Commentary for Bern Riddle 58: De luna


Date: Wed 31 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 58: De luna

Now we come to the first of two moon riddles—clearly, the riddler was going through a lunar phase. The description of the moon as a rapidly aging traveller is quite straightforward, and the riddle doesn’t use the bizarre imagery and extraordinary paradoxes that we often associate with the Bern collection.

The moon played a critical role in one of the most important and contentious debates in early medieval Europe—the dating of Easter. As I explained in my commentary for Riddle 56, if you want to produce repeatable and perpetual dates for Easter, you need to calculate the age of the moon on the spring equinox. Thus, some of the best minds in medieval Europe dedicated lots of thinking and lots of ink to the age of the moon. To make their calculations, they had to ask all sorts of tricky questions, such as when did one day ended and another began, and at what point an old moon become new.

“The moon, from the 12th century Eadwine Psalter (Trinity College, Cambridge MS R.17.1, folio 5v.). Photograph from The Wren Digital Library (licence: BY-NC 4.0)”

The path of the moon across the sky varies each day, relative to the horizon, the stars, and the time of year. The riddle presents this variability in terms of an unwilling but frequent traveller. The riddle creature tells us that it is always “running many roads” (multas vias... currens) in line 1. In lines 3 and 4, it goes on to describe its rising and setting in terms very similar to Riddle 57’s description of the sun’s movements—rather than moving of its own volition, it is “forced” (conpellari) to set, and it is “dragged back up” (trahi sursum). It makes me feel rather sorry for the poor moon!

“A computus table showing the lunar regulars (the age of the moon on the 1st day of a month in the 1st year of the 19-year cycle). From the B-section of the Leofric Missal, a computistical manual produced at Canterbury in the second half of the 10th century (Oxford, Bodleian Library 579, folio 53r). Photograph from Digital Bodleian (licence: BY-NC 4.0)”

The phrases of the moon are described in terms of youth and old age. In line 2, the moon tells us corpore defecta… conprendo senectam (“I count old age on a declining body”), which would suggest that it is in its final two phases, as it wanes from full to new. Despite its age and its weakening, the moon remains “swift” (velox)—a reference to the moon’s “swift,” 29 ½-day, month as opposed to the sun’s “slow” 365.24-day year. In line 5, the moon ruminates on the “short time” (parvum tempus) of her life, just as we humans are wont to. However, the riddle does not use the typical resurrection trope that we have seen in other riddles. Instead, it explains that the oldest moon is also the youngest. This alludes to the fact that the new moon, before its waxing crescent has appeared, can be said to be both the end of the old lunar month and the beginning of the new one.

So, although it is not the most exciting riddle, it does use the image of the aging traveller to depict two aspects of the moon that can be quite complex—its daily path across the sky and its monthly phases.


References and Suggested Reading:

Mogford, Neville. “The Moon and Stars in the Bern and Eusebius Riddles.” In Riddles at Work in the Early Medieval Tradition: Words, Ideas, Interactions. Edited by Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020. Pages 230-46.

Winterfeld, Paul. “Observationes criticalae.” Philologus vol. 53 (1899), pages 289-95.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 56: De sole
Bern Riddle 59: De luna