Commentary for Bern Riddle 34: De rosa


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 34: De rosa

The second of four riddles on flowers, this one tackles several thorny issues. Roses were grown extensively as garden ornaments and for commercial cultivation in ancient Rome, and they became a common plant in medieval monastic gardens. The Plan of St Gall, an architectural drawing of an ideal monastery from the early ninth century, included several gardens, including a physic garden for roses, as well as lilies and various herbs.

“The physic garden, from the 9th century Plan of St Gall (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1092). Photograph from e-codices, Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)”

As we usually find with other Bern Riddles that use the mother-and-childbirth trope, we are asked to guess the identity of the parent. The mother who bears the beautiful flower in angusto alvo (“in a narrow womb”) is the rose plant, who carries her “child” in the bud. Line two plays upon the meanings of barba, which can mean both “(beard) hair” and the hair on plants. The five embracing arms are the five sepals, i.e. the outer parts of the bud that open, star-shaped, to reveal the flower. The final two lines continue the theme of unconventional childbirth by noting that the rose-child spares her mother “the pain of childbirth” (parturienti dolor).

“Rose buds, showing the long, spiky sepals. Photograph (by JLPC) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

The riddle continues the theme of noble humility from the violet riddle, explaining that the rose family is both lowly and honoured everywhere. The latter probably refers to its use as a decoration, both in monastic gardens and as a cut flower. It may also allude to the rose’s association with the Virgin Mary, although this is not an overt one.

I mentioned thorns in the introduction, but, unusually for a riddle on roses, it doesn’t actually mention thorns at all. In fact, it is really about the rose flower, rather than the whole plant, which it depicts using themes of humility, beauty, and unconventional childbirth. The saying goes “every rose has its thorn,” but that’s not the case for this riddle!”


References and Suggested Reading:

Touw, Mia. “Roses in the Middle Ages.” Economic Botany. Volume 36 (1982). Pages 71–83.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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