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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 notes here should be supplemented by the much fuller annotation in the editions by Stanley (1960), and Cartlidge (2001). The initial and closing rubrics in the translation are from the Jesus MS.

1. in springtime: the ME (C) has in one sumere dale. I have followed Stanley (1960), who takes the adj. as a form of sumer rather than of sum '(a) certain'; but the translation should probably be 'spring' rather than 'summer' , as the flowering branch on which the Nightingale sits suggests (ME sumer could cover a period beginning earlier than MnE 'summer'). 

14. clearing: C breche; J has beche ('valley' or 'beech-tree').

16. impenetrable: J vaste ; C has waste 'deserted'.

26. her Hours: the reference is to a set of observances (combining psalms, prayers, and hymns) recited at regular intervals throughout the day, the 'canonical hours' of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline. Secular clerics and members of religious orders followed the complex observances of the full Divine Office; the pious laity in this period might also observe the Hours as a private devotion, using the shorter and simpler Hours of the Virgin (originally a supplementary devotion), or substituting repeated Our Fathers and Hail Marys.  See also the note on lines 323-6. The reference here begins a consistent linking of the Owl with the Church.

65-8. That is why . . . quarters: The medieval Bestiary notes the tendency of other birds to mob the screech-owl, allegorizing it as the hostility of the righteous to the sinner whose wickedness is exposed (see Barber (1993), p. 149).

76. woad: a blue dye of vegetable origin.

91. You are loathsome and unclean: the medieval Bestiary notes that the screech-owl fouls its own nest, comparing it to sinners who set a bad example to others (see Barber (1993), p. 149).

127. There's a fable told about this: Stanley (1960), pp. 159, 164, cites and summarizes the version of the story in Marie de France's Fables, with other Anglo-Norman and Latin analogues.

191. Master Nicholas of Guildford: the birds' chosen judge has not yet been certainly identified with any historical figure. His title indicates that he is university-educated; at 1751-78 we are told that he is a suitable candidate (apart from an unfortunate lack of family connections) for episcopal preferment, and lives at Portisham in Dorset. Stanley (1960), pp. 20-2, discusses some possible early-C13 identifications; and C. L. Wrenn (Medium Aevum 1, pp. 155-6) discovered a priest called Nicholas who held land near Portisham in 1226.

204. other charming and dainty creatures: ME (C) other wighte gente and smale. The reference is, of course, to women (gente may also mean 'refined, elegant', smale 'slender'); for later applications of the collocation gent and smal to women, see MED s.v. gent adj. 1(b).

227. You fly by night and not by day: an allegorical equivalent to the nightingale's hostile construction of the owl's nocturnal habits can be found in the medieval Bestiary, which sees both the night-owl and the screech-owl as signifying those who seek the darkness of sin and shun the light of justice; see Barber (1993), pp. 147-9.

235. King Alfred: both birds frequently cite King Alfred as an authority, to give weight to their arguments rather than as an actual source. A collection of proverbs in Middle English verse similarly attributed to Alfred survives in four different MS versions dating from the early C13 onwards, one of them in one of the two surviving O&N MSS, Oxford, Jesus College 29; the Jesus version is edited, with an introduction, by Treharne (2000), 358-68. See also note on lines 293-4.

256. chatterbox: ME galegale. The translation loses the pun in the original on nightingale (ME galen means 'to speak, cry out, squawk').

293-4. Alfred once said in his proverbs: cf. Proverbs of Alfred, ed. Treharne (2000), stanza 21, lines 412-6.

323-6. I sing . . . my song: the phrase at the proper time suggests that the reference is to the canonical hours (see note on line 26 above): the owl sings Vespers in the evening, Compline at bedtime, and Matins at midnight.

347. longer than we would like: I have followed the emendation in Stanley (1960) of ME ouer unwille 'beyond displeasure' to oure unwille 'to our displeasure'.

408. turn from a boar into a barrow-pig: i.e. lose all his fighting spirit (a 'barrow-pig' is a castrated boar).

427-8. if whole troops of men were fighting each other hand-to-hand: ME (C) thegh flockes were / Imeind bi toppes and bi here. A difficult passage of disputed meaning; the translation here follows Morris and Skeat's interpretation of flockes as 'companies' and Imeind bi toppes and bi here as (literally) 'mingled by heads and by hair', but Stanley (1960), p. 116, followed by MED s.v. flok n.(2), prefers Hall's alternative reading, 'though flocks (coarse felted stuff made of refuse of wool . . .) were muddled up with fine carded wool and hair'. Cartlidge (2001), p. 118, follows the 1995 interpretation by Catalini, who takes the passage as referring to the mixing-up of flocks or herds of animals belonging to different owners.

