Commentary for Bern Riddle 37: De pipere


Date: Wed 10 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 37: De pipere

I love the sharp, woody taste of pepper and I use it in a lot of my cooking. People in medieval Europe clearly felt the same way as I do, since pepper was extraordinarily popular across the continent, and this demand helped drive the lucrative medieval space trade between Asia, North Africa, and Europe. The Spanish encyclopaedist, Isidore of Seville, writing in the first half of the 7th century, warned about unscrupulous merchants adding old pepper to their wares. Less plausibly, he also claimed that pepper plantations in India were defended by fierce snakes who were driven away by setting the pepper on fire (Etymologies, page 349). Pepper seems to have been popular amongst riddlers too—Aldhelm of Malmesbury wrote a riddle on pepper (No. 40), which mentions the use of pepper in sauces and stews.

“Black peppercorns. Photograph (by Xitop753) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)”

The riddle begins by describing the transportation of the pepper using the evocative image of a cold exile, wandering through “foreign lands” (externas terras) when tied up or fettered (vinctus). To my eye, this seems to be playing on the idea of the wandering penitent. Penance in early medieval Europe could be a very arduous act for some, especially if they could not pay a financial restitution. One of the more serious forms of penance was usually reserved for certain types of murder or sexual transgressions, and it involved exile and vagrancy, often in chains and barefoot. The pain from the chains was intended to bring about contrition, and the cold was thought to chasten lust—which may explain why our riddle-creature is frigidus… tactu (“cold to the touch”).

The idea of violent criminals wandering around the countryside cannot have been universally popular, and church authorities made several attempts to end the practice in the ninth and tenth centuries (Hamilton, page 173). One of my favourite early medieval examples of fettered exile is found in a late seventh Irish text, Muirchú moccu Machtheni’s Life of St. Patrick. According to this, Patrick converted a murderous brigand called Macc Cuill (also known as Maughold), who wanted to make restitution for his crimes. Patrick commanded the humbled penitent to chain his feet and throw away the key, and then leave Ireland immediately in a small boat without rudder or oar (ed. Bieler, I.23). Macc Cuill did as he was told, and ended up on an island called Evonia, eventually becoming a bishop. Could this be the kind of penitential exile that the riddler wanted to evoke?

Lines 3 and 4 describe the apparent paradox that pepper is more powerful when beaten and broken. This violent act against a wretched exile becomes a positive act when we recognise that it refers to the pepper’s grinding. This leads to its destruction by stone and wood in line 6—this presumably alludes to its crushing with a mortar and pestle.

“Another riddle-creature that bites! Photograph (by Darwin Bell) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.0)”

Line 5, with its “I bite the biter” (Mordeo mordentem), is a reworking of Symphosius’ riddle on the onion (No. 44), which mordeo mordentes, ultro non mordeo quemquam (“I bite the biters, but I do not bite anyone without cause”). Teeth and biting were a common trope in medieval riddles. Symphosius mentions them in two other riddles, Nos. 60 (saw) and 61 (anchor). Bern Riddle 43 uses them to describe the biting wind. The 8th century Tatwine and Eusebius collections use biting to describe a bell (Tatwine Riddle 7), and a scorpion (Eusebius Riddle 51). And Symphosius’ motif also features in an Old English riddle, No. 65, which is also about an onion.

Cold exiles in fetters, paradoxical beatings and breakings, and biting and teeth. As I’m sure you will agree, there’s a lot to chew on in this riddle.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bieler, Ludwig [ed. and tr.]. The Patrician Texts in The Book of Armagh, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1979. The original Latin is available here and a Modern English translation is available here.

Hamilton, Sarah. The Practice of Penance, 900-1050. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002.

Symphosius, “Aenigmata 44, 60 & 61.” In Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, Pages 45 & 47.

Tatwine, “Aenigma 7.” In Fr. Glorie (ed.). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968, Page 174.

Eusebius, “Aenigma 51.” In Fr. Glorie (ed.). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968. Page 261.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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