bird-brains engage in scholarly debate: The Owl and the Nightingale

withdrawn owl

The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem dating probably to about 1200, provides under-appreciated insight into the social positions of women and men. An owl and a nightingale throughout the poem debate widely their relative merits as birds. Both birds are “unanimous in their sympathy for women both inside and outside of marriage.” The birds are “extravagantly partisan” in support of women; they engage in “patent partisanship for women.”[1] Modern scholars of medieval literature have been united in praise for the The Owl and the Nightingale. But lacking the deep literary self-consciousness of medieval poets, modern scholars haven’t understood what they are praising.

The Owl and the Nightingale mocks shallow and pretentious scholarly thought about why men commit adultery. Regarding husbands’ sexual fidelity to their wives, the nightingale declared:

It seems to me quite stark and shocking
how any man, for any cause of behaving,
could turn his heart to the life
of doing it with another man’s wife.
For it’s either one of two things —
a claim for a third no man can bring.
Either her lord is very worthy,
or he’s feeble, and of all good empty.

{ Wundere me þungþ wel starc and stor,
Hu eni mon so eauar for,
Þat e his heorte mi3te driue
To do hit to oþers mannes wiue.
For oþer hit is of twam þinge,
Ne mai þat þridde no man bringe:
Oþar þe lauerd is wel aht,
Oþer aswunde, and nis naht. } [2]

That’s formally pretentious, yet utterly ridiculous reasoning. All men are fully human beings. All men potentially are very good men. In reality, not all men are either very good or very bad. Most men are somewhere in between. Most benefit from sympathetic support in their struggles to realize their inner goodness. Polarizing men’s persons demeans men’s potential.

Strong incentives for men to commit adultery can easily be recognized, yet are scarcely discussed. Some husbands have emotionally and physically abusive wives. Some husbands suffer within a sexless marriage. Moreover, sexless marriage is more prevalent in modern marriages in which wives feel no obligation to have sex with their husbands. In addition, long-standing, unjust, and absurd paternity and “child support” laws create huge financial incentives for men to have sex with married women who aren’t their own wives. Under the “four seas” common-law doctrine of legally imposed cuckolding, a woman’s husband, not her lover, is required to support financially any children that she produces through adultery. Reproductive choice is today a holy and sacrosanct principle, but only for women, to their own harm. Thus men seeking to avoid state-imposed, forced financial fatherhood have a strong incentive to commit adultery with married women. The nightingale, with her relatively intelligent bird brain, probably knew that.

The nightingale forthrightly recognized castration culture as controlling men’s sexuality. The nightingale explained:

No man with wisdom will seek to plan,
if the husband’s an honorable and worthy man,
in any way for his wife to do him shame.
For he himself should fear harm and blame,
and fear losing that which hangs below —
no longer able to join where his desires go.

{ 3ef he is wurþful and aht man,
nele no man, þat wisdom can
hure of is wiue do him schame,
For he mai him adrede grame,
An þat he forleose þat þer hongeþ,
Þat him eft þarto no3t ne longeþ }

According to the nightingale, an “honorable and worthy” husband would castrate an adulterer. That’s vicious sexual violence against a man. It’s also historically plausible. In contrast to dominant myths, punishment for adultery throughout history has been biased against men and harshly administered to men. Regardless of their personal circumstances, men not afraid of being castrated aren’t supported with excuses for committing adultery:

And though he not have such fear,
it is iniquity and folly dear,
to wrong a good man in his bed
and seduce the wife to whom he’s wed.

{ An þah he þat no3t ne adrede,
Hit is unri3t and gret sothede
To misdon one gode manne,
An his ibedde from him spanne. }

Seduction is socially constructed as a crime that men commit against women. The woman is innocent of having agency, and sex is the man’s fault.