485. carols: ME cundut 'conductus', strictly speaking, a different musical form not related to the modern carol, but performing a similar social function; see Stanley (1960), p. 117.

515. shot his bolt: only a rough equivalent of the original ME, where the image is of stabbing or piercing (istunge).

652. a privy at the far end of their bedchamber: on this (aristocratic) arrangement, see Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House (Cambridge, Mass.: Yale University Press, 1978), Ch. 3.

658. Hang up your axe! i.e. 'Give up the fight'; cf. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, line 476.

694. bag of tricks: ME redpurs. A similar image is used in the hostile account of the abbot Henry of Angely in the post-Conquest continuation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at Peterborough (Cecily Clark, ed., The Peterborough Chronicle 1070-1154 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2dn edn. 1970), p. 53, annal for 1131). Facing expulsion from the abbey, all Henry's wiles failed him: nu him behofed thet he crape in his mycele codde in aelc hyrne, gif thaer waere hure an unwreste wrence thet he mihte get beswicen anes Crist and eall cristene folc ('now he had to creep into every corner of his big bag to see if there was any cunning trick at all by which he could still just once deceive Christ and all Christians').

709. in summertime: I have followed most editors in assuming that the sume of both MSS is an error for sumere (by omission of -er abbreviation).

729. Clerics, monks, and canons: i.e. cathedral clergy, monks, and regular canons (priests living in a religious community according to a rule, usually the Rule of St Augustine), who would follow a more elaborate devotional routine than parish priests (line 733). If  the poem is to be dated to the late thirteenth century, it is perhaps surprising that there is no mention of the friars in this list.

746. before the Pope of Rome himself: in canon law (i.e. the legal system of the Church, which operated across national boundaries), the papal court was the ultimate court of appeal; see James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law (London: Longman, 1995), Ch. 6.

776. and pulls in front of large teams: C has bi uore 'in front of', J bi sweore 'by the neck'; Cartlidge (2001), p. 123, prefers the translation 'straining with its neck against great plough-chains' (a possible sense of temes).

943. intercedes: both MSS have endeth 'ends'; for the emendation erendeth, see Stanley (1960), p. 126.

1009. whey: the watery part of the milk separated from the curds during cheese-making (i.e. a relatively unpalatable drink).

1016. as one did recently from Rome: not yet convincingly identified; candidates who have been proposed are listed by Cartlidge (2001), p. 74.

1049-62. Once you sang . . . wild horses: this story is found in a number of other medieval works (see Stanley (1960), pp. 165-6, and Cartlidge (2001), p. 103), including Marie de France's lai, Laustic (edited by Alfred Ewert, Marie de France: Lais (1944), 2nd edn ed. Glyn Burgess (London: Duckworth, 1995); translated by Glyn Burgess and Keith Busby, The Lais of Marie de France, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin, 1986). The detail that the nightingale was torn apart by wild horses is found in the chapter on the nightingale in Alexander Neckam, De naturis rerum.

1091. King Henry: the following invocation suggests that he is dead. Usually taken as a reference to Henry II (d. 1189); if so, given the lack of any qualification, the poem is likely to date from before 1216, the accession of Henry III. Henry II, as a patron of courtly literature (including the Lais of Marie de France), could be seen as an appropriate supporter for the nightingale. Cartlidge (1996), however, arguing for a late-C13 date, suggests that the reference may be to Henry III (d. 1272), or to a fictitious king.

1147-8. everything . . . misfortune: the medieval Bestiary notes the screech-owl's reputation as a harbinger of death and disaster, quoting Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.550; see Barber (1993), p. 148.

1174. all those who wear linen: commentators on the passage take this as a mark of social respectability, explaining that linen underwear was worn by the more prosperous laity, and by the clergy other than monks. This is an oversimplification (linen was eschewed only by the stricter orders of monks (e.g. the Cistercians) and of regular canons (e.g. the Premonstratensians)), but a possible reading; alternatively, the reference may be to the linen surplices of the clergy.

1182. cursing: ME mansing can mean either 'cursing' in general or, more specifically, excommunication, which only priests were empowered to do.

