Commentary for Bern Riddle 2: De lucerna


Date: Fri 18 Dec 2020
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 2: De lucerna

In the last riddle, we met a rather unusual pot. Now, we get to meet the pot’s equally unusual half-sister—the lamp.

The first rule of medieval studies is: 'You do not talk about “The Dark Ages.”' The second rule of medieval studies is: 'You do not talk about “The Dark Ages.”' This is because the term suggests that the Middle Ages were a time of great ignorance or mystery—and, for the most part, they weren’t!


But, for the sake of an awful joke, I am going to break all the rules. So, I will introduce this commentary by saying: “If you're living in the Dark Ages, you’re going to need a good lamp.”

There is some truth to this. In early medieval Europe, candles and oil lamps were an important source of illumination for all kinds of people, from night-watchmen to manuscript-reading nuns, and they held great cultural and religious significance too. So, it should come as no surprise that riddles were written about them. One early riddler, Symphosius, wrote a lantern riddle (Symphosius Riddle 67). Another, Aldhelm of Malmesbury, wrote a riddle on the candle (Aldhelm Riddle 52).

Like many other Bern riddles, we are expected to guess the identity if the speaker’s mother and father. The obvious choice for a father is fire (ignis), whose flickering form is different to the shining appearance of the lamp. The “old mother” (vetus mater) is a bit trickier. She could be heat (calor) or a candle (candela) from which it is lit, since both of which are grammatically feminine. Another possibility is the olive (oliva) from which the fuel is made. The “seed” (germen) from which the lamp is formed is probably the “spark” (scintilla) from which it is lit.

Line 4 tells us that the flame comes from an “open mouth” (patulo… ore). This would strongly suggest an oil lamp, which burns its fuel using a wick, which sticks out of a hole in the lamp’s body.

Roman oil lamp
Roman oil lamp from the Museu Nacional Arqueològic de Tarragona. Photo (by Ángel M. Felicísimo) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.0)

Line 5 explains that the lamp is useless if it gets extinguished by the wind or rain. To protext their flames from the elements, lamps were sometimes housed in storm-lanterns constructed from glass or thin, scraped animal horn. Isidore of Seville mentions glass lanterns in his 7th century encyclopedia, The Etymologies (page 402). Similarly, Alfred the Great’s bibliographer, Asser, tells an elaborate story of how Alfred is said to have ordered a special lantern to be made of wood and ox-horn, since his candle-clock kept on being blown out by the wind (Keynes and Lapidge, page 108). Alfred was certainly not the first person to think of this—horn lamps were used from antiquity. The oldest example in Britain was discovered in the summer of 2010, when a metal detector enthusiast found a bronze Roman lamp in a field near Sunbury, Suffolk. Originally, this lantern would have been surrounded by a thin layer of scraped horn.

But why am I talking about storm-lanterns here? After all, they are conspicuously absent in Bern Riddle 2. Well, the lamp is trying to draw our attention to another riddle, Bern Riddle 59. This riddle depicts the moon as if it were a lantern, protected by a special “shell” (testudo). The shell protects it from “rain, snow, frost, ice, and lightning” (imber, nix, pruina, glacies… fulgora) (line 5). When we read the two riddles together, we see that the moon—which is unaffected by the weather—is a better source of light than the lamp is!

Crescent moon
Crescent or “horned” moon. Photo (by Nirupam Sarker) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)

It gets even more complicated when you realise that this is also a response to another riddle, Symphosius Riddle 67, which depicts a lantern as if it were the moon. The conceit is that the lantern is made of horn and the moon is “horned.” We will return to this riddle in the commentary for Bern Riddle 59.

The final line of Bern Riddle 2 is also speaking to yet another riddle. It calls the lamp a ‘friend of light’ (amica lucis). This phrase is also used (in a very different way) to describe the papyrus in Bern Riddle 27. Papyrus was a common wicking material in lamps—filling the hole of line 4.

So, there we have it! Riddle 2 starts off with the puzzle of the lamp’s parentage, and it ends with a series of intertextual puzzles. And this is one of the fascinating things about medieval riddles—they are always whispering to each other. And if we listen carefully, we can hear them chatter.


References and Suggested Reading:

Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Edited by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Keynes, Simon and Lapidge, Michael, eds. and trans. Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Mogford, Neville. “The Moon and Stars in the Bern and Eusebius Riddles” in Riddles at Work in the Early Medieval Tradition: Words, Ideas, Interactions. Edited by Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020.

Symphosius, “Riddle 67” in The Aenigmata: An introduction, Text, and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pages 47 & 183-4.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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