DAME SIRITH, NOTES
Abbreviations: B&S: J. A. W. Bennett and G. V. Smithers; B&A: Larry D. Benson and Theodore M. Andersson; D&B: Charles W. Dunn and Edward T. Byrnes; Ga: Thomas J. Garbáty; McK: George H. McKnight; MS: Bodleian Library MS Digby 86 (SC 1687), fols. 165a-168a; T: Elaine Treharne.
The MS begins with a French incipit: Ci comence le fablel et al cointise de dame siriz.
Narrator The manuscript includes a number of speech markers: C at lines 24, 37, 61, 109, 127, 161, 173, 217, 249, and 267; V at lines 26, 43, 88, 115, 133, and 337; T at lines 1 and 149; and F at lines 167, 193, 229, 235, 255, 273, 288, and 333. B&S, p. 306, identify the capitals as speech markers, suggesting that C represents Clericus (i.e., Wilekin), with V standing for Vxor (i.e., Margery), T for Testator (i.e., the narrator), and F for Femina (i.e., Dame Sirith). I have placed speech markers throughout the edition, using the names of the characters rather than the Latin equivalents. The brackets indicate that the speech marker is not found in the manuscript, though if the practice were consistently carried through, this would be the designation.
1-6 On the 6-line tale rhyme stanza, see D&B, pp. 32, 174.
1-12 The opening introduces the clerk, who is described in terms of the courtly lover, languishing in lovesickness. The courtly love tradition has a long history, reaching as far back as Ovid's Ars Amatoria, a tongue-in-cheek manual for would-be lovers. The challenge to the lover was often to outwit his beloved's husband: marriage thus was an integral feature of the system. The strategies used in this pursuit were often amusing, diversion rather than doctrine. Not everyone in Ovid's time took his love games as harmless entertainment, however, and the Roman poet was soon exiled by Augustus Caesar for promoting adultery. In the twelfth century, courtly love becomes encoded in rules of chivalry for aspiring knights. Andreas Capellanus' Art of Courtly Love is another treatise in the spirit of Ovid and just as satirical, a fact not revealed until the last section. Written by the chaplain of Marie de Champagne's court, The Art of Courtly Love outlines a series of imaginary dialogues between various kinds of couples distinguished primarily by class. The equally imaginary audience for this treatise on courtly love is a novice lover named Walter. Another influential writer of Marie's court - Chrétien de Troyes - seems at times to have taken the system seriously as a means by which a knight could be induced to courteous behavior and to learn humility by allowing his lady to direct his every action, though this is still a matter of debate. Chrétien's Lancelot or The Knight of the Cart illustrates such a "training" procedure. One of Chrétien's other works - Erec and Enide - addresses the considerable tensions between chivalry, its courtly codes, and marriage to question whether a knight's wife might also serve as his lady. Marie de France's courtly love stories or Breton lays are also of the same period with emphasis on the repercussions of courtly love for women. Dame Sirith reverses the situation, as Margery finds herself (or thinks she does) in jeopardy if she does not play the courtly game.
10-15 Wilekin, the clerk, exhibits lovesickness, the symptoms of which are pallor caused by perpetual yearning, lack of sleep, inability to eat, and general mental confusion.
35 will I. MS: willi. So too in lines 40, 46, 262, 295 (in negative form, i.e., "nulli") 388, 396, and 397.
43 Wilekin. The name is the diminutive form of Will, a name reminiscent of what was believed to be part of the human soul. Compare Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Prologue, where Alisoun brutalizes the hypothetical jealous husband with words, then reassures his spineless remnant of resistance: "Goode lief, taak keep / How mekely looketh Wilkyn, oure sheep! / Com neer, my spouse, lat me ba thy cheke!" (CT III[D]431-33). She adds insult to injury when she "uses the infantile ba for 'kiss,'" according to Larry D. Benson, ed. Riverside Chaucer, p. 869. In Dame Sirith the lover is young rather than old and jealous, but he has little more will power than the Wife's "husband" as he goes to Femina for advice (see head-note to Narrator). The diminutive form of the name may have found its way into English from the Middle Dutch of Flanders. B&S suggest that "[T]he native equivalent is represented in OE by -cen in tyncen 'small cask,' thrynorcen, 'a little thorn'" (p. 306). In the Interludium de clerico et puella, a comic play written decades later than Sirith, the clerk is unnamed.
