Tag Archives: Owl and the Nightingale

Against Hate: Why the study of medieval literature is vitally important

All of this controversy going on in Indiana with Mike Pence and the Religious Freedom bill has reminded me yet again that social justice is not something that we can (or should) separate from anything else we do as academics or human beings. Even when it seems like we are in the “bubble” of academia, not paying much attention to anything that has happened since 1500, we are reminded that some of us are not safe or welcome inside the bubble, and could be told to leave without fear of legal repercussions at any time. While the likelihood of me losing my brilliant colleagues in a mass discriminatory firing is probably pretty low, the fact that it is legal in the state that has otherwise been a great home to me makes me angry, as I know it does many others. It reminds me that the work we do is situated in a cultural environment that is exerting pressure and affecting our perceptions and those of our students all the time. As literary scholars, people who devote our lives to studying the expression of thought and feeling in the midst of cultural and historical forces, it is our duty to take an interest in our own historical moment, and show our students that there is nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about the kind of attitudes that cause social injustices today.

In the midst of this anger, I have been asked to talk about why it is important to study Old English literature in my oral exams. Within the academy, it is easy enough to forget that the value of studying medieval literature is not self-evident. Students might find it esoteric and irrelevant to contemporary concerns, or feel that learning a dead language in order to read a bit of poetry is not worth the effort. Even worse are the people out there who do want to learn and study Old English, but for a terrifying reason. They celebrate Anglo-Saxon England as a time and a place where white heterosexual men were completely in charge, and any difference either did not exist or was not given any value within the heroic society. These people are out there on the internet, making comments on YouTube videos under Anglo-Saxon usernames.

Though we had mentioned this unpleasant element in passing during some of my Old English literature classes, I had not thought much about them other than feeling saddened by the fact that the literature that I spend my life studying was being made ugly by a group of people who wanted something that could use as rallying point for ignorance. Later, when I was reading the Early Middle English Owl and the Nightingale for the first time, I encountered it personally. The delightful Owl and the Nightingale contains elements of ‘flyting,’ a literary insult contest especially popular in medieval Scottish poetry in which the combatants use particularly creative and humorous language and imagery to hurl abuse at each other. The result is remarkably similar to a modern-day rap battle, and I decided to browse the internet for comparisons between the Owl and the Nightingale and rap battles, thinking that someone out there must have written a blog post about it, or made a funny video as part of a class project. What I found were the comments on this video, which implies that the predominantly African American genre is a poorer derivative of the work of earlier white artists. The comments section goes the extra mile by making this attitude explicit with a great deal of hate and racial slurs. I was crushed – I had been hoping to find some creative responses to the ways in which these two genres celebrate a similar impulse to engage in verbal combat in culturally specific ways, and what I found was sickening.

If the internet white supremacists simply kept to themselves and did not inflict their hate on the rest of us, it would be one thing. The nature of internet hate, however, means that it exists to spread itself around. Whether it is people like me who are just trying to study the Owl and the Nightingale or someone who wants to catch up on clips of the episode of Vikings that they missed, anyone who engages with Anglo-Saxon or other medieval literature on the internet is going to encounter it sooner or later. This is the environment our students are probably exposed to before they ever learn about medieval literature in an academic setting. They may already have an association between people who are interested in Anglo-Saxon England and hate, which saddening and disappointing if this turns them off, and so much worse if it encourages them.

It is up to us, then, to do something about it. As the people who study and teach Old English literature with an eye to the humanity of both the Anglo-Saxons and people of 2015, it is our job to show our students and everyone else that to study literature is to build bridges of understanding between ourselves and others, not to promote hate of any kind. This is not to say that everything was sunshine and roses in Anglo-Saxon England – the experiences of women, people who loved others of the same sex, religious minorities, people with disabilities and many others show that there was plenty of hate in medieval Europe. There are also, however, ways in which we can uncover the voices of these people and share the humanity of their experiences. In addition, we can historicize the negative responses of medieval people and show how they were different than those of contemporary people. This may seem like little consolation, but it helps us understand that people do not hate each other for ‘obvious’ reasons that remain constant across different periods.

Instead of focusing on hate, we can also highlight the things that we love about medieval literature, and celebrate the excellent medievalists out there on the internet who are combatting hate. We can look at things like People of Color in European Art History, a Tumblr shows that there were plenty of people of colour in medieval Europe, and examines the ways they were represented in Art. We can read the many volumes of good work published by scholars who aim to explore the concept of same-sex desire in the medieval period, starting with John Boswell and continued by people like Carolyn Dinshaw, Allen J. Frantzen, Michael Camille, and many others today. We can also just read the literature itself with an eye to the experiences of those who are underrepresented, and show our students that we can find these people if we look for them. In Old English literature, we can hear the voices of women as an oppressed class in The Wife’s Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer, and listen to a man who cares about and identifies with a victim of rape in Deor. We can read accounts of people who were not content to conform to their prescribed gender identity in the Lives of Saint Eugenia and Saint Euphrosyne, and see scribes who reinforce their gender non-conformity by using pronouns that match their performed gender instead of their biological one. We can show our students that when we celebrate and respect the culture of medieval Europe through its literature, we do so with an understanding of the more problematic elements and the people that were hurt by them, and that we can transfer our skills in understanding others to our engagement with other people today.

So, when it seems like our work on medieval England has very little to do with the hate and discrimination that we encounter in our twenty-first century lives, it’s important to remember that they are still intimately connected. Hateful attitudes infringe on the study of medieval literature, but we also have an opportunity to combat that hate through our research and teaching. Civic and political engagement are important ways to have a tangible effect on the legal aspect of our society, but we can still have an impact on people’s attitudes by doing what we do best: studying Old English literature.

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The Hooting of the Divine: Free Will and Predestination in the [Owl and the Nightingale] and the [Consolation of Philosophy]

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.

Works Cited:

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.

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