The Chaucer Review: An Indexed Bibliography (Vols. 1-30)Return to the Subject List
Potkay, Monica Brzezinski. "Natural Law in The Owl and the Nightingale." 28 (1994): 368-83.
In the Owl and the Nightingale the legal system that the birds use is natural law, not ecclesiastical or court law. Natural law, however, is never explicitly defined in the poem. In fact the poet raises questions about natural law at the center of twelfth- and thirteenth-century debates. The greatest difficulty with natural law is succinctly expressed in the Summa of Stephen of Tournai, who posited that at times humans followed animal example while at others they rejected that example as irrational. The Owl and the Nightingale engages this discussion to respond that the same natural law does not govern all creatures, and that humans would do best to follow the dictates of reason. The debate between the owl and the nightingale concerning sexuality addresses the locus of concern over what natural law, if any, controls humans. The discussion of marriage implies that love is the common element between humans and animals since marriage is a uniquely human custom. Finally the debate between the birds is resolved by reason and a hierarchy that clearly follows a human model.