Commentary for Bern Riddle 16: De cedride


Date: Thu 21 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 16: De cedride

As readers may already know, the Old English riddles of The Exeter Book do not have their solutions included. Because Latin riddles usually include these in their titles, people often think—wrongly, in my opinion—that they are somehow less enigmatic and mysterious. But what about those cases where the titles do not appear to be correct? Well, Bern Riddle 16 is a great example of this. In the past 1500 or so years, people have understood this riddle to be about, variously, the cedar tree, cedar oil, juniper berry, and the lemon. See what you think!

“Lemon tree. Photograph (by Allentchang) from Wikipedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

The manuscript title is Cedrus (“cedar tree”) and De cedris (“about the cedar”). But when you read the riddle, it does not seem to be about a tree at all, but rather what it produces. Some scholars have assumed that the correct title is “about cedar oil” (cedriis), but this cannot be correct. Firstly, the description does not match this—for example, oil does not have a caro (“body,” “flesh”) that can be cut. Secondly, cedrium is a neuter noun, and the speaker of the riddle is unmistakably feminine singular. (I told you in the commentary to Riddle 1 that the gender of Latin nouns would come in useful!) Other scholars have corrected the title to De citria (“about the citron fruit”), which matches the riddle creature’s grammatical gender and explains the reference to spinae iniquae (“painful thorns”), acetus sapor (“sour or bitter taste”) and teres forma (“round form”) (Meyer, page 420; Salvador Bello, page 260). A third solution, which is preferred by Glorie (page 562) and Klein (page 403-4), is De cedride (“about the juniper/cedar berry”). If this is correct, then it would suggest that, at some point in the manuscript transmission, the ablative cedris (“cedar”) became confused with the nominative cedris (“juniper berry”). This is the solution that I have followed here.

“Juniper berries. Photograph (by MPF) from Wikipedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

The riddle begins with a seemingly unpleasant childhood spent within thorns and needles, which refers to the needles of the juniper tree. It may also allude to the biblical Crown of Thorns—another example of how these riddles play with ideas of the sacred and profane. Most manuscripts give mater (“mother”) in line 1, but at least one manuscript gives pater (“father”). My guess is that pater is correct because the Latin for the juniper tree (cedrus) is also masculine—and the juniper tree is the parent of the berry. The cera rubens (“red wax”) in line 3 is the berry itself, which does not ooze its “blood” when cut; it must be crushed with a pestle to extract its juice. Juniper berry juice has been used throughout history as a flavouring and as an ingredient in various kinds of medicine. It is also extremely sour, as lines 5 and 6 explain. Personally, I prefer mine in the form of a gin & tonic, ideally whilst lying in the sun and reading riddles on a hot summer’s day!


References and Suggested Reading:

Fr. Glorie (ed.). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968. Page 562.

Klein, Thomas. “Pater Occultus: The Latin Bern Riddles and Their Place in Early Medieval Riddling.” Neophilologus, Volume 103 (2019), 399-407. Page 404-5.

Meyer, Willhelm. “Anfang und Ursprung der lateinischen und griechishen rhthmischen Dichtung.” In Abhandlungen der Philosophisch-Philologischen Classe der Koniglich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Volume 17 (1886), 265-450. Page 420.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2015. Page 260.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles