French-American Bridge for Medieval Musical Iconography

Nightingales in Literary Texts and Images: Diverse Modes of Subversion


Claire Dillon (Columbia University)

Morgan Dickson (Université de Picardie Jules Verne) gave a paper on “Nightingales in Literary Texts and Images” at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris as part of the lecture series “Arts et musique au Moyen Age.” Morgan Dickson’s research examines the subversive, and sometimes contradictory, nature of nightingale iconography in twelfth- and thirteenth-century English manuscripts. This common bird often occupies a liminal space, both in reality—as it is concealed by night while it sings—and on parchment, where its rather infrequent representations in the visual arts are usually limited to marginal spaces. By collecting sources with nightingales and identifying connections and themes, Dickson helps define the bird’s presence in medieval texts and images, and identifies directions for future research concerning the nightingale’s significance. In her paper, Dickson introduced two traditions of nightingales: the first is one of violence, loss, and lamentation, as represented in a fourteenth-century Ovide Moralisée:

For she causes them to suffer and
torments them so much
that when spring returns
when we have left the winter behind,
In her hatred for evildoers,
she sings as sweetly as she can
in the woods: ‘Kill! Kill!’

– Paris, BnF MS Arsenal 5069, f.91r (translation provided by Dickson)

The second tradition is one of spring, life, and erotic desire, as recorded in folk and oral traditions:

When the nightingale sings the woods become green
Leaf and grass and blossom springs in April, I know,
and love is come into my heart with such a sharp stab
it drinks my blood night and day; my heart causes me pain.

– London, British Library, MS Harley 2253, f. 80v (translation provided by Dickson)

With this comparison, Dickson lays the groundwork for pursuing further connections between nightingales, courtly love, and music. The bird’s positive and negative connotations complement its presence in stories of forbidden love, such as Marie de France’s lai “Laüstic,” in which the nightingale provides an excuse for a wife to sneak out and speak with her lover, as she claims to go to the window each evening to hear the bird sing. The nightingale’s connections to courtly love may run deeper through its possible relationship to the harp. In images such as the B initial of the Alphonso Psalter (London, BL MS Add 24686 fol 11r), the bird in the lower left corner may be identified as a nightingale. 

The nightingale is not often represented visually—or if it is, it has not been frequently identified given its rather common appearance. In this example, its presence with King David suggests the possibility that the bird could be associated with nobility and harping. Furthermore, the presence of the harp in the story of Tristan and Iseult may strengthen the nightingale’s association with music, longing, and desire.

In its connections to the pains and joys of the forbidden, the nightingale can be interpreted as a subversive character. This is supported by the Middle English poem The Owl and the Nightingale, in which the nightingale provokes the owl into an argument by insulting her appearance. The ensuing debate is a mockery of didactic verse contests, in which the reader follows the two birds through a fantastical argument that is never resolved. It could thus be interpreted as a mischievous figure. To further support these analyses of the nightingale, additional examples of the bird’s presence in illuminations can likely be identified in sources where they were not noticed previously. Dickson also stressed that the issue of gender demands further research; the word nightingale is feminine in Latin (luscinia), which likely relates to the mistaken belief that female nightingales sang, and may also inform their strong connection to nesting and motherhood in bestiaries. In romance languages, however, the word is masculine, and this may affect representations of the bird. As it encapsulates the paradoxes of presence and absence, centers and margins, open song and silent secrecy, the nightingale deserves more careful examination as a less ordinary bird than previously thought.

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