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‘Flyting’ is the convention of ritual insult which is
a specific form of verbal aggression that involves the exchange of insults in
the manner of a duel. The term comes from the Old English flitan, which is defined as ‘to contend and/or strive’ but also ‘to
contend in words, chide, wrangle’.1
This form of insult has been documented in in Old English heroic poetry such as
Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon, Old Norse writings and even medieval Latin
poetry. In more recent times, the practice of ‘flyting’ continues to be
relevant as its occurrence has been studied and recorded in African American
Vernacular English, where exchanging ritualized insults, which includes
personal 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 category
of beast flytings and is the account of a debate between two birds that has
been witnessed by an anonymous narrator. The two protagonists, the Owl and the
Nightingale, engage in heated arguments over trivialities, such as their
importance 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 of
the poem have been suggested. Some of these interpretations include the
speculation that Nicholas of Guildford, the figure whom the birds deemed the
most suitable to arbitrate their dispute, is the author of the poem and that the
work is a ‘witty piece of self-advertisement’3,
while others view the poem as a text concerned with teaching debate within the
grammar school trivium.4


If these interpretations are made, it begs the
question of how the style of the poem contributed to the purpose the text was
intended 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 of
Guildford promote himself, or why would a detailed verbal sparring be used in
medieval education? This essay will explore how the style of ‘flyting’ in the poem was either used
as a tool to propagate personal agendas of the author or if it was used in an
academic setting.


the length of the entire poem, the only thing the Owl and the Nightingale seem
to agree on is that they will go and see the great Master Nicholas of Guildford
to pass judgement over their debate. They consider him as the most fitting arbiter of
the dispute between them as he is ‘wise and careful with his words; very
discerning in judgment’ and also ‘hates every kind of vice’.5
The high esteem the birds have for ‘wise Master Nicholas’ is evident when they speak
of his influence and how ‘by means of his words and deeds he makes things
better as far as Scotland.’6
In addition to this, the birds supply a large amount of information about him.

The wren, when asked about the whereabouts of Nicholas of Guildford, reports
that ‘He lives at Portesham, a village in Dorset next to the sea where there’s
an estuary.’.7

Due to the wealth of detail
and the favourable stance the birds take on this figure, it could be possible
that the assumed author, Nicholas of Guildford, wrote the poem in order to
promote himself or perhaps the services he was providing. By using ritual
insults in the poem that pit the two birds against each other, it could bring
across the message that even though two individuals have such different views
on issues and detest each other so much, they can still agree that this
Nicholas of Guildford personality is a ‘good man, who is talented in many

However, there is no
conclusive evidence of the existence of this Nicholas of Guildford figure,
which leads to the possibility that the poem served instead as a recommendation
for the emerging legal profession. Whether the birds are regarded as
allegorically opposite or represent certain individuals, the most striking
feature of the poem is the bird’s antagonism. They both threaten violence
multiple times in the poem but it never materializes. The way that the poem
constructs dispute while avoiding violence

1 “flite | flyte, v.” OED Online, Oxford University
Press, January 2018, Accessed 18 January 2018.

2 William Labov, ‘Rules for Ritual Insults’, in Language in the Inner City: Studies in the
Black English Vernacular (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press,
1972), pp. 297-353 (pp. 306-307)

3 Neil
AND THE NIGHTINGALE”‘, Medium Ævum, 79.1(2010), 14-24 (p. 14)

4 Elaine Treharne, Old and
Middle 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 Neil
Cartlidge,The owl and the nightingale :
Text and translation (Exeter: University of Exeter Press,
2010), p. 42.

7 Neil
Cartlidge,The owl and the nightingale :
Text and translation (Exeter: University of Exeter Press,
2010), p. 42.

8 Neil
Cartlidge,The owl and the nightingale :
Text and translation (Exeter: University of Exeter Press,
2010), p. 43.

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