My impression of the Owl and the Nightingale, a thirteenth-century Middle English debate poem, has significantly altered after having read Neil Cartlidge's excellent new edition, with parallel column translation and extensive scholarly apparatus. In graduate school (almost twenty years ago) I happened to have spent a good deal of time with the editions by J. W. H. Atkins (Cambridge, 1922) and Eric Stanley (London, 1960), and with the studies by Kathryn Huganir (Philadelphia, 1931) and Kathryn Hume (Toronto, 1975), among others. Rhetorical, topical, allegorical, and legal readings were the preoccupations of these critics. I was impressed both by the poem's learning and by its irreverent, brilliant, and very humorous treatment of standard medieval topoi: fate versus free will, the contemplative versus the active life, sexual morality of males versus females, and so on. I was also under the impression that the Owl and the Nightingale was sui generis, a solitary literary landmark written in a century otherwise almost bereft of linguistic and literary context.
The single greatest achievement of Cartlidge's new edition is to dispel my mistaken impression, which I daresay is held by medievalists like myself who encountered the poem in graduate surveys of Middle English poetry, that the poem is an odd, quirky piece, the goliardic counterpart to the sober, similarly isolated Ormulum. Cartlidge demonstrates in superlative fashion how many contexts, subtexts, analogues, and parallels of all kinds can be identified as he reconstructs the cultural world of the poet and puts the poem into the intellectual mainstream, both English and continental. Let me add that I am confident that a similar reconstruction can and is being done for the twelfth-century Ormulum. He does so by a thorough study of the poem's language in the best philological traditions, and by a review of the scholarship which is fully absorbed in two sets of notes, one explanatory and one textual and linguistic. The textual notes are often as explanatory as the first set, but separating them makes the material more manageable. I note from the extensive bibliography that Cartlidge's earliest publication on this poem was in 1996. Either he had been working on this edition beforehand, or he accomplished a tremendous amount of work in five years. It is gratifying and instructive to see that the cumulative labor of scholars over the years has made a difference in our understanding of the poem. Even so, it still takes a judicious and industrious critical mind to synthesize and apply the many different contributions.
Like most editors, Cartlidge chooses for his base text the Cotton manuscript (BL Cotton Caligula A.ix) instead of the only other surviving copy (Oxford, Jesus College MS 29, part II). This choice could be made clearer, especially on the first page of the text itself, and perhaps even in the table of abbreviations. Unfortunately, nowhere does Cartlidge supply the folia on which Owl appears in the Jesus manuscript, except to indicate in the caption to the plate which reproduces the first page of the poem (facing a plate of the first folium of Cotton) that it begins on 156 recto. Even the foliation for the Cotton manuscript needs to be extracted from the bracketed leaf numbers in the text itself. For whatever reason, Cartlidge has supplied little codicological data for the manuscripts, though of course that information is readily available elsewhere, notably in Neil Ker's 1963 facsimile in EETS os 251.
A concise and lucid introduction addresses provenance, dating, critical reception, and so on, as one would expect in any good edition. Throughout the introduction and notes, Cartlidge maintains a refreshing agnosticism with respect to many questions. For example, when addressing the dialect, he writes that "there is no means even to reconstruct a set of standards by which its dialect could be assessed, since language clearly changes over time as well as space" (xv). He has a low but to my mind correct opinion of "hygienically regular" (xli) reconstructions of Middle English texts. The manuscripts preserve a "linguistic heterogeneity" (xli) which should be as familiar to us as it was to its thirteenth-century readers. Cartlidge consistently downplays the contribution that formal rhetorical training may have made to the poem's composition, and he wisely avoids the fruitless debates over who Nicholas of Guildford (the man named as the judge of the debate, and the leading candidate as author) was, or over which fowl is meant to triumph. Likewise, he rejects nearly all topical readings and proposed allusions, but while I agree that they are likely to be irrecoverable, I do not think (as Cartlidge does at certain points) that they are ever "fictional or generic" (75, referring to the "King Henri" of line 1091). What Cartlidge says about the "author's deliberate and cleverly poised eclecticism" (xvii) applies in like manner to how Cartlidge balances editorial options without ever being dogmatic. If there is one critical approach with which Cartlidge aligns himself, it is to the one which sees in the poem a self-reflexive "commentary on its own substance," one that "highlight[s] the essentially paradoxical nature of fiction itself" (xix). Cartlidge calls this a "'Gothic' sensibility" (xxvi), a sensibility that readers of this list-serve know predates postmodernism by some years.
