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Plato and Boethius are the classical models of this medieval text form, as well as the scholastic disputations held in cathedral schools, universities, and Inns of Court. Usually two, but sometimes three or four parties, contest one or more issues. Many debates are resolved by a third party, often a judge or another authority, but a considerable number remains inconclusive leaving the verdict to the audience.

The protagonists can be human beings, animals, especially birds, inanimate objects or concepts, and, of course, personified allegories. Medieval debates occur in Latin and the vernaculars. In Middle English literature the debate form was used for serious and humorous ends. The poems can be philosophical or spiritual, personal or political, even satirical.

Well-known Middle English debates are Wynnere and Wastoure, Vices and Virtues, the Harley De Clerico et Puella, Death and Lyffe, Dives and Pauper, and especially the bird debates, such as The Owl and the Nightingale. The Old English tradition of a debate between the soul and the body is taken up in The  Bodi and the Sawle. John of Trevisa makes a clerk one of the opponents in the Dialogus inter Militem and Clericum. A friar debates with a secular canon, Wit against Will, a Christian with a Jew, even a carpenter's tool have a long debate abou their individual worth. A closely related text form are the parliaments, such as The Parliament of the Three Ages or Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls.

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