Commentary for Bern Riddle 18: De scopa


Date: Fri 22 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 18: De scopa

Those readers who have seen Disney’s Fantasia will know all about the enchanted broom-on-legs whom the sorcerer’s apprentice summons to do his chores, with unintended consequences. Well, this riddle is about another anthropomorphic broom—but this time, the broom does not get the upper hand.

The riddle tells the story of an apparently respectable woman from the woods, who is transformed into a wretched and much-abused servant in the home. It also tells the story of a tree branch that is made into a broom. The riddle is all about power and status. It plays upon the social standing of the maidservant in the home, which it compares to the broom’s “servitude” to humans. As Samuel Röösli explains, the broom and the servant are the same “in that they both suffer a loss of agency and dignity in the interior space to which they are confined and which they must keep lovely” (Röösli, page 99). Often in classical and medieval texts, it is the wild woods and countryside that are associated with dishevelment and a humble station, but here they are linked to the domestic world. The movement from the countryside to the home also has a sexual element to it—the flowering of the branch in nature is juxtaposed against the filthiness of its work as a broom, probably with ideas of virginity and promiscuity in mind.

If we were not aware that the subject is a broom, then lines 4 and 5 of this riddle would be extremely disturbing. The servant-broom’s turpis (‘filthy’ or ‘sordid’) work would be a horrific act of domestic abuse—she is dragged about the floor so that she loses her hair (i.e. the straw or twigs of the broom’s head). Even more concerning is the fact that “everyone” (cuncti) participates in this abuse. The Bern Riddles often give you the sense that all humans are guilty of violent acts against the non-human world–and this is a prime example. They also frequently depict this violence as necessary for human life, as we see in the final line—despite her tribulations, the servant-broom nevertheless makes the home look beautiful. Just as the servant is considered equally lowly and indispensable, so is the humble broom.


References and Suggested Reading:

Röösli, Samuel. “The Pot, the Broom, and Other Humans: Concealing Material Objects in the Bern Riddles.” In Secrecy and Surveillance in Medieval and Early Modern England. Edited by Annette Kern-Stähler & Nicole Nyffenegger. Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature (SPELL) 37. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2020. Pages 87-104.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Bern Riddle 18: De scopa