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The Owl and the Nightingale
London, British Library, MS Cotton Caligula A.ix (C), ff. 233ra--246ra
Oxford, Jesus College MS 29 (J), ff. 156ra--168vb


The poem described by by the scribe of the Jesus MS as Altercacio inter filomenam et bubonem, 'The argument between the owl and the nightingale', and by modern editors as The Owl and the Nightingale, is of uncertain date and authorship. It survives in two manuscripts, both written in the second half of the thirteenth century, and both containing a very similar selection of Middle English and Anglo-Norman works; see Ker (1963) for details, and facsimiles of both texts of O&N. A third MS, now lost, is mentioned in the medieval library catalogue of Titchfield Abbey, Hampshire, a house of Premonstratensian canons.

The poem has traditionally been dated to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. As long as it was assumed that the Cotton MS  was early C13, the most probable reading of lines 1091-2,
'That underyat the king Henri---
Jesus his soule do merci!'
King Henry discovered what had happened---may Jesus have mercy on his soul!')
was that they referred to Henry II (d. 1189). This would place the poem between 1189 and 1216 (the accession of Henry III, when a reference to 'the king Henri' would no longer have been unambiguous). Cartlidge (1996) has argued that the later-C13 dating of both MSS by Ker opens the possibility that the reference (if it is to a historical king at all) is to Henry III (d. 1272), that there is insufficient circumstantial or internal evidence to exclude a late-C13 date for the poem, and that it fits better into the vernacular cultural context of the later period. The question, however, remains unresolved (see note on line 729).

The question of authorship is similarly unresolved. Candidates for authorship proposed (see Cartlidge (2001), pp. 101-2, for a full list) include the priest Nicholas of Guildford (whose accomplishments are warmly praised in the poem, but who has not been certainly identified from historical records), an anonymous clerical friend of Nicholas, and the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey (see Barratt (1987)). The intended audience, or audiences, also remain uncertain.

For another Early Middle English debate-poem between birds, see The Thrush and the Nightingale.

The version of the poem given here is a relatively close working translation, intended for student use alongside an edition of the Middle English work. A rather freer verse translation, which gives a better impression of the form of the original, can be found in Stone (1988); and there is a prose translation interleaved with an edited ME text in the new edition by Cartlidge (2001), whose comprehensive introduction, textual and explanatory notes, bibliography and glossary should be consulted to supplement the information given here.

Set up by Bella Millett, enm@soton.ac.uk. Last updated 28 May 2003 .