Socially constructed sexual disgust also controls men’s sexuality. The nightingale illustrated the practice:

If her lord is physically unable,
with little to offer in bed and at table,
how might there be any love
when such a churl’s body has laid on hers from above?
How would any love there be nigh
when such a man is groping her thigh?

And if the lord is a wretch,
what pleasure from her could you fetch?
If you think about with whom she lies,
you might with disgust your pleasure buy.
I don’t know how any man of standing then
Could seek to visit her again.
If he thinks about in whose place he lay,
then all his love would go away.

{ 3ef hire lauerd is forwurde,
An unorne at bedde and at borde,
Hu mi3te þar beo eni luue
Wanne a swuch cheorles buc hire ley buue?
Hu mai þar eni luue beo
Þar swuch man gropeþ hire þeo?

An 3ef þe lauerd is a wercche,
Hwuch este mi3tistu þar uecche?
3if þu biþenchest hwo hire ofligge
Þu mi3t mid wlate þe este bugge.
Ich not hu mai eni freoman
For hire sechen after þan;
3ef he biþencþ bi hwan he lai
Al mai þe luue gan awai. }

Few men other than those with a cuckolding fetish enjoy imagining another man groping their beloved’s thigh and having sex with her. Men typically address this problem by disengaging their minds when seeking sex. Thus many structurally oppressed men throughout history have possessed the capability of resorting to female prostitutes. While, if feasible, most men would prefer to marry a debt-free virgin without tattoos, men personally are able to adjust to the reality of the women available to them.

Socially constructed sexual disgust controls men through status attacks on men. Men, for good evolutionary reasons, care about their social status relative to other men. The nightingale implicitly asserted that a man’s status depends on the status of all men who had sex with a woman with whom he’s having sex. That’s not necessarily so. The sexual status-shaming of men depends upon social acceptance of the status claims intended for that work. Under gynocentrism, society accepts those status claims and relatively strictly controls men’s sexuality.

Gynocentric society readily justifies women committing adultery. As always, sex is men’s fault:

A young girl knows not what such is,
her young blood leads her amiss;
and some foolish man entices her to it
by all the means that he might intuit.
He comes and goes, demanding and begging,
and stands next to her, then by her sitting,
yearning for her often and for long.
What can the child do other than go wrong?
She didn’t understand what it was
and therefore thought to try what a woman does,
and to know indeed what be the game
that makes such a wild creature tame.

{ An 3unling not hwat swuch þing is,
His 3unge blod hit dra3eþ amis,
An sum sot mon hit tihþ þarto
Mid alle þan þat he mai do:
He comeþ and fareþ and beod and bid,
An heo bistant and ouersid,
An hi sehþ ilome and longe.
Hwat mai þat chil þah hit misfonge?
Hit nuste neauer hwat hit was,
Forþi hit þohte fondi þas,
An wite iwis hwuch beo þe gome
Þat of so wilde makeþ tome. }

In gynocentric literature, men have been figured sexually as dogs, pigs, hawks, and wolves, among other wild creatures. Men’s very genitals are commonly likened to lethal weapons.[3] Women, in contrast, are imagined to tame, civilize, and ennoble men. Women at the same time are absolved of sexual responsibility as if they were children.

The “patent partisanship for women” in The Owl and the Nightingale provides a comic burlesque of gynocentric society. Modern scholars deeply invested in gynocentrism have failed to understand it. One concluded:

the poet makes us highly aware, not only of the importance of the marital system for women, but also of its inadequacies — and in particular, of the potential dire consequences for women whom marriage did not protect. [4]

Did marriage protect men? What explains the reality of family law today? Even now with gender equality being professed as having utmost importance, almost no one cares about men. About the year 1200, The Owl and the Nightingale laughed poetically at that fundamental injustice.

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[1] Cartlidge (1997) pp. 162, 177, 199. Cartlidge argues that the poem may date to as late as the 1270s. Id. p. 160. But see Millet (2003), note to l. 729. An influential review of early Middle English literature declared, “all students of mediæval literature … have united in praise of The Owl and the Nightingale.” Wilson (1968) p. 149, quoted in Cartlidge (1997) p. 160.

