Commentary for Bern Riddle 24: De membrana


Date: Mon 08 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 24: De membrana

This riddle is about a very special material that preserves the thoughts, memories, and imaginations of people who lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Yes, you guessed it—this riddle is all about parchment!

One of the fascinating things about the Bern Riddles are their interrelatedness—they love to talk about each other! They love using similar phrases and themes to express the properties of very different objects, and this generates unexpected and surprising connections. Today’s riddle continues the theme of life and death from the previous riddle about fire). Its first and fifth lines also the theme of livestock bringing wealth to all, including kings, from the sheep riddle (No. 22). And it contains the same phrase, “stripped of clothes” (vestibus exuta) as we saw with Riddle 5’s table. Fires, sheep, tables—all have something in common with parchment.

Parchment 1
“Goatskin parchment stretched on a wooden frame. Photograph (by Michal Maňas) from Wiki Commons (licence: CC BY 2.5)”

Preparing parchment was a complicated and specialist activity in early medieval Europe. The skin of goats, sheep, and calves was usually treated with a lime solution, before having as much hair removed as possible. It was then stretched on a frame and washed, scraped with a special curved knife, and stretched over several days, before the parchment was thin enough and smooth enough for use.

There are other medieval riddles about parchment, and they all describe the process of its manufacture. The parchment of Tatwine’s Riddle 5 complains that its killer “stripped me of clothing” (exuviis me… spoliavit), before scraping, ruling, and then writing upon it. Exeter Riddle 26 describes the process in a similar way, but it goes into more detail, explaining that feond sum (“a certain enemy”) soaked it and removed its hairs, before scraping it and cutting it to size. Bern Riddle 24, on the other hand, manages to compress this process into two lines (3-4). The hairs are removed from the skin (“stripped of clothes”), which is “stretched our by many a bond” as it hangs on the frame (“my insides hang out”). It has been gladio desecta, literally “cut away by a sword.” However, I have translated this phrase idiomatically as “mown,” under the assumption that it describes the process of scraping as if the parchment were a field being harvested.

Parchment 2
“A riddle about parchment, on parchment. Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 611, f. 76v. Photograph from E-codices (licence: CC BY 3.0)”

All three riddles end with the parchment being used for writing and reading. In Tatwine 5, the words become nourishing victum… et medelam (‘food and medicine’). And Exeter 26 closes with a long series of gifts that the book gives to its reader. Unlike the others, Bern does not glorify the spiritual benefits that a book can bring. Instead, its final line describes the paradox of a book carrying many thousands of letters and words that are all effectively weightless. It recalls Riddle 7’s bladder, which carries the apparently weightless air when it is inflated. What an apt ending for a riddle that likes talking to other riddles so much!


References and Suggested Reading:

De Hamel, Christopher.Making Medieval Manuscripts. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2018.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Exeter Riddle 26
Bern Riddle 5: De mensa
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Bern Riddle 22: De ove
Bern Riddle 23: De igne

Commentary for Bern Riddle 25: De litteris


Date: Mon 08 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 25: De litteris

This is the second of two riddles about writing technologies. The previous riddle told us about parchment—now it is the turn of the letters that are written on it. Writing was a popular medieval riddle topic, and this riddle employs several common tropes. So, without further ado, letters proceed to the riddle!

It begins by looking back to the parchment of the previous riddle, which here is described as the albentum locum (“white place”) upon which the letters are born as sisters. Groups of sisters are used in two other Bern riddles where the subject is plural and grammatically feminine: flowers (No. 33) and stars (No. 61). Aldhelm also uses the sister motif in his riddle on the alphabet, in which the seventeen sisters are the consonants, and the six “bastard-sisters” (nothas) are the vowels.

De trin
“A copy of Augustine’s On the Trinity, probably written in the nunnery scriptorium of either Chelles Abbey or Jouarre Abbey in Northern France, around 750. Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 126 f. 2r. Photograph from Digital Bodleian (licence: CC BY NC 4.0)”

In the second line, we are told that three parents create the letters. This is part of a long medieval tradition of describing writing as an activity carried out using three fingers—although writers never tell us exactly which digits they have in mind (Rosenfeld, pages 24-5). Riddlers often play with this idea, sometimes combining it with ideas about parentage. In Aldhelm’s riddle on the alphabet (No. 30), the three fingers are “brothers” who create their “sisters” “with an unknown mother” (incerta matre). Similarly, Tatwine’s riddle on the pen (No. 6) mentions three creatures that “bind” (vincere) the pen; another of his riddles, on letters (No. 4) mentions an unnamed mother, which may refer to the pen, hand, or page. And Exeter Book Riddle 51, which is usually solved as pen and fingers, describes “four creatures” (wuhte feower) that “travel together” (samed siþian). We should also mention two riddles in which weapons are operated by three fingers —Aldhelm’s riddle on the slingshot (No. 74) and Eusebius’ riddle on the sword (No. 36). Erika von Erhardt-Siebold (page 74) suggested that the three finger-motif in riddles may have something to do with a line from the Book of Isaiah: “quis appendit tribus digitis molem terrae?” (“who measures the earth’s dust by three fingers?”). However, this connection might seem a bit of a stretch, especially since the motif was so popular outside of riddles (Williams, page 112).

“The four Evangelists writing the Gospels, carved on an ivory plaque from Cologne in the mid-11th century. Photograph from the V&A collections (licence: here)”

Aside from the three fingers motif, there are several very interesting parts of this riddle. In line 2, the idea that the finger-parents conceive the child with one “stroke” or “thrust” (ictus) is a great example of the sexualised double entendre that we more often associate with the Exeter Book Riddles. The idea in line 4 that no one can “detain” (detenere) the letters outside their home (sine… domo) seems to be that speech, unlike the written word, is fleeting, and that letters cannot be “held” or “stopped” outside of the page. And the final line explains that the sisters do not reply without a suitable “questioner” (or, in some manuscripts, the “father” (patre))—the idea is that the letters do not “speak” without a reader. Of course, this does not apply to us today, because we have all kinds of text-to-speech readers and audiobooks!


Aldhelm of Malmesbury, “Riddle 30” and “Riddle 74.” In Rudolph Ehwald (ed.), Aldhelmi Opera, MGH Auctrorum antiquissimorum 15. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919. Pages 110 and 131. Available here.

von Erhardt-Siebold, Erika. Die lateinischen Rätsel der Angelsachsen: Ein Beitrag zur Kulturgeschichte Altenglands. Anglistische Forschungen 61. Heidelberg: Winter, 1925. Pages 73-4, 80-1. Available here.

Klein, Thomas. “Pater Occultus: The Latin Bern Riddles and Their Place in Early Medieval Riddling.” Neophilologus 103 (2019). Pages 339-417.

Rosenfeld, Randall. “Tres digiti scribunt: A Typology of Late-Antique and Medieval Pen Grips.” In John Haines and Randall Rosenfeld (eds.), Music and Medieval Manuscripts. Farnham: Ashgate, 2004. Pages 20-58.

Williams, Mary. The Riddles of Tatwine and Eusebius. PhD Thesis, University of Michigan (1974). Pages 80-2, 112, and 206-7.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Exeter Riddle 51
Bern Riddle 24: De membrana
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Commentary for Bern Riddle 26: De sinapi


Date: Mon 08 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 26: De sinapi

This riddle is a hymn to a tiny thing with a big taste—the humble mustard grain!

Mustard was a much-loved flavouring in ancient and medieval Italy. It was also used in pre-Conquest England, although the relatively small number of archaeological finds and recipes would suggest that it was not as popular in England as it would become in the High Middle Ages (Banham, p. 39). One English text mentions mustard as a food suitable for those suffering from nausea and refers to ða gelicnesse… ðe senop biþ getemprod to inwisan (“the form which mustard is mixed for flavouring,” Cockayne, page 184). The appearance of mustard in the Bern Riddles sometimes has been taken as evidence of southern European origin (Klein, page 404), but this is not certain.

“Brown mustard seed. Photograph (by Dsaikia2015) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY SA 4.0)”

The riddle’s central conceit is that the tiny mustard seed carries a powerful “hidden flavour” (occultum…saporem) in such a small body. Line 1 uses an irregular comparative phrase, multo sum parvulo parvus, which I have translated idiomatically as “teeny-weeny.” The second line puns on the word astutus (“cunning”) and acutus (“sharp”), and I wonder whether the original was ‘no one larger is sharper than me,’ since mustard is not exactly known for its cunning.

