In Wendy A. Matlock's essay, "Law and Violence in the Owl and the Nightingale," she focuses her efforts on the legality and violence that the two birds bring up during their disagreements. In the poem, an owl and a nightingale are overheard by the narrator having a dispute, which does not end with any resolution, except with the acceptance of going to a one Nicholas of Guildford, who is a fair and wise mediator for the two. The disputes that the two birds have range from subjects about love and marriage, asceticism, pleasure, religion and worship. The poem does not end with clear victor, which Matlock states frames the persistent message that she details throughout her article: legal channels provide the best resolution for a dispute, and not violence.
She addresses this issue when examining the legal issues that were present at the time of the work's publication. While she makes clear that there is no set known date, they range that the publication is around the late 12th century to the early 13th century, in the Kentish region. Matlock points out that the audience that could most relate and understand this message are those in the Kent area, as the county is described as the "second worst" in all of England (the first being Warwick). Matlock uses legal research to demonstrate that many people in Kent faced violence, because they had a difficult time getting suitors into the courtrooms in order to resolve disputes. And because suitors would rarely come to resolve disputes through the legal channels, violence was a constant throughout much of Kent. Matlock asserts, as such, that this poem is meant primarily for the Kent audience and shows that decision at the end, for the birds to go to Guildford, had been the proper action.
I do appreciate Matlock's argument and I also believe she helped her case when she made clear that the birds, who are meant to personify people, are not always innocent from violence. She does address the fact that throughout their exchanges both the owl and the nightingale made threatening remarks to each other and were almost violent with each other, but it never got to the point of action. While she recognizes that violence is a very real action and emotion faced by people (and birds) it is not always the answer. I had trouble, though, agreeing to or following her historical background. To me, her argument fell short, and was often repetitive in unnecessary ways. She also discusses how, "using legal vocabulary and principles, the poem constructs a judicial domain that exists outside of official legal culture to endorse that official culture, especially law's ability to mediate between violence and order" (447). She examines the language and argues that they present a legal vocabulary, but she never pulls actual examples from the text that were clear for me, readers that are familiar with the text. I do believe her argument was going into an excellent location, especially when she made her connection to Kent, but she never really reached it and it did fall short.