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The Owl and the Nightingale

The Owl and the Nightingale is a twelfth- or thirteenth-century Middle English poem detailing a debate between an owl and a nightingale as overheard by the poem's narrator. It is the earliest example in Middle English of a literary form known as debate poetry (or verse contest).[1] Verse contests from this time period were usually written in Anglo-Norman or Latin. This poem shows the influence of French linguistic, literary, and rhetorical techniques. After the Norman Conquest, French became a predominant language in England, but English was still widespread and recognized as an acceptable language for poetry, if only burlesque debates.

The Owl and the Nightingale
Owl with three smaller birds, in manuscript page.jpg
Owl with three smaller birds, in a bestiary manuscript (London, British Library Harley MS 4751, f. 47r)
Also known as Hule and the Nightingale
Date 12th or 13th century
Manuscript(s) (1) BL MS Cotton Caligula A.ix; (2) Oxford, Jesus College, MS 29 (MS Arch. I. 29). Written in the 2nd half of the 13th century


Date, authorship and provenanceEdit

There is no certain information about the poem's author, date of composition or origin.

Nicholas of Guildford is mentioned several times in the text as the man best suited to judge which bird presents the strongest argument. His character never actually makes an appearance, and the poem ends with the debate unresolved and the owl and nightingale flying off in search of Nicholas. Critics tend to agree that the most likely reason for the mention of Nicholas of Guildford in the poem is because he is the author. However, in the introduction to the latest translation on the text, Neil Cartlidge reminds the reader that despite the general acceptance of Nicholas as author "...there is no firm evidence to support such an identification and no certain trace of the existence of any Nicholas of Guildford, priest of Portesham, beyond the text itself".[2]

It is equally difficult to establish an exact date when The Owl and the Nightingale was first written. The two surviving manuscripts are thought to be copied from one exemplar, and they are dated to the second half of the 13th century. In ll. 1091-2, the nightingale prays for the soul of "king Henri", which is thought to reference "either the death of Henry II of England in 1189 or of Henry III of England in 1272".[2] Scholars see no evidence that the poem predates the surviving manuscripts by many years. It is possible that the poem was written in the 12th or 13th century, and "there is a serious possibility the poem was composed after the death of Henry III in 1272".[2]

Linguistic evidence suggests the poem's origins lie in Kent or a neighboring province, but there is little evidence to support this theory. Because The Owl and the Nightingale cannot be accurately dated, it is nearly impossible to properly reconstruct the original dialect. Recent scholarship also acknowledges that provenance could be anywhere in Wessex, the Home Counties or the south-west Midlands.[2]


The Owl and the Nightingale. Oxford, Jesus College, M.S. 29. ff. 156-68. ll. 1-13
The Owl and the Nightingale. London, British Library, M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX ff. 233-46. ll. 1-16

There are two known manuscripts of The Owl and the Nightingale: ff. 156-68, Jesus College, Oxford, MS. 29 and ff. 233-46 of British Library M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX. Both are bound together in collections of other works. They are both estimated to be written in the latter half of the 13th century and copied from one exemplar which is now lost [3]

Jesus College, Oxford, MS. 29:

This manuscript, given to Jesus College between 1684 and 1697 by rector Thomas Wilkins, contains 33 texts in English, Anglo Norman, and Latin. All of the script is in one hand and written in a plain, amateurish style.[3] The Owl and Nightingale is written in two columns with some capital letters in blue and red but no illumination.

Cotton Caligula A.IX:

This manuscript contains 13 texts in English and Anglo Norman, most of which were probably bound together from the beginning despite Cotton’s method of organizing disparate manuscripts into collections. The text, written by at least two different scribes, is in two columns with some capital letters in red and no illumination. The script is a professional, gothic bookhand. This manuscript has a 19th-century binding and shows no evidence of whom the previous owner(s) may have been.[3]


The poem consists entirely of a fierce debate between the eponymous owl and nightingale, as overheard by an unidentified narrator. When he first happens upon them, the Nightingale is perched on a blossom-covered branch, and the Owl is sitting on a bough overgrown with ivy. The Nightingale begins the argument by noting the Owl's physique, calling her ugly and unclean. The Owl proposes that they proceed civilly and reasonably in their debate, and the Nightingale suggests consulting Nicholas of Guildford, who, although frivolous in his youth, is now a reasonable judge. However, the Nightingale immediately goes on to shame the Owl for the screeches and shrieks she produces, and equates her active time of night with vices and hatred. The Owl in turn posits that the Nightingale's continuous noise is excessive and boring.

