The Owl And The Nightingale (circa 1210): a comparative critical approach.

What makes a literary structure significant is what an author means to convey – any literary structure is related to the final aim of the poet and his work.  Structures are not interesting per se:  what counts is the message we get from the writer, which the structure carries and emphasizes.


In that respect, The Owl And The Nightingale, a poem of uncertain authorship traditionally dated to the late twelfth early thirteenth century (early Middle English) is very confusing:  we do not really know what was the actual intention of the poet, and it is difficult to deduce it from his poem.


This ambiguity makes it impossible to draw a definite plan of the structure of the poem, except in broad terms, because no structure seems to be entirely convincing, hence the many attempts by critics – and their partial failure.


You will find the original poem (circa 1210) at this page:  The Owl and the Nightingale


I.          J.W.H.  Atkin’s theory (from his “Introduction” pp.  lii, liv and lv, in The Owl And The Nightingale, New York:  Russel & Russel, 1971)


In his “Introduction”, Atkins relates the popularity of debates in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to Abelard, great thinker of his time, who gave new directions and new methods to medieval thought, especially in his book Sic et Non (1120), where he showed how an attitude of doubt prior to scientific search for truth was the way to inquiry and, eventually, to truth;  this scepticism was at its best by joining discordant opinions together so that any issue should be studied entirely, with its pros and cons.


This method soon became very popular, not only as a scholastic device that helped teach dialectics, but also as a literary form, both in Latin and in the vernaculars.  There were debates of all kinds, but they usually had a common basic structure:


a)    An introductory description.

b)    A dispute, with references to classical masters such as Virgil and Ovid.

c)    A closing reference to a formal judgment.


Atkins points to several differences in The Owl And The Nightingale:


-       The two debaters involved are birds:  Atkins relates that to contemporary French lyrics dealing with birds that stood as symbols (for instance, the Nightingale represented the messenger of love).


-       The two debaters do not refer to any classical master, but to common sayings and to the Proverbs Of Alfred (1251?)


-       The dialogue is enlivened by the introduction of narrative and dramatic details.


-       It is less formal, both because it is written in the vernacular and because each argument has varied lengths.


These peculiarities, and the fact that the author uses legal terminology and procedure common at the time, prompted Atkins to suggest that The Owl And The Nightingale, instead of being merely another illustration of the debate form, actually followed the structure of a thirteenth century lawsuit.


The Owl And The Nightingale as a lawsuit


Atkins tries to demonstrate that the Nightingale starts the proceedings as a plaintiff would, by stating the charge against the Owl, calling her a monster with a terrible and ugly voice (ll.  33 – 40). Since it is merely an assertion, she needs, according to regular law procedure of the time, a witness (otherwise called “oath-helper”, or “compurgator”).  Therefore, she first uses common sayings (ll. 55 – 138) and, later on in the debate, quotes from The Proverbs Of Alfred.


The Owl, thence, would be the defendant, and as such denies the charge (ll.  46 – 54), she declares her willingness to defend her case by force of arms (ll. 150 – 152); the plaintiff refuses, thought, and proposes instead a formal debate (ll.  153 – 186). They both agree on Master Nicholas of Guildford as referee (ll.  187 – 214).  Then the Nightingale proceeds with the charge, with the help of quotes from Alfred, and the Owl defends herself also with the help of Alfred’s proverbs (ll.  215 – 542).


At this stage of the “trial”, a judgment would occur nowadays, but in the Middle Ages it was possible, if the plaintiff so whished, to continue the charge.  According to Atkins, that is exactly what the Nightingale does (ll.  543 – 548), which prompts the Owl to use the right of exceptio, mainly the right of the defendant to charge, in turn, the plaintiff.  From then on, the Owl, with her witness Alfred, “sues” the Nightingale, while the latter defends herself by the right of replicatio.  In the process, each tries to confute the other in order to win the judgment; finally, the Wren advises them both to seek judgment (ll.  1729 – 1738) as settled before, and they both agree to do so.


For Atkins, this is a close imitation of law procedure in the XIIIth century.  In order to sustain his theory, he underlines the great number of legal terms, and the fact that each bird tries to find mistakes in the other’s pleading:  indeed, a mistake in pleading in medieval law procedure was very serious and liable to even break the case in favour of one the two parties, hence the attention each bird pays to the other’s tricks.


A famous trick was, for instance, to show that the charge was merely gratuitous assertion brought up by malice and hatred (odium et atia).  If one could prove it, the case was broken – the Owl tries it on line 1183, by accusing the Nightingale of “ancient malice”.  Another trick was to make the opponent so angry as to get him to make a mistake in his pleading; the Nightingale is very aware of that, as she recalls that “the angry man is seldom a good pleader” (ll.  143 – 144).


On such evidence, Atkins states that the structure of The Owl And The Nightingale “has been modelled on that of contemporary law-suits”.


Incidences on the debate


He does not say anything, however, about the purpose of such a design by the writer.  We can only surmise, as some critics have, that the poem could be a display of the author’s skills in legal procedure, a sort of publicity gambit in order to get a good position, probably in an ecclesiastical court – provided we admit Nicholas of Guildford and the writer are the same person.  Such a structure could have had an important incidence on the debate in that it forced the author to have each bird display all possible legal devices and tricks, thus influencing the characters’ speeches.