Line 3 might give you déjà vu (or should that be Dijon vu?) since, for the second riddle in a row, we are invited to guess the riddle subject’s parentage. The “lofty parent” (sublimis parens) is the mustard plant, which can grow to head height in its flowering and ripening stages.

The final two lines explain the preparation and consumption of the mustard seed. The torture of line 5 might sound violent, but it refers either to the mustard’s preparation with a mortar and pestle, or to its chewing. Line 6 leaves us with an idea that is very much in keeping with the spirit of medieval riddling—a hidden thing, which requires hard work to uncover, but which leaves you with a pleasant taste. Much like a riddle, actually!


References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debby. Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England. Cheltenham: Tempus, 2004.

Cockayne, Oswald (ed.). Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, Volume 2. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865. Page 184. Available here.

Klein, Thomas. “Pater Occultus: The Latin Bern Riddles and Their Place in Early Medieval Riddling.” Neophilologus 103 (2019). Pages 339-417.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Bern Riddle 25: De litteris

Commentary for Bern Riddle 27: De papiro


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 27: De papiro

This riddle about the papyrus plant begins with a charming story of a riverside childhood—all soft grasses and happy streams! This is quite different to some of the violent and bizarre birth stories that we have heard. That is, at least until the apparently macabre twist at the end!

“Papyrus plants. Photograph (by Jo Jan) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 3.0)”

Papyrus was used since ancient times as a source of paper, but it was best known in early medieval Europe as a wick for lamps and candles. For example, Aldhelm of Malmesbury, writing in the seventh century, mentions papyrus wicks being used in an oil lamp (De virginitate, page 92). Its associations with fire were such that, in his early seventh century Etymologies, Isidore of Seville incorrectly explained the etymology of papyrus as derived from the Greek πυρ (“fire”) (Isidore, page 355).

As with many other plant riddles, it describes the riddle subject both in terms of its botany and its use to humans. The first three lines describe the fast-growing papyrus stem, which shoots up in the summer months. The long, spidery leaves are the “clothing” (vestes), which produce such shade that the rest of the plant cannot “see the sun” (cernere solem).

“More papyrus plants. Photograph (by Heike Hoffmann) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY SA 2.0)”

The twist in Line 4 and 5 is that the plant, which cannot see the light, also “gives out a light” (producere lumen) when covered by something else. The papyrus pith used for wick-making (and paper-making too) was sliced from the shady bottom of the plant. Once prepared as a wick, it “gives out a light” when covered in wax or enclosed in an oil lamp (see Riddles 2 and 14). Thus, it can be called both a filius profundi (“son of the depths”) and a lucis amicus (“friend of light”).

The final line introduces a further twist—the riddle-creature’s mother, who was responsible for his idyllic childhood, now “takes away the light” (lumina tollit), which sounds very much like she kills him. But, of course, the mother is water, which gives life to the plant and extinguishes the lighted wick. So, happily, it is not quite as sad an ending as it sounds!


References and Suggested Reading:

Aldhelm, The Prose De virginitate. In Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren (eds. and trans.), Aldhelm: The Prose Works. Ipswich: D.S. Brewer, 1979. Pages 59-135.

Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Edited by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 28: De serico/bombyce


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 28: De serico/bombyce

This riddle is one of two silk-themed Bern Riddles (the other is Riddle 43). This gives me the perfect opportunity to tell you about the time when two silkworms had a race.

It ended in a tie.

Silk was among the most valuable and lucrative commodities of the Middle Ages, and silk garments were signifiers of prestige and wealth in medieval Europe. Chinese silks travelled across the Silk Road, a vast trade route stretching from the Pacific coast of China, through the Himalayas and Pamirs, central Asia, India, and Persia, all the way to Ethiopia, Egypt, Mediterranean Europe and beyond. Arabia and Byzantine Constantinople were other early medieval centres of silk-production, and the industry eventually spread to North Africa, Spain, and Southern Italy from the eleventh century onwards.

“Chinese emissaries bringing silk and silkworm cocoons to the court of Varkhuman in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. From the Afrasiyab murals 648-51 CE. Photograph (by The Northeast Asian History Foundation) from Wikimedia Commons(Public domain).”

It was also a popular subject for medieval riddles. It features in two of Aldhelm’s riddles (Nos. 12 on the silkworm and 33 on the breastplate) and two Old English adaptations of Aldhelm’s second riddle. Although our riddle is usually entitled De serico (“About silk”), really there are two speaking riddle subjects: the silkworm (lines 1-4) and the silk (lines 5-6). Thus, I have given it the additional title De bombyce (“About the silkworm”). However, lines 2, 3, 4 and 5 describe the silkworm using neuter adjectives, which can only fit with sericum (“silk”), since the alternatives bombyx (“silkworm”) and verme (“worm”) are grammatically feminine and masculine.

The riddle opens with mention of a “single tree” (arbor una), which is the mulberry tree, the only tree that the silkworm eats. The “wretched food” (vilem… escam) is its leaves. The second line then introduces the apparent paradox that a creature eating a humble food can create a great wealth—you may remember a similar description of the sheep in Riddle 22.

“21-day old silkworms. Photograph (by Armin Kübelbeck) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY SA 3.0)”

Lines 3 and 4 shift their focus to the silk cocoon, which are described as exiguos foetos (“small children”), born after the worm has “produced wings,” that is, as it metamorphosises into a moth. Sadly, the silk cocoon is usually removed by boiling, which makes the silk easier to process but causes the death of the silkworm. Thus, the silkworm’s death is described as an example of parental self-sacrifice, in a similar way to Riddle 12’s cereal grain.

The final two lines shift their focus to the silk’s “noble form” (nobilis forma) once it has been spun and woven into clothing. In a sense, this riddle is all about upwards mobility, in the vein of Riddle 22’s sheep—the creature that once ate “wretched food” is now carried by emperors and marvelled by kings. But this tale of rags to riches has a dark side too—the process has cost the silkworm-parent its life. The riddler seems to be reminding us that human wealth does not come without a cost.


References and Suggested Reading:

Aldhelm of Malmesbury, “Enigmata 12 and 33.” In Rudolph Ehwald (ed.), Aldhelmi Opera, MGH Auctrorum antiquissimorum 15. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919. Pages 101 and 111-2. Available here.

Fleming, Robin. “Acquiring, Flaunting and Destroying Silk in Late Anglo‐Saxon England.” In Early Medieval Europe, Volume 15 (2007). Pages 127-58.

Jacoby, David. “Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West.” In Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Volume 58 (2004). Pages 197-240.

Klein, Thomas. “Pater Occultus: The Latin Bern Riddles and Their Place in Early Medieval Riddling.” Neophilologus 103 (2019), 339-417, page 415.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 29: De speculo


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 29: De speculo

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the best riddle-creature of them all?

The riddle is centred around the idea of a mirror as simultaneously a liar and a truth-teller. Its images are a pale, dead reflection of reality—vanas figuras (“empty forms”) and exiguos foetos (“poor children”). The idea that a mirror image is a deficient copy of reality is reminiscent of a whole host of Neo-Platonic and Christian ideas about the world. I immediately think of St Paul’s famous remarks in 1 Corinthians 13:12 that Videmus nunc per speculum et in aenigmate, tunc autem facie ad faciem (“We now see through a mirror darkly [literally “in a riddle”], but then [we will see] face-to-face”). Largely due to Paul’s words, several important Christian philosophers and theologians talked about mirrors in their work. For example, Augustine of Hippo, writing at the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th century, frequently makes use of Paul’s allegory, particularly in On the Trinity, to explain how humans can only see the image of God imperfectly and indirectly, as if through a mirror (Augustine, pages 27, 47, 54, 134, 144 et al.).

“Late 4th century Etruscan bronze mirror with an ivory handle. The engraving is a depiction of the goddesses Athena and several Etruscan mythological figures. Photograph (by The Metropolitan Museum of Art) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC0 1.0BY)”

At the same time, the mirror is always faithful to reality—it produces proprios vultus ("the very images”) and formas… de vero (“images based on the truth”). Thus, the riddle manages to capture simultaneously the observed reality about mirrors and the philosophical-theological discourse that is associated with them. It contains several other apparent paradoxes too. The person who stands before the mirror is a praelucens…umbra (“shadow shining”) since they both produce a mirror image and cast a shadow. And the mirror is a mother who bears no living children, since the images that she produces are “unreal” or “dead.” The father is not mentioned. Perhaps he is intended to be the person who “desires” (petens) and “wishes” (volens) the mirror to “give birth to” their own image. Certainly, framing the relationship between viewer and mirror as one of male desire and female passivity is an interesting one, and very different to some conventional association of mirrors with vain, usually female, viewers.

