The Owl and the Nightingale is a debate poem of 1794 lines in octosyllabic couplets, probably written between 1186 and 1216 by an unknown author. It has come down to us in two different manuscripts of the second half of the 13th century.
The narrator overhears a quarrel between a serious owl and a gay nightingale during a summer night. When the owl is about to lose her temper and physically threatens her opponent, both birds decide on a verbal contest to be judged by a certain Nicholas of Guildford living in Portesham, Dorset, whom some modern critics believe to be the author of the poem.
The debate follows the rules of the scholastic disputations, as they were held in the law schools and universities. Both contestants use every device of medieval rhetoric to prove that they are of the highest use to mankind. During the debate they touch upon nearly every topic of contemporary interest: fore-knowledge, music, confession, papal missions, ethics and morals, happy marriage and adultery, and so on. In the end the birds set out to meet the judge whose verdict remains concealed.
In spite of many scholarly attempts to read the text on a symbolic level the poem has refuted any plausible allegorical interpretation of the protagonists and their speeches. Whatever may have been the author's intention the poem is an early masterpiece in Middle English.