Outline of J.W.H.  Atkin’s theory


Common basic structure of debates in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries:


a)    Introductory description.

b)    Dispute with reference to classical masters (Virgil, Ovid)

c)    Closing reference to a formal judgment.


Atkin’s proposal:  The Owl And The Nightingale structured as a lawsuit:


a)    Introductory description (ll. 1 – 28)

b)   Nightingale as plaintiff and Owl as defendant (ll.  33 – 542):


-    Charge of the Nightingale as plaintiff (ll.  33 – 40)

-    Use of “witness” (oath-helper, compurgator):  proverbs to assert her case (ll.  55 – 138)

-    Owls as defendant denies charges (ll. 46 – 54)

-    Owls proposes to use force of arms (ll. 150 – 152)

-    Nightingale refuses.  There will be a formal legal debate (ll.  153 – 186)

-    They both agree on Nicholas of Guildford as referee (ll. 187 – 214)

-    Formal debate (part I):  Nightingale as plaintiff proceeds with charge with the help of “witness” (quotes from Alfred); Owl as defendant also uses Alfred as “witness” (ll. 215 – 542).


c)    Right of exceptio by the Owl and right of replicatio by the Nightingale (ll. 543 – 1705)


-     (Debate part II):  Nightingale wants to continue the debate (ll.  543 – 548).  Owl uses right of exceptio, i.e. the defendant charges the plaintiff, who defends herself with the right of replicatio (ll.  543 – 1705)


d)   Closing reference to a formal judgment by Nicholas of Guildford (ll. 1729 – 1794)


-     Wren advises for legal judgment (ll.  1729 – 1738)

-     Plaintiff and defendant agree to do so before Nicholas of Guildford (ll.  1739 – 1794)



  1. II.            Michael A. Witt’s theory (from his article “The Owl And The Nightingale and English Law Court Procedures of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries”, Chaucer Review 16 (1982):  282 – 292.)


Michael A. Witt agrees with Atkins in saying that there are elements in The Owl And The Nightingale inspired by legal procedure, but he insists they do not prove much except that the poet was familiar with legal terminology and procedure.


Witt points out that at that time, in England, co-existed secular law, ecclesiastical law (canon law) and a growing royal law in the twelfth century, during King Henry II’s reign (1154 – 1189), which makes it difficult to generalize on law at the time.


Furthermore, he notices that Atkins took legal words for granted in the poem, thought they are sometimes used in a broader sense:  for instance, tale may mean “charge”, but the author has not restricted its meaning to this particular use – on line 140 and 1740, it means “discourse”, on line 190, “discussion”, and on line 3, it indicates “debate”.


He also argues that the Owl, before the debate, actually denies the Nightingale’s charge (ll. 46 – 54); he doubts the Owl proposes the use of the force of arms in the case (ll.  150 – 152), because the text is not clear about any denial.


Finally, Witt opposes the theory that The Owl And The Nightingale is structured in the four ‘legal’ parts Atkins had suggested in relation to contemporary lawsuits (i.e. the charge, the defense, the exceptio and the replicatio, as seen before).  For Witt, the defense of the Owl does not clearly correspond to the Nightingale’s charge, and the Nightingale’s replicatio does not fit exactly the Owls exceptio.


Witt insists that the poem focuses on the birds and not on law-court procedure – instead, he proposes a diagram of the structure of the poem that emphasizes each bird’s contribution to the debate, so as to show the parallel answers of the two birds, each using biased arguments and flawed argumentation;  in the end, he suggests, though there is a definite legal flavour to the debate, one should not get blinded by it;  one should rather consider the poem as merely an amusing description of two squabbling birds.


Incidences on the debate


This parallelism between each bird’s speech creates a sort of emulation for the two debaters:  each will try to counter the other’s assertions by bringing up new arguments till they finally agree on seeking impartial judgment from Nicholas of Guildford, even though the Nightingale claims to be the winner on technical grounds.


Outline of Michael A. Witt’s theory


-       Prologue (ll.  1 – 32)

-       Nightingale’s attacks (ll.  33 – 40;  56 – 138;  153 – 176)

-       Proposal to debate (ll.  177 – 214)




1st speech (ll.  217 – 252)

1st speech (ll.  255 – 390)

2nd speech (ll. 411 – 466)

2nd speech (ll. 473 – 542)


Heated exchange (ll. 543 – 555)




3rd speech (ll.  556 – 658)

3rd speech (ll.  707 – 836)

4th speech (ll.  837 – 932)

4th speech (ll.  955 – 1042)

5th speech (ll.  1045 – 1066)

5th speech (ll.  1075 – 1174)

6th speech (ll.  1177 – 1290)

6th speech (ll.  1298 – 1510)

7th speech (ll.  1515 – 1634)

7th speech (ll.  1638 – 1652)


-       Arrival of Wren

-       Conclusion


Exact parallelism:  Witt notes it coincides with each bird’s arguments, argumentation and rhetoric (for instance:  quotes of proverbs from Alfred).


