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The Thrush and the Nightingale
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86, ff. 136vb-138rb


This short Middle English debate poem between two birds is recorded in two manuscripts, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86 (last quarter of the C13), and the 'Auchinleck manuscript' (c. 1330), Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS 19.2.1); the text here is edited from Digby 86. This manuscript includes both religious and secular works, in Latin, French, and Middle English. In their introduction to the facsimile edition, Tschann and Parkes (1996) , pp. lviii-lix, argue that it was both compiled and copied by its owner. They deduce from the main scribe's links with two Worcestershire families (Grimhill and Underhill) and the choice of texts that he was a layman, and from other features of the MS, including its multilingual nature and its use of scribal conventions associated with documents rather than books, 'that he might have been a lawyer, or involved in the management of an estate'; they suggest Richard de Grimhill (c. 1263--c. 1308) as a possible candidate.

The poem's spring opening has close parallels with the first stanza of one of the lyrics in London, British Library, MS Harley 2253, Lenten ys come with loue to toune; and the arguments it uses have some parallels in another lyric from Harley 2253, Weping haueth myn wonges wet. In the debate, the (male) Thrush attacks women, while the (female) Nightingale defends them. The argument is both less skilful and less self-reflexive than the debate between birds in The Owl and the Nightingale. The Thrush, who draws on a range of authorities and exempla from Scripture, classical history and legend, and Arthurian romance, as well as personal experience (where he seems to speak as a man rather than as a bird; see lines 61-6), offers more varied and forceful arguments than the Nightingale, who simply reiterates her claims for the virtue, beauty, and charm of women; but he immediately, and abjectly, concedes defeat when the Virgin Mary is invoked as representative of her sex.

The Digby scribe signals the changes of speaker by larger marginal initials at the beginning of stanzas; it is possible, however, that there are also some changes of speaker mid-stanza. I have followed Brown (1932) in placing a change of speaker at line 94 rather than line 97, and have also assigned lines 103-5 to the Thrush.

Set up by Bella Millett, enm@soton.ac.uk. Last updated 29 May 2003 .