1186. 'Keep to your own side!': ME Drah to the! The meaning of this saying is disputed: is it an insult, a warning to another driver, an encouragement to the horses to pull harder or a command to them to stop? See Cartlidge (2001), p. 78.

1215. hue and cry: a call raised for the pursuit of an offender, e.g. by the victim or an officer of the law, which those who heard it were legally required to act on.

1235-6. Even if . . . from me: Cawley (1951), compares the argument here to the discussion of how God's foreknowledge can be reconciled with human free will in Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae.

1285-6. with every . . . throw: the image is from wrestling.

1340-2. can . . . copenere: Cartlidge (2001), p. 131, argues for his reading of C: mai i spusing / Bet luuien hire oghene were / Wane [or Thane] awet hire copenere ('does better to love her own husband, leaving her lover to rave') taking Wane/Thane as 'when', awet as a form of aweden (cf. line 509); J has Than on other for Wane awet (i.e. 'can love her husband better than another [woman] her lover'). I have followed the usual emendation (first suggested by J. E. Wells) of C awet  to awer ('anywhere, at all'), taking lover and husband as the same person; cf. lines 1425-32.

1380-1. But if . . . corrupt: C Ah yef heo is atbroide thenne / He is unfele & forbroide. Cartlidge (2001), p. 132, argues that the apparently feminine (heo) and masculine (he) pronouns here must refer not to the (originally grammatically feminine) noun luue but to the man and woman concerned, and translates 'unless she is snatched away, in which case he is evil and corrupt'; but this gives difficult sense.

1395-1406. Not all sins . . . inferiors: cf. Ancrene Wisse Part 4, where the author gives a similar classification of the seven deadly sins: the inre fondunge is twauald, fleschlich ant gastelich: fleschlich, as of leccherie, of glutunie, of slawthe; gastelich, as of prude, of onde, ant of wreaththe, alswa of yiscunge 'internal temptation is of two kinds, physical and spiritual: physical, as from lechery, from gluttony, from sloth; spiritual, as from pride, from envy, and from anger, also from avarice' (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 402, f. 51v/6-8). The author goes on to argue that the sins of the latter group are more dangerous, since they are less easy to detect.

1400. sloth: a rather oversimplified translation of C wrouehede (J has wlonkhede 'pride, wantonness'). On wrouehede, which is recorded only here, see the long note in Stanley (1960), pp. 144-5; he follows J. W. H. Atkins's derivation from the ME adjective wrowe 'irritable, peevish', comparing the use of wrawnesse in Chaucer's Parson's Tale under Sloth (acedia) to describe the attitude of a slothful man to his duties.

1485-6. and losing . . . left: the injured husband could castrate his wife's lover without legal penalty; see Stanley (1960), p. 148.

1521. For it very often happens . . .: cf. the similar treatment of this theme in the early-C13 ME Letter on Virginity (Millett and Wogan-Browne (1992), esp. 26/29-28/32; lurid descriptions of the molestiae nuptiarum ('the woes of marriage') appear as a rhetorical topos in works recommending celibacy from patristic times onwards. Cartlidge (2001), p. 105, offers a striking parallel to the point being made here (that husbands who behave like this should be held partly responsible for their wives' infidelity) from a sermon on marriage by the popular early-C13 preacher James of Vitry.

1728. even . . . king: probably because she was of royal rank herself; the Latin name for the wren is regulus 'little king', and Stanley (1960), p. 167, cites the story told by Alexander Neckam, De naturis rerum, that the birds agreed whichever could fly highest would be their king, and the wren succeeded by first hiding in the eagle's wing, then perching on its head.

1775-6. They are . . . children: a common complaint of reforming clerics in this period; Richard Wetheringsett, in his early-C13 Summa 'Qui bene presunt', criticizes prelati  qui pueros et inscios et indignos et emeritos prudentibus et dignis preponunt in ecclesiasticis beneficiis, et animas proximorum suorum regendas committunt quibus porcos suos non crederent ('prelates who give preference to ignorant and unworthy and unsuitable boys over prudent and worthy candidates in the allocation of church benefices, and commit the care of their neighbours' souls to people they would not trust to look after their pigs'; Cambridge, Cambridge University Library MS Ii.iv.12, p. 130).

1794. That's all, folks: literally, Her nis na more of this spelle, 'Here there is no more of this story.'

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