The Owl and the Nightingale
|The Owl and the Nightingale|
|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|
The Owl and the Nightingale is a 12th- or 13th-century Middle English poem detailing a debate between an owl and a nightingale about whether it is better to be mirthful or sorrowful, 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). (Examples exist in the Old English poems Solomon and Saturn.
There are two surviving manuscript versions of The Owl and the Nightingale, one belonging to the British Library as BL MS Cotton Caligula A.IX, the other to Jesus College, Oxford, as Jesus College MS 29. Both manuscripts date from the second half of the 13th century, and possibly the last quarter of the century.
Traditionally the text is believed to have been originally composed during the period 1189-1216. This belief is based on the poem's mention of a recently departed King Henry, Henry II who died in 1189. However, it has been suggested that the poem actually refers to Henry III, which would date the poem as later than 1272 (not much earlier than the production of the two surviving manuscripts).
Similarly there has been much debate about the identity of the author of The Owl and the Nightingale. "Master Nicholas of Guildford", who is mentioned in reverential terms within the text, is one possible candidate. The religious poem entitled La Passyun Jhu Christ preceding The Owl in the Jesus College manuscript has a note saying that it once possessed an additional quatrain implying that it was written by John of Guildford, perhaps a relation of Nicholas.
 Style and form
The poem is written in rhymed octosyllabic couplets (generally iambic tetrameter, with most verses ending with a ninth unstressed syllable). This form shows the influence of Old French poetry, and precociously anticipates the style of Chaucer.
The nightingale sitting on a branch covered with blossom sees the owl perched on a bough overgrown with ivy, and proceeds to abuse her for her general habits and appearance. The birds decide to refer the consequent dispute to Master Nicholas de Guildford, who is skilled in such questions, but they first engage in a débat in the French fashion. The owl is the better logician, but the nightingale has a fund of abuse that equalizes matters. Finally, when the argument threatens to become a fight, the wren interferes, and the two go to the house of Master Nicholas at Portesham in Dorset. He delivers, they say, many right judgments, and composes and writes much wisdom, and it is lamentable that so learned and worthy a man should gain no preferment from his bishop.
Scholars have put forth many possible interpretations of the text. One is that the piece is a general allegory of the contest between asceticism and a more cheerful view of religion, and is capable of a particular application to the differences between the regular orders and the secular clergy. The nightingale defends her singing on the ground that heaven is a place of song and mirth, while the owl maintains that much weeping for his many sins is man's best preparation for the future.
Unlike most debate poetry of the period, The Owl and the Nightingale offers no resolution, thus forcing the reader to interpret the highly ambiguous text for himself. The debate itself covers a very diverse range, including religion, marriage, toilet manners, and song. This diverse range has led to scholars interpreting the text in very different ways. These interpretations have varied from a medieval answer to the portrayal of the owl in the Book of Isaiah, to the poem being used as a teaching method for teaching students the art of debate as part of the trivium. Various historical satires have also been proposed as possible interpretations; including a parody of the relationship between King Henry II and Thomas Becket.
- English Language and Literature Timeline: 1090s: The Owl and the Nightingale, British Library's "Evolving Language" expedition (online and at the museum), 2011.
- Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Huganir, Kathryn (1931). The Owl and the Nightingale: Sources, Date, Author. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
 Editions and translations
- "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.
- Stratmann, F. H. (1868). Krefeld. Missing or empty
|title=(help) Edited from both manuscripts.
- Wright, T., ed. (1843). Percy Society. Missing or empty
|title=(help) Edited from the Cotton manuscript.
- Stevenson, Joseph, ed. (1838). Roxburghe Club. Missing or empty
|title=(help) Edited from the Cotton manuscript.
 Further reading
- 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.
- 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.
- Coleman, Janet (1987). "The Owl and the Nightingale and Papal Theories of Marriage". Journal of Ecclesiastical History 38: 517–67.
- Hume, Kathryn (1975). The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and its Critics. Toronto: Toronto UP.
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