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The Owl and the Nightingale – A Medieval Poem

March 1, 2013

The Owl and the Nightingale is a late 12th/early 13th century Middle English poem, those with little practice reading in Middle English can understand it, but there are various translations online as well as printed ones. This poem has a mysterious authorship, which I will go into later, but for now, there is no knowledge of a confirmed author.

The poem is about, would you believe it, an owl and a nightingale, they are having a debate about whose song is superior, which, inevitably leads to a full of fight, with insults being thrown by the nightingale, and logic being used to devise answers by the owl. This part sounds quite normal for us; we would expect an owl to be logical because owls have a long tradition of being wise creatures. The nightingale’s song is shrill, and although I quite like it, could very easily be interpreted as insulting language. This is why I like this poem, the birds are personified so well, you can imagine them as people, having an argument and using their best qualities in an attempt to win.

The poem continues with the owl and the nightingale agreeing to see Master Nicholas of Guildford in Portesham, who will surely pass judgment on their argument and settle it once and for all. The poem ends on a bit of a cliff hanger, stating that the two birds set off for Portesham, but the author cannot divulge the judgment of this Nicholas of Guildford. This leaves the reader, or listener in the Middle Ages to devise their own judgment to the story.

The authorship of this poem is unknown, there are two surviving manuscripts, yet neither give any indication as to the writer and creator. Some thoughts are that it was Nicholas of Guildford himself, who is mentioned in the poem, but this cannot be proven because little is known about him outside the story.

This work was likely to have been very popular in its time. However, because we only have two surviving manuscripts, it is difficult to judge, and it is likely that this popularity did not stand the test of time.

I do like this poem, and the insults traded between the birds can be quite amusing at times. So, if you like poetry, history or a bit of both then I would give it a read!

I have provided two youtube links here, (not my own videos) one is a nightingale singing, so you can listen and hear for those shrill insults, and the other is an extract of the poem read in Middle English, so you can have a feel for how it would have been read and enjoyed at the peak of its popularity.

Nightingale’s song –

The Owl and the Nightingale in Middle English –

  1. Great post and great links; I love hearing middle english.

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