Commentary for Bern Riddle 15: De palma


Date: Thu 21 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 15: De palma

Medievalists love dates. The date of Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor, the dating of Beowulf’s composition, the computation of a date of Easter—we just cannot get enough of them. Well, this riddle is all about the place where dates come from: the date palm!

I have already discussed whether the olive tree and grape vine riddles (Nos. 13 and 14) are evidence of a southern European origin for the Bern Riddles. As with these others, I agree that the presence of a Mediterranean plant would suggest this (see Klein, page 404), but I do not think it is definitive, since the date palm is a common biblical plant.

“Date palm. Photograph (by Balaram Mahalder) from Wikipedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

As with the last three riddles, Riddle 15 describes the generosity of plants. Happily, unlike those, the palm tree is not afflicted with beatings, torture, or mutilation. Instead, we get the image of a beautifully haired woman who happily offers dates to those who ask. The mention of cetera ligna (“other trees”) and poma (“fruits”) in line 2 gives the solution away, but it does make me wonder whether the point of these riddles is not so much to name a solution as to unpick the description and admire the riddle’s ingenuity.

The final two lines allude to sexual relations, which it characteristically turns upside down. Line 5 explains that the date is not sown as one would sow many other crops. The verb serere (“to sow”) can also mean to impregnate or beget, and the noun fructus (“fruit”) can have the transferred sense of both produce and pleasure. Thus, the implied meaning seems to be that the date palm cannot become pregnant or gain pleasure from conventional forms of cis heterosexual sexual intercourse. Line 6 develops this conceit further, explaining that the tree is an amata socia (literally “beloved female companion”) when she is in flore (“in flower”), a term that can also be used to describe maidenly virginity. At the same time, this line alludes to a line in Psalms 92:12: “The righteous will flourish like the palm tree.” Like some of its Old English siblings, this riddle is a clever combination of the sacred and the profane.


References and Suggested Reading:

Klein, Thomas. “Pater Occultus: The Latin Bern Riddles and Their Place in Early Medieval Riddling.” Neophilologus, Volume 103 (2019), 399-407. Page 404.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles