Commentary for Bern Riddle 22: De ove


Date: Fri 29 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 22: De ove

Some riddles are very good, and some are just baaaa… Immediately after the three bee riddles (Riddles 19, 20 and 21), we come to another creature who produces a valuable commodity: the sheep.

The opening line tells us that the riddle-subject has little virtus, a word derived from the Latin word vir (“man”), and which can mean “manliness” or “virility” as well as “courage” and “excellence.” This description is easy to grasp. Even though some sheep can be remarkably feisty, sheep are not well-known for their courage—and this was true in the Middle Ages too. For example, Isidore of Seville, writing in the early 7th century, tells us in his Etymologies that the sheep is molle pecus lanis, corpore inerme, animo placidum (“a placid livestock animal with an unarmed body and a peaceful disposition”) (Isidore, Etymologies, page 247). The first line of the riddle also says that the sheep has facultas, which plays on two meanings of the word: “capacity” and “abundance.” The primary meaning seems to be “I have little courage but great resources” but you could also read it as “I have little courage, but I am really capable.”

“A flock of lovely sheep. From a mid-13th century English bestiary, Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 35v. Photograph from Digital Bodleian (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)

The middle section of the riddle depicts the sheep as an itinerant wanderer or pilgrim. The metaphor is a very apt one for an animal who wanders about the field or hillside, always hungry for grass and having given up her “wealth” (i.e. her fleece). Wandering riddle-creatures feature in several other Bern riddles, including Nos. 37 (pepper), 40 (mice), 41 (wind) and 59 (moon). I will be going into more depth on the topic of “wanderers” in my forthcoming commentary on Riddle 37, so watch this space!

In the final two lines, the image of the poor, wandering sheep is juxtaposed against the idea that the sheep has a great wealth, fit for everyone, even kings. Perhaps this image of the humble and placid creature, upon whom we nevertheless all depend, is intended as an allegory for Christ. After all, Jesus is frequently depicted in medieval liturgy and art as the Lamb of God, based the title that John the Baptist is said to have bestowed upon him. However, the fact that the sheep is female might give us second thoughts. This seems to be another example of the riddler playing with the boundaries of the sacred and the profane. What do ewe think?


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.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 19: De cera/De pice
Bern Riddle 20: De melle
Bern Riddle 21: De apibus
Bern Riddle 37: De pipere
Bern Riddle 40: De muscipula
Bern Riddle 41: De vento
Bern Riddle 59: De luna