Cartlidge subscribes to many of the welcome editorial principles that mark recent editions of medieval texts. First, that scribes are not mindless drudges but knew more about the language than we often give them credit for, and that scribal practice itself--even when confusing--is often the best and only way to understand the "community of medieval responses to a text" (viii). Second, that medieval texts are best understood in their specific manuscript contexts. Even though the Owl and the Nightingale survives in only two manuscripts, both preserve and present a rich store of Anglo-Norman and English material, from the analogous Petit Plet to Lagamon's Brut. Cartlidge states the issue clearly: "The fact that so many critics have failed to locate the poem within a larger literary context is not indicative of the poem's cultural isolation, but of the relative neglect of Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Latin literature by twentieth-century scholars" (xxx). To this end, appendices A through J (skipping I) provide enlightening material from Ambrose, Walter Map, Jean de Meun, Marie de France, Chaucer, and many other anonymous and lesser known figures and works. The notes are compendious in their citation of verbal parallels, especially with regard to proverbial literature.
As I commented before, the first page of the poem itself could be more clear in indicating that the base text is Cotton, even though the rubric -- the first thing readers see -- is from Jesus. Interestingly, that rubric introduces an Altercacio inter filomenam & Bubonem -- translated by Cartlidge, understandably enough, as the "Debate between an Owl and a Nightingale" -- but non-Latinists will not detect the reversal. Cartlidge marks his textual emendations with underlining, but nowhere does he foreground for the reader the purpose of that typographic intervention. In making these criticisms I have in mind the undergraduate, the novice, or any first-time user -- however expert -- who, when turning to the first page of the poem (a likely move), wants to find out easily what is going on.
In the translation, Cartlidge has tried to be as "idiomatic and fluid" (166) as possible. It is accurate, and a welcome aid for anyone, especially novice readers of Middle English. A translation of anything is the easiest thing to criticize; even so what Cartlidge supplies falls a bit short in two respects. First, there is a tendency to choose the more technical, learned, or colloquial term (e.g. "mutant" for "Vnwight" [line 33]; "tick off" for "chide" [line 112]; "filed away" for "leide on hord" [line 467]; "vapour" for "breth" ; "delivering anathemas" for "kursest" [line 1178]. Second, the prose translation inevitably flattens the poem's delightful octosyllabic couplets. Teachers of the poem are enchanted and amused by the poetry, but, alas, our students will have a hard time recovering the lyricism. I hesitate in making these criticisms since the language of the poem is by no means transparent, and since I am not myself ready to offer anything remotely better, but I hope that the Owl and the Nightingale may soon find its Marie Borroff. In any event, Cartlidge's notes and excellent glossary are there to resolve semantic questions and quibbles.
A few minor points in a nearly flawless text:
PMLA is the "Publications of the Modern Language [not Languages] Association (xii).
A stray hyphen in note 9 on page xiv.
A missing word ("out") in the note to lines 1407-1408.
The edition of the Parliament of Fowls by Phillips and Havely is referenced (142) but does not appear in the bibliography (Helen Phillips and Nick Havely, Chaucer's Dream Poetry [Longman, 1997]).
The citation to the Riverside Chaucer appears at the bottom of page 142, and not under "Editions, Translations, and Facsimiles of Other Medieval Works."