45-49 In the margins of the MS adjacent to these lines are two caricatures, the first of a mature woman (probably Sirith), the second of a species either equine or canine. If equine, the image could represent the means by which Sirith would be publicly humiliated if found guilty of sorcery, if canine it may refer to the "weeping bitch" so integral to her trick.
88 wold I. MS: woldi. So also at lines 243, 249, and 309. Compare notes to lines 35 and 106.
thing. MS: thin.
99 To ben on hore. The equation of adultery with prostitution may reflect a literary trope called the "calumniated wife" found in many Middle English romances and folk tales. In it, even the suggestion of adultery when made to a woman of integrity becomes an accusation of a much worse charge of prostitution though there is no financial arrangement mentioned. In the Erle of Tolous, Dame Beulybon, when her integrity is impugned, responds similarly: "Do you think me a whore?" In the Towneley play Herod The Great the first miles ("soldier") uses the term as an insult when one of the mulieres ("women") objects to his killing her baby: "What, hoore, art thou woode?" (line 390).
106 shuld I. MS: shuldi. See notes to lines 35 and 88.
108 Ar his hom come. This passage is vaguely reminiscent of the pressure placed on Penelope by her many suitors in Homer's Odyssey, though it is not likely that the author of Sirith knew Homer's work directly. But besieged women who hold out until their husband or betrothed returns are common in Middle English romance and Breton lays from King Horn on. Dorigen in Chaucer's The Franklin's Tale offers a pleasingly sentimental (albeit subsequent) parallel; perhaps the best example of the besieged yet faithful wife is found in The Wright's Chaste Wife, included in this volume.
114 The lover's assumption is that Margery, his beloved, will recognize his lovesickness and acquiesce out of pity for him. Again compare the situation in The Franklin's Tale, where Aurelius pleads his case in terms of the tears on his cheek (CT V[F]1078). Pity is often depicted by medieval writers as a feminine virtue modeled after the Mater Dolorosa.
116 So ich ever mote biden Yol. Ga translates this idiom "as sure as Christmas"; D&B translate it as "must await Yule"; T as "must wait for Christmas."
127 lemmon. MS: lenmon.
132 finde. MS: fide.
135 leve brother. This is not an acknowledgment of kinship, but rather a colloquial mode of address hinting at the beginning of sympathy and change of heart, if not mind.
136 For ne wille ich thee love, ne non other. MS: For wille ich the love ne non other. The missing negative ne is filled in for sense, though not for meter.
142 maken menis. To "make lament," B&S say, is an "idiom attested from 1400 onwards, in the sense 'get someone to intercede for one' (lit. 'employ as intermediary'), and is clearly what is required here" (p. 308). A go-between is a stock character of courtly love relations since communication between lovers must be discreet. Often this secretive mode of language requires a specialized reading of signs between the lovers. Such is the case in Chevrefoil by Marie de France, when Tristan must communicate with Isolde in ways indiscernible by others.
149-60 The action taken by Wilekin recalls the protagonist of the Latin fabliau, Pamphilus de Amore. In "Pamphilus de Amore: An Introduction and Translation," Chaucer Review 2 (1967), 108-34, Ga traces its use by several late medieval authors including Boccaccio, Chaucer, Gower, and Juan Ruiz in his Libro de Buen Amor. There are also strong allusions to the Roman de la Rose, particularly the Sirith character to the Old Woman or La Vieille. An important difference between Pamphilus de Amore and Dame Sirith, however, is that in the former the beloved "Galathea" is unmarried and assertive about protecting her maidenly reputation, while in the latter Margery is married and rather gullible. See also Priscilla Bawcutt, "Pamphilus de Amore 'in Inglish Toung,'" Medium Aevum 64 (1995), 264-72.
154 Sirith. MS: siriz. So also in lines 161 and 418. Ga suggests this spelling of Sirith's name to be the most prevalent, "but the rhyme shows the z to have been originally a thorn" (p. 446). John Hines clarifies: "The sporadic use of the graph for sounds we should write is a medieval English practice deriving from the unfamiliarity of Francophones with the sounds. Sirith is an identifiable personal name while a Siriz pronounced with a z at the end is not; the pronunciation Sirith is confirmed by rhymes in the text" (The Fabliau in English, p. 43). According to B&S the spelling may be due to the "uncertainty of Anglo-Norman scribes regarding the use of the graph þ and its phonetic value" (p. 312).