I feel that there is a lot more to be said about this riddle, but it will have to wait until another day. So, I will end by saying something that I say a lot—the Bern Riddles often surprise us with their depth and complexity. This short riddle manages to reflect on some big topics—the nature of reality and self-desire.


References and Suggested Reading:

Augustine, On The Trinity, Books 8-15. Edited by Gareth B. Matthews, translated by Stephen McKenna. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Fleteren, Frederick van. “Per Speculum et in Aenigmate: 1 Corinthians 13:12 in Augustine and Anselm.”Annali di studi religiosi, Vol. 4 (2003). Pages 559-565.

Frelick, Nancy M. (editor). The Mirror in Medieval and Early Modern Culture: Specular Reflections. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. (Although this edited book focuses on the depictions of mirrors in late medieval and early modern texts, many of the articles also relate to much earlier works.)

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Commentary for Bern Riddle 30: De pisce


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 30: De pisce

Fish are not only a favourite food of grizzly bears and ravenous crocodiles, but a favourite “food” of cunning riddlers too.

Long-time followers of The Riddle Ages will know all about Exeter Riddle 81 (“Fish and River”), which is based on a similar riddle, Symphosius’ Riddle 12.’ Another English writer, Alcuin of York also borrowed Symphosius’ fish riddle for his eclectic “wisdom” work, Peppin’s Disputation, at the turn of the 9th century. Fish also feature in Aldhelm’s Riddle 81 and Eusebius’ Riddle 40, as well as several ancient Greek riddles. It is not exactly relevant to today’s riddle, but I feel obliged to share my all-time favourite fish-riddle, an ancient Greek one attributed to Clearchus of Soli. It asks, “Which fish or variety of fish is the most delicious or the most precisely in season, and then which one is particularly good eating after Arcturus rises, or the Pleiades, or the Dog-Star?” There is no answer, except perhaps laughter. The joke is that the catching of fish, unlike crops, are not linked to the seasons, but the wealthy, urbane riddler does not understand this. Anyway, as we will see, the Bern fish riddle is a very intertextual one—it contains a lot of tropes and references to other Bern riddles. See how many you can find!

“Fish from an early 13th century bestiary from Peterborough, Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, Folio 86r. Photograph from Digital Bodleian (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)

The opening line takes the ‘creature who likes firm places’ trope from Riddle 4’s horse-bench and Riddle 10’s ladder. In this case, the fish subject cannot live in a ‘firm place’ (firmo loco). I have translated manens consistere simply as “dwell” for simplicity’s sake, but the sense is perhaps closer to the more prolix “remaining in firm places, I cannot endure.”

Many of the Bern riddles are about life or death, and several of them describe situations those where water can be a source of life. For example, water is the mother of salt (Riddle 4), papyrus (Riddle 27), sponge (Riddle 32) and ice (Riddle 38). ‘In Riddle 27, water is also the destroyer of fire. And in Riddle 23, water is both “life for all” (vitam cunctis) and death for fire. Here, the idea is rearranged, so that air is life and water is death for everyone except our aquatic friends.

The part of this riddle I struggle to make sense of are the references to the “warm bed” (lectus tepens) and “life bed within the cold” (vitalis torus sub frigora). After all, fish do not lie on beds or couches! Are these lines meant literally or figuratively, or both? Perhaps the “life bed” refers to the sea itself, or maybe the sandy floor where bottom-dwelling fish dwell. Or perhaps the idea is to depict the fish as if it were a long-suffering seafarer, who has rejected the comforts of warm beds on land? Answers on a postcard please!


References and Suggested Reading:

Alcuin of York, Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi juvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico. In Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi. Edited by L. W. Daly & W. Suchier. Champaign: The University of Illinois Press, 1939. Page 98.

Athenaeus of Naucratis, The Learned Banqueter, Volume V. Loeb Classical Library 274. Edited and translated by S. Douglas Olson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. Page 575. (The riddle is attributed to Clearchus of Soli.)

Symphosius, “Aenigma 12: Flumen et piscis” In Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, Page 41.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 31: De nympha


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 31: De nympha

The title of this riddle (De nympha) can mean several things. It can mean a young woman. It can mean one of the Nymphae, or sea nymphs, of classical mythology. It can mean the pupa of an insect. And it can mean water of some kind, for example, a body of water or a spring. I think you would agree that only the last of these can apply to this riddle!

Mercedes Salvador-Bello has argued that this riddle is probably about a kind of water container (Salvador-Bello, page 262, 466). I think that the solution of “siphon,” as favoured by several editors (see Glorie, page 577), is the most likely one. There is a problem, however—whereas the word nympha is grammatically feminine, the subject of the riddle is grammatically masculine. However, the word sipho (“siphon”) is masculine—lending credence to the idea that the title was changed at some point.

“A siphon used in the beer-brewing process. Photograph (by KVDP) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)”

Siphons work using “physics magic” (actually a combination of atmospheric pressure and electrostatic force) to draw a liquid from a lower point to a higher one. The ancient Romans applied this on a massive scale with aqueducts, but the riddle is describing something much smaller—perhaps a water fountain or tap of some kind, or maybe a device for transporting wine from one container to another.

The first line plays upon the idea that the siphon has an insatiable thirst, and yet its lips never touch a cup. This leads into the image of a drunk who refuses to pay his way, playing upon the word ebrius (line 2), which can mean both “drunk” and “full.” This is contrasted with those occasions (lines 3-4) when its “belly” (venter) is “empty” (vacuus), during which it has “the ability to drink” (bibendi facultas). The idea seems to be that the empty vessel into which the liquid is decanted will siphon or “drink” it, whereas the full vessel will not.

The final two lines explain that the riddle-creature “refuses” or “rejects” (denegare) liquids when a thumb is lowered, but that its raising brings “rain-showers” (diffusos… nimbos). This could conceivably refer to the act of drinking from a cup or pouring out an amphora, but it seems more likely that this refers to the regulating of the siphon system using a thumb. Perhaps this also suggests a medieval version of the pollice verso, the thumbs up or down signal used by spectators of ancient Roman gladiators.

The general theme to this riddle is giving and receiving drinks. I don’t think that it is a bad riddle, but I wonder whether it has as much depth as many other Bern Riddles do. On the other hand, it might be that I haven’t managed to tap into its true meaning.


References and Suggested Reading:

Fr. Glorie, (ed.). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968. Page 577.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Bern Riddle 32: De spongia

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 31


Date: Wed 17 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 31

How do you solve a problem like a bird who sings through her foot? That, my friends, is the question on my mind.

Riddle 31 is a riddle (obv) about an object living her best life. What, precisely, she is…well, that’s up for debate. Most editors of the Old English riddles solve Riddle 31 as Bagpipes. They reckon that the multiple references to a creature singing and showing off mad skillz in the hall means this is a musical instrument. And they reckon that the fantastic form of the object – with her downward beak and musical foot – suggests the chanter and drones of the bagpipes. The guarding of treasure in line 21 becomes the breath of the performer, which the instrument takes in, controls and releases to musical effect. It’s quite common for birds to be associated with musicality in the riddles – I’m thinking here of Riddle 7’s swan and Riddle 57’s crows or swifts – but bagpipe tunes are perhaps less bird-like in their song than many other types of music.

Here are some very un-bird-like bagpipes in all their epic glory:

Other musical instruments have also been mooted (I love the word mooted, btw…we should all use this word way more often) as the solution, partly because evidence for the use of bagpipes in early medieval England is, shall we say, lacking. But, as Jonathan Wilcox reassures us, this instrument was widespread in agricultural societies and there are plenty of later medieval references and drawings to suggest that early medieval bagpipes were probably a thing (pages 138-40).

In fact, even though there isn’t much evidence for their use in early medieval England, it is very possible that the protruding drones and bird-like feet in the early 11th-century image below could depict the instrument (Wilcox, page 144, note 41):

Bagpipes in Junius Manuscript

Image from the famous Junius Manuscript (p. 57) Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (licence: CC-BY-NC 4.0).

So, we could have a case of the ol’ bagpipes here in Riddle 31.

