Commentary for Bern Riddle 60: De caelo


Date: Wed 31 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 60: De caelo

This riddle goes way over my head—because it is all about the sky, and specifically the sky during the daytime. It is the sixth of eight astronomical riddles in the collection.

Line 1 tells us that the sky is, like most of us humans, “clothed” or “dressed” (amictus) during the day. This might conceivably refer to the sunlight, the clouds, or its characteristic blue colour. It also has a “public face” (promiscuus vultus), which is the opposite of the previous riddle, which discussed the moon in terms of invisibility. Although I have translated it idiomatically as “I have a public face,” the verb reddor ensures that it literally means “I am returned to a public face,” alluding to the endlessly cyclical nature of the dawn. Line 2 then imagines the daylight as beautifying the “ugly” (turpus) night, which is depicted as a dangerous and rather unpleasant time in Riddle 57.

“The sky, “clothed” with sunlight and cumulus humilis clouds, above Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia. Photograph (by Toby Hudson) from Wiki Commons (licence: BY-SA 3.0)”

Several Bern riddles describe things that carry a burden without any effort—Riddle 24’s parchment carried thousands of words and Riddle 7’s bladder held a great deal of air, both without any difficulty at all. Something similar occurs in line 4, which explains how the sky can be “laden” (onustus) by the clouds, sun, moon, planets, and stars, without being bothered at all by the “heavy weight of things” (pondere sub magno rerum). Oh, what a happy sky! Despite its burden, it does not have a “back” (dorsum) upon which it can carry anything, but only a “face” (vultus). The idea expressed here is that the “dome” of the heavens never appears convex, but only ever concave—we do not see the heavens “from the other side,” as it were.

The final line explains that absolutely everyone—good and bad—can be found under the “roof” (tectum) of the heavens during the daytime. In previous commentaries, I have mentioned that the Bern riddles love to play intertextual games with each other, and this is a great example. It seems to have in mind Riddle 57’s description of the day as a time when criminals cannot plunder. It may also be thinking of the depiction of the heavens as a giant celestial nunnery in Riddle 62. Since religious houses offered sanctuary and shelter to all people, no matter what their crimes, they can also be said to receive “the good with the bad” (cum bonis malos) under their roof.


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.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 7: De vesica
Bern Riddle 24: De membrana
Bern Riddle 57: De sole
Bern Riddle 62: De stellis