Medieval Women and Sexuality
Dame Sirith, arguably the earliest fabliau in English, has often been interpreted as a parody on courtly love. Yet a careful analysis of the dialogues between Margery and Wilekin, the two `lovers-to-be’, exposes the alleged pervasiveness of the `courtly’ tone of Wilekin’s wooing as a construct of the critics. The poet’s main concern lies rather with the successful telling of a comic story and he relegates any `courtly’ elements to a secondary position so as not to upset the narrative balance of the tale. As a consequence, they remain subordinated to the main comic event, i.e. the trick played on the young wife by Dame Sirith and Margery’s subsequent change from a woman who would not sell herself at any price in the beginning, but who is in the end willing to pay anything to be `swyved’.
The English aristocracy, like the French, laid claim to courtly conduct as a distinctive criteria for the upper class. Likewise, both the romance and the fabliau flourished among the English; the romance serving to instill courtly ideals, and the fabliau serving to show social realities. The fabliau plot frequently focuses upon infidelity, and the sexual relationship between lovers is graphically revealed, thereby devaluing the idealistic notion that courtly love remain a private matter. For example, Marjerie insists that she will not deceive her husband “on bed ne on flore”. Her direct reference to a physical consummation on “flore” or “bed” provides a sharp contrast to the removed, idealized language of courtly genres.
Dame Sirith seems to be based on fundamental elements of sexual deception and the inversion of social hierarchies particularly as constructed in marriage, as it targets and highlights weak and foolish women, the title character plays a go-between for a would-be lover named Wilekin and the married lady of his dreams, Margery. Sirith devises an elaborate ruse to convince the reluctantyoung wife, whose husband is away, to accept Wilekin’s indecent proposal, a strategy that calls for a performing dog as well as a convincing narrative. A mixture of mustard and pepper, ingested by the dog, makes it appear to weep while the accompanying narrative sets up the duping.
Sirith presents the weeping dog to Margery telling her that the dog is Sirith’s daughter, who, having refused the amorous advances of a clerk, was magically transformed into the lacrimose creature standing before her: “Thenne begon the clerc to wiche / And shop mi douter til a biche”(line 353-55). The narrative is convincing and the desired result is achieved – the bawd successfully dupes the gullible Margery into an affair with her client. Margery’s character is a wife who has been left alone by her husband, the young woman’s marital status elides the marital infidelity so integral to Sirith’s trick. They show that despite the fabliaux’ apparent license, in fact they rely on the woman’s “no” and the man’s forceful masculinity to counter her resistance… So the tension is great.
The sexual encounter at the end of the tale is described with polite euphemisms in the analogues; in Aesop’s version, for example, we are told that the young man “fulfills his will,” and the emphasis upon the moral is highlighted. Wilkin is set to begin with like a courting sort of guy, but the audience is gently pulled towards the fact that he is a social climber indeed. On his way up the social ladder he would do anything, use all kinds of force needed. On the other hand there’s Margery and her puzzling reaction to him, her moral values and purity. He’s idealised her as a person, she’s untouchable because she’s married, it meant more in those days, like she’s forbidden. Dame Sirith shows moralistic attitudes and not fundamental human values that are at stake.
To see Margery’s one set of precepts, namely `be faithful to your husband’,being abandoned… in complete favour of another, obviously more fundamental one, namely `keep your human form’, need not raise a moral dilemma or cause emotional anguish to the reader? It makes me think about the power dynamics being excercised on love and desire during the end of that period in history and how the desire to control such emotions, feelings, desires, thoughts crossed with practices of witchcraft. A power witch may have to make a man desire her for unacceptable forbidden sexual activities and makes me wonder really who is blamed for the existenec of such desires? Who should be and is punished for participating in such activites? Who is excused and how? Who is the victim? Are we, as woman today, accused of similar “powers” that excuse men of certain actions?
The secrecy of the affair is considered shameful and cheap by Marjeri, as it was not in courtly literature. She is ever faithful until she learns it may effect her by witchcraft that’s when her vanity emerges. Furthermore, she claims to love her husband, and married love clearly is not part of the courtly system. Twelfth century work served to codify proper conduct for courtly lovers, specifically states that “Love cannot acknowledge any rights of his between husband and wife”and in the canonized romance, marriage is seldom an issue between lovers. You see the plot frequently focuses upon infidelity, and the sexual relationship between lovers is graphically revealed, thereby devaluing the idealistic notion that courtly love remain a private matter.
Marjeri’s behavior towards Wilkin, which so clearly mimics courtly behavior, may seem especially puzzling to the reader attempting to reduce her language to univocal meaning. Perhaps she is simply too innocent to understand the implications of the language she employs. She may not be aware that her willingness to do or her statement that she is “ful fre” could be interpreted by Wilkin as a clear indication that she will grant him sexual favors. But really more likely, we should recognise Marjeri fitting the typical fabliau stereotype of a young, lusty, bourgeois wife, well aware of the plays of meaning in the language she employs. If we see her in this light, then her behavior towards Wilkin seems especially flirtatious, even a little cruel. She uses her language with him as a weapon to gain control and in fact her role as victim is minimized as she proves to be as calculating as her attacker.
Certainly, a traditional courtly lover, would be more persistent and more patient, suffering over the lady’s rejection and growing pale and sickly in the process. The audience may begin to alter its expectations about the tale, from one that presents courtly ideals to one that mocks those ideals by contrasting them with social realities.Though Wilkin mimics the conventions of courtly conduct, he can never truly embody them. Rather than lamenting his loss in romance fashion, he takes a direct approach, seeking the assistance of the dame. Wilkin confesses that he is lovesick for Marjeri, and the old woman agrees to devise a trick to help him: Though courtly love in the romance may result in a sexual union, sex is always treated discreetly. The focus is upon the process of earning the affections of a lover; not upon the physical act. However, in this fabliau, the concept of courtly love is reduced to immediate sexual gratification.
The story that Dame Sirit concocts about her weeping dog is used as a trick to make Marjeri have sex with Wilkin, and the result is more akin to rape than love. As a result of the yarn, Marjeri succumbs to Wilkin against her will, for she fears being changed into a weeping bitch. It’s odd, and funny in a way, that she thinks if she gives into him and becoming perhaps a metaphorical bitch is better than being changed into a real one… to do the deed instead of being turned. However her earlier flirtatious behavior indicates her awareness of the newly ironic language she employs and keeps her from seeming pitiable. Because she is aware of the slipperiness of devolved courtly language, Marjeri is able to turn the tables on these tricksters, and, ironically, to keep her dignity intact. Though Marjeri is forced to succumb to Wilkin, she is able to manipulate courtly language, asserting that the seduction is her idea and claiming that her concern is for Wilkin’s well-being.
Marjeri and Wilkin illustrate that, in order to be accessible to the rising bourgeoisie, the very nature of the system had to change, and its original intent was left ambiguous. As a literary device in the fabliau, courtly language devolves and becomes a source for rich irony.