Commentary for Bern Riddle 61: De umbra


Date: Wed 31 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 61: De umbra

When I read this riddle, I instantly hear Whitesnake’s 80s metal classic, Still of the Night. Make of this what you will!

The solution to this riddle is best thought of as “night” or perhaps “the night’s shadow.” However, it is entitled De umbra (“On the shadow” or “On darkness”) in one manuscript, in a similar way to how Riddle 57’s sun is referred to as De igne (“On fire”) in several copies.

Line 1 begins with the idea that the night likes to stand in “humid or damp places” (humidis… locis). This is followed by a nice piece of misdirection in line 2, which imagines the night as an enormous series of branches that have no connecting trunk. Trees are, of course, very happy to stand in damp places. But why does night like to do this? In my commentaries for Riddle 20 and 44, I explained the concept of celestial dew. Today, we know that dew is formed as temperatures drop during the night, so that water vapour condenses on cooling surfaces. However, early medieval science thought that the dew fell from the moon and stars. This extract from the anonymous De mundi constitutione, a scientific text written at some point between the 9th and 11th centuries and falsely attributed to the Venerable Bede, summarises the concept quite nicely:

 …quod Lune attribuitur eo quod illa sit cribum celestium; alii attribuunt Veneri. Caditque et vespere et mane. Qui, si frigore prevenitur, pruina effictur… Aliud quoque in autumnali volitat tempore quod pueri vocant estatem; unde aranee telas faciunt; quod est fex aeris Sole desiccati. Preterea, ventis imminentibus, inferior iste aer superiori colliditur; unde scintille prosiliunt, que stellarum casum imitantur… et in agris invente flefmatis similitudinem exprimunt; sunt autem res venenose.

  [This is attributed to the Moon in that the Moon is the sieve of the heavenly bodies; others attribute this to Venus. It falls in both the morning and the evening. But if it is overtaken by cold, hoarfrost is produced… Another sort floats around in autumn time, which boys call aestas; from this, spiders make their webs, and it is the residue of air dried up by the sun. Furthermore, when winds are threatening, the lower air strikes the air above; as a result, there spring out sparks, which imitate the falling of the stars… and when found in fields exhibit a similarity to phlegm. These, however, are poisonous things.]
–Pseudo-Bede, De mundi celestris terrestrisque constitutione, pages 30-1.

As you can see, there were several different kinds of celestial dew, all of which were thought to fall from the heavens—and this makes night a very damp time!

“The night sky, viewed from hills near Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. Photograph (by Coconino National Forest) from Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons (licence: BY-SA 3.0)”

The traveller motif appears quite frequently in the Bern riddles, including in Riddles 58 and 59, where the moon is depicted as a swift and rapidly aging wanderer. In lines 3 and 4, the motif is reworked into the idea that no traveller can “stop” or “grasp” (conprendere) the night from coming and going, but it is very capable of stopping other people from travelling, either because they can’t see where they are going or because they fear being robbed by Riddle 57’s robber! Conprendere (“to grasp”) can also mean, by extension, “to see,” and so you could also translate this phrase as “no one can see me…,” which is also true, since darkness is the absence of vision.

“Sunset in the woods in Tok, Alaska, USA. Photograph (by Diego Delso) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)

The idea that humans cannot see the night itself is developed further in lines 5-6. Although the “definite body” (certum corpus) of the darkening sky can be perceived, one cannot see the “entire” night in one glance, since it stretches far beyond the horizon. This idea reminds me of a concept in ecological philosophy, which has also been used to describe natural phenomena in literature: the hyperobject. First used by Timothy Morton in his 2012 book, The Ecological Thought, the term is used to describe complex objects and systems in nature that are too vast to be experienced in their entirety, and which disrupt our very ideas about the nature of things. Examples of hyperobjects include the internet, the English language, and climate change. In our riddle, the hyperobject is the night, which is too vast to be perceived in its entirety—it is described as a series of branches without a trunk in line 2. In this way, a 7th century riddle engages with ideas that are at the cutting edge of ecological theory and ecocriticism in the 21st century.


References and Suggested Reading:

Pseudo-Bede. De mundi celestris terrestrisque constitutione. Edited and translated by Charles Burnett. Warburg Institute Surveys and Texts X. London: The Warburg Institute, 1985.

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.

Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 2013.

Röösli, Samuel. “The Pot, the Broom, and Other Humans: Concealing Material Objects in the Bern Riddles.” In Secrecy and Surveillance in Medieval and Early Modern England. Edited by Annette Kern-Stähler & Nicole Nyffenegger. Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature (SPELL) 37. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2020. 87-104 (page 97).

latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 20: De melle
Bern Riddle 44: De margarita
Bern Riddle 57: De sole
Bern Riddle 58: De luna
Bern Riddle 59: De luna