Commentary for Bern Riddle 48: De castanea


Date: Mon 01 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 48: De castanea

Unlike the previous riddle, this one really is an old chestnut—because it is about one! It has a vibe and an organisation that strikes me as unusual for the Bern Riddles: it begins with a framed, metatextual opening (lines 1-2), then describes four pairs of contrary attributes across four half-lines (lines 3-4), before summarising this again in a different way (lines 5-6).

“Chestnut. Photograph (by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-NC 3.0)”

The Exeter Book Riddles often talk about themselves as riddles, and they frequently challenge the reader to saga hwæt ic hatte (“say what I am called”). Other collections do this too, albeit less often. For example, Tatwine’s riddle on the rays of the sun (No. 40) ask: plausu, quid sum, pandite sophi (“unfold with applause wise ones, what I am”). The Bern Riddles rarely do this, but Riddle 48 is an exception—it tells us that “logic” (ratio) requires the riddle’s solution to be revealed “in a few words” (paucis… verbis).

Lines 3 and 4 are comprised of four binary pairs, all of which are solved in the same way. They ask us what is wet and dry, fat and slim, bitter and sweet, and soft and hard. The solution for all four is that the first word refers to the soft inner flesh of the nut, and the second to its hard skin, which the riddle describes as a gestamen (“outfit,” “burden,” “vehicle”).

“Cooking chestnuts, in a 15th century French copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis (Bibliothèque Municipale Rouen, Leber 1088). Photograph from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)”

The final lines revisit two of the ideas already discussed: sweetness and bitterness, and hardness. They then add two new themes, growth and imprisonment, using these to play gently upon the meanings of dulcis (“sweet,” “pleasant”), durus (“hard,” “stern”) and amarus (“bitter-tasting,” “harsh,” “awful”), asking how something so delightful can grow in a severe and terrible prison.

At this point, I should get it off my chest that this is nut one of my favourite riddles—although perhaps you might disagree. It manages to pack a lot of ideas within a very tight structure, but it also lacks the eclectic creativity that makes the Bern riddles so unique. However, it does raise some interesting questions about authorship. Is it so different that it must have been written by a different author? I am not really convinced that it is different in every respect, since it shares quite a bit of core vocabulary with others in the collection (conclusa, figuras, humida, sicca, mollis, dulcis, crescere, nascor). But a lot more work needs to be done on the authorship of the Bern Riddles before we can arrive at a proper answer!


References and Suggested Reading:

Klein, Thomas. “Pater Occultus: The Latin Bern Riddles and Their Place in Early Medieval Riddling.” Neophilologus 103 (2019), 339-417, page 415.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 14
Bern Riddle 5: De mensa
Bern Riddle 24: De membrana
Bern Riddle 48: De castanea