Commentary for Bern Riddle 54: De insubulis


Date: Wed 31 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 54: De insubulis

Last night, I saw a couple weaving all over the road. I told them to get a loom!

Now that I have got that terrible joke off my chest, I can tell you that although the manuscripts do not give a solution for Riddle 54, just like the previous riddle, it has been suggested that the solution is a weaving loom. Glorie’s and Minst’s 1968 edition of the Bern Riddles attaches the title De insubulo (“weaving beam” or “loom”), and modern scholars generally follow this lead. I agree that it is likely to be a weaving riddle, but I think that the plural “loom beams” (De insubulis) is the most likely solution. Weaving and needlework feature in several other riddles from the 7th and 8th centuries, including Aldhelm’s riddle on the spindle (No. 45), Tatwine’s riddles on needles (Nos. 11 and 13), and possibly Exeter Riddle 56. However, we are still free to consider alternatives—it is certainly not an open and shut case! Like Bern Riddle 53, the riddle is interested in ideas of equilibrium and equality, and so any solution must take this into account.

The looms used in the early European Middle Ages were typically of two kinds: the warp-weighted loom and the vertical two-beam loom. The warp-weighted loom suspended the threads from a wooden “cloth beam” and held them taut by attaching loom-weights to the threads. The beam rotated, allowing the finished cloth to be wound up onto it. The two-beam loom did away with the weights completely. It placed the cloth beam at the bottom of the loom and added a “warp beam” at the top. These two beams were rotated together, so that the upper beam warp let out the warp thread and the lower beam rolled up the woven cloth. On both types of loom, the threads ran through heddles looped around moveable heddle rods, which separated the threads for the warp.

“A traditional, warp-weighted loom from the National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik. Photograph (by Wolfgang Sauber) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: BY-SA 3.0)”

The first thing to notice about this riddle is that it is narrated in the third person. This is unusual for the Bern Riddles, which are almost always written in the first person singular or (occasionally) plural, with only two other exceptions (in Riddle 62 and in lines 4-6 of Riddle 7). It begins by telling us the subjects of the riddle are two brothers, who are born multo sub numero (“under a great number”) and nomine… sub uno divisus (“distinguished under one name”). If we assume that the riddle is about weaving, then these brothers are probably the warp and cloth beams of a two-beam loom. These are both known under one name (insubulum) and they are “born” under a multitude of threads. An alternative explanation is that the brothers are heddle rods (Hyer, page 456).

“A vertical two-beam loom, from the 12th century Eadwine Psalter (Trinity College, Cambridge MS R.17.1, folio 263r.). Photograph from The Wren Digital Library (licence: BY-NC 4.0)”

Lines 3 and 4 are built on a metaphor that inverts the inequalities found in human society. The rich (dives) and poor (pauper) brothers are “pressed” (premuntur) by an “equal effort” (pari labore), or perhaps “oppressed” by an equal labour.” Whereas the poor brother “always has” (semper habet), the rich one “often needs” (saepe requiret). This sounds very much like the weighing scales of Riddle 53. If the brothers are the two beams, then pari labore could allude to them working together to maintain the correct tension in the warp threads, particularly when being turned. The cloth beam is the rich brother, who collects the valuable, completed weave and is still always “asking for more.” The warp beam is the poor brother, who can be said to always “have something to give.”

Line 5 explains that the brothers are headless, but that their body “surrounds” (cingere) their mouth. I wonder whether their mouths are the loops that fasten the tread to the beams, although this is not an entirely satisfactory solution. Line 6 is easier to understand—unlike most humans, the beams only work when horizontal. Clearly, the riddler had a rather warped sense of humour.


References and Suggested Reading:

“Aenigma Tullii 54: De insubulo [Bern Riddle 54].” Translated by Karl J. Minst. In Fr. Glorie (ed.), Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968. Page 601.

Cavell, Megan. Weaving Words and Binding Bodies: The Poetics of Human Experience in Old English Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. Pages 35-8.

Hyer, Maren Clegg. “Riddles.” In Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth, and Maria Hayward (editors), Encyclopedia of Dress and Textiles in the British Isles c. 450-1450. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pages 455-7.

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. “Looms.” In Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth, and Maria Hayward (editors), Encyclopedia of Dress and Textiles in the British Isles c. 450-1450. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pages 344-7.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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