A 12th-century version of a twitter spat: The Owl and the Nightingale. Image courtesy of Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Medieval twittering: Simon Armitage’s enticing translation of a Middle English poem

Two arguing birds reveal a lighter side to the middle ages
October 31, 2021
The Owl and the Nightingale
Simon Armitage
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A Vertical Art: Oxford Lectures
Simon Armitage
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Not many people call something “medieval” as a compliment. Scholars might deploy the term innocently to describe the period of European history between (roughly) the 5th and 15th centuries but, in popular discourse, it comes with a snarl. My thesaurus pairs it with “primitive,” “unenlightened” and “barbaric.” Even a quarter of a century after he first growled the threat, Marsellus Wallace’s promise, in the film Pulp Fiction, to “get medieval on your ass” still captures the era’s apparently limitless capacity for cruelty. 

This is an Anglophone and especially a Protestant thing. Protestantism has always needed to fortify its credentials by showing how corrupt the medieval period was. Its Enlightenment successors may know nothing of the theology but happily inherit the same prejudices: for modern secular people, medieval means backward.

This is changing. Barring Steven Pinker and a few fellow travellers, the presumption of moral or even intellectual progress seems increasingly shaky. People are becoming more aware of how sophisticated medieval thought was. In the world of political and legal theory, Brian Tierney, Harold Berman and Larry Siedentop have in their different ways demonstrated how much modernity owes to medieval ideas of natural law, rights, justice and representation. Historians Edward Grant, James Hannam and Seb Falk have shown that the phrase “medieval science” is not the contradiction in terms it once seemed. 

Meanwhile, the last 20 years have likewise seen a cascade of medieval literary translations. In truth, Beowulf has never gone out of fashion but since Seamus Heaney’s brilliant rendition of the Anglo-Saxon epic won the Whitbread Prize in 1999, it has steadily become clear that medieval poetry is not simply a museum piece but alive, acute and comparable to the best contemporary literature.

Heaney went on to translate Robert Henryson’s Middle Scottish Testament of Cresseid, Matthew Francis the anonymous Middle Welsh The Mabinogi while Bernard O’Donoghue is working on the Middle English Piers Plowman. But it is the current poet laureate, Simon Armitage, who has done the most to bring medieval poetry to contemporary audiences. Armitage has rendered into modern English Pearl (a moving poem about the loss of a child), Thomas Malory’s The Death of King Arthur and, most successfully, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Gawain is action-packed—a ghost story, a thriller, a romance, an adventure story and a morality tale, as Armitage has described it. Perhaps not surprisingly—as he recalls in A Vertical Art, which collects his lectures from his time as Oxford professor of poetry between 2015 and 2019—some Hollywood execs (thinking he was the author of the poem) asked him if he was interested in bringing it to the big screen. In spite of its many dramatic qualities, he told them “it would make a really terrible film.” (What, I wonder, does Armitage make of The Green Knight, a new big-screen adaptation starring Dev Patel as Gawain?)

Armitage’s latest medieval offering is unlikely to attract Hollywood scouts and yet, in its own eccentric way, it is every bit as enticing as Gawain. Few people will have heard of The Owl and the Nightingale and fewer will have read it, but it is arguably the greatest early Middle English poem we have, and quite unlike most people’s idea of what a medieval poem should be.

Nobody knows who wrote it or indeed when, where or why. The best guess is that it was composed in the 1190s, though it could be as late as the 1270s. The dialect points to southern England, but could stretch to the west Midlands. The author has historically been taken to be “Master Nicholas of Guildford,” who is mentioned in the poem, but there is some reason to doubt that. And the reason it was written? Well, that depends on how seriously you take the whole thing. 

The Owl and the Nightingale is what Armitage calls “a medieval slanging match” or—better—a 12th-century Twitter-spat. The plot is simple. The narrator finds himself in a “suþe diele hale”—“a peaceful and secluded dale” in Armitage’s rendering—on a summer’s day, when he overhears the birds arguing. Swollen with anger, they hurl abuse at one another, “taking turns to slate and curse,” homing in on each other’s faults and flaws in a relentless stream of sarcasm and abuse, which sometimes veers towards reconciliation and at others towards violence. The Owl is dour—and, well, owlish—and the Nightingale flighty and amorous, and the two birds, epitomising these recognisably human characteristics, compare and compete with each other vigorously.

“It has steadily become clear that medieval poetry is not simply a museum piece”

Animal debates were common in Middle English literature—indeed, they were part of students’ training in both rhetoric and disputation—and that’s why critics have often taken The Owl and the Nightingale as an extended plea for ecclesiastical advancement. The author was determined to show how learned, witty and worthy of episcopal attention he was. 

The birds begin their debate criticising each other’s song, appearance, nest and habits. The argument spirals towards bloodshed, as the Owl tries to entice her opponent into the open, until—like in any good Twitter fight—one speaker proposes that they “start afresh, & this time act/with greater courtesy & tact.” The peace doesn’t last, of course, but in the lull, the two agree to let one Master Nicholas—long presumed to be author of the poem, writing himself into the action—arbitrate between them. “He’s skilled with words and worldly wise/& frowns on every form of vice,” the Owl says. Their prospective judge, we are told, now dwells in Portesham in Dorset, living a life of undeserved neglect.