The Nightingale replies that the song of the Owl brings unwanted gloom, while her own is joyous and reflects the beauty of the world. The Owl is quick to reply that Nightingales only sing in summer, when men's minds are filled with lechery. Furthermore, singing is the Nightingale's only talent. The Owl has more valuable skills, like servicing churches by ridding them of rats. The Nightingale claims she too is helpful to the Church, since her songs invoke the glories of Heaven, and encourage churchgoers to be more devout. The Owl counters that before people can reach Heaven, they must repent their sins. Her mournful, haunting song makes them reconsider their decisions. She further states that the Nightingale's gay melodies can entice women to adultery and promiscuity. It is the nature of women to be frail, the Nightingale claims, and any sins they might commit in maidenhood are forgiven once they are married. It is rather the fault of men, for taking advantage of this weakness in maidens.

The Nightingale, not to be outdone, claims that the Owl is of no use except when dead, since farmers use her corpse as a scarecrow. The Owl gives a positive slant to this charge by inferring that she helps men even after death. This is not seen as a sufficient refutation to the Nightingale, and she calls other birds to jeer at the Owl. The Owl threatens to assemble her predatory friends, but before the tension can escalate further, the Wren descends to quiet the quarrel. The birds ultimately decide to defer judgment of their case to Nicholas of Guildford, who lives at Portesham in Dorset.

There is a brief digression about the merits of Nicholas and how unfortunate it is that he is unappreciated and underpaid by bishops and wealthy men. The owl and nightingale agree to find the wise man and the owl claims that her memory is so excellent that she can repeat every word of the argument when they arrive. However, the reader never learns which bird bests her opponent at the debate; the poem ends with the two flying off in search of Nicholas.


Style and formEdit

The text is composed of rhyming octosyllabic couplets, generally following the poetic construction of iambic tetrameter.

Jesus College Edition:
Þe bloſtme. gynneÞ ſpringe & ſpred
BoÞe in treo & ek in mede.
Þe lilie myd hire fayre ylite.
WelcomeÞ me myd Þeyh Þu hit wite.
Bid me myd hire fayre bleo.
Þat ich ſchulle to hire fleo.

[lines 437-442]

Modern English translation:
The blossoms quickly spring and swell
on every tree and in the dell:
The lilies with their pure white glow
Welcome me – as well you know-
And bid me by their handsome hues
to come to them whenever I choose.

Iambic tetrameter, while commonly used to create flowing lyricism and ease of reading, can quickly become monotonous, with the repetitive pattern distracting from the subject matter. The poet avoids this by including variety in his meter, occasionally adding or omitting syllables. The poem is also rife with imagery, alliteration, and assonance.

Jesus College Edition:
Þe Nihtegale bigon Þo ſpeke
In one hurne of one beche
& sat vp one vayre bowe.
Þat were abute bloſtome ynowe.
In ore vaſte Þikke hegge.
Imeynd myd ſpire. & grene ſegge.

[lines 13-18]

Modern English translation:
The Nightingale began the match
Off in a corner, on a fallow patch,
sitting high on the branch of a tree
Where blossoms bloomed most handsomely
above a thick protective hedge
Grown up in rushes and green sedge.

The poem's language is not superfluously dense or grandiloquent. The birds' dialogue is colloquial, and their insults are scathing. The analogies employed are also rural, equating the Nightingale's song to the barbarous speech of an Irish priest,[4] 'Þu chatereƒt ƒo doÞ on yris preƒt' [ 322] referring to fox hunts, and commenting on the use and practicality of scarecrows.


Medieval debate poetry was popular in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and this poem draws on their structure, mimicking legal suits of the time. Each bird charges the other with an accusation, and brings forth evidence to support her claim.[5] Proverbs are cited as a rhetorical argument from authority. However, the birds' rhetorical techniques are highly flawed. The birds' attack strategies rely on belittlement, condescension, and analogizing their opponent's habits to unsavory people or things.[6]

Jesus Oxford Edition:
Þu art lodlich to biholde.
And Þu art loÞ in money volde.
Þi body iſ ſcort, Þi ſwere iſ ſmal.
Gretture iſ Þin heued ne Þu al

[lines 71-74]

Modern English translation:
You'll be a monster all your days
For you're grotesque in many ways:
Your body's short; your neck is small;
Your head's the largest part of all…

