Commentary for Bern Riddle 51: De alio


Date: Wed 31 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 51: De alio

How to sum up this riddle in a song? After a lot of thought, the best that I could come up with was: “It’s getting hot in here / So take off all your cloves…” Yes, I know. I’m a punning genius...

Although this riddle doesn’t have a title in its manuscripts, the solution is almost certainly garlic. Garlic was a common foodstuff and medicinal ingredient in the Mediterranean world from classical times. Famously, the poet Horace was not a fan—he wrote a verse that compared the plant to hemlock and other deadly poisons (“Epode 3,” pages 278-9)! During the European Middle Ages, garlic was used in a wide variety of sauces, and monks often grew it in their medicinal gardens. Cultivated garlic was also known in England, where it was referred to as garleac, which is a compound of gar (“spear”) and leac (“leek”).

Garlic features in two other riddles: Symphosius’ Riddle 95 and Exeter Riddle 86. Both describe a one-eyed garlic seller as a creature with thousands of heads—you can read Megan’s commentary on these extraordinary riddles here. As we will see, the Bern riddler was probably familiar with Symphosius’ riddle.

“Garlic clove. Photograph (by Thamizhpparithi Maari) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: BY SA 4.0)”

The riddle begins with three wonderful sub-riddles, each of which relates to a different part of the plant. We are asked to name the mother and the “complex garment” (multiplex vestis), and we are also expected to explain the cryptic reference to its body in line 2. The mother is the garlic plant. Although the Latin word for garlic, alium, is neuter, herba (“plant, herb”) is a feminine noun and plants are described as mothers in several other riddles. The garment is the clove, which holds the individual bulbs together—thus, the garlic can be said to lose its “body” when it is without its clothing.

As with so many of the Bern riddles, Riddle 51 subverts the image of childbirth in an unexpected way, which it challenges us to explain. In line 3, the child is said to carry its parents in its belly. This refers to the bulbs, which will themselves grow into new parent-plants when buried in line 4. The image of something buried that will later come back to life also hints at the Resurrection of Christ, just as we found in Riddles 6, 12, 13 and 20.

Garlic 2
“Harvesting garlic in a 15th century French copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9333, folio 23). Photograph from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)”

You may remember how “heads became feet” for the hammer of Riddle 46. Something similar happens here: in lines 5 and 6, the garlic is prevented from “growing high” (superis crescere) because its “head” (caput) is placed under its “feet” (plantae). This plays on the fact that the low growing “shoots” (plantae) of the garlic are above ground, whereas the clove grows below it. It may also have Symphosius’ garlicy reference to “many thousands of heads” (capitum… milia multa) in mind.

In my opinion, you would have to be a vampire to dislike this riddle! The great thing about it, and about the Bern collection generally, is that a very ordinary thing can be depicted in such creative, unusual, and subversive ways. After reading this riddle, you can never look at garlic in the same way again!


References and Suggested Reading:

Adamson, Melitta Weiss Adamson. Food in Medieval Times. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Horace, “Epode 3”. In Odes and Epodes. Edited and translated by Niall Rudd. Loeb Classical Library 33. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Rivlin, Richard S. “Historical Perspective on the Use of Garlic.” The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 131, 2001. Pages 951–954.

Symphosius, “Riddle 95” in The Aenigmata: An introduction, Text, and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). Page 51.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Exeter Riddle 86
Bern Riddle 6: De calice
Bern Riddle 12: De grano
Bern Riddle 13: De vite
Bern Riddle 20: De melle
Bern Riddle 50A: De charta