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Norm und Spiel in 'The Owl and the Nightingale.'

Rainer Holtei's is the first book-length study of |The Owl and the Nightingale', Studia since Kathryn Hume's in 1975, and it seeks to replace both her influential thesis of the poem as a |burlesque satire on human contentiousness' and older allegorical interpretations by the idea of play on norms. He pays less attention to past readings than Hume did (though much is still worthily summarized) in order to foreground analysis of the text in - supposedly - all its component parts.

The much-repeated aim of this study is to recover the poem's authentic meaning for its twelfth-century audience. Reconstructing its contemporary significance is also argued to shed light on the constituency of that audience, on whose expectations the poem plays. For The Owl and the Nightingale, in Holtei's view, has as much to do with the norm of play as with the play on norms itself and that double focus offers an insight into the sophisticated intellectual world of the poem's intended recipients, who turn out, not very surprisingly, to be a clerical elite.

Norm und Spiel is shown to be a many-levelled, linking principle. There are norms brought to the text by the poem's audience in terms of genre or of the associations of the birds; there are norms of good judgement or good argument set up within the text. Holtei himself is often good at showing how play on these norms involves their challenging. The poem does not conform to conventions of debate; the narrator's judgements are presented as norms, but seen to be open to question; the qualities of a good judge are defined in Nicholas of Guildford, but in his absence it is left to the audience to bring them to bear on the debate though the point is less that they should assign the victory than that they should reflect on what judging entails. |Play' has its serious side.

Another value of the book should be its emphasis on the significance of the poem's cultural milieu. But while Holtei signals the importance of the contexts of multi-lingualism and dialectical debate, there is little that is original in his coverage. Indeed, both context and text are occasionally neglected together, notably when the crucial issue of astrology is given only cursory discussion. Thus the claims that all the poem's parts are considered in relation to each other and that its historical perspective is clarified are not entirely borne out.

The bibliography is useful, particularly for German items, though it too is not complete quite recent articles by Alexandra Barratt and Nicolas Jacobs are not included. Holtei's prose is a world away from the verbal play of the poem he discusses, but the book still gives a welcome impetus to the course of its study and is largely worth the perseverance it demands.
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Author:Mapstone, Sally
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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