Commentary for Bern Riddle 14: De oliva


Date: Thu 21 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 14: De oliva

We have already had riddles about cereal grains and grape vines, and now it is the turn of the top of the crops—the olive tree! Olives were a key crop for many medieval Mediterranean communities, and consequently some scholars have taken this as evidence that the Bern Riddles were composed in southern Europe (see Klein, page 404). I agree that an Italian origin for the riddles is the most likely explanation, but the olive riddle is not definitive evidence—northern European Christians would be very familiar with the numerous biblical references to olives and olive trees. They would also have been familiar with olive oil, which was particularly valued as a fuel for lamps, as well as its liturgical use as holy oil. As a result, olive oil became closely connected with Christian identity and prestige, and churchmen around early medieval Europe went to great lengths to obtain it (Graham, pages 344-66). In England, it does not seem to have been used for cooking, but there is good evidence for its importation throughout the pre-Conquest medieval period (Gautier, pages 393-4).

“Olives. Photograph (by Kos) from Wikipedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

The first four lines play with the fact that the olives are harvested in the autumn and winter, when they begin to ripen. The parental trope so common to these riddles is used to describe how the children (i.e. the olives) are not born until the end of the year, when the “sea storm” rages, rather than in the summer and autumn like many crops. The idea that the tree’s children are “noble” (inlustris) and “excellent” (superbus) probably alludes to the anointing of kings and priests with olive oil in the Old Testament, and perhaps also its sacramental role as the chrism. Since olive trees do not need too much attention, at least when compared to grapes and grain, anyone can “tame” or “conquer” (domare) their children by cultivating and picking them.

Line 5 may relate to the process of ripening, but I think it is more likely that it refers to the process of milling, pressing, and decanting the olives (“hard sons”) to produce olive oil (“soft grandchildren”). This leads nicely into line 6, which describes the oil’s use. It can “restore light” because the oil can be used as fuel for lamps—recalling Riddle 2’s oil lamp. And it can restore salutem (“safety” or “health”)—a phrase that may allude either to oil’s use as a preservative for food and leather or its liturgical use.

This riddle is interesting in that, whilst we are very familiar with olives today, we probably attach a different sense of importance to them. In the twenty-first century, we think of olives as primarily a food and a source of cooking oil. They were used in this way in the medieval period too, but this is not mentioned—its role in artificial light was much more important. And this is another reason why olive this riddle so much!


References and Suggested Reading:

Gautier, Alban. “Cooking and Cuisine in Late Anglo-Saxon England.” Anglo-Saxon England, Volume 41 (2012). Pages 373-406.

Graham, Benjamin. “Olives and Lighting in Dark Age Europe.” Early Medieval Europe, Volume 28 (2020). Pages 344-366.

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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