‘Flyting’ is the convention of ritual insult which isa specific form of verbal aggression that involves the exchange of insults inthe manner of a duel.
The term comes from the Old English flitan, which is defined as ‘to contend and/or strive’ but also ‘tocontend in words, chide, wrangle’.1This form of insult has been documented in in Old English heroic poetry such asBeowulf and The Battle of Maldon, Old Norse writings and even medieval Latinpoetry. In more recent times, the practice of ‘flyting’ continues to berelevant as its occurrence has been studied and recorded in African AmericanVernacular English, where exchanging ritualized insults, which includespersonal insults by referring to an attribute of that person, is referred to as’sounding’ or ‘playing the dozens’.
2 ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ falls under the categoryof beast flytings and is the account of a debate between two birds that hasbeen witnessed by an anonymous narrator. The two protagonists, the Owl and theNightingale, engage in heated arguments over trivialities, such as theirimportance and way of life, and also cover other topics such as love, marriage,religion and politics. Due to the lack of a conclusion, many interpretations ofthe poem have been suggested. Some of these interpretations include thespeculation that Nicholas of Guildford, the figure whom the birds deemed themost suitable to arbitrate their dispute, is the author of the poem and that thework is a ‘witty piece of self-advertisement’3,while others view the poem as a text concerned with teaching debate within thegrammar school trivium.4 If these interpretations are made, it begs thequestion of how the style of the poem contributed to the purpose the text wasintended to serve and if there is any significance of the inclusion of ‘flyting’.How was including the use of ritual insults beneficial in helping Nicholas ofGuildford promote himself, or why would a detailed verbal sparring be used inmedieval education? This essay will explore how the style of ‘flyting’ in the poem was either usedas a tool to propagate personal agendas of the author or if it was used in anacademic setting.
Inthe length of the entire poem, the only thing the Owl and the Nightingale seemto agree on is that they will go and see the great Master Nicholas of Guildfordto pass judgement over their debate. They consider him as the most fitting arbiter ofthe dispute between them as he is ‘wise and careful with his words; verydiscerning in judgment’ and also ‘hates every kind of vice’.5The high esteem the birds have for ‘wise Master Nicholas’ is evident when they speakof his influence and how ‘by means of his words and deeds he makes thingsbetter as far as Scotland.’6In addition to this, the birds supply a large amount of information about him.The wren, when asked about the whereabouts of Nicholas of Guildford, reportsthat ‘He lives at Portesham, a village in Dorset next to the sea where there’san estuary.’.
7Due to the wealth of detailand the favourable stance the birds take on this figure, it could be possiblethat the assumed author, Nicholas of Guildford, wrote the poem in order topromote himself or perhaps the services he was providing. By using ritualinsults in the poem that pit the two birds against each other, it could bringacross the message that even though two individuals have such different viewson issues and detest each other so much, they can still agree that thisNicholas of Guildford personality is a ‘good man, who is talented in manyrespects.’.8However, there is noconclusive evidence of the existence of this Nicholas of Guildford figure,which leads to the possibility that the poem served instead as a recommendationfor the emerging legal profession. Whether the birds are regarded asallegorically opposite or represent certain individuals, the most strikingfeature of the poem is the bird’s antagonism. They both threaten violencemultiple times in the poem but it never materializes.
The way that the poemconstructs dispute while avoiding violence 1 “flite | flyte, v.” OED Online, Oxford UniversityPress, January 2018, www.oed.
com/view/Entry/71708. Accessed 18 January 2018.2 William Labov, ‘Rules for Ritual Insults’, in Language in the Inner City: Studies in theBlack English Vernacular (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press,1972), pp. 297-353 (pp. 306-307)3 NeilCartlidge, ‘NICHOLAS OF GUILDFORD AND “THE OWLAND THE NIGHTINGALE”‘, Medium Ævum, 79.1(2010), 14-24 (p. 14)4 Elaine Treharne, Old andMiddle English, c.
890-c.1450: An Anthology, 5 Neil Cartlidge,The owl and the nightingale : Text and translation (Exeter:University of Exeter Press, 2010), p. 6.6 NeilCartlidge,The owl and the nightingale :Text and translation (Exeter: University of Exeter Press,2010), p. 42.7 NeilCartlidge,The owl and the nightingale :Text and translation (Exeter: University of Exeter Press,2010), p. 42.
8 NeilCartlidge,The owl and the nightingale :Text and translation (Exeter: University of Exeter Press,2010), p. 43.