Commentary for Exeter Riddle 52


Date: Wed 08 Jun 2016
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 52

Riddle 52’s commentary is once again by Lindy Brady, formerly of the University of Mississippi (when she wrote this post), now from University College Dublin. Take it away, Lindy!:


For such a short text, Riddle 52 has proven surprisingly tricky. A flurry of solutions were proposed by early scholars of the Exeter Book, but none of these has been embraced with complete enthusiasm. Much like Riddles 7, 8, 9, 10 and 24, where it’s clear to a casual reader that the answer is some type of bird, but narrowing down the exact species requires a bit more specialized knowledge, the problem with Riddle 52 is our lack of comfortable familiarity with the intricacies of early medieval farming implements and agricultural life. We get the gist of the riddle, of course — a woman is performing a task with a tool formed from two anthropomorphized components bound together. But just what object is being described? The many proposed solutions for this stubborn little riddle take us on a fascinating tour of early medieval farming life.

One early answer to this riddle was a yoke of oxen, led into the barn or house by a female slave. This solution was snippily dismissed as one that “smacks of fatal obviousness” — ouch. Still, these early scholars were right to point out that a yoke of oxen, pictured below, is what’s literally being described, and not the riddle’s solution.

Engraving of man with yoked oxen

Engraving of a man with yoked oxen threshing corn by C. Cousen after R. Beavis. Photo from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 4.0).

Another early solution that no one liked was “broom:”


Photo of a broom (by Schmidti) from  Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

You can see the problem here — unless your broom is made out of only two twigs, this doesn’t work as a solution. And I think we can all agree that a two-pronged broom is not really a broom anymore…


Photo of a pitchfork (by JohnM) from  Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

So what are some possible objects that could actually work as a solution to this puzzle? Another early answer was two pails, carried on a yoke (and thus bound together) by the woman described in the riddle, like so:

Woman carrying buckets

Photo of a Saint Petersburg woman carrying buckets of water on a yoke (by Branson DeCou) from  Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

This is certainly a much more satisfying solution than oxen, but it still doesn’t quite work — remember that the woman in the riddle is closer to one of the “captives” than the other.

This observation led to another good solution, the more precise well-buckets, as pictured below:

Well buckets

Photo of well-buckets, Ichijodani (by っ) from  Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

As you can see here, for those of you city slickers who’ve never had a well, the two well-buckets alternate positions as they’re dipped down and raised up, so one would always be nearer to the woman drawing the water. The “house” they enter is the well itself, under the roof where the pulley is attached.

Neat solution, isn’t it? It seems to fit all the conditions of the riddle, and it’s one which I actually think still works just fine. With such a short riddle, it’s hard to know exactly what makes a perfect fit!

Still, the most commonly accepted solution nowadays is “flail.” Again, if you didn’t grow up on a farm, you might be thinking: huh?


Photo of a threshing flail (by Schweitzer) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


As this photograph nicely illustrates, a flail is made of two pieces chained together. You hold one end and swing the other during threshing. Here’s an illustration of some flails in action:

Painting of threshing

Image from the 14th-century Tacuina sanitatis via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Threshing, by the way, is performed by necessity on a threshing floor — and in damp early medieval England, it would have had a roof! So, “flail” is a great solution to this riddle, and it’s the one most critics accept — but I for one do think “well-buckets” still fits the bill.

This list of answers addresses the direct puzzle of solving Riddle 52, but perhaps not all of its puzzling features. If you’re encountering this riddle for the first time, you’re probably wondering about the fact that the woman in this riddle is specifically described as dark-colored and Welsh. The level of detail this riddle provides leads us to some considerations of class and ethnicity in early medieval England.

Riddle 52 is part of a group of Exeter Book riddles (along with Riddle 12 and Riddle 72) that mention a “dark-colored” Welsh man or woman in connection with some type of agricultural labor, particularly related to cattle. (For more about the rich history of cattle in Wales, see P.G. Hughes, Wales and the Drovers, listed below.) Two articles listed in the bibliography below, those by Nina Rulon-Miller and John W. Tanke, have done a particularly thorough job of teasing out the implications of class, gender, and ethnicity raised by this group of riddles in the Exeter Book. What these riddles have in common is that they depict someone performing lower-class manual agricultural labor, and they take the time to point out that that someone is both “dark-colored” and “Welsh.”

