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DOI 10.12887/31-2018-3-123-06

Monica BRZEZINSKI POTKAY – The Book of Nature, the Book of Law? Natural Law in the “The Owl and the Nightingale”

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The paper comprises an analysis of the medieval poem “The Owl and the Nightingale” with a view to a reconstruction of the concepts of natural law found in the text in question. The debate between the Owl and the Nightingale was a pretext for the author of the poem to present the gist of the theological and philosophical controversies over natural law characteristic of the 12th and the 13th centuries. The particular legal issues addressed in the poem are derivative of the main question put in this context, namely to what extent the Book of Nature is simultaneously the Book of Law and, in particular, whether its norms are equally binding to animals and to humans. A specific object of the controversy between the birds is animal and human sexuality and the distinction between the natural and the unnatural behaviors in this domain. Human rationality, which differentiates humans from animals, provides—as both the Owl and the Nightingale acknowledge—an argument for the thesis that human actions are ruled by natural law other than the one proper to the animal world.

The birds’ ‘debate’ is referred in the article to particular controversies and debates on natural law continued in the antiquity and in the medieval times, among others to the concepts formulated by Cicero, Augustine, Hugh of St. Victor, Huguccio of Pisa, Peter Damiani, Ulpian, Isidore of Seville, Alan of Lille, Jean de Hauteville, Peter Lombard, Aelred of Rievaulx, Steven of Tournai, Simon of Tournai, Martin of Alnwick, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Laon, Peter Abelard, Philip the Chancellor, and Albert the Great. Other significant medieval texts on natural law, such as Gratian’s Decretum, Summa Lipsiensis, and  Summa Monacensis, are also addressed.

 Summarized by Dorota Chabrajska

Keywords: “The Owl and the Nightingale,” natural law, statutory law, nature, morality, sin, institution of marriage, rule of love 
The paper was originally published as “Natural Law in ‘The Owl and the Nightingale” in The Chaucer Review 28: 1994, no. 4, pp. 368-383.
© Penn State University Press 1994
The Editors of Ethos thank the Editors of The Chaucer Review for their permission to publish a Polish translation of the article.


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  1. ISSN 0860-8024
  2. The Republic of Poland Ministry of Science and Higher Education Value: 20.00
  3. Quarterly “Ethos” is indexed by the following databases: EBSCO, CEEOL, Index Copernicus (ICV 2017: 55.26), Philosopher’s Index, ERIH Plus.
  4. DOI Prefix 10.12887