Essentially, there is a certain understanding of courtly discourse that occurs naturally between the characters of all the Medieval texts that we’ve read so far, with the exception of The Owl and the Nightingale. By this, I mean that there are certain elements present in such works as The Lais of Marie de France, The Romance of the Rose, Yvain the Knight of the Lion, and Sir Orfeo that simply cannot be substantiated in The Owl.
The most palpable element is the nature of the discourse itself. The texts are, more simply, stories, and not blatant challenges of debate. They all have elements of courtly discourse because they are about knights and royal courts, and how they talk to each other for the purpose of chivalrous persuasion.
Moreover, they follow certain standards of discourse, even in instances of cruelty, such as the scene in which Lanval (from Marie de France) loses his love and refuses the Queen’s advances by saying, “leave me be!…I love and am loved by a lady who should be prized…[and] you can be sure that one of her servants… is worth more than you, my lady the Queen, in body, face and beauty, wisdom and goodness” (pg 76-77). Lanval uses such unkind words, not to be cruel on purpose, but because he speaks the truth and is upset at himself for losing his love.
Lanval is still courtly in nature, because he knows that he will face penalty for his speech, and also, because at the end of the tale, when all the beautiful maidens are arriving, he does not choose a lady just to save himself the King’s wrath. Instead, he takes his punishment, deservedly, and is rewarded for his faith when his true beloved arrives to save him. He is a knight until the end.
All of the knights in the texts, excluding The Owl, have a basic understanding of the courtly discourse required in a royal environment because it is the foundation of their basic existence. They were born and bred as knights, and as knights, they understand the certain rules that must be followed to gain standing within the courts. Moreover, they know the rules and they know (very well) how to manipulate the rules through dialogue. It’s what they do (other than venture forth on quests and find that perfect maiden). It is, in fact, the very definition of courtly discourse.
Now, observably there are no knights present in The Owl and the Nightingale; however, this is not the only reason that this text fails in regard to courtly discourse. While the owl and the nightingale are, basically, “respectful” of each other, there are no means to gain through such discourse other than pure debate. The very definition of “courtly discourse” suggests some knowledge of the nature of royal courts, with a foundation of flattering and profitable discussion. Courtly discourse is used, then, to be as respectful and gracious as necessary to gain (whatever it is they seek to gain) from the other participant.
The owl and the nightingale are not even human; they are, for lack of a better term, female birds. Now, this is not to say that animals are not capable of courtly discourse, as we’ve seen proven in Yvain, for example, with his lion friend, who is in fact quite capable of a discourse relationship with Yvain. Now, this is not to castigate females in general, but it appears that the birds, being female, are much more apt to relinquish anything courtly in their discourse and instead rely on fierce debate to prove their point, which is, who is the better bird.
In fact, the entire text of The Owl relies exclusively on proving just who makes the superior bird: the owl or the nightingale. As a definition, this nasty repartee is not courtly discourse. Though courtly discourse is inherently flattering (though not always honest) in nature, it relies on certain rules to persuade the opponent, and vicious name-calling is not part of the game.
However, I don’t think that, as animals, they can be excluded from the aristocratic values and rules. They speak the better-than-thou language, and they converse better than most humans, so, I think that they would otherwise be capable of conventional persuasive conversation. They just don’t care. Moreover, the birds don’t seem to have any actual proof on what really makes a better bird in their arguments, except to call the other evil because they only sing at night, or to call the other purely lustful because they only sing to lovers, however faithful those lovers may be.
A reader can be persuaded for either bird, then, and I don’t think that such feeble affiliation falls under the definition of courtly discourse. The purpose of such discourse is to find a respectable solution to the problem. The birds find no solution, and in fact, the text ends with them flying off to further debate under the neutral eyes of Master Nichole. They don’t even really seem to care about finding a solution; they just want to be right. They are not knights, they are not civil, and they seek to find no courtly ending to the debate. Thus, they are purely in the debate for the spiteful confirmation of who makes the better bird, the owl or the nightingale, and not for the application of courtly discourse.