Commentary for Bern Riddle 36: De croco


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 36: De croco

This riddle brings our flowery quartet of riddles to an end. It also completes the cycle of the seasons—the flower series began with the early-flowering violet of Riddle 33, and now they end with the late-flowering crocus.

“Crocus tommasinianus. Photograph (by Martyn M aka Martyx) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

Like other medieval riddles, the Bern Riddles are interested in secrets and hidden things— which is very appropriate, since riddles themselves are forms of concealment to be revealed by the careful reader. In this case, our riddle subject tells us “I lurk hidden in the shadows” (latens abscondor in umbras), with its limbs buried underground throughout the summer and autumn, before bursting into flower with the beginning of winter. Similarly, the meanings of riddles lie dormant until solved, when they offer up their own “wonderous flowers.” Thus, the riddle also dramatises the process of solving riddles. We often think of self-referentiality as a very postmodern artistic idea—in the way that, for example, a Quentin Tarantino film might refer very self-consciously to the conventions of a particular genre. But riddles have always been a very “meta” form of literature, long before postmodernity existed.

“Saffron harvesting, mid-15th century, from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Lat 9333. 37v. Photograph from BNF Gallica (public domain)”

Lines 5 and 6 describe how the crocus can be harvested for saffron, which is “tiny” (modicus) and “sealed away” (clausus) until the petals open to reveal the saffron-bearing stigmas. Note that the speaker changes from the plant to its product at this point—we saw something similar with Riddle 28’s silk(worm). Saffron was popular across the Mediterranean world, where it was used as a food flavouring and a dye. This suggests a southern European origin for the riddles (Klein, p. 404), although it is certainly not conclusive. Although there is no evidence for it being grown in pre-Conquest England, it was probably imported for dying textiles, since there are references to this in several Anglo-Latin texts (Biggam, pp.19-22).

Sadly, it’s time to say goodbye to the flower riddles once and flor-all. But there is still some continuity—if you turn to the next riddle, you will find that it is just as spicy as this one!


References and Suggested Reading:

Biggam, C.P. “Saffron in Anglo-Saxon England.” Dyes in History and Archaeology, Volume 14 (1996). Pages 19-32.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 26: De sinapi
Bern Riddle 27: De papiro
Bern Riddle 28: De serico/bombyce
Bern Riddle 33: De viola
Bern Riddle 34: De rosa
Bern Riddle 35: De liliis
Bern Riddle 37: De pipere