It’s hard to tell if the early English had a sense that all Welsh men and women would have been identifiably distinct as “dark-colored.” More likely, this characterization is linked to the roles they’re depicted in within these riddles as agricultural laborers. Well throughout the twentieth century in many cultures (and still today in many places that haven’t embraced the horrors of tanning beds!) pale skin was a sign of high social class, as only those who worked outdoors performing tough manual labor would be tanned or sunburnt (consider the modern American class-based slur "redneck," for instance).

The depiction of the Welsh performing agricultural labor fits the historical circumstances of early medieval England as well. As scholar Margaret Lindsay Faull has demonstrated, the Old English word for “Welsh,” Wealh, shifted in meaning over time. Early on, it meant simply “foreigner,” but as the early English settled in the island of Britain it became more particularly applied to those peoples now known as the Welsh — and then, it came to mean simply “slave.” As many historians of early medieval England have pointed out, this semantic shift indicates the historical reality that many Welsh men and women were enslaved by the early English. If you’d like to read more about this, David Pelteret’s book on Slavery in Early Mediaeval England is an incredibly detailed and illuminating study of slavery during the early medieval period. I’ve also argued that another layer of meaning to this riddle can be found in the Welsh woman’s control of “captives.” This alludes to the further historical reality that the Welsh were also active participants in the slave trade of the British Isles. During the early medieval period, the area that would later become Wales was made up of many individual tribes and kingdoms engaged in frequent warfare, including cattle and slave raids. After the Viking attacks on the British Isles began in the late eighth century, the slave market became more profitable, and these raids grew worse.

In other words, even a simple, short text like Riddle 52 can have many layers of meaning embedded within it. Riddle 52 gives us a glimpse into so many facets of early medieval life. It takes us on a tour of early medieval farming while reminding us how much of daily life in early medieval England remains unknown (though if you’d like to know more about farming, check out the fantastic book by Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith listed in the references to this post!), at the same time raising complex issues of ethnicity, gender, and class in early medieval England. Not bad for seven lines!


References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debby and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Brady, Lindy. “The ‘Dark Welsh’ as Slaves and Slave Traders in Exeter Book Riddles 52 and 72.” English Studies, vol. 95 (2014), pages 235-55.

Faull, Margaret Lindsay. “The Semantic Development of Old English Wealh.” Leeds Studies in English, new series, vol. 8 (1975), pages 20-44.

Hughes, P. G. Wales and the Drovers. 1943. 2nd edition. Carmarthen: Golden Grove Editions, 1988.

Pelteret, David A. E. Slavery in Early Mediaeval England: From the Reign of Alfred until the Twelfth Century. Studies in Anglo-Saxon History 7. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995.

Rulon-Miller, Nina. “Sexual Humor and Fettered Desire in Exeter Book Riddle 12.” In Humor in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: Boydell, 2000, pages 99-126.

Tanke, John W. “Wonfeax Wale: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book.” In Class and Gender in Early English Literature: Intersections. Edited by Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, pages 21-42.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 52  lindy brady 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 12
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 72

Exeter Riddle 53


Date: Tue 21 Jun 2016
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 53

This week’s translation post is brought to you by the fabulous Sharon Rhodes. Sharon has just completed her PhD at the University of Rochester (defending this summer!), where she worked on Old English, biblical translation and translation theory.

Original text:

Ic seah on bearwe      beam hlifian,
tanum torhtne.      Þæt treo wæs on wynne,
wudu weaxende.      Wæter hine ond eorþe
feddan fægre,      oþþæt he frod dagum
5 on oþrum wearð      aglachade
deope gedolgod,      dumb in bendum,
wriþen ofer wunda,      wonnum hyrstum
foran gefrætwed.      Nu he fæcnum weg
þurh his heafdes mægen      hildegieste
10 oþrum rymeð.      Oft hy an yste strudon
hord ætgædre;      hræd wæs ond unlæt
se æftera,      gif se ærra fær
genamnan in nearowe      neþan moste.


I saw a tree towering in a wood
with radiant branches. That tree was in joy
growing in the forest. Water and earth
fed him well, until he, wise in days,
5     came into a second, miserable state
deeply wounded, silent in his shackles,
racked all over with wounds, adorned with dark ornaments
on his front. Now he, through the might of head,
clears the path to another
10     treacherous enemy. Often they stole by storm
the treasure together; he was unhesitating and unflagging,
the follower, if the first was compelled to undertake
the journey, as a companion in confinement.

Click to show riddle solution?
Battering Ram is the most common solution, but Cross and Gallows have also been suggested


This riddle appears on folio 113v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 207.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 51: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 99-100.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 53 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 51
Exeter Riddle 55
Exeter Riddle 59