Commentary for Lorsch Riddle 9


Date: Mon 21 Jun 2021
Matching Riddle: Lorsch Riddle 9

We're on a road to nowhere.
Come on inside!
Takin' that riddle to nowhere,
no solution in sight.

Riddles like to talk about footprints and tracks, roads and courses, paths and ways. Not only is the “path” or “track” a major trope in medieval riddling, but it is also one of my favourite tropes too! I love the way that a single idea links so many very different things across multiple riddle collections, including ploughs and oxen, the sun and moon, rain and clouds, and books and pens. It works as a kind of giant, intertextual metaphor which reveals all kinds of hidden connections between the disparate things that it describes.

”Footprints in the sand. Photo (by Júlio Reis) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.5)”

The early medieval riddle tradition is often said to begin with the Riddles of Symphosius, an anonymous collection of 100 Latin riddles probably written in the 4th or 5th century in North Africa. We find a few mentions of paths and tracks here and there in Symphosius’ riddle, for example in a riddle on a goat (No. 35) and an arrow (No. 65). But Symphosius is more interested in things that explicitly don’t leave tracks. Thus, in Symphosius Riddle 13, a ship tells us that curro vias multas, vestigia nulla relinquens (“I run many roads, leaving no tracks behind.”) Similarly, the stylus in Symphosius Riddle 1 describes how it is used to write and erase on wax tablets, saying that altera pars revocat quicquid pars altera fecit (“the second part annuls whatever the first part creates”). Symphosius may have been drawing on earlier works that describe other things that move without leaving a trace, such as this ancient Greek riddle:

Εἶδον ἐγώ ποτε θῆρα δι᾿ ