Commentary for Bern Riddle 12: De grano


Date: Wed 20 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 12: De grano

One of the hallmarks of the early medieval riddle tradition is describing ordinary things in fantastic ways. A description of the humblest object can become an extraordinary drama, full of twists and turns. Our subject today, Riddle 12, is a tiny epic masterpiece. It takes the story of a cereal grain being prepared for sowing and transforms it into a tragic story of parental self-sacrifice. It is the second of a trilogy of riddles on cereal crops, along with Riddles 9 and 17.

Harvest 1
“Two men threshing, from the Calendar-Martyrology of the Abbey of de Saint-Germain-des-Prés (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 12834, fol. 64v.), c. 1270. Photograph (by the Bibliothèque nationale de France) from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

The story is a violent one, just like Bern Riddle 9, which describes milling as a massacre. Are we meant to feel sorry for the grain? After all, we are told that no one mourns it. I think we are, at least momentarily, before we realise the absurdity of it all. The death is the reaping, and the torture is the threshing and winnowing. Since this grain will eventually be sown rather than used for food, the story does not include milling for flour. The grain undergoes all these hardships so it eventually will produce a new cereal crop. However, this noble act is ignored by “all parents” (cuncti parentes), who are glad at the grain’s death. Presumably these parents are the humans, and their rejoicing is the festivals that developed around harvesting and threshing.

The grain’s burial is, as you might have already guessed, its sowing, but the reference to the vilis urna (“cheap or vile urn”) is a bit trickier to explain. In one sense, it seems to be referring to the older, pagan practice of storing the ashes of the dead in cremation urns—the ancient Romans built underground tombs, or columbaria, to store theirs. But how does this refer to agriculture? Perhaps the urn is the furrow into which the grain is sown, although you would expect this to be described as a grave.

Harvest 2
“Two men threshing, from the Luttrell Psalter (British Library, Add. 42130, f.74v), c. 1325-1335. Photograph (by the British Library) from Wikipedia Commons (licence: CC0 1.0)

After all this hardship and sadness, the plot twists dramatically in the final line. Turning the tables on its oppressors, the grain rises from the dead in the maiori forma (“greater form”) of a new cereal plant. This line also has echoes of the Resurrection of Christ—the grain, who has willingly accepted death for the sake of his children and then been entombed, now rises from death. But it would be wrong to claim that the whole riddle is an allegory for Christ, since it is hard to explain why Jesus would be pusillus (“minuscule”) or buried in an urn. Unlike many other medieval riddles, the Bern Riddles are never particularly religious, and they can be quite profane at times. In this respect, they really go against the grain.*

*Shame on me for reusing the pun from my commentary for Riddle 9.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 9: De mola
Bern Riddle 13: De vite
Bern Riddle 17: De cribro