Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Mediaeval Debate Poetry

Until a few weeks ago I had never heard the term Medieval Debate Poetry, but as soon as I began to read and learn about it, I realised that this was similar to a genre that I had loved whilst studying Classical Greek and follows the broad principles laid down by Socrates. 

The Owl and the Nightingale.

Mediaeval Debate Poetry refers to a genre of poems popular in England and France during the late medieaval period.

In broad terms a debate poem is a dialogue between two natural opposites (e.g. sun and moon, dog and cat, winter and summer). Although the details can vary considerably, this is general definition of the literary form. The debates are necessarily highly emotionally charged, showing to maximum effect the contrasting values and personalities of the participants, and revealing their essentially opposite natures. On the surface, debate poems typically appear didactic - intended to teach, particularly when having moral instruction as an ulterior motive - but under this often lies a genuine dialogue between two equally paired opponents. At that time, a preoccupation with dichotomies in the known world was apparentt in nearly every type of literature, but only debate poetry was devoted entirely to the exploration of these dichotomies. The idea was that every thing – whether it be concrete, abstract, alive or inanimate – had a natural and logical opposite.The purpose of the debate poem, then, is to pit one of these things against its opposite.

Two well-known works in which the animals carry on intellectual debates are The Owl and the Nightingale (13th century), involving a dispute between two birds quarrelling over who is more useful to man, and Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls (circa 1382). In the former the argument is loud and vindictive, with the nightingale condescendingly insulting the owl for having a toneless and depressing singing voice; the owl defends her voice as warning and correcting men, and in turns threatens the nightingale. In Chaucer's shorter and more sentimental poem, a formel (a female eagle) has three suitors who submit their cases to an assembly of birds; the birds all have different agendas and cannot reach a decision, and 'Nature' must finally intervene by giving the formel the right to choose her own spouse. In the end the formel opts to delay being married to anyone for a year... (I don't blame her!)

Debate poems were also popular in Mesopotamian Sumerian-language literature and were part of the tradition of Arsacid and Sassanid Persian literature (third century BC - seventh century AD)and  continued in later medieval Islamic Persian literature, being taken up by European scholars and adapted to the audiences they commanded.
© Diana Milne October 2017

If you would like to read the Owl and the Nightingale in it's entirety, here is the link


  1. In medieval Scots poetry this debating is called flying in which poets hurl scurrilous abuse and insults at each other. The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, is the earliest surviving example of the Scottish version of the flyting genre in poetry. The genre takes the form of a contest, or "war of words" between two poets, each trying to outclass the other in vituperation and verbal pyrotechnics. It is not certain how the work was composed, but it is likely to have been publicly performed, probably in the style of a poetic joust by the two combatants, William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy, before the Court of James IV of Scotland.

  2. Hey Marie, it's an Anglo Saxon term, flyting was part of the symbe, feasting in the mead hall. There's a passage in Beowulf I believe that deals with this.

  3. Thanks Paula and Diana - flyting sounds a great excuse to insult your rivals under the cloak of 'art'!