Focus on birds and not on law procedure.  Result:  an amusing description of two squabbling birds.


III.  Kathryn Hume’s proposal (from her article “Structure and Sequential Impact”, The Owl And The Nightingale, The Poem And Its Critics, TorontoUniversity of Toronto Press, 1975).                      


For Kathryn Hume the aim of the poem is merely to be a “burlesque satire on human contentiousness”.  She comes to this conclusion by analysing closely its structure, which she divides into four different narrative units that build up to make the poem a satire by getting the readers to focus on different levels.


The first narrative unit she distinguishes (ll.  1 – 214) is centered on the birds:  they are introduced by a narrator, who separates the readers from the actual characters – the narrator creates a distance between us and the birds, which has us believe the debate will only describe two stupid birds angry at one another.  Moreover, the narrator uses past tenses (“was”, ll.  1 + 5; “sval”, l.  7; “seide”, l.  9) which emphasizes the distance in the past:  we feel we are going to be told a curious story the narrator once witnessed.


The second narrative unit (ll.  214 – 548) aims, according to Hume, at creating in the readers an intellectual interest in the debate:  the narrator is no longer present, and we are brought into each of the bird’s arguments – we start to be interested by the way they each answer one another, although their arguments are neither serious nor convincing.


The third narrative unit (ll.  549 – 1652) Hume outlines becomes more serious as to the themes that are dealt with:  adultery, prophecy, witchcraft and death.  The two birds discuss how each has suffered from men, and we can fell the human dimension of those discussions – Kathryn Hume thinks this part is aimed at arousing in ourselves an emotional response to the bird’s pleading.


The fourth narrative unit (ll.  1653 – 1794) then, resembles the first:  a narrator concludes the poem, thus taking us away from the world of the two birds.


Incidences on the debate


Kathryn Hume’s theory is that these four parts play on the reader’s involvement in the poem in order to reach its final goal:  to satirize human contentiousness.  The first and the final narrative unit one have us stand outside the birds’ debate because of the distance created by the narrator’s presence.  The two central parts have us focusing on the two birds and forgetting that it is just a story – this change of focus gives the satire its power:  the conclusion occurs only once we are intellectually and emotionally taken in by the debate.  We then realize the poem could well be a portrait of each reader as a vain bird trying to make a point.  In order for the poem to work as a satire, suggests Hume, the reader needs to be involved in the debate, and then to show him that he was involved in it – it is then up to him to draw the moral of it all.


Outline of Kathryn Hume’s theory


1.  First narrative unit (ll.  1 – 214)


Presentation of the birds by a narrator;   violent and futile quarrelling of the birds (distance:  the readers feel it is just a story collected by a poet).


2.  Second narrative unit (ll.  214 – 548)


Debating of the birds:  development of their respective arguments; scarce presence of the narrator (no distance:  intellectual response to the birds’ argumentation)


3.  Third narrative unit (ll.  549 – 1652)


Debating of the birds:  evocation of adultery, prophecy, witchcraft, death (climax);  scarce presence of narrator (no distance:  emotional response to important topics).


4.  Fourth narrative unit (ll.  549 – 1652)


Violent quarrelling; intervention of the Wren;  conclusion by the narrator (distance again).


Result:  a burlesque satire on human contentiousness.



As is obvious, there is no ready-made structure or theory applicable to The Owl And The Nightingale, because each reader has his own conception of what the poem actually means, and this conception modifies the way he looks at its structure.


In an interview, Umberto Eco was saying (about The Name Of The Rose) that his book was not finished yet, that it had just begun its independent life;  readers, critics, theoreticians would change it, time would mould it, perhaps it would fall into oblivion and then be re-discovered.  He was declining any responsibility as to the future meaning of his book.


This comparative study, with its many unanswered questions (what is the structure of The Owl And The Nightingale?) illustrates what Eco was philosophizing about; we will probably never know the original intention of the author:  what he meant to express is mystery to us.  All we are left with is a poem whose beauty partly lies in its very mystery and ambiguity.


©Sergio Belluz, 2015.




ATKINS, J.W.H., The Owl And The Nightingale, New York:  Russel & Russel, 1971.


CARSON, M.A., “Rhetorical Structure in The Owl And The Nightingale”, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 66 (1967):  207 – 229.


HUME, Kathryn, The Owl And The Nightingale, The Poem And Its Critics, TorontoUniversity of Toronto Press, 1975.


MURPHY, James J., “Rhetoric in Early Middle English:  Rhetoric and Dialectic in the The Owl And The Nightingale”, in Medieval Eloquence:  Studies In The Theaory And Practise Of Medieval Rhetoric, J.J.  Murphy ed., BerkeleyUniversity of California Press (1978):  pp.  198 – 230.


REALE, Nancy M., “Rhetorical Strategies in The Owl And The Nightingale”, Philological Quarterly 63 (1984):  pp.  417 – 429.


WITT, Michael A., “The Owl And The Nightingale and English Law Court Procedures of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries”, Chaucer Review 16 (1982):  pp.  282 – 292.



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