The other, non-musical instrument option is a Quill Pen and Fingers. Yes, Donald K. Fry grappled with the birdy imagery in this riddle and its references to songs, treasure and flying-not-flying, and decided this is clearly another riddle about the scriptorium. Unfortunately, I can’t get a hold of this article right now (#pandemic), but I’ve written myself a note to follow up on this later.*

Still, I imagine that to read the riddle as a quill pen, we’d assume the riddle’s birdy imagery stems from the feather used to create the quill, with the downward beak as its pointed tip. The references to the bird’s foot could perhaps point toward a feathery wing and line 8-9’s description of the object’s eagerness to perform despite being unable to fly or walk should make us think of feather pens furiously scribbling across a page. All those songs – well those are the words that the pen delivers, a veritable treasure-hoard of ideas.

Hand holding quill pen

Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

While we might imagine the hall setting with its music and feasting as a literal location for the use of the bagpipes, in order to solve the riddle as quill pen, the hall is probably best interpreted as a metaphor for the scriptorium. Songs are still appropriate in this setting if they’re words read out from the page. But the feasting? I don’t really know what to do with that, unless we imagine a scene change that moves us back into a literal hall where a written document is read out to frolickers. Hmm…not sure about that. Give me a shout if you have better ideas.

All in all, I prefer the bagpipes reading myself, in part because Jonathan Wilcox has made such a good case for interpreting the incongruity of this riddle as humorous. The monstrosity of this object with all the wrong sorts of body-parts could be priming us for humour, while the bagpipes attract humour because of the instrument’s “lack of subtlety as an object built on a literal windbag. Bagpipes can encode the windiness of unrestrained speech or the flatulent pouring forth of an unrestrained body” (page 140). The fact that the instrument is compared to bird-like song is all the funnier if you imagine a real bird letting out the sound of a bagpipe.

As a final gift to you, I’d also like to note that Wilcox’s essay led me to a range of truly brilliant medieval images including this fabulous late 11th-century Spanish musical duo:

Drawing of men playing instrument and bird

Illustration in Beatus of Liebena’s Commentary on the Apocalypse from London, British Library Add MS 11695, folio 86r (Photo: © British Library).

A work of genius. Truly, my life is now complete.

*Editorial Note (22 February 2021): I have now tracked down Fry’s article and it chimes with what I said above. Fry notes lots of examples of riddles in both Old English and Anglo-Latin that play with the following motifs: “banquet, bird, inability to speak, and words as treasure” (page 236). He points to a few instances where the tasting of wisdom or words might explain what the feast hall is doing in this riddle. I don’t personally think that any of the examples given are close enough to Riddle 31 to fully explain its scene of feasting, but feel free to read the article and judge for yourselves!


References and Suggested Reading:

Fry, Donald K. “Exeter Riddle 31: Feather-Pen.” In De Gustibus: Essays for Alain Renoir. Edited by J. M. Foley, C. J. Womack, and W. A. Womack. New York: Garland, 1992, pages 234-49.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “Humour and the Exeter Book Riddles: Incongruity in Feþegeorn (R.31).” In Riddles at Work in the Early Medieval Tradition: Words, Ideas, Interactions. Edited by Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020, pages 128-45.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 31 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 32: De spongia


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 32: De spongia

It is time to absorb the wisdom of this great riddle, which is all about a talking sponge and her strange, strange existence. The riddle continues the theme of watery things from the previous riddles on the fish and the siphon. It owes much to an earlier riddle by Symphosius (No. 63), an unknown writer who wrote 100 influential riddles, probably at some point between the third and fifth centuries, and likely in Roman North Africa—but it also adds a typically unconventional Bern riddle take on family relations (see Klein, page 406-7).

“A sponge. Photograph (by Johan) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

The first line immediately draws our interest: who is the mother whose face is so unlike her daughter? A few lines later, the mother is swallowed and then born by her child. In case you didn’t get it already, the mother is the grammatically feminine aqua (“water”), who is soaked up and then squeezed out. Water is also described as a mother in several other riddles, which means that the sponge is the sister of salt (Riddle 4), papyrus (Riddle 27), and ice (Riddle 38). Don’t you just love the strange family relations of the Bern Riddles!

Line 2 describes the sponge’s fleshless viscera (“insides,” “entrails”). Riddles are often interested in the hidden interior world of things. Usually when this word is used in the Bern Riddles, it refers to a hidden thing of some kind, for example, a ship’s cargo (Riddle 11), or a fire-striker’s potential for fire (Riddle 23). Here, rather than describing a thing, it describes a nothing, i.e. the pores, or “hollow insides” (cava viscera), that the sponge uses to circulate water through its body when living. Symphosius includes a similar idea in his riddle—the sponge is patulis diffusa cavernis (“spread out with gaping caverns”) and intus lympha latet (“water hides within”).

Line 5 takes the idea of theft or capture and turns it on its head, as the sponge is “light” (levis) when it is “seized” (manu capta), but it is “heavy” (gravis) when “released” (manu dismissa). Again, this owes something to Symphosius’ riddle, which reads Ipsa gravis non sum, sed aquae mihi pondus inhaeret (“I am not heavy myself, but the weight of water sticks inside me.”). But the addition of the upturned capture/theft element is the Bern riddler’s own invention. The final line then subverts this second time, when the poor sponge is compelled to return its takings. What a brilliant twist to end the riddle on!

“A reminder that talking sponges are not unique to the Middle Ages.”


References and Suggested Reading:

Symphosius, “Aenigma 63: Spongia” In Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Page 47.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 33: De viola


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 33: De viola

Sometimes, riddles can tell the story of an entire lifetime in just a few lines—I call them tiny epics in several of my commentaries (for Riddles 12, 13, 24). Well, this riddle on the violet is another example of a tiny epic. It is also the first of four riddles on flowers.

The opening line explains that the plant grows smaller as it grows old. This seems to be referring to the wilting of the flower, although it may also reflect some other botanical detail, such as their low-growing nature. Sadly, it does not have anything to do with the phrase “shrinking violet,” which was not coined until the turn of the 20th century.

“Violets. Photograph (by Remont) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)”

Line 2 explains that the violet comes before “all the better-dressed sisters” (cunctas… maiori veste sorores), and this theme is continued into lines 3 and 4. On the one hand, the riddle reflects botanical reality— violets typically flower in late winter and early spring, which is much earlier than most plants. On the other, it also borrows from an established literary tradition that presents the growth and flowering of the humble violet as a story of modest, and often chaste, beauty. Perhaps the best example, roughly contemporary with the Bern Riddles, is from a poem about violets written by the sixth century Frankish poet, Venantius Fortunatus, in one of his letters to Radegund, a former Frankish queen who became abbess of Sainte-Croix in Poitiers. In the poem, the violet arises early in spring, and its beauty is not as great as the larger rose or lily, but its nobility and regal purple sets it apart from the others.

If the season bore me the customary white lilies, or the rose were brilliant with dazzling scarlet, I would… send them gladly as a humble gift to the great…
Dyed with regal purple, they exhale a regal scent, and with their leaves pervade all with their scent and with their beauty. May you both have equally both of the things which they bear…
—Venantius Fortunatus, “Poem 8.6” (translated by Judith George)

Similarly, our riddle emphasises the violet’s smallness twice (lines 1 and 5), the conventional beauty of its sister-flowers (line 2), and its early flowering (line 3). It seems likely that the two texts are drawing on the same tradition, even if they are not directly linked.

“Early dog-violets. Photograph (by H. Zell) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

The reference in Line 5-6 to the flower’s “soul” or “energy” (“spiritus”) fits nicely with the idea of modest beauty. However, it also recalls a line from an earlier riddle written by Symphosius, an enigmatic riddler who wrote 100 influential riddles, probably at some point between the third and fifth centuries: Spiritus et magnus, quamvis sim corpore parvo (“My soul is great, although I might have a small body”). Spiritus, which can mean soul, can also mean air or breath too—thus referring to the violet’s fragrance. And this can “show the way” to those who seek the plant, despite being “seen by no one.”

One of the things that I like about this riddle is how carefully the metaphors and double-meanings are crafted—botanical reality is carefully intertwined with ideas about aging, modesty, and the body and soul. It is the kind of riddle that really grows on you!


