Commentary for Bern Riddle 11: De nave


Date: Fri 15 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 11: De nave

Regular readers of The Riddle Ages will have noticed that I like to communicate ideas using tangentially related music videos. This occasion is no exception—our riddle plays upon what it means to be dead or alive, so take it away, Bon Jovi.

Riddles often use binaries to generate surprising ideas; one of the most common is the binary of living/dead. In Line 1, the dead wood (in the form of a ship) carries a maiorem laborem (“greater burden”) than the living tree did. Interestingly, although death in the early Middle Ages was often depicted as a relief from a lifetime of hardship, here the idea is reversed. The “greater burden” is, of course, all the contents of the ship that it carries. Line 2 continues this theme: the wood does far more work when lying down than standing up. Again, this is the exact opposite of us humans.

Line 3-4 describe the unloading of a ship as if it were an animal being disembowelled. The word viscera (“innards”) occurs on three other occasions in the Bern collection (Riddles 23, 24, and 32)., and each time it is used in a new and creative way. It also appears in Exeter Riddle 90 (the only Latin riddle of the Exeter Book). The various uses of viscera are testament to the importance in riddles of disclosing the hidden interior of things.

“A warship from Peter of Eboli’s Liber ad honorem Augusti in the late 12th century Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 120.II, f. 110r. Image from E-codices (licence: CC BY 3.0.)

The creature tells us that it is intact and inedible once dead, before returning to the theme of travel and feet from the previous riddle. When alive, the creature moves as if it was never there, leaving no marks behind it. This “no traces” trope is very common in the medieval riddle tradition, from Symphosius to the Exeter Book. For example, Symphosius’ Riddle 13, which is also about a ship, tells us that curro vias multas, vestigia nulla relinquens (“I run many roads, leaving no tracks behind”). Alcuin of York even uses it as a trick question in his mathematical puzzles, Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes. He asks, Bos qui tota die arat, quot uestigia faciat in ultima riga (“If an ox ploughs for the whole day, how many footprints does he make in the final furrow?”). The solution is “none,” since the plough that the ox pulls will cover all his footsteps with earth.

This riddle manages to pack so much into six lines: live and death turned upside down, things turned inside out, and a traveller that leaves no traces. If you want to compare it to another very interesting ship riddle, you can read Megan’s commentary for Exeter Riddle 32 here.


References and Suggested Reading:

Eric Reith, "Mediterranean Ship Design in the Middle Ages." In The Oxford Handbook of Maritime Archaeology. Edited by Alexis Catsambis, Ben Ford, and Donny L. Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pages 406-425.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 32
Exeter Riddle 90
Bern Riddle 11: De nave
Bern Riddle 23: De igne
Bern Riddle 24: De membrana
Bern Riddle 32: De spongia