The animals' defense is founded on self-praise, as each bird justifies her behaviors and attempts to show the benefits in her own actions. However, the Owl berates the Nightingale for a quality she herself possesses, and the Nightingale's self-defense argument follows the same logic as offered by the Owl.[7] Both use their song as a way to encourage proper religious thought and behavior. The Nightingale simulates the auditory pleasures of heaven,

Jesus Oxford Edition:
& heo beoÞ alle for me Þe gladdere:
& to Þe ſong e beoÞ Þe raddure.
Ich warny men to heore gode.
Þat hi beon blyÞe on heore mode.
& bidden Þat hi moten iſeche.
Þat ilche ſong Þat euer if eche.

[lines 736-742]

Modern English translation:
And helped by me, however meagerly,
They sing out all their hymns more eagerly.
Thus I warn them, for their good,
to contemplate in a joyful mood,
and bid them to seek earnestly
the hymn that rings eternally.

while the Owl coerces people to repent, and warns them of what awaits them should they sin.

Jesus Oxford Edition:
Ich wiffe men myd myne ſonge.
Þat hi ne sunegi now iht longe.
Ich bidde heom Þat heo ifwike.
Þat heom ſeolue ne be fwike.
For betere if Þat heo wepe here
Þan ellef hwar beo deouele yuere.

[lines 927-932]

Modern English translation:
And by my song I teach all men
They'd better turn their backs on sin,
And warn them against evil ways
Lest they be fooled for all their days;
Far better weep a while before
Than burn in hell forevermore!

References and contextEdit

  • Alfred
    • At many points in the poem, the birds cite King Alfred as a source of wise dicta. Although there was a medieval compendium of sayings attributed to Alfred, the birds in the poem are not actually quoting it. These references do acknowledge his wisdom and authority, but are little more than appeals to Alfred's generic image as a wise, just, and learned ruler from England's past.
  • Bestiary
    • The animals' characteristics follow heavily on the tradition of a bestiary, a concise catalogue where animals are listed, and their characteristics are described, along with the symbolic and allegorical associations and morally significant qualities they represent.[8] One of the birds' goals through their debate is to assign meaning and purpose to their own characteristics. According to Genesis 1:26, all creatures were made by God to serve man, 'And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.' (Genesis 1:26, King James Bible) Given this view, it makes sense the birds see their value as directly proportional to their usefulness to mankind.
  • Clergy
    • Near the end of the poem, the bishops of Portesham are condemned for prohibiting Master Nicholas to live with them. They bestow higher jobs to unintelligent men and display nepotism. Since the housing of bishops is hardly a concern of birds, scholars have interpreted this reference as a contention the author had with the institution. Nicholas himself is speculated to be the author, although directly pointing out irritation at his superiors would be unlikely to win him any advancement.
  • Christ

Both animals are presumptuous in their claims of value, but the Owl goes so far as to imply she displays Christ-like sacrifice and compassion. With imagery reminiscent of the crucifixion of Jesus, she remarks on how useful she is even after death:

Jesus Oxford Edition:
& hwanne hi habbeÞ me offlawe.
Heo anhoÞ me in heore hawe.
Þar ich afchevle pie & crowe.
From Þan Þat Þer is iƒowe.
Þah hit beo foÞ. Ic do heom god.
& for heom ic ƒchedde my blod.
Ic do heom god. Myd myne deÞe.

[lines 1611-1617]

Modern English translation:
And later, when at last I die,
he hangs me, spitefully, on high
where I scare off magpies and crows
and save the seeds the farmer sows.
For evil, I return them good
and for mankind I shed my blood!
I help them even when I die..."

Interpretation, criticism, and analysisEdit

Most scholars in the past have defined the work as an allegory, yet the difficulty of sustaining this method of analysis throughout the poem remains a challenge. These interpretations tend to characterize each principal figure in polar opposition to the other, and since scholar Kathryn Hume's work on the text has encouraged other scholars to turn to format and structure rather than symbolic characterization.[9]

Disregarding an allegorical interpretation, critics have taken the position that the two figures of the text do represent symbolic depictions of people, institutions, and other forces. The question of date and authorship make any certainty about the text a challenge to interpretation. The most consistent theme in the piece is the determination of the birds to trounce their opponent no matter the lengths to which their argument must stretch.[2]

It has also been suggested that the owl and nightingale represent historical figures, which necessarily grounds these arguments in a very specific time. Scholar Anne Baldwin posits that the poem was written between 1174-1175, and that the nightingale represents King Henry II and the owl is Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.[10]

