”I wol nat paye yow but abedde!”: Commerce, Sexuality and Audience in Dame Sirith and the Shipman’s Tale
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This thesis examines the intended audience of two Middle English fabliaux, the anonymous Dame Sirith and Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale. The debate concerning audience has been a long-running issue in the study of fabliau literature, beginning in the early 19th century with Joseph Bedier’s work. Bedier originally situated the audience of most fabliau texts in the growing urban centres of the late Middle Ages. However, later research showed that fabliau authors were aware of their audiences, and often changed details in their stories to better match an intended audience (Nykrog, Rychner). This opened possibilities to consider a more diverse range of potential audiences for fabliaux, no longer limited to the urban middle classes, as Bedier originally posited. By looking at Dame Sirith and the Shipman’s Tale, this thesis attempts to analyse the ways in which both these texts give hints towards a potential intended audience in theme, form and historical context. Dame Sirith’s use of narration and relatively spare descriptions make the text exceedingly suitable for oral performance, and this thesis concludes that it likely formed a part of the repertoires of traveling storytellers, whose main audience would have been the urban lower and middle classes. In contrast, Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale includes many references to the legal system, and its frequent use of both legal and commercial terms, as well as the text’s inclusion in the literary Canterbury Tales restrict its potential audience. These factors make it likely that the text would have primarily appealed to a literate upper- and middle-class urban audience, who would have had to navigate these commercial and legal spheres in daily life. Therefore, by analysing the Shipman's Tale and Dame Sirith from both a literary and cultural-historical viewpoint, this thesis places the intended audience of both texts in the urban environment of the late Middle Ages, though on different ends of the spectrum of class and literacy. Dame Sirith did not exclude a non-literate audience, whereas the Shipman’s Tale primarily attracted a literate audience versed in law and commerce.