References and Suggested Reading:

Venantius Fortunatus, “Poem 8.6: To Lady Radegund about violets.” In Judith George (ed. and trans.), Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems. Translated Texts for Historians, Volume 23. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995. Page 70.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 34: De rosa


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 34: De rosa

The second of four riddles on flowers, this one tackles several thorny issues. Roses were grown extensively as garden ornaments and for commercial cultivation in ancient Rome, and they became a common plant in medieval monastic gardens. The Plan of St Gall, an architectural drawing of an ideal monastery from the early ninth century, included several gardens, including a physic garden for roses, as well as lilies and various herbs.

“The physic garden, from the 9th century Plan of St Gall (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1092). Photograph from e-codices, Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)”

As we usually find with other Bern Riddles that use the mother-and-childbirth trope, we are asked to guess the identity of the parent. The mother who bears the beautiful flower in angusto alvo (“in a narrow womb”) is the rose plant, who carries her “child” in the bud. Line two plays upon the meanings of barba, which can mean both “(beard) hair” and the hair on plants. The five embracing arms are the five sepals, i.e. the outer parts of the bud that open, star-shaped, to reveal the flower. The final two lines continue the theme of unconventional childbirth by noting that the rose-child spares her mother “the pain of childbirth” (parturienti dolor).

“Rose buds, showing the long, spiky sepals. Photograph (by JLPC) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

The riddle continues the theme of noble humility from the violet riddle, explaining that the rose family is both lowly and honoured everywhere. The latter probably refers to its use as a decoration, both in monastic gardens and as a cut flower. It may also allude to the rose’s association with the Virgin Mary, although this is not an overt one.

I mentioned thorns in the introduction, but, unusually for a riddle on roses, it doesn’t actually mention thorns at all. In fact, it is really about the rose flower, rather than the whole plant, which it depicts using themes of humility, beauty, and unconventional childbirth. The saying goes “every rose has its thorn,” but that’s not the case for this riddle!”


References and Suggested Reading:

Touw, Mia. “Roses in the Middle Ages.” Economic Botany. Volume 36 (1982). Pages 71–83.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 35: De liliis


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 35: De liliis

The third of four flower riddles, this riddle invites us to consider the lilies. It is a rare example of a plural speaker, along with found in Riddle 25 (letters) and Riddle 61 (stars). As with roses , lilies were often grown for ornamental, culinary, and medical purposes in monastic gardens.

“He’s having a go at the flowers now.”

The riddle begins with a combination of an unusual birth and a juxtaposition of opposites—we are challenged to identify the pater occultus (“secret father”) and patula mater (“open mother”). In another context, the idea of a secret father might hint at some kind of illicit relationship or affair, or perhaps an abandoned child of unknown parentage. The “open mother” might also suggest promiscuity. But, in the case of the lily flower, the father is presumably the bulb and roots hidden in the soil and the mother is the foliage from which the spear-like stem emerges.

“Lilium candidum. Photograph (by Stan Shebs) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

Lines three and four put the lily’s finite flowering period and its wilting into a tragic context—the plant’s flower-children cannot ever live for a long time. I wonder whether the poet expects us to empathise with the lily here, or if they intended our sympathies to vanish with the realisation that the subject is non-human. The question is unanswerable, but it worth considering this whenever non-human riddle-creatures are given voice.

The final lines describe the lily as an object of human desire—a fitting way to describe a flower valued for its beauty. In Riddle 33, humans sought out the violet for its fragrance. Here, they “kiss” the violet “for the sake of love” (causa amoris) when they put their faces close to smell its scent. In return, the lily gives yellow pollen to the lips. Should we ask what is in it for the lily, or is it silly to apply this to plants? Again, this is a very difficult question. Several scholars have remarked how interested the Bern Riddles are with the utility of objects and plants for human beings (Salvador-Bello, page 257-263; Roosli, page 101). By presenting these uses in atypical, anthropomorphic ways, the riddles re-lily make us think about the ethics of the relationship between humans and non-humans.


References and Suggested Reading:

Röösli, Samuel. “The Pot, the Broom, and Other Humans: Concealing Material Objects in the Bern Riddles.” In Secrecy and Surveillance in Medieval and Early Modern England. Edited by Annette Kern-Stähler & Nicole Nyffenegger. Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature (SPELL), Vol. 37 (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2020), pages 87-104.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 36: De croco


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 36: De croco

This riddle brings our flowery quartet of riddles to an end. It also completes the cycle of the seasons—the flower series began with the early-flowering violet of Riddle 33, and now they end with the late-flowering crocus.

“Crocus tommasinianus. Photograph (by Martyn M aka Martyx) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

Like other medieval riddles, the Bern Riddles are interested in secrets and hidden things— which is very appropriate, since riddles themselves are forms of concealment to be revealed by the careful reader. In this case, our riddle subject tells us “I lurk hidden in the shadows” (latens abscondor in umbras), with its limbs buried underground throughout the summer and autumn, before bursting into flower with the beginning of winter. Similarly, the meanings of riddles lie dormant until solved, when they offer up their own “wonderous flowers.” Thus, the riddle also dramatises the process of solving riddles. We often think of self-referentiality as a very postmodern artistic idea—in the way that, for example, a Quentin Tarantino film might refer very self-consciously to the conventions of a particular genre. But riddles have always been a very “meta” form of literature, long before postmodernity existed.

“Saffron harvesting, mid-15th century, from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Lat 9333. 37v. Photograph from BNF Gallica (public domain)”

Lines 5 and 6 describe how the crocus can be harvested for saffron, which is “tiny” (modicus) and “sealed away” (clausus) until the petals open to reveal the saffron-bearing stigmas. Note that the speaker changes from the plant to its product at this point—we saw something similar with Riddle 28’s silk(worm). Saffron was popular across the Mediterranean world, where it was used as a food flavouring and a dye. This suggests a southern European origin for the riddles (Klein, p. 404), although it is certainly not conclusive. Although there is no evidence for it being grown in pre-Conquest England, it was probably imported for dying textiles, since there are references to this in several Anglo-Latin texts (Biggam, pp.19-22).

Sadly, it’s time to say goodbye to the flower riddles once and flor-all. But there is still some continuity—if you turn to the next riddle, you will find that it is just as spicy as this one!


References and Suggested Reading:

Biggam, C.P. “Saffron in Anglo-Saxon England.” Dyes in History and Archaeology, Volume 14 (1996). Pages 19-32.

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 37: De pipere


Date: Wed 10 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 37: De pipere

I love the sharp, woody taste of pepper and I use it in a lot of my cooking. People in medieval Europe clearly felt the same way as I do, since pepper was extraordinarily popular across the continent, and this demand helped drive the lucrative medieval space trade between Asia, North Africa, and Europe. The Spanish encyclopaedist, Isidore of Seville, writing in the first half of the 7th century, warned about unscrupulous merchants adding old pepper to their wares. Less plausibly, he also claimed that pepper plantations in India were defended by fierce snakes who were driven away by setting the pepper on fire (Etymologies, page 349). Pepper seems to have been popular amongst riddlers too—Aldhelm of Malmesbury wrote a riddle on pepper (No. 40), which mentions the use of pepper in sauces and stews.

“Black peppercorns. Photograph (by Xitop753) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)”

The riddle begins by describing the transportation of the pepper using the evocative image of a cold exile, wandering through “foreign lands” (externas terras) when tied up or fettered (vinctus). To my eye, this seems to be playing on the idea of the wandering penitent. Penance in early medieval Europe could be a very arduous act for some, especially if they could not pay a financial restitution. One of the more serious forms of penance was usually reserved for certain types of murder or sexual transgressions, and it involved exile and vagrancy, often in chains and barefoot. The pain from the chains was intended to bring about contrition, and the cold was thought to chasten lust—which may explain why our riddle-creature is frigidus… tactu (“cold to the touch”).

The idea of violent criminals wandering around the countryside cannot have been universally popular, and church authorities made several attempts to end the practice in the ninth and tenth centuries (Hamilton, page 173). One of my favourite early medieval examples of fettered exile is found in a late seventh Irish text, Muirchú moccu Machtheni’s Life of St. Patrick. According to this, Patrick converted a murderous brigand called Macc Cuill (also known as Maughold), who wanted to make restitution for his crimes. Patrick commanded the humbled penitent to chain his feet and throw away the key, and then leave Ireland immediately in a small boat without rudder or oar (ed. Bieler, I.23). Macc Cuill did as he was told, and ended up on an island called Evonia, eventually becoming a bishop. Could this be the kind of penitential exile that the riddler wanted to evoke?

