Academic journal article Studies in Philology

"Wose Is Onwise": Dame Sirith in Context

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

"Wose Is Onwise": Dame Sirith in Context

Article excerpt

Dame Sirith is often discussed as the earliest Middle English comic narrative. I argue that this designation is misleading: Dame Sirith is better considered as a distinct representative of a well-developed multilingual tale tradition. This tradition descends from an exemplum in Petrus Alfonsi's Disciplina clericalis. When considered in the context of its French and Latin analogues, Dame Sirith shows consistent features that recast its central tensions as an opposition between ecclesiastical and mercantile values. In the poem's use of the rich Middle English term "wis," the Dame Sirith-poef emphasizes this tension between church and market in a manner consistent with fabliau verbal play.


DAME Sirith (c. 1275) is the earliest Middle English comic tale. This is a well-known fact. Nothing quite like it exists in the English literary tradition either before or contemporaneous with it. The poem's anomalous nature makes it difficult to categorize and tends to place it at the beginnings of literary histories and motif studies. Perhaps most prominent among these are the studies that read it in comparison with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In particular, scholars frequently find in Dame Sirith a tantalizing if rudimentary foreshadowing of Chaucer's celebrated late fourteenth-century fabliaux or cherles tales. (1) Michael Swanton's estimation of Dame Sirith neatly distills the effect of this approach on the current understanding of the thirteenth-century comic tale; he characterizes it as "pure narrative at its simplest and barest, stripped of all psychological, situational or symbolic complexity." (2) In other words, Dame Sirith might portend the flourishing of canonical English literature in the Late Middle Ages and beyond, but the poem appears primitive in light of the "complexity" yet to come in the Middle English literary tradition.

However, approaching Dame Sirith in light of its Anglophone antecedence misleads at least as much as it informs. It misleads because Dame Sirith is, in a sense, not at all a new tale or a moment of beginning but rather a developed and distinct iteration of a well-developed tale tradition--and an iteration with several interesting, even subtle, innovations. If this subtlety fails to emerge in the context of English literary history, this is because the horizon of expectation against which Dame Sirith innovates is established not by Middle English analogues and genre affiliations but by Old French and Latin ones. I argue that within this larger linguistic and literary context Dame Sirith appears as a distinct variation of the "weeping bitch" tale that uniquely foregrounds ideological tensions between church and market.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86--which preserves the lone witness of Dame Sirith--suggests the importance of this non-Anglophone material to the context of Dame Sirith. The manuscript is one of a handful of important trilingual miscellanies, books produced and compiled in an era of changing language prestige in England. (3) These trilingual miscellanies present--in varying proportions--materials in French, Latin, and English. In Digby 86, about half of the material is French, a quarter Latin, and a quarter English. (4)

The linguistic makeup of Digby 86 alone might suffice to call into question the literary historical significance of Dame Sirith's Anglophone primacy, but one particular text in the manuscript insists more forcefully on a context for the poem that is not exclusively Anglophone. Le Chastoiement d'un pere a son fils, an Anglo-Norman story collection appearing on fols. 74V to 97V, contains a version of the very "weeping bitch" tale that supplies the plot of Dame Sirith. This Anglo-Norman collection remains extant in five other witnesses and dates to around the turn of the thirteenth century. The earliest Middle English comic tale, it turns out, is not even the earliest version of the "weeping bitch" tale in its own manuscript, either chronologically or sequentially. …

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