157 No . . . ni. The double negative functions as an intensifier, thus "no man whatsoever."
162 with. MS: wiz. See note to line 154.
167 leve sone. Another colloquial term of familiarity rather than kinship.
173 nelde. Most editors agree that this should be read as an elde rather than nelde. Ga explains this as "an example of the wrong split between the indefinite article an and a noun with initial vowel" (p. 447), but the MED lists nelde as a noun, a "term of endearment" meaning "old woman," "grandmother," or "granny."
206 On wicchecrafft nout I ne con. Witchcraft is not officially codified as a heresy (from the Greek word for "free choice" or "alternative") until 1486 in a text entitled Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), although there was plenty of concern about it in the late thirteenth century when Dame Sirith was written. Rossell Hope Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (New York: Bonanza Books, 1959), pp. 547-48, offers a brief and useful history of witchcraft:
In the first thirteen centuries, witchcraft was punished by death only if some concrete injury resulted; divination or healing was considered about as bad as prostitution and was punished accordingly. In the fourteenth century, ecclesiastical law started to become more organized against sorcery. In 1310 the Church Council at Treves forbade divination, love potions, conjurations, and the like. In 1432 the Bishop of Beziers excommunicated sorcerers and their ilk. Legislation increased in the fifteenth century. These laws were not directed against the later witchcraft of pact and sabbat, although in the inquisitorial trials these crimes were being introduced, even as early as 1330 (at Toulouse).B&S suggest that it is "on the score of 'bawdy' that Dame Sirith is so apprehensive" (p. 310).
209 mi Pater Noster and mi Crede. These prayers are important markers of medieval piety and occasionally served as tests for heresy, though most folks could recite them from memory whether or not they were heretics.
220 that. MS: tha.
225 The barter exchange, i.e., goods for service, suggests bawdry, placing Dame Sirith in the position of pander. Ga suggests that these kinds of gifts are typically extended to the go-between (p. 448).
247 somer driven. Being lashed backwards on a beast of burden was a particularly humiliating public punishment usually reserved for the worst criminals or traitors. Ga adds: "A bawdy woman was customarily driven on a sempter (a mule or an ass) facing its rump" (p. 247). The MED identifies the creature as a "packhorse."
274 pones. B&S follow the MS, as have I, while D&B emend to penes. The meaning is monetary either way.
276 juperti. MS: aiuperti.
279 Pepir. MS: Pepis.
279-84 Dame Sirith's address to her dog takes place in these lines. The frequent association of dogs with witches may be of importance to the trick about to be played in conjunction with the folk motif of the "weeping bitch," an exemplum found in the Disciplina Clericalis of Petrus Alphonsus, Jacques de Vitry's Exempla, the Gesta Romanorum (Tales of the Romans), as well as the Historia Septem Sapientium (The History of the Seven Sages). In late medieval England the story appears in the Alphabetum Narrationem (An Alphabet of Tales).
288 boinard. The word derives from OF buisnart, meaning buzzard. In the Roman de Renart, the famous medieval story of Reynard the Fox, the term is used as a proper name. According to B&S, the pejorative application of the word as it is used here "is rooted in the notion that the buzzard (which is a type of falcon) was sluggish and dull by nature" (p. 310).
306 ansine. MS: ausine. McK's emendation. B&S emend to nausine, despite the citation of the word ansine in the MED, 1 (a), where fallen in ansene is glossed as "decline or fail in appearance (?in the view of others)."
314 God. MS: goed. So also at lines 322 and 330. While B&S retain the name as written in MS, D&B emend, as have I.
324 faste fourti daiis to non. B&S (p. 311) point out a parallel in the Middle English version of The Rule of St. Benedict:
In somer, fro Witsunday be past, Wedinsday and Friday sal þai fast, But if þai other swink or swete In hay or corn wiþ travel grete. And if þai non slike travel cone, On þos days sal thai fast to none. (Lines 1707-12)
The parallel is extended to include Christ's passion until the ninth hour. See Three Middle English Versions of the Rule of St. Benet, EETS o.s. 120 (London: Kegan Paul, 1902), p. 96. D&B read daws for daiis.
356 breketh. The thorn appears above the k in the MS.