The Owl and the Nightingale has survived in two manuscripts: London, British Library, MS Cotton Caligula A.ix (C), ff. 233ra-246ra, and Oxford, Jesus College MS 29 (J), ff. 156ra-168vb. Both of these manuscripts apparently date to the second half of the thirteenth century. The Owl and the Nightingale is “one of the earliest substantial texts to be written in Middle English.”

The Owl and Nightingale has probably attracted more scholarly attention than any other Middle English text outside of Chaucer’s works. Scholars have not, however, considered The Owl and Nightingale with respect to men’s gender-distinctive challenges. While The Owl and the Nightingale directly addresses the beastialization of men’s sexuality and castration culture, scholars have largely ignored those significant aspects of the poem.

[2] The Owl and the Nightingale, ll. 1473-80, Middle English text from Stanley (1972), my English translation with help from the translations of Eggers (1955), Gardner (1971), Cartlidge (2001), and Millett (2003). The Middle English text of Atkins (1922) is also freely available online. Subsequent quotes above from The Owl and the Nightingale are similarly sourced. They are (cited by line number in Stanley’s text): 1481-6, No man with wisdom…; 1487-90, And though he not have such fear…; 1491-6, 1503-10, If her lord is physically unable…; 1433-44, A young girl knows not what such is….

[3] In The Owl and the Nightingale, the owl describes men’s sexual passion using the beastly figure of stinging. Yet her description shows some sympathy for the sexual madness that men suffer:

In summer peasant men go mad
cramping and contorting themselves more than a tad,
yet to love this is not due,
but to the mad rush that runs him through.
For when his deed he has done,
all his boldness is lost and gone.
Once he has stung under her gown,
his love lasts no longer and goes down.

{ A sumere chorles awedeþ
And uorcrempeþ and uorbredeþ.
Hit nis for luue noþeles,
Ac is þe chorles wode res;
Vor wane he haueþ ido his dede
Ifallen is al his boldhede;
Habbe he istunge under gore
Ne last his luue no leng more. }

ll. 509-16. Cartlidge commented, “The Owl’s perspective is implicitly gendered — it is male sexuality which she finds so offensive.” Cartlidge (2001) p. 60, explanatory notes to 509-16. That comment seems to me to miss the poem’s critical perspective on demonizing men for their sexuality.

[4] Cartlidge (1997) p. 199. Cartlidge also invokes the antimeninist cliché of the “silence of women.” Id. p. 198. Even medieval peasants would have guffawed in contempt for modern scholarly claims about the silence of women. Gardner at least recognized generally that The Owl and the Nightingale is a “comic burlesque.” Gardner (1971) p. 267.

[image] Owl withdrawn into tree. Excerpt from an image provided under a CCO Public Domain license by Max Pixel.


Atkins, J. W. H, ed. 1922. The Owl and the Nightingale: edited with introduction, texts, notes. Cambridge: University Press.

Cartlidge, Neil. 1997. Medieval marriage: literary approaches, 1100-1300. Cambridge, England: D.S. Brewer.

Cartlidge, Neil, ed. and trans. 2001. The owl and the nightingale: text and translation. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Eggers, Graydon, trans. 1955. The Owl and the Nightingale. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Gardner, John. 1971. The Alliterative Morte Arthure: The Owl and the Nightingale:  and Five Other Middle English Poems in a Modernized Version with Comments on the Poems and Notes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Millett, Bella, trans. 2003. “The Owl and the Nightingale: Text and Translation.” Wessex Parallel WebTexts (freely available online).

Stanley, Eric Gerald, ed. 1972 (new edition; originally published 1960). The Owl and the Nightingale. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Wilson, R. M. 1968 (3rd edition; first published in 1939). Early Middle English Literature. London: Methuen & Co.

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