Lines 3 and 4 describe the apparent paradox that pepper is more powerful when beaten and broken. This violent act against a wretched exile becomes a positive act when we recognise that it refers to the pepper’s grinding. This leads to its destruction by stone and wood in line 6—this presumably alludes to its crushing with a mortar and pestle.

“Another riddle-creature that bites! Photograph (by Darwin Bell) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.0)”

Line 5, with its “I bite the biter” (Mordeo mordentem), is a reworking of Symphosius’ riddle on the onion (No. 44), which mordeo mordentes, ultro non mordeo quemquam (“I bite the biters, but I do not bite anyone without cause”). Teeth and biting were a common trope in medieval riddles. Symphosius mentions them in two other riddles, Nos. 60 (saw) and 61 (anchor). Bern Riddle 43 uses them to describe the biting wind. The 8th century Tatwine and Eusebius collections use biting to describe a bell (Tatwine Riddle 7), and a scorpion (Eusebius Riddle 51). And Symphosius’ motif also features in an Old English riddle, No. 65, which is also about an onion.

Cold exiles in fetters, paradoxical beatings and breakings, and biting and teeth. As I’m sure you will agree, there’s a lot to chew on in this riddle.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bieler, Ludwig [ed. and tr.]. The Patrician Texts in The Book of Armagh, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1979. The original Latin is available here and a Modern English translation is available here.

Hamilton, Sarah. The Practice of Penance, 900-1050. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002.

Symphosius, “Aenigmata 44, 60 & 61.” In Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, Pages 45 & 47.

Tatwine, “Aenigma 7.” In Fr. Glorie (ed.). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968, Page 174.

Eusebius, “Aenigma 51.” In Fr. Glorie (ed.). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968. Page 261.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 38: De glacie


Date: Wed 10 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 38: De glacie

Riddle 38 is, to misquote Vanilla Ice’s appallingly bad 1991 smash hit, all about an “ice-baby.” At least, that’s if we believe the titles given in the manuscripts!

This one is a real oddball description of paternity and maternity—the riddle-creature gives birth to her father and mother, whom she then gives up to be cooked on fires (ignibus coquendos) in the summer. What a lovely child! Like so many of the Bern Riddles, we are challenged to work out what this all means.

I’ll admit that I find some aspects of this riddle obscure. My best guess is that the mother (line 2) is “water” (aqua) and the father (line 1) is “cold” (either algus or gelus). If this is the case, then the riddler may well be playing with a putative etymology of the Latin word for ice (glacies) from Isidore of Seville’s 7th century encyclopaedia, The Etymologies—as a combination of “cold” (gelus) and “water” (aqua) (Etymologies, page 274). Another possibility is that the riddle’s solution was wrongly written down, but if so, what else floats or hangs in winter, before cooking its parents in the summer? This riddle appears between riddles on pepper and ivy, so maybe it is a seasonal plant of some kind.

“Is the answer an icicle? Photograph (by Connor Slade) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)”

Other aspects of the riddle are equally obscure. The mother and daughter give birth to one another, and the one cannot “be carried” or “be born” (feror) to the other unless she is “herself carried” or “born” (feratur…ipsa)? This process seems to be cyclic, and perhaps it alludes to a lake of some kind, where the same water becomes ice each year—thus the watery mother and the icy daughter give birth to each other. But how does the daughter give birth to her father? Perhaps the idea is that winter cold creates the ice, which then retains the coldness of winter. However, this doesn’t explain why the father is parvulus (“lowly,” “tiny,” or “young”). The description in line 5 of the creature as “hanging” or “floating” (pendens) is a little easier to explain, as it could apply to an icicle, river ice, or an iceberg.

“Is the answer an iceberg? Photograph (by Andreas Weith) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)”

This is one of the few Bern Riddles that leaves me genuinely perplexed. Perhaps you can make out the meaning of this icy riddle better than I see it? if so, I would love to hear your ideas.


References and Suggested Reading:

Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Edited by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 39: De hedera


Date: Fri 12 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 39: De hedera

After the obscurity of Bern Riddle 38, we now come to the very transparent Bern Riddle 39. When you compare the approaches of the two riddles, it is hard to imagine that they were written by the same person, Indeed, it is quite possible that they were not. If I really had to, I would bet that Riddles 38 and 39 were written by the same author—but I wouldn’t want to put my own money on it! There are some signs that the two riddles are linked, as they share some important vocabulary: both include the verbs vincere (“to defeat, destroy”) and vetari (“to be allowed”). The riddle also contains features found in other Bern Riddles, such as the parents and the seasons motifs, as well as the word plantae (“feet” or “roots”), which is also used in Bern Riddles 10, 11, 51, 52, and 54.

“Ivy and its “father” (or “mother”). Photograph (by Derek Ramsey) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: GNU FDL 1.2)”

Lines 1 and 2 are quite literal. Usually, the Bern Riddles expect us to guess the identity of the riddle-subject’s parents. But here the riddle does everything for us, explaining that the father is a tree (arbor mihi pater) and “the mother is rocky” (lapidea mater). Ivy will climb both tree and stone, and so the two are, in a sense, its parents. The only problem is that the father, arbor, is feminine and the mother, lapis, is masculine. Perhaps the riddler got the two words mixed up, or perhaps it is not as straightforward as I made it out to be! Regardless, this all fits very nicely with the motif of the child destroying its parents, which features in several Bern riddles. Line 2 explains that the ivy is “soft-bodied” and yet it can destroy its “hard” parents. This alludes to the damage that ivy can do to the bark of weakened trees or to the exposed cracks and joins of stonework.

“Ivy and its “mother” (or “father”). Photograph (by Storye Book) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)”

Lines 3 and 4 explain that ivy is perennial and evergreen. The ivy’s imperviousness to the heat of summer contrasts nicely with the parents of Riddle 38’s ice, who are “cooked” by the same heat. But the lines in our riddle do not feel as enigmatic as we would usually expect with the Bern riddles. The final two lines are a bit more cryptic, referring to the fact that ivy does not support itself with its own plantae (“feet” or “roots”), and imagining its clambering creepers as “twisted hands” (manus tortae).

This riddle takes us to the end of the series of plant riddles that began with the violet of Riddle 33. I don’t think that there’s much more to say about Riddle 39, except that it is a bit too literal for my tastes. Then again, maybe it’ll grow on me.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Bern Riddle 40: De muscipula


Date: Wed 17 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 40: De muscipula

I have mixed feelings about this riddle about a mousetrap. On the one hand, I think it is a brilliant read. On the other, I like rodents a lot and so I endorse the use of humane mousetraps, which work just as well as lethal ones. I suppose I am a bit like Chaucer’s prioress in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, who was said to wepe, if that she saugh a mous / Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde (“General Prologue,” lines 144-5). According to Mercedes Salvador-Bello, this riddle begins a long section on miscellaneous things, which continues to the end of the riddles (Salvador Bello, page 263).

Mousetraps are an ancient technology and there are numerous designs. They also featured occasionally in medieval art and literature, usually with reference to the Devil. For example, Augustine described the Cross as a muscipula diaboli (“mousetrap for the devil”) (“Sermon 263,” page 220). On other occasions, the mousetrap is set by the devil to catch unsuspecting souls. But this riddle seems less interested in theology and religious allegory, and more interested in describing the trap itself using paradoxes and cunning wordplay.

“Wood mice are occasionally vagantes (“wanderers”) into human homes. Photograph (by Rasbak) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

This riddle starts off with a nice bit of juxtaposition. Lines 1 and 2 use two contrasting past participles—extensa (“extended,” “stretched out”) and soluta (“loosened, unfastened” “solved,”)—to describe how a trap can only work when placed under load or tension. The verb solvere is particularly common in riddles (see Nos. 3, 22, 42 and 50A) because it casts a knowing wink to the idea of solving riddles. Here, it alludes to the mechanism of the trap, but whether the device is based on a spring, torsion, or deadfall is unclear. Line 1 also describes the mice as vagantes (“wanderers”), which is an apt way of describing those tiny rodent “exiles” who wander about the “foreign lands” of the human home. This, along with the reference to vincula (“bonds, chains”) in the same line, recalls Riddle 37’s wandering pepper—a great example of how the Bern riddler uses overlapping ideas and themes in playful ways.

