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Warbled Words: the "Starling" and "Nightingale" Poems

From: Tenso
Volume 10, Number 1, Fall 1994
pp. 18-36 | 10.1353/ten.1994.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Warbled Words:
the "Starling" and "Nightingale" Poems
Aileen MacDonald
Memorial University of Newfoundland


1. All texts as edited by Dejeanne, Poésies complètes du troubadour Marcabru.

2. All texts as edited by Del Monte, Peire d'Alvernhe: Liriche.

3. In lines 47-48, Marcabru refers to the Old Testament Book of Kings, to the story of Elijah who receives a message from Jezabel. To escape her, the prophet goes to the cave of the sacred mountain at Horeb where he receives a message from God's angel (III Regum 19:2).

4. Pfeffer traces the nightingale in medieval literature from the legend of Philomela in Ovid's Metamorphoses through the bird's appearance in medieval Latin poetry and then to its adoption on a large scale by the troubadours who used not the classical 'philomela' but the word 'rossinhol' from the Vulgar Latin. Other birds such as the lark, the falcon, the hawk, the swan and even the owl have been associated with love in medieval literature. Birds may have been quite popular as a motif in Celtic literature if we consider the ample use in the Lais of Marie de France. A nightingale symbolizes love in the lay of Laostic, a swan carried messages between lovers in Milun, and the lover takes the form of a hawk to visit his lady in Yonec. In Gottfried of Strasburg's Tristan, the lady, Isolde, is described as a falcon. In twelfth-century England, we have the debate between an owl and a nightingale whose territories overlap only when they come to debate issues of love, marriage and adultery. Speaking of the story of Laostic, the owl accuses the nightingale of leading the woman into sin by lascivious singing and of being killed by the husband because of her sinful ways. The nightingale counters that she allowed the lady to experience a higher kind of love which transcended the humdrum world of the lady's marriage. In this work, the nightingale enjoys a somewhat ambivalent reputation.

5. These conclusions are drawn from discussion following my paper "Women's Song and the Trobairitz" to The Medieval Society, Harvard University, March 1992.

6. That one of the essential elements of the pastorela—one fully as important as the social message—is the struggle between the sexes has been pointed out by Kathryn Gravdal (370).

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