One particular poem that I have been reading slowly and carefully for my candidacy exams is the early Middle English Owl and the Nightingale. The poem, which is usually dated around the late twelfth of early thirteenth century, is a classic example of the surprisingly popular medieval genre of allegorical bird debates. In this work, there is an exchange of insults between a dour owl and a fiery nightingale, who argue about which one of them is of greater benefit to humanity. Some of their arguments fall into the realm of very low humour – the nightingale accuses owlets of “fouling … up” (96) their own nests, and the owl admonishes the nightingale for hanging around human latrines (588).
Other sections of their argument, however, are drawn into much loftier matters. After the nightingale accuses the owl of being more useful as a corpse to scare crows away than when she is alive, she takes a more spiritual turn in portraying the owl as an augury of misfortune. She says that humans are justified in hating owls for always being the harbingers of sorrow. The owl takes great exception to this, but not because it is false. She confirms that she has foreknowledge of human fortunes and that she is often blamed for them, but that it is grossly unfair that she is assigned responsibility for them. She defends herself in a speech that I have translated below:
If anyone is to fall into misfortune,
Why should he blame his sorrow on me?
Even though I saw his harm before,
It does not follow that it came from me.
If you see a blind man,
Who does not know any right way,
Whose path is heading for a ditch,
And he falls, and gets dirty,
Do you believe, if I saw it all,
That it would come about sooner because of me?
So it goes with respect to my knowledge:
When I sit on my bough,
I know and I see very clearly,
And some men come to harm right there,
Shall he, that knows nothing of this,
Blame it on me, because I know about it?
Shall he blame his mishap on me
Because I am wiser than he?
When I see that some wretch
Is near harm, I cry a great deal,
And ask greatly that he shield himself,
Because strong harm is coming toward him.
And though I cry loud and soft
It all comes to pass through God’s will.
Why do people want to complain about me,
Even though I inform them with truth?
Even if I warn them for a year,
Harm is not therefore nearer to them:
I sing to them, because I wish
That they should understand well
That something bad is close by to them,
When I send my hooting to them. (1233-1264)
[Þat eni man beo falle in odwite,
Wi schal he me his sor atwite?
Þah ich iseo his harm biuore,
Ne comeþ hit noȝt of me þaruore.
Þah þu iseo þat sum blind mon,
Þat nanne rihtne wei ne con,
To þare diche his dweole fulied,
An falleþ, and þarone sulied
Wenest þu, þah ich al iseo,
Þat hit for me þe raþere beo?
Alswo hit fareþ bi mine witte:
Hwanne ich on mine bowe sitte,
Ich wot & iseo swiþe brihte
An summe men kumed harm þarrihte,
Schal he, þat þerof no þing not,
Hit wite me, for ich hit wot?
Schal he his mishap wite me
For ich am wisure þane he?
Hwanne ich iseo þat sum wrechede
Is manne neh, inoh ich grede,
An bidde inoh þat hi heom schilde,
For toward heom is [harm vnmilde].
Ah þah ich grede lude an stille
Al hit itid þurþ Godes wille.
Hwi wulleþ men of me hi mene,
Þah ich mid soþe heo awene?
Þah ich hi warni al þat ȝer,
Nis heom þerfore harem no þe ner:
Ah ich heom singe, for ich wolde
Þat hi wel understonde schulde
Þat sum unselþe heom is ihende,
Hwan ich min huing to heom sende.]
As A.C. Cawley and others have noted, this passage echoes Book 5 of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, in which the speaker is particularly worried about the relationship between Divine foreknowledge and free will. The Consolation of Philosophy is a meditation in the form of a dialogue between a central speaker, ostensibly a persona of Boethius himself, who is imprisoned and about to be executed, and a personified figure of Philosophy. He is made ill by his sorrows, and the allegorical figure of Lady Philosophy comes to him in order to offer a remedy for his despair. In the first book, she assesses the extent of his despair and the depth of his current knowledge. She concludes that all is not lost, but he still has a long way to go towards the truth of Providence and the attainment of happiness. In the second book, the two discuss the nature of Fortune, and provide the earliest literary depiction of the Wheel of Fortune. Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius that it is in the nature of Fortune to be constantly fickle, which sounds like something of an oxymoron, and that people should be grateful for what they have. She also notes that more possessions and worldly honours are fleeting, so they are not worth much anyway. Having warmed up her interlocuter with secular examples, she is ready to turn towards his Christian education.
