Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Nicholas of Guildford and the Owl and the Nightingale

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Nicholas of Guildford and the Owl and the Nightingale

Article excerpt

'Maister Nichole of Guldeforde' appears as a personality in two passages of the Middle English poem known as The Owl and the Nightingale^- In the first of these (lines 187-214), the poem's eponymous protagonists agree that this 'Maister Nicole' is well qualified to act as arbiter of the dispute between the two of them, on the grounds that 'he is wise and careful with his words' ('he is wis an war of worde', line 192). In expressing her approval of him, the Owl remarks that, although he was once a little wild ('breme', line 202) and thus fond of nightingales and Other pretty little things' ('oper wi3te gente & smale', line 204), he has now calmed down and is these days too mature and judicious ('ripe and fastrede', line 211) to be swayed in the Nightingale's favour. In the second passage (lines 1745-80), the Wren tells the other two birds precisely where Nicholas is to be found - at home in 'Porteshom' (line 1752), which is, as she explains with almost pedantic exactitude, a 'village in Dorset next to the sea where there's an estuary' (At one tune ine Dorsete, / Bi J?are see in ore flete', lines 175 3 f.).2 The Wren is clearly determined to make sure that there can be no confusion about his address, especially when (as she also points out) he only has one 'woning' (line 1761) - that is, only one 'abode', or, more specifically, only one 'living' (in the sense of a clerical benefice). In her view, it is scandalous that a man of such signal abilities should have been treated so ungenerously; and she thinks it a disgrace, in particular, to Nicholas's bishops. They ought to ensure that he is enabled to display his talents more widely by providing him with the income from multiple livings ('rente a uale stude', line 1767). Indeed, 'J?eos riche men' (line 1770) do wrong to pass over so capable an individual in making such indiscriminate use of their powers of patronage - by which she presumably means their control of advowsons (the right to make appointments to benefices). Her emphasis on the unfairness with which such livings were distributed and, more specifically, her allegation of widespread nepotism (line 1775) - to the extent that even 'litle childre' (line 1776) could receive such rents - could be taken to imply criticism of the practice of clerical pluralism (the simultaneous occupation of multiple benefices);3 but in fact the Wren seems to have nothing against pluralism per se. What she objects to, specifically, is that her friend Nicholas has never been able to profit from it himself.

The birds' lively partisanship for Nicholas is perhaps most elegantly explained as a witty piece of metafictional self-advertisement - he himself being the author of the poem.4 Even if he was not actually the author, he was presumably at least well enough known to the people who made up its intended authence for the references to him to have some point. Overall, the birds supply a remarkably large amount of information about him - including not just relatively factual details like his tide, surname, and address, but also various clues to his attitudes, capacities, and expectations. From that point of view, it is perhaps surprising that Nicholas has never been conclusively identified with any historically documented individual. Several candidates have been proposed - a Nicholas who was Archdeacon of London in the middle of the twelfth century; a 'Magister Nicholaus' employed by the Bishop of Winchester; a judge called 'Nicholas filius Thuroldi'; a canon lawyer called 'Nicholas de Aquila'; a chaplain called 'Nicholaus' recorded in 1209; a Nicholas who was 'submonitor capituli de Gudeford' in 1220; and a priest called Nicholas mentioned in the 1 220S.5 None of these men is actually called 'Nicholas of Guildford'; and indeed all of these identifications make very selective use of the evidence provided. In consequence, none of them has ever achieved any general acceptance among critics of the poem; and it now seems to be tacitly agreed that the hunt for the author of The Owl and the Nightingale (if that is what Nicholas was) is never going to be anything more than a wild goose chase. …

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