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From Aesop to ReynardBeast Literature in Medieval Britain$
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Jill Mann

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199217687

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199217687.001.0001

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The Owl and the Nightingale

The Owl and the Nightingale

(p.149) 4 The Owl and the Nightingale
From Aesop to Reynard

Jill Mann

Oxford University Press

The redundancy of language is also a source of comedy in The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English debate‐poem which draws on an eclectic range of traditions—lyric, bestiary, fable, lai, as well as debate. The shifting invocations of these various literary modes comically unsettle the reader's sense of how each animal is to be judged, and the introduction of details of avian appearance and habits, alongside appeals to ‘Nature’ as the amoral determinant of each bird's characteristics, carries this unsettling process even further. The birds also use beast literature (Marie's lai of Laüstic, and one of her fables) as ‘evidence’ against each other, moralizing animal behaviour in sublime disregard of the mechanisms by which it is usually given moral implication for humans, but not for the animals themselves. This reversal of direction reaches its climax with the surprisingly serious reinterpretation in terms of Nature, rather than in terms of religious dogma.

Keywords:   The Owl and the Nightingale, debate, Nature, lyric, bestiary, Laüstic, beast fable

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