390 Godes houne belle. B&S suggest that this phrase refers to the bell used at Mass when the Host is elevated (p. 311), while Ga suggests that the term may mean "belly," which refers to "an oath on part of Christ's body, like those on his bones and blood" but concludes that it more probably refers to the "chapel bell, as in bell, book and candle, or the bell in the Mass" (p. 453).
401 mai I never. MS: mai never. B&S add the personal pronoun, as do D&B.
433 so ich evere bide noen. B&S translate this as "As I hope to see the ninth hour" and suggest that this, along with the expression found at line 324, may be evidence that Wilekin is a "monastery-trained cleric," and that the author of Dame Sirith "may himself have been an inmate of a monastery" (p. 312). This could explain the hints of antifeminism in the text.
436 Nelde, par ma fai. Wilekin has more confidence than Troilus about what will follow and sends his pander away. In Chaucer Pandarus does, finally, leave the lovers alone, though not until after he has read much of the romance. See Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, Book 3.
445-50 This passage marks the moment that Dame Sirith turns to the audience and offers her services. Richard Axton's suggestion that this work could very well have been performed as an interlude by professional touring actors similar to jongleurs is interesting (see European Drama of the Early Middle Ages, pp. 19-23). This part would have been played by a male actor, which renders the moment all the more suggestive, perhaps offensive, if it is the case that interludes may have been performed for monastic communities as well as the public at large.
Dame Sirith, Select Bibliography
Bodleian Library MS Digby 86 (SC 1687), fols. 165a-168a (c. 1275).
Facsimile of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86. Intro. Judith Tschann and M. B. Parkes. EETS s.s. 16. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. [Includes comprehensive introduction.]
Bennett, J. A. W., and G. V. Smithers, eds. Early Middle English Verse and Prose. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966. Pp. 77-95.
Benson, Larry D., and Theodore M. Andersson, eds. The Literary Context of Chaucer's Fabliaux: Texts and Translations. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1971. Pp. 372-87.
Cook, Albert Stanburrough, ed. A Literary Middle English Reader. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1915; rpt. 1943. Pp. 141-58. [Cook draws several parallels between Dame Sirith and Interludium de clerico et puella, pp. 476-77.]
Dunn, Charles W., and Edward T. Byrnes, eds. Middle English Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973. Pp. 174-87.
Garbáty, Thomas J., ed. Medieval English Literature. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1984. Pp. 442-54.
McKnight. George H., ed. Middle English Humorous Tales in Verse. Boston: D. C. Heath & Co., 1913; rpt. New York: Gordian Press, 1972, 1990. Pp. 1-24.
Treharne, Elaine, ed. Old and Middle English: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Pp. 338-48.
Axton, Richard. European Drama of the Early Middle Ages. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975. Pp. 17-24.
Boitani, Pietro. English Medieval Narrative in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. [Brief discussion of Sirith and De clerico et puella.]
Busby, Keith. "Conspicuous by Its Absence: The English Fabliau." Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters 12 (1981), 30-41.
---. "Dame Sirith and De Clerico et Puella." In Companion to Early Middle English Literature. Ed. N. H. G. E. Veldhoen and H. Aertsen. Amsterdam: Free University Press, 1988. Pp. 69-81.
Canby, Henry Seidel. "The English Fabliau." PMLA 21 (1906), 200-14.
Furrow, Melissa. "Middle English Fabliaux and Modern Myth." English Literary History 56 (1989), 1-18.
Goodall, Peter. "An Outline History of the English Fabliau after Chaucer." Journal of Australasian University Language and Literature Association 57 (1982), 5-23.
Heuser, W. "Das Interludium de Clerico et Puella und das Fabliau von Dame Siriz." Anglia 30 (1907), 306-19.
Hines, John. The Fabliau in English. London: Longman, 1993.
Lewis, Robert E. "The English Fabliau Tradition and Chaucer's 'Miller's Tale.'" Modern Philology 79 (1982), 241-55.
Robbins, Rossell Hope. "The English Fabliau: Before and After Chaucer." Moderna Spräk 64 (1970), 231-44.
Swanton, Michael James. English Literature Before Chaucer. London: Longman, 1987.
Von Kreisler, Nicholai. "Satire in Dame Sirith and the Weeping Bitch." In Essays in Honor of Esmond Linworth Marilla. Ed. Thomas Austin Kirby and William John Olive. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970. Pp. 379-87.