Commentary for Bern Riddle 35: De liliis


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 35: De liliis

The third of four flower riddles, this riddle invites us to consider the lilies. It is a rare example of a plural speaker, along with found in Riddle 25 (letters) and Riddle 61 (stars). As with roses , lilies were often grown for ornamental, culinary, and medical purposes in monastic gardens.

“He’s having a go at the flowers now.”

The riddle begins with a combination of an unusual birth and a juxtaposition of opposites—we are challenged to identify the pater occultus (“secret father”) and patula mater (“open mother”). In another context, the idea of a secret father might hint at some kind of illicit relationship or affair, or perhaps an abandoned child of unknown parentage. The “open mother” might also suggest promiscuity. But, in the case of the lily flower, the father is presumably the bulb and roots hidden in the soil and the mother is the foliage from which the spear-like stem emerges.

“Lilium candidum. Photograph (by Stan Shebs) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

Lines three and four put the lily’s finite flowering period and its wilting into a tragic context—the plant’s flower-children cannot ever live for a long time. I wonder whether the poet expects us to empathise with the lily here, or if they intended our sympathies to vanish with the realisation that the subject is non-human. The question is unanswerable, but it worth considering this whenever non-human riddle-creatures are given voice.

The final lines describe the lily as an object of human desire—a fitting way to describe a flower valued for its beauty. In Riddle 33, humans sought out the violet for its fragrance. Here, they “kiss” the violet “for the sake of love” (causa amoris) when they put their faces close to smell its scent. In return, the lily gives yellow pollen to the lips. Should we ask what is in it for the lily, or is it silly to apply this to plants? Again, this is a very difficult question. Several scholars have remarked how interested the Bern Riddles are with the utility of objects and plants for human beings (Salvador-Bello, page 257-263; Roosli, page 101). By presenting these uses in atypical, anthropomorphic ways, the riddles re-lily make us think about the ethics of the relationship between humans and non-humans.


References and Suggested Reading:

Röösli, Samuel. “The Pot, the Broom, and Other Humans: Concealing Material Objects in the Bern Riddles.” In Secrecy and Surveillance in Medieval and Early Modern England. Edited by Annette Kern-Stähler & Nicole Nyffenegger. Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature (SPELL), Vol. 37 (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2020), pages 87-104.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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