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The Owl and the Nightingale is one of the earliest substantial texts to be written in Middle English (the form that English took in the later medieval period). It is also one of the most charming. The poem describes a debate between two birds overheard by a narrator. The scenario is a humorous piece of avian mud-slinging as the birds quarrel, not always good-naturedly.
The anonymous work was written in the late 12th or early 13th century. It only survives in two manuscripts, one at the British Library and one at Jesus College in Oxford (Oxford, Jesus College MS 29). These manuscripts were not copied out by the author, but were probably produced by a scribe in a religious house; alternatively, they may have been produced for an aristocratic or gentry household, possibly in Worcestershire, in the West Midlands, where the poem was probably also composed. The manuscript appears to have been copied at some point between 1250 and 1300, and some research suggests that it was copied after 1275.
Both of the two manuscript copies share a number of texts in common, suggesting that they derived from the same source-manuscript, known as an exemplar. In the medieval period, manuscripts often contained several different texts, often unrelated to each other. You might find some medical recipes alongside some literary texts and works of philosophy. Nonetheless, some of the texts in this manuscript do share common themes. Several of the works warn against sin and emphasise the need to avoid damnation. The Anglo-Norman poem Petit Plet shares many of the themes of The Owl and the Nightingale. Like The Owl and the Nightingale it also takes the form of a debate, but one which is between an old man and a young man, rather than between two birds.
A key feature of this manuscript is that it contains texts in two languages: Middle English and Anglo-Norman, the language spoken by the Normans who had lived in England since the Norman Conquest of 1066. It shows how England in this period was multi-lingual, with Latin, Anglo-Norman and Middle English existing side-by-side and being used for different purposes. It is also important for historians of the English language because it contains an early form of Middle English dating from when the language had only recently made the transition from Old English.