So far, the poem appears to be an unusually witty plea for professional attention. The talented Master Nicholas of Guildford has been left to rot in Dorset, but if the reader will only see how clever he is, the cleric may finally be rewarded with the ecclesiastical promotion he deserves. However, in a nice turn of hand, Armitage substitutes his own name for Master Nicholas’s. “The person who should arbitrate/Is Master Simon Armitage/…He thrives at telling wrong from right/& knows the darkness from the light.” In the process, he hints at how strange a plea the poem would be. 

As Eric Stanley remarked in an edition of the poem produced 60 years ago, it is hardly likely Master Nicholas of Guildford (whoever he was) intended the poem to be a serious plea for preferment. Even assuming eminent ecclesiastics were going to be impressed by 1,800 lines of avian abuse, the poem is simply too barefaced and, on occasion, accusatory to be taken at face value. Those wealthy bishops should be ashamed for “not giving him [ie Master Nicholas/Master Simon] his just reward,” the Owl complains. After all, they pay wages to family members and “splash/substantial sums on [their] little brats.” If The Owl and the Nightingale was a bid for advancement, it is one of the oddest ever written.

This leaves the poem in a strange liminal space, between the serious—the exercise is clearly more than a conventional medieval lesson in rhetoric—and the frankly silly. The relentless to-and-fro of insults gives the poem a great energy, aided by the metre of regular, octosyllabic four-stress lines arranged in rhyming couplets. The Owl and the Nightingale was, above all, intended to be fun. 

Such banter is not necessarily what one would expect from early Middle English verse. If indeed the poem was written in the 1190s, it comes from an age in which English poetry was a rarity: anything worth writing, let alone preserving, usually came in Latin or Norman French. The only comparably important English poem of the time, Layamon’s Brut, is 16,000 lines of narrative history and while it is many things, it is not fun. The Owl and the Nightingale is seriously witty, hovering between verbal slapstick and pious sincerity.

Armitage’s translation captures the badinage well. He renders the poem’s rhythm faithfully, with plenty of punchy monosyllables that convey the unrelenting tempo of abuse—“you drone your dirge from dusk till dawn”—or hover just short of the ribald: “your song comes to a sudden stop/& on your perch your bolt is shot.” At times, the verse imitates the insults. The Owl says the Nightingale’s voice “pipes like tinny reed/sliced from a thin unripened weed.” The Nightingale responds that the Owl “croon[s]/a miserable and gloomy tune.” At others, it veers towards an earnestness that peeks from under the chirpy rhyme and rhythm. 

This is especially so in the poem’s final quarter, where the debate moves towards the question of love and marriage and the birds comment on human affairs. The Owl accuses the Nightingale of tempting illicit love with her song (both birds are, conventionally, female), to which the Nightingale responds with what at first seems like a typical defence: “If love proves women pliable/in no way am I liable.” 

But what might rest as a familiar misogynistic refrain here instead develops into something more interesting. Though women are judged to have frail flesh, it is men whose drunken, lecherous, idle, spiteful, envious ways lead them astray. “I am both sickened & amazed,” the Nightingale sings, “that men, at times are so depraved/they have the nerve to go to bed/with someone else’s wife instead.” If women commit adultery, it is because they have been “stifled… by lock & key.” Anyone who will “whine & whinge” at such women’s “revenge” is cursed. And anyone who “slander[s]/a woman’s lowly hankerings” in fact “commits the greater sin of pride.” It’s not quite #MeToo but, for the late 12th century, it’s not bad.

It’s unclear how seriously the poet intended these arguments to be taken. Ingenious critics have claimed that Master Nicholas had been overlooked for preferment because of his own amorous misdemeanours, and the poem was his self-defence. Conceivably. But it’s pretty much irrelevant to our enjoyment. 

Armitage writes in his Oxford lectures about how “poetry’s core subjects tend to remain the same” and how, for example, Gawain learns lessons—like to err is human and to be born is to be a hypocrite—that we are still grappling with today. The Owl and the Nightingale teaches—though that is too serious a word—similarly recognisable lessons. 

“The birds begin their debate criticising each other’s song, appearance, nest and habits. It spirals towards bloodshed”

Ultimately, just as the poem hovers between the puerile and the profound, it also hovers between its two protagonists. Neither obviously wins, and the reader never learns of Master Nicholas’s judgment. Instead, we are left with an intense but fleeting debate, in which two familiar human characteristics are exposed. The Owl (like us) is solemn, sincere, wise and weighty—or, according to her opponent, a woeful, self-pitying, curmudgeonly pessimist. The Nightingale (also like us) is joyous, cheerful, passionate, vibrant—or, by the Owl’s reckoning, a cheap, chirping, meaningless triviality. 

The reader is left to flit between the two, drawn to one first and then the other and left, ultimately, without resolution. Even if not a plausible plea for preferment, simply as an elaborate act of talented whimsy it hints at the contentious and unresolved nature of human existence that is not in the least bit “medieval”—at least in the popular sense of that word.