Commentary for Bern Riddle 3: De sale


Date: Fri 18 Dec 2020
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 3: De sale

For this riddle, we turn to sodium chloride—or plain ol’ salt.

For the third riddle in a row, we are asked to work out who the father and the mother are in the opening lines. The father is probably the sun, who heats up the sea water, leaving a residue of salt. The mother is the sea water (aqua marina), who ‘gives away’ salt-marks with the ebbing tide. Thus, salt is the child of a curious marriage between two opposing elements—fire and water. The riddler may have also had an etymological connection in mind—according to Isidore, some people thought that sal (‘salt’) was derived from salum (“ocean”) and sol (“sun”) (Isidore, Etymologies, page 318).

Lines 3 and 4 play upon the dissolving and precipitating of salt in water—the Latin words used are solvere (‘to loosen’) and constingere (‘to tie up’) from which we get the modern words ‘solution’ and ‘constrict.’ The processes of binding and unbinding are often used in riddle descriptions, probably because they can also describe the process of composing (“binding”) and solving (“unbinding”) riddles. For example, the mousetrap in Bern Riddle 40 is described as soluta (“unbound”) when it is not set to catch mice.

Lines 5 and 6 focus on the usefulness of salt for humans. Salt was used extensively as a flavouring and as a food preservative for food during the Middle Ages. Cheeses, meats, fish, and many vegetables could all be salted and then stored for several weeks or even months. In a world without fridges, this made salt an indispensable resource for many communities, and so the salt industry and trade were extremely important. So much so, in fact, that this riddle tells us that a country cannot flourish without it. Salt was also used to prevent cadavers from swelling—and this explains the reference to the deceased in line 5.

This is certainly not the most original or inventive riddle in the Bern collection—it is not as playfully metaphorical or outlandishly weird as some of the others. But it does tell us a lot about the importance of salt in early medieval Europe. It also still manages to disguise its subject in some very creative ways… and no riddle worth its salt would do otherwise.

Salt 2
“Medieval salt.” Photo by Neville Mogford.


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.

Winferfeld, Paul. “Observationes criticalae.” Philologus vol. 53 (1899), pages 289-95.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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