In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Owl and the Nightingale

  • Introduction
  • Editions
  • Translations
  • Date and Authorship
  • Manuscripts and Textual History
  • Dialect and Orthography
  • Textual Problems
  • Scribal Contexts
  • Monographs and Overviews of Criticism
  • Animal versus Human Perspectives

Medieval Studies The Owl and the Nightingale
Neil Cartlidge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0205


The Owl and the Nightingale is the earliest extant long comic poem in the English language, and one of the most accomplished and entertaining texts written in Middle English before the age of Chaucer. It describes an imagined quarrel between the two nocturnal birds of its title (both of whom are imagined as female), in which each energetically abuses the other’s songs, looks, behavior, nesting habits, diet, and personality—and just as energetically defends her own. Both birds frequently appeal to human values and comment on various aspects of human behavior. As a result, the poem presents perspectives on all sorts of issues that are not obviously or exclusively of avian concern—including, in particular, an extended consideration of women’s experiences outside and inside marriage (lines 1340–1602). The protagonists tell, or allude to, several stories that have recognizable analogues elsewhere in medieval literature, such as the fable of the Hawk and the Owlet (lines 101–125) and the tale of the Nightingale and the Jealous Husband (lines 1049–1110). The poem also contains a number of descriptive set pieces of considerable power, depicting, for example, the ruses of a fox on the run (lines 815–830), the savagery of the inhabitants of northern lands (lines 995–1030), the beauty of the nightingale’s song (lines 1449–1466), and the anxiety and loneliness of the wife whose husband is away (lines 1575–1600). Yet even when the birds are discussing serious issues, they often seem comically petty, tendentious, or spiteful. Very little is known for certain about the origins of the poem, and much of what has been written about it is avowedly speculative. It was once traditionally seen as an important English-language response to the cultural energies of the “12th-century Renaissance,” but such interpretations have seemed increasingly insecure in the wake of N. R. Ker’s redating of the Caligula manuscript of the poem (see Ker 1963, cited under Manuscripts and Textual History). This has made it at least possible to see The Owl and the Nightingale as a product not of the late 12th century but of the late 13th. However, the full implications of placing the poem in this much-later context have yet to be fully explored. In general, critical approaches since the 1980s or so have tended to be defined in such a way as to be entirely independent of any assumptions about its historicity (see Interpretations). Instead, the focus has been on such topics as the birds’ characterization, the poem’s playfulness and irresolution, and the ways in which it might be read as offering a self-conscious commentary on different traditions of discourse, debate, or interpretation. A significant early-21st-century development is the approach taken in two essays by Carolynn Van Dyke, who reads the poem in terms of modern scientific thinking on the differences between human and “animal” identities (see Van Dyke 2012 and Van Dyke 2014, both cited under Animal versus Human Perspectives).


The Owl and the Nightingale was first printed in 1838, and it has been edited many times since, either in part or in full (for a complete list, see Cartlidge 2003, pp. 144–145). There are just two surviving medieval copies of the poem: British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.IX, folios 233r–246r, and Jesus College, Oxford MS 29, Part 2, folios 156r–168v. Nearly all modern texts of the poem are based on the Caligula manuscript, including the three most-substantial critical editions published in the 20th century: Atkins 1922, Stanley 1981, and Cartlidge 2003. Wells 1907 prints texts both of the Jesus and Caligula copies, as does Grattan and Sykes 1935, but this is only a transcription unaccompanied by much apparatus (and is really of use only to anyone without access to Ker 1963, cited under Manuscripts and Textual History). Dunn and Byrnes 1990 and Treharne 2010 are anthologies designed for students, but they print the poem in full.

  • Atkins, J. W. H., ed. and trans. The Owl and the Nightingale: Edited with Introduction, Texts, Notes, Translation and Glossary. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922.

    Atkins’s lengthy introduction to his edition has been very influential, particularly his characterization of the poem as a leading representative both of the “12th century Renaissance” and of an established generic tradition of medieval debate poetry. His edition (based on the Caligula manuscript) is accompanied by a prose translation. Reprinted as recently as 2014.

  • Cartlidge, Neil, ed. and trans. The Owl and the Nightingale: Text and Translation. Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2003.

    This is the most recent single-volume edition of the poem (based on the Caligula manuscript of the poem), with a facing-page translation into modern English prose, a critical introduction, extensive textual and explanatory notes, glossary, and comprehensive bibliography.

  • Dunn, Charles W., and Edward T. Byrnes, eds. Middle English Literature. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1330. New York: Garland, 1990.

    This anthology, first published in 1973 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), includes an edition of the whole of The Owl and the Nightingale on pp. 54–98, accompanied by brief marginal glosses.

  • Grattan, J. H. G., and G. F. H. Sykes, eds. The Owl and the Nightingale. Early English Text Society, Extra Series 119. London: Oxford University Press, 1935.

    This volume contains not a critical edition of the poem but a “diplomatic transcription” of the two extant manuscripts (presented on facing pages), together with a brief introduction and glossary.

  • Stanley, Eric Gerald, ed. The Owl and the Nightingale. Old and Middle English Texts. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1981.

    First published in 1960 (London: Nelson), Stanley’s edition of the poem (based on the Caligula manuscript) contains a lively and thoughtful introduction, detailed explanatory notes, and a useful glossary.

  • Treharne, Elaine, ed. Old and Middle English, c. 890–c. 1400: An Anthology. Blackwell Anthologies. Oxford: Blackwell-Wiley, 2010.

    On pp. 468–505, Treharne provides a text of the whole of The Owl and the Nightingale (based on the Caligula manuscript), with marginal glosses and a brief introduction.

  • Wells, John Edwin, ed. The Owl and the Nightingale. Boston: Heath, 1907.

    Wells’s edition—a great advance on its 19th-century predecessors—has facing-page texts both of the Caligula and Jesus texts of the poem, together with interpretative notes and a glossary. His introduction includes a detailed description of the manuscripts, in which he drew attention to the two spelling systems in the Caligula manuscript (see Dialect and Orthography).

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