Commentary for Bern Riddle 59: De luna


Date: Wed 31 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 59: De luna

Unfortunately, by the time that I came to write this commentary, I had used up all my moon puns. Clearly, I didn’t planet very well!

The second moon riddle in the Bern collection, Riddle 59 continues to use the traveller motif found in Riddle 58, but it is all about visibility and invisibility, recurring cycles, and the difference between artificial light and natural moonlight. In my last commentary, I suggested that the last riddle was about the waning and the new moon. This one is more interested in the full moon. Let’s take a look!

“A table used to show the passage of the moon through the zodiac each day. (the age of the moon on the 1st day of a month in the 1st year of the 19-year cycle). From the third section of St. Dunstan's Classbook, a 10th century English miscellany (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Auct. F. 4. 32, folio 20v).Photograph from Digital Bodleian (licence: BY-NC 4.0)”

The riddle opens with the apparent paradox that something can move and yet not be seen moving. This might refer to the monthly new moon or the daily change in the moon’s path, both of which were mentioned in the previous riddle. However, I think it is more likely to be saying that “nobody notices” the moon’s movement because this cannot be discerned with one glance, or even over the space of a few minutes.

The theme of invisibility and imperceptability continues into the second line. The statement that no one can cernere nec vultus per diem signa (“make out the marks of my face during the day”) is not usually true, since the moon is frequently visible during the daytime. The only time that this is never the case is during a full moon because the sun and moon must be on the opposite sides of the earth for the full lunar hemisphere to be illuminated.

“Part of a calendar entry for January. The green text tells the reader that there are 31 regular days and 30 lunar days, i.e. a full lunation, in January (IANUARIUS habet dies XXXI. Luna XXX). From the Thorney Computus, an early 12th century computus manual (Oxford, St John's College MS 17, folio 16r). Photograph from Digital Bodleian (licence: BY-NC 4.0)”

Line 3 repeats an idea from the previous riddle—the moon is a wanderer who takes many paths. But Line 4 is more cryptic, telling us that it travels them all bis iterato per annum, which could mean either “twice per year” or “in two repetitions through the year”. I don’t have a convincing explanation for the first interpretation, but the second could refer to the method that the medieval calendar measured the lunar month on paper. Since a lunar month is just over 29 ½ days in length on average, it was divided into two, alternating “lunations”: the full (30 day) and hollow (29 day) lunations.

The final two lines look back to Riddle 2’s description of the lantern, which told us that nolo me contingat imber nec flamina venti (“I do not wish to meet with the rain nor a blast of wind”). Here, however, the moon’s light cannot be put out by “rain, snow, frost, ice, and lightening (imber, nix, pruina, glacies nec fulgora). It also across to an earlier riddle, Symphosius’s Riddle 67, which describes a lantern as cornibus apta cavis (“ready with curved horns”). The idea is that the lamp is made of protective horn, and the crescent moon is itself “horned.” You can read more about this extended riddle theme in my commentary for Riddle 2.


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.

Symphosius, “Riddle 67” in The Aenigmata: An introduction, Text, and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). Pages 47, 183-4.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 2: De lucerna
Bern Riddle 58: De luna