Commentary for Bern Riddle 24: De membrana


Date: Mon 08 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 24: De membrana

This riddle is about a very special material that preserves the thoughts, memories, and imaginations of people who lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Yes, you guessed it—this riddle is all about parchment!

One of the fascinating things about the Bern Riddles are their interrelatedness—they love to talk about each other! They love using similar phrases and themes to express the properties of very different objects, and this generates unexpected and surprising connections. Today’s riddle continues the theme of life and death from the previous riddle about fire). Its first and fifth lines also the theme of livestock bringing wealth to all, including kings, from the sheep riddle (No. 22). And it contains the same phrase, “stripped of clothes” (vestibus exuta) as we saw with Riddle 5’s table. Fires, sheep, tables—all have something in common with parchment.

Parchment 1
“Goatskin parchment stretched on a wooden frame. Photograph (by Michal Maňas) from Wiki Commons (licence: CC BY 2.5)”

Preparing parchment was a complicated and specialist activity in early medieval Europe. The skin of goats, sheep, and calves was usually treated with a lime solution, before having as much hair removed as possible. It was then stretched on a frame and washed, scraped with a special curved knife, and stretched over several days, before the parchment was thin enough and smooth enough for use.

There are other medieval riddles about parchment, and they all describe the process of its manufacture. The parchment of Tatwine’s Riddle 5 complains that its killer “stripped me of clothing” (exuviis me… spoliavit), before scraping, ruling, and then writing upon it. Exeter Riddle 26 describes the process in a similar way, but it goes into more detail, explaining that feond sum (“a certain enemy”) soaked it and removed its hairs, before scraping it and cutting it to size. Bern Riddle 24, on the other hand, manages to compress this process into two lines (3-4). The hairs are removed from the skin (“stripped of clothes”), which is “stretched our by many a bond” as it hangs on the frame (“my insides hang out”). It has been gladio desecta, literally “cut away by a sword.” However, I have translated this phrase idiomatically as “mown,” under the assumption that it describes the process of scraping as if the parchment were a field being harvested.

Parchment 2
“A riddle about parchment, on parchment. Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 611, f. 76v. Photograph from E-codices (licence: CC BY 3.0)”

All three riddles end with the parchment being used for writing and reading. In Tatwine 5, the words become nourishing victum… et medelam (‘food and medicine’). And Exeter 26 closes with a long series of gifts that the book gives to its reader. Unlike the others, Bern does not glorify the spiritual benefits that a book can bring. Instead, its final line describes the paradox of a book carrying many thousands of letters and words that are all effectively weightless. It recalls Riddle 7’s bladder, which carries the apparently weightless air when it is inflated. What an apt ending for a riddle that likes talking to other riddles so much!


References and Suggested Reading:

De Hamel, Christopher.Making Medieval Manuscripts. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2018.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Exeter Riddle 26
Bern Riddle 5: De mensa
Bern Riddle 7: De vesica
Bern Riddle 22: De ove
Bern Riddle 23: De igne