The middle-English fabliau, Dame Sirith, tells the tale of Wilekin, a rich, young clerk who is desperate to procure the love of Margery who is married to a merchant. He attempts to seduce her but she refutes his actions in loyalty to her husband. Keen to alleviate this, Wilekin goes to Dame Sirith – a match maker – who makes her dog’s eyes water by feeding it spices and takes it to Margery where she tells her that the dog is actually Margery’s daughter transformed by Wilekin and that the only way to remedy it is to succumb to his desires whilst her husband is away1. In this sense, it can be seen as either an anti-feminist satire or a romantic parody. As the former, it is a discussion of how women are gullible and easily fooled whilst playing on base female motivations of a desire to protect their young and a willingness to do anything to do so. Whilst as the latter, it cleverly addresses the idea of ‘romance’ as being something which we are willing to do or say anything for. However, Wilekin’s actions are not romantic as love does not seem to function in his end goal – he secures only a place in her bed for the night which presumably would serve to only strengthen Margery’s resentment of him meaning that it parodies romance by implying that Wilekin is devoted only to the achievement of a singular goal. Whether it is either/or remains to be seen although it exhibits elements of both.
However, it is just as easy to explain Dame Sirith as being a romantic parody. The actions of Wilekin are initially presented as being in the spirit of love: “To lovien he bigon On wedded wimmon, Therof he hevede wrong; His herte hire wes alon, That reste nevede he non, The love wes so strong”5. So it immediately addresses how his love for Margery is wrong because she is married and this should remove the romance of the situation – particularly at the time of writing when extra-marital affairs were extremely frowned upon in society. It plays on the idea of ‘doing anything for love’ and ‘love knowing no limits’ because Margery is married and is either extremely loyal to her husband or is uninterested in Wilekin and does not wish to submit to his advances. However, Wilekin still tells her his feelings and requests her affections in spite of her marriage (and as we later discover, her children). The term ‘parody’ implies comedy and indeed, fabliaux are known for their comic elements and in this instance, it is laughable that Margery should so quickly change her mind based on the ridiculous evidence of a dog with watery eyes as being her daughter transformed. In this sense, it mocks romance and it mocks feminism too as in either case, ‘love’ is replaced by the implied illicit sexual encounter and ‘feminism’ is replaced by the presentation of Margery and her stupidity leading to her abandoning her morals.
Equally, the fabliau is predominantly written in dialogue which frequently distinguishes it from other fabliaux. Because of this, Dame Sirith can be interpreted in a number of ways depending on how critics perceive the tone and meaning behind the exchanges between its characters6. The implication of this is that it can be played as either an anti-feminist satire or as a romantic parody, depending on which comedic focus the producer wishes to portray. Either works equally as well as the other due to the insidious stupidity of Margery, the damning trickery of Dame Sirith and the lust-fuelled actions of Wilekin. It parodies romance through his actions which are designed to parody the ‘I would do anything for love’ concept but the result of these actions is that he lies to his ‘beloved’ and tricks her into being intimate with him, rather than procuring her love through genuine romantic notions. It is also presents an anti-feminist message as both Dame Sirith and Margery play up to all manner of female stereotypes – none of which particularly endear them to the audience as in either scenario they fail to uphold a strong image of their sex and therein lies the tale’s satire as Margery endeavours to be honourable but still ultimately fails in this. In summary, Dame Sirith is a tale which can be portrayed in a number of ways but in this reading it is clear that it fulfils criteria to be both anti-feminist satire as well as a romantic parody and in either instance, its characters are wholly unlikeable.