In the third book, Lady Philosophy turns to the attainment of the ultimate Good, which she equates with God. She argues that all of the things that seem like happiness on earth end up bringing about more harm than good. The only way to achieve the highest good is to aspire to Blessedness, which is oneness with God. The communion of all things with God subsequently guarantees that all things are ruled by Providence – if God is in everything, than everything is governed by God’s will. In the fourth book, the conversation interrogates the problem of justice and evil men. They agree that evil men are ultimately to be pitied, because they will end up with a much worse fate than those who meet with misfortune on earth, and are not even worth a thought from men who are pointed towards blessedness. When it is time for the fifth and final book of the dialogue, Boethius is troubled by the problem of free will: if God knows about everything before it happens, then how do humans maintain free will? This is especially troubling in light of their recent conversation about evil men. If people have no choice but to act in a preordained manner, then where is the justice in God punishing the wicked? If God knows about bad things before they happen, then why doesn’t Providence stop them from happening?
This is the theological point that also seems to be troubling the bird debaters. Though the nightingale is surely not attributing any divinity to the owl, she is still suspicious of her supernatural foreknowledge. Just as the Boethius character feels cheated by an omniscient God that allows for evil deeds and punishes them anyway, the nightingale sees the owl’s foreknowledge of human misfortunes as a kind of betrayal. In the passage excerpted above, the owl is forced to take on the role of Lady Philosophy and explain that there is no correlation between foreknowledge of human events and the events themselves. Her example of the blind man is somewhat comical counterproductive in the first instance – a reasonable person would indeed blame a bystander who did nothing to stop a blind man from falling into a ditch. She is, however, echoing Lady Philosophy, who asks and answers a similar question: “When you see something happening in the present, your gaze doesn’t convey any necessity upon the object, does it? No.” (Book 5, Prosa 6). In other words, the observation of an event has no influence on its outcome. While twentieth-century physicists might take issue with this notion in certain contexts, it is true enough for both Lady Philosophy and the owl.
The owl rescues her example of the blind man in the second part of her argument, in which she reveals that she does her best to do something about the blind man falling into the ditch by warning humans. Unfortunately, however, they are unable to understand her “huing” (1264), a fact she does not seem to quite realize. She doesn’t know why humans never take heed of her warnings, and must go on to do her best to avert all of the misfortune she sees coming. Her misunderstood hooting also echoes Boethius, when his speaker skeptically asks how one might distinguish the mysterious Divine Plan from random chance. Lady Philosophy counters his skepticism by saying that “just because you don’t know the reasons for such arrangements, you shouldn’t doubt that everything is done rightly, since a good ruler governs the world” (130). The fact that humans do not always understand the signs, for Boethius and the Owl and the Nightingale poet, does not guarantee that God does not exist, but only the lack of human capacity for understanding.
Both the Consolation of Philosophy and the Owl and the Nightingale are cut off before they come to satisfactory endings. The bird debate comes to a stalemate, and the contestants fly off to seek out the wise judgement of a man named Nicholas of Guildford. The Consolation of Philosophy ends with a kind of peaceful acceptance, but we do not learn the fate of the unfortunate prisoner. It is not necessary, however, for any of the characters to experience the actual events that God knows about in advance. It is sufficient for them to make peace with the fact that God’s knowledge of future events does prevent them from exercising their free will to its fullest extent, and that God has their best interest at heart when these events do unfold. They must simply go forth and do their best to listen to the hooting of the Divine.
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Scott Goins and Barbara H Wyman. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012.
Cawley, A. C. “Astrology in ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’.” Modern Language Review (1951): 161-174.
Stanley, Eric Gerald, ed. The Owl and the Nightingale. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1964.