Lines 3 and 4 describe the trap as a hungry predator, who “has no belly” (venter mihi nullus) but has “many mouths” (multa… ora) to feed itself. Perhaps these mouths are holes in a box, each of which has an individual noose or hammer “to catch limbs” (pro membris…tenendi). The final two lines uses the wealth and poverty trope found in earlier riddles on the sheep (No. 22), parchment (No. 24) silkworm (No. 28). The mousetrap tells us that it is unprofitable “if I am hung up in the air” (si pendor ad auras) but wealthy if “I am left stretched out” (si tensa dimittor). This may indicate that the mechanism is only useful when under tension, or it could simply mean that a mousetrap hung up in the air is useless—you could say that this is de-bait-able.


References and Suggested Reading:

Augustine of Hippo. “Sermon 263. On the Fortieth Day, The Ascension of the Lord.” In Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons (230-272B). Edited and translated by John E. Rotelle. The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. New Rochelle: New City Press, 1993. Pages 219-221.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” In The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Larry D. Benson & F. N. Robinson. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pages 23-36.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Scott-Macnab, David. “Augustine’s Trope of the Crucifixion As a Trap for the Devil and Its Survival in the English Middle Ages.” Viator. Volume 46 (2015). Pages 1-20.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 89


Date: Wed 24 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 89

This is easily the trickiest riddle I’ve had to write a commentary for! How do I analyse and solve such a fragmentary little, burned up scrap? So scrappy is this riddle that many of the early editors of the Exeter Book didn’t bother to include it, let alone solve it.

But I suppose I can start by telling you that those folks who did grapple with Riddle 89 went in for the solutions: Bellows and Leather Bottle. Frederick Tupper, Jr. is responsible for proposing these, basing his tentative suggestions on the words wombe (belly) and leþre (leather) in lines 2-3 (page 229). Bellies come up in A LOT other riddles. In fact, apart from describing the birdy’s colourful belly in The Phoenix (line 307a), the word womb really only appears in poetic riddles and an assortment of prose texts. No. Other. Poetry. Interesting!

Large water-powered bellows

Photo (by Daderot) of water-powered bellows in a reconstructed forge, Saugus Iron Works, Massachusetts, from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

The most intriguing and relevant references to bellies in other riddles appear in Riddles 37 and 87 (lines 1b and 1b), which have both been solved as Bellows, and Riddle 18 (line 3), which has been solved as Jug, Leather Bottle, etc. Nip over and read those now because Riddle 37 especially has a lot to offer us here, with its reference to a wiht (creature) that has a womb (belly) on hindan (in the back/behind; line 1), much like the one in Riddle 89. Bellows is looking like a solid bet.

A 19th-century leather bottle

Here’s a leather water bottle used during the Crimean War, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

The Leather Bottle solution draws on that reference to leþre (leather) in line 3. This word is wonderfully concrete and specific for a riddle full of holes! Except…sigh…Craig Williamson casts doubt on whether we should be translating leþre as “leather” at all. He notes that this word might actually be a form of ly‏þre, which means “evil” or “wicked” (page 383). So that just leaves us with a lot more questions.

But let’s focus on the words that we can translate with certainty. We know that we have a wiht (creature; line 1b) of some sort – this refers to the riddle-subject and could be pretty much anything. This creature has a wombe/belly (line 2a) – so, perhaps a place to store something, literally or metaphorically. Something is located or happening on hindan (at the back of/behind; line 4b) the creature. That’s the opening riddle gambit.

Then we get into the closest this riddle comes to action! Someone – either the creature or another character in this confusing little vignette – grette (line 5a), which is translated here as “approached,” but could also mean “visited,” “touched,” “attacked,” “greeted,” “welcomed,” etc. etc. Line 6b tells us that someone (again, the creature? someone else?) listum worhte/artfully made something. And then in the final three lines we have receiving (þygan) and thanking (þoncade) and food (swæsendum).

From this scanty textual evidence, we can – just about – piece together a reading of the riddle that focuses on a skillfully-made object, which a person handles and fills with something life-sustaining (liquid into a bottle, air into bellows?). So, yeah, I can see how the two tentative solutions come together here.

Engraving of man working bellows

Photo (by Wolfgang Sauber) of a 1st-century forge bellows in an archeological museum in Aquileia, from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Gregory K. Jember, who likes to solve riddles as “Phallus” willy-nilly (harhar, but seriously, he proposes this solution to no fewer than 23 riddles!), also suggests that sexuality is the main motif of Riddle 89 (page 56). It’s true that those other bellies I mentioned above tend to appear in sexual contexts, which is certainly the case of Riddles 37 and 87. In fact, Riddle 37 is pretty obviously fixated on reproduction when it mentions the bellows making sons and fathering himself. It’s a shame to think that we may well have had another hilariously rude riddle to play with if the Exeter Book hadn’t been so badly damaged by the infamous hot poker (not a euphemism).

Okay, so we’ve covered textual evidence, possible solutions and a bit of hanky-panky. What more could you want from a riddle commentary? Well, you might not have known that you want this, but I give you Miller Wolf Oberman’s musings on how he translates fragmentary poems into modern English: “While many translators attempt to smooth over missing language, I am fascinated by the ways in which Old English poetry allows me to walk through its bones, and part of my translation instinct is about paying respect to gaps in these poetic remains, rather than attempting to force a seeming wholeness onto them” (page 278). Oberman’s discussion of his poetic process is fascinating and beautifully expressed – as we might expect from a poet! – and I encourage you to read it as soon as you possibly can. He discusses Riddle 89 in some detail and provides a series of translations that show how he grappled with this riddle and turned it into something new.

I’d like to leave you with a final thought from Oberman: “In some sense, though, all riddles are fragmentary. They operate through withholding crucial and obvious information; they aim to cleverly trick, revealing themselves, and their ‘meaning’ through unusual description, through misdirection, through removal of the ordinary means of communication” (page 278). So, we can read Riddle 89, the fragmentary little scrap that it is, as simply a more difficult puzzle than the riddles that survive intact, with additional layers of obfuscation caused by the manuscript’s fire damage. How profound!


References and Suggested Reading:

Jember, Gregory K., trans. The Old English Riddles: A New Translation. Denver: Society for New Language Study, 1976.

Oberman, Miller Wolf. “Dyre Cræft: New Translations of Exeter Riddle Fragments Modor Monigra (R.84), Se Wiht Wombe Hæfde (R.89), and Brunra Beot (R.92), Accompanied by Notes on Process.” In Riddles at Work in the Early Medieval Tradition: Words, Ideas, Interactions. Edited by Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020, pages 277-87.

Tupper, Frederick Jr, ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1977.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  Riddle 89 

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Exeter Riddle 95


Date: Wed 17 Feb 2021
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 95

Riddle 95’s translation is by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Thanks for taking on the very last Exeter riddle, Brett!

Original text:
Ic eom indryhten           ond eorlum cuð,
ond reste oft;           ricum ond heanum,
folcum gefræge           fere (1) wide,
ond me fremdes (2) ær           freondum stondeð (3)
5     hiþendra hyht,           gif ic habban sceal
blæd in burgum           oþþe beorhtne god. (4)
Nu snottre men           swiþast lufiaþ
midwist mine;           ic monigum sceal
wisdom cyþan;           no þær word sprecað
10     ænig ofer eorðan.           Þeah nu ælda bearn
londbuendra           lastas mine
swiþe secað,           ic swaþe hwilum
mine bemiþe           monna gehwylcum.
I am noble and known to men of rank,
and I rest often; to rich and poor,
to people far and wide I am known,
and to me, formerly estranged from friends, remains
5     the hope of plunderers, if I should have
honour in the cities or bright wealth.
Now wise men above all cherish
my company; to many I must
tell of wisdom, where they speak not a word,
10     nothing throughout the earth. Though now the sons of men,
sons of land-dwellers, eagerly seek
my tracks, I sometimes hide
my trail from all of them.
Click to show riddle solution?
Book, Quill Pen, Riddle (Book), Wandering Singer, Prostitute, Moon


This riddle appears on folio 130v 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 243.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 91: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 120-1.

