Commentary for Lorsch Riddle 12


Date: Wed 30 Jun 2021
Matching Riddle: Lorsch Riddle 12

You can devise the most fiendishly beautiful riddle. You can have the most elaborate pen and the finest vellum. But that’s still not enough. If you want to write a medieval riddle collection, then you’re going to need a good supply of… INK!

Ink in early medieval England was produced in two different ways. The first, easier way was to grind charcoal into soot and then dissolve it in water, before adding a binding agent, such as gum arabic, to stabilise it. The second, slightly more complicated process used oak galls—the round, apple-like swellings that grow from the leaf buds of many kinds of oak trees as a reaction to insect eggs. First, the galls are collected and crushed to a pulp. Then water is added, and after some hours this solution is filtered to produce a thick acidic liquid. This is then mixed with iron sulphate, which immediately reacts with the acid to form black-grey iron gallate. Finally, a binder—again, usually gum arabic—is added.

”Different kinds of oak gall. From Adler. Hermann and Straton, Charles R. Alternating Generations; a Biological Study of Oak Galls and Gall Flies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1894. Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)”

Our riddle is not solved simply by guessing that it is ink. Rather, we must guess the ingredients too. The opening line tells us that the riddle subject was once “a forest” (silva). The obvious conclusion would be that this ingredient is wood, which is then burnt into charcoal. However, it is also quite possible that the correct solution is oak galls. The second line tells us that it had also been “clear water running down a stream” (lymfa decurrens clara per amnem)—this is, of course, the water that is added to the soot or pulverised galls. Line 3 then explains that the “third part” (tertia pars) is revealed “by ingenious skill (arte reperta). This is either the mixing and filtering of the mixture, or perhaps the act of writing itself.

The riddle changes tack from lines 4 onwards, now concentrating on the literary material that the ink encodes on the page. We saw in the commentary for Lorsch Riddle 9 that riddles often describe book pages as fields and pens as ploughs. This trope crops up in line 5, which imagines the act of writing as if it were sowing seeds of wisdom per albos agellos (“across the white fields”). The ink tells us about “shining kingdoms” (lucifica regna), that is, the news of the kingdom of heaven that biblical texts transmit. The written word also tells the reader about Hell, which is here referred to as Tatarus, just as we saw in Lorsch Riddles 1 and 2.

And that takes us to the end of Lorsch Riddle 12, and to the end of the whole Lorsch collection too! Does Riddle 12 describe iron gall ink or carbon ink? Personally, I think that iron gall is the more likely, but maybe this is just a pigment of my imagination.


References and Suggested Reading:

Garside, Paul & Miller, Zoë. “Iron Gall Ink on Paper: Saving the Words that Eat Themselves.” British Library, Collection Care Blog. 03 June 2021. Available here.

Tags: latin 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 21
Lorsch Riddle 1
Lorsch Riddle 2
Lorsch Riddle 9