Several scholars have focused on comparisons between the structures in the medieval legal system and that of the poem itself. The birds take turns presenting their arguments as they would have done in a contemporary court, while also structuring their arguments as legal defenses and providing the opinions of authorities to strengthen their cases.[11] While the unknown date of creation yet again foils any certain comparison, analyses have ranged from imitations of 12th or 13th century court mechanisms to no actual comparison, with acknowledgement that the author was indeed acquainted with judicial proceedings.[11] In 1994, Monica Potkay also proposed that the legal system on which the poem is based is that of natural rather than English "common" law, a legal framework predicated on God's power over the Earth and its inhabitants.

In short, there remains no consensus regarding the ultimate analysis of this enigmatic work. Without a definite provenance and authorship, the possibility of a positive identification of the symbolism within the text is limited.


  1. ^ English Language and Literature Timeline: 1090s: The Owl and the Nightingale, British Library's "Evolving Language" expedition (online and at the museum), 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e Cartlidge, Neil, ed. (2001). The Owl and the Nightingale. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. 
  3. ^ a b c Ker, N.R., ed. (1963). The Owl and the Nightingale: Reproduced in Facsimile. London: Oxford University Press. 
  4. ^ Cannon, Christopher (2004). The Grounds of English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  5. ^ Wilson, R. M. 'VII The Owl and the Nightingale.' Early Middle English Literature.[London]: Methuen &, 1968. 149-69.
  6. ^ Treharne, Elaine M., and Greg Walker. The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.
  7. ^ Gardner, John. The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Owl and the Nightingale and Five Other Middle English Poems. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1979.
  8. ^ Mann, Jill. From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.
  9. ^ Matlock, Wendy A. (October 2010). "Law and Violence in The Owl and the Nightingale". Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 109 (4): 446–467. 
  10. ^ Baldwin, Anne W. (April 1967). "Henry II and The Owl and the Nightingale". The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 66 (2): 207–229. 
  11. ^ a b Potkay, Monica Brzezinski (June 1994). "Natural law in the Owl and the Nightingale". Chaucer Review. 28 (4): 368. 

Additional BibliographyEdit

  • Barratt, Alexandra (1987). "Flying in the face of tradition: a new view of The Owl and the Nightingale". University of Toronto Quarterly. 56: 471–85. doi:10.3138/utq.56.4.471. 
  • Cartlidge, Neil (1996). "The Date of The Owl and the Nightingale". Medium Aevum. 65: 230–47. 
  • Cartlidge, Neil (1997). Medieval Marriage: Literary Approaches, 1100-1300. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. 
  • Coleman, Janet (1987). "The Owl and the Nightingale and Papal Theories of Marriage". Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 38: 517–67. doi:10.1017/s0022046900023630. 
  • Gardner, John (1979). The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Owl and the Nightingale and Five Other Middle English Poems. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP.
  • Huganir, Kathryn (1931). The Owl and the Nightingale: Sources, Date, Author. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Hume, Kathryn (1975). The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and its Critics. Toronto: Toronto UP. 
  • Mann, Jill (2009). From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford UP.
  • Treharne, Elaine M., and Greg Walker (2010). The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English. Oxford: Oxford UP.
  • Wilson, R. M. (1968). 'VII The Owl and the Nightingale.' Early Middle English Literature.[London]: Methuen. 149-69.

Editions and TranslationsEdit

  • "The Owl and the Nightingale". Wessex Parallel WebTexts. University of Southampton. 2003. 
  • Cartlidge, Neil, ed. (2001). The Owl and the Nightingale. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. 
  • Stone, Brian, tr. (1988). The Owl and the Nightingale, Cleanness, St Erkenwald (2nd ed.). London: Penguin Classics. 
  • Ker, N. R., ed. and intro. (1963). The Owl and the Nightingale: Facsimile of the Jesus and Cotton Manuscripts. EETS o.s. 251. London: Oxford UP.  Facsimile edition
  • Stanley, E.G., ed. (1960). The Owl and the Nightingale. Nelson's Medieval and Renaissance Library. London. 
  • Atkins, J. W. H., ed. and tr. (1922). The Owl and the Nightingale. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.  Also available here.
  • Wells, John Edwin, ed. (1907). The Owl and the Nightingale. Boston and London.  Also available here, here, here and here

External linksEdit