Commentary for Bern Riddle 53: De trutina


Date: Wed 31 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 53: De trutina

Don’t think that the Exeter Book riddles are the only riddles in town with contested solutions! Like several other Bern riddles, Riddle 53 does not have a title in the manuscripts and so its solution is somewhat uncertain. In his 1886 edition of the riddles, Willhelm Meyer guessed that this riddle describes a pestle (Meyer, page 428), based on similarities to the final line of an earlier Latin riddle, Symphosius’ Riddle 87. However, as Karl Minst pointed out, a pestle does not have two limbs and it does not determine “profit” and “loss” (Glorie, page 600). P. Brandt suggested the solution “scales” in his 1883 edition (Brandt, page 129), and most subsequent scholars have agreed with him.

Lots of Bern riddles use the human body to describe their non-human subjects—it is one of the many ways that they imagine ordinary objects in fantastic ways. Our enigmatic riddle creature begins by telling us that she has no “belly” (venter) or “guts” (praecordia). This reminds me of Riddle 32’s hollow sponge, as well as the many other Bern riddles that describe the bellies and insides of things. Riddle 11’s ship, for example, carried its cargo as its viscera (“guts”). If Riddle 53’s solution is “scales,” then the absent “belly” and “guts” are, presumably, the weights and measures that it balances. The creature is either carried “when dry, in a thin body” or carried “in a thin body when dry” (tenui… in corpore sicca), depending on how one prefers to interpret the syntax. “Dry” seems to refer to the scales’ state when unloaded, and the “thin body” is their long beam.

“Scales, as the Zodiac sign of Libra, from a 13th of 14th century German manuscript (Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 30, folio 6r). Photograph (by e-codices) from Flickr (licence: BY-NC 2.0)"

Line 3 explains that the creature stores all kinds of food, yet she is never hungry. Line 4 then goes on to provide perhaps the most helpful clues of all: she grants both “profit” (lucrum) and “loss” (damnum) whilst “running in one place” (loco currens uno). Not only do scales have a critical role in many kinds of economic transactions, but they work by moving up and down “in the same place.” The final two lines seem to confirm this solution—scales have two weighing pans, or “limbs” (membra), hanging from them, and both sides of the beam (the “head” and “feet”) must be of a similar length and weight to achieve equilibrium.

So, there we have it! On the balance of things, having measured up all the options, I think that “scales” is the most likely solution. But that does not mean that the riddle has been definitively solved. I will leave you to weigh up the possibilities and decide for yourself.


References and Suggested Reading:

“Aenigma Tullii 53: De trutina [Bern Riddle 53].” Translated by Karl J. Minst. In Fr. Glorie (ed.), Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968. Page 600.

Brandt, P. "Aenigmata Latina hexasticha." In Tirocinium philologum sodalium Regii Seminarii Bonnensis. Berlin: Weidmann, 1883. Pages 101-33. Available online here.

Manitus, Max. “Berner Rätsel.” In Geschichte der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters, Volume 1. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1911. Pages 192-3.

Meyer, Willhelm. “Anfang und Ursprung der lateinischen und griechishen rhthmischen Dichtung.” In Abhandlungen der Philosophisch-Philologischen Classe der Koniglich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Volume 17 (1886), 265-450, Pages 412-30. Available online here.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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