Master Nicholas and ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’

Extract from Possum People: Brief lives of some of the prominent people who have had connections with Portesham by Jack Elwin, 2010.

IN THE 12TH OR 13TH CENTURY Portesham was mentioned in a poem called The Owl and the Nightingale, probably written by a certain ‘Master Nicholas’. It survives in two copies, one in the British Library and one at Oxford.

The poem describes a heated argument between the two birds which goes on for over 1,700 lines. The Nightingale makes a verbal attack upon the grave but fierce Owl. The Owl would like to settle the argument by force, an idea the Nightingale sensibly dismisses and continues her attack, claiming the obvious superiority of her voice when matched against that of her opponent, and suggests that they get ‘Master Nicholas of Guildford’ to judge between them, because, she says, ‘He is wise and weighs his words carefully; he has very sound judgement, and detests all vices. He has a good understanding of singing, who is singing well, who badly; and he can distinguish wrong from right, darkness from light.’

Mayster Nichol of Guldeuorde,
He is wis and war of worde:
He is of worde swy∂e glev,
And him is lo∂ eurich vn∂eu.

The Owl, traditionally supposed to be a wise bird, agrees, because although Master Nicholas ‘was wild once, and fond of nightingales and other charming and dainty creatures, I know that he’s cooled down considerably now… He’s mature, and his judgement is sound; he has no desire for indiscretion now; he’s no longer inclined to frivolity.’

But the Owl then asserts the virtues of her own song, which she claims can move human beings to repentance for their sins, in contrast to the Nightingale’s voice, which merely gives superficial pleasure. The two birds argue back and forth, giving examples and reasons to support their respective superiority, resorting to name-calling, sophistry, the application of verbal ruses and stratagems, and extravagant displays of wit. They often make references to the human world, giving instructive or amusing anecdotes in order to prove a point or entertain the spectators who have gathered. These stories give teaching about marital infidelity, human failings, love, sin, freewill, and numerous other topics, high and low, until the debate becomes a disorderly squabble egged on by the many creatures who form the audience.

At last, urged by the Wren, they do agree to go to Master Nicholas. 

‘But where might we find him?’ asks the Nightingale.

‘What!’ the Wren says, ‘didn’t you know? He lives at Portesham, in a village in Dorset, near the sea on an inlet. 

‘Hwat! nute ye,’ qua∂ heo, ‘his hom?
Heo wune∂ at Porteshom,
At one tune in Dorsete,
Bi ∂are see in ore vtlete.

‘There he makes a lot of sound judgements, and composes and writes all kinds of clever works; and through his words and his writing, things are better as far as Scotland. It’s easy to find him; he has only one residence. That’s a great disgrace to the bishops, and all those who’ve heard of his reputation and achievements. Why won’t they make a decision to have him often in attendance, to advise them from his wisdom, and give him income from numerous benefices so he could often be with them?’

So they set off, and travelled ‘Till they came to Portesham, but I can’t tell you any more about how they succeeded with their judgement. Here there is no more of this story.’ 

Al bute here and bute verde,
To Portesham ∂er heo bicome.
Ah hw heo spedde of heore dome,
Ne can ic eu namore telle;
Her nys namore of ∂isse spelle.

Thus the poem ends leaving the reader to decide which bird won the argument.

So who was Master Nicholas? It sounds as if he may have been a vicar of Portesham who felt his well-known learning and ability ought to be have been noticed by the church authorities, who have been leaving him to vegetate in this little Dorset backwater. Perhaps the poem was to show them how skilfully he could compose a witty debate for the birds!