, French)
View image with transcript/translation

The girl Silence is trained to become an expert jouster, despite her gender. The author of the ‘Roman de Silence’ suggests that although Nature is supposed to produce ‘tender, weak and soft’ girls, Nurture (upbringing) can be a stronger force.


Document 3

MS 66/1: Extract from an extent of the manor of Langar and Barnstone, Nottinghamshire (c.1340, Latin)
View image with transcript/translation

Matilda de Herdeby was a bondage or bond tenant (a villein), occupying a toft (a house and some land) under the customary terms of the manor of Langar and Barnstone. This document gives details of the rents and services she owed to her lord. Like others within the manor, Matilda’s family had to spend one day each autumn working on the lord’s land – but the housewife was specifically excluded. Perhaps this shows the importance attached to ‘women’s work’ within the home: while men worked on the land, at a craft, or in trade, the housewife had her own status as manager of the household, which should not be disturbed.


Document 4

WLC/LM/8, ff. 31v-32r : John Gower, ‘Confessio Amantis’, Book 2, lines 644-652 and 678-713 (composed c.1393, English) 
View image with transcript/translation

‘The Tale of Constance’ includes an extreme fictional example of family strife. A wicked mother-in-law is jealous of her son’s marriage and her consequent displacement as the dominant female in his life. She arranges a massacre at the wedding, at which even her own son is not spared. She puts her son’s fiancée Constance into a boat and sets her adrift with all her wedding goods.


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