Translation Notes:

  • (1) The manuscript reads fereð. Williamson takes hiþendra hyht as the subject of fereð wide, translating, “The plunderers’ joy (gold) travels far, and, once estranged from friends, stands on me (shines from me?), if I should have glory in the cities or bright wealth” (pp. 398-99). Murphy translates, “The plunderer’s joy travels widely and stands as a friend to me, who was a stranger’s before, if I am to have success in the cities or possess the bright Lord.” See Patrick J. Murphy’s Unriddling the Exeter Riddles (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), page 87.
  • (2) The manuscript fremdes does not make sense because there is no genitive noun in the sentence. I follow Williamson’s suggestion in reading this as fremde (pages 399-400).
  • (3) Stondeð literally means “stands,” so a literal translation would be “stands on me.” But the meaning may be understood as “remains (to me)” or “falls to my lot” (Williamson, page 400).
  • (4) Here I have followed the suggestion of numerous editors in assuming that beorthne should be beorhte, an adjective describing god, which here means “goods” or “wealth.” See Williamson, page 401.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  brett roscoe  riddle 95 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 95


Date: Thu 18 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 95

Riddle 95’s commentary is by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Go get’em, Brett!

If you like reading riddles, and I mean really like reading them, and you have a habit of reading them over and over again, then this riddle is for you. The last riddle in the Exeter Book is one of those infamous riddles that has (too) many possible answers. Rather than single out one solution, I think it would be best to try on one solution at a time, like shoes, so we can get a feel for how each fits the riddle.

Medieval Scandinavian leather shoes

Like these medieval shoes? Photo of Scandinavian shoes from the National Museum of Denmark, with thanks to Prof. Michael J. Fuller for permission to display them here.

This means that for each solution, the riddle has to be re-read and its details reconsidered, because with each solution the riddle is a new riddle. And so without further ado (and since we have much to do!), let’s begin:

First, the Wandering Singer. A wandering singer is known “far and wide” (fere wide; line 3b), and his lore is valued by “wise men” (snottre men; 7a). The “hope of plunderers” (hiþendra hyht; 5a) can be read as a kenning (a poetic circumlocution, or a way of hinting at something without actually saying it) meaning gold, the payment for which a wandering singer hopes. Finally, a wandering singer may want to hide his tracks if he has been exiled or has reason to fear for his life.

The problem with this solution, in my mind, is that it is too literal. If the Exeter Book riddles are any indication, early medieval riddlers enjoyed using metaphor, paradox, and word-play to trick the riddlee. We have to make our way through figurative twists and turns to get at the answer. And to me the answer of a wandering singer just seems a bit too easy.

Now let’s read the riddle again, this time with Prostitute as the answer. Kevin Kiernan, the scholar who suggests this solution, argues that the lastas in line 11 are “observances” or practices rather than “tracks.” So the speaker hides her practices from others. The hiþendra hyht, which Kiernan translates “the joy of ravagers,” may be a kenning for sexual gratification. With lots of clients, a prostitute can be known “far and wide.” And we can probably guess what happens in a place where “not a word” (no…word) is spoken (9b)!

The intriguing thing about this riddle solution is that it is not exclusive. A number of the Exeter Book riddles have two possible answers, one sexual, intended to make the audience blush, and one more “appropriate,” so to speak (see Riddles 25, 37, 44, 45, 54, 61, 62, and 87). So perhaps Riddle 95 also has two answers, “prostitute” and something less prone to make people blush. Ultimately, however, I don’t find this solution convincing because there is an important difference between the dual-answer riddles and Riddle 95: the sexual content in them is very explicit, even obvious, whereas in Riddle 95 it is difficult to see. That is, if the sexual content is really there at all.

Waxing half-moon over water

A very nice image of the moon from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Ready to read the riddle again? This time, the solution to keep in mind is Moon. As lord of the night sky, the moon could certainly be called indryhten (noble; 1a). It is seen by the rich and poor alike, and when the morning comes, it fades, hiding its tracks (15-16). Frederick Tupper Jr., the strongest supporter of the “moon” solution, points to a number of similarities between this riddle and Riddle 29 (page 104). In both riddles, Tupper observes, the moon is famous, known to all who live on the earth; in both the moon possesses plunder or booty, which is another way of saying that the moon captures light from the sun; and in both the moon disappears from sight, in Riddle 95 hiding its tracks from those who would follow. Moreover, in both riddles the moon desires to settle comfortably in a burg (city) (try comparing lines 5b-6 to Riddle 29's lines 5-6).

This solution, besides fitting a number of the riddles’ details, has the added benefit of being a bit romantic, inviting us to picture a moonlit, starry night. But it is difficult to see what wisdom the moon is supposed to tell of or why wise men would cherish it (lines 7-9a), unless these lines somehow refer to the practice of astrology.

And now it’s time to read the riddle yet again, this time keeping in mind the solution Book. Craig Williamson, a strong supporter of this solution, argues that the hiþendra hyht (which he translates “plunderers’ joy”) refers to gold used as gilding on a book. According to Williamson the gold is the subject of fereð wide (travels far; 3b); it leaves its home (when it is mined) and, separated from its friends (other gold?), is taken far away to be used in book illumination. The idea of gold traveling may seem strange, but there may be a parallel in Riddle 83 (if gold is accepted as the solution). Finally, Riddle 95 says that the gold stondeð (literally “stands”) on the book, which probably means that the gold is gilded onto the pages.

Ornate cover of Lindisfarne Gospels

This decorative binding was added to the Lindisfarne Gospels in the 19th century, since the original treasure case went missing. Photo of London, British Library, Cotton Nero D IV © British Library.

If you’ve been reading the Exeter Book riddles in order, then by the time you get to the last lines of Riddle 95 you might experience déjà vu. That’s because the following of a last (track, footstep) or swaþu (track, trail, trace) is also mentioned in Riddles 26 (lines 7b-9a) and 51 (lines 2b-3a). The answers to these riddles (spoiler alert!) are likely a book or Bible and a quill pen, respectively. So given the link we’ve noticed between these riddles and Riddle 95, we can argue that the solution to Riddle 95 is probably also one of these.

So it’s time to – yes, you’ve guessed it – read the riddle again! This time we can imagine a Quill Pen as the solution. The ink is used to write books that are known to many people (lines 1-2). The hiþendra hyht (hope of plunderers) refers to the ink which is plundered by the pen. Or if the hope of plunderers is the subject of fereð wide (see Murphy’s rendering in the translation note), then it refers to the quill pen itself, a pen that fereð wide (travels widely) over the page as it writes, like a bird flying over the page. Murphy points out that Riddle 26 contains a similar kenning, fugles wyn (bird’s joy), which means a feather. This reading is given extra weight by the fact that a number of riddles, both Old English and Latin, associate birds with writing (for an Old English example see Riddle 26; for Latin examples see Aldhelm’s Riddle 59, Eusebius’ Riddle 35, and Tatwine’s Riddle 6).

There’s just one problem. If the answer to Riddle 95 is a book or a quill pen, why does it sometimes hide its tracks? These lines may refer to the fact that books, and writing in general, can sometimes be elitist, written in a way that only the learned can understand. And sometimes even the learned have trouble understanding what is written. Let’s face it – sometimes texts are confusing, whether they intend to be or not. And to find perfect examples, we need look no further than the Exeter Book riddles themselves. Multiple solutions, manuscript damage, translation difficulties, and cultural differences are just a few of the challenges that face readers of the Old English riddles. And what’s more, the riddle genre deliberately tries to trick its audience, adding an extra layer of difficulty.

The riddles are such a good example of hidden tracks that some have actually solved Riddle 95 as Riddle or Riddle Book. This solution is fitting for the last riddle in the Exeter Book collection, as it invites us to reflect on the nature of riddles. Riddles teach “wisdom” (line 9) by challenging the way we view the world. They encourage us to see a cuckoo as an orphan and an anchor as an exile, to see the suffering of a plough and the wisdom of ink, in short, to see the world afresh and anew, never settling for a “normal” perspective. The Old English riddles in particular invite us to read them again and again, partly because we don’t always agree on the solutions, but also because of the beauty of the poetry. A riddle offers joy to the plunderer (hiþendra hyht), even if we already know the solution.

Front panel of Franks Casket with runic inscription and engraved figures

An image of the delightfully enigmatic Franks Casket with its runic whale riddle from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0).


References and Suggested Reading:

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “Old English Riddle No. 95.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 62 (1947), pages 558-9.

Kiernan, Kevin S. “Cwene: The Old Profession of Exeter Riddle 95.” Modern Philology, vol. 72, issue 4 (1975), pages 384-9.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Tupper, Frederick Jr. “Solutions of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 21, issue 4 (1906), pages 97-105.

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Note that you may also wish to read this article, which was published after this commentary post was first written:

Bitterli, Dieter. "Exeter Book Riddle 95: ‘The Sun’, a New Solution." Anglia, vol. 137, issue 4 (2019), pages 612-38.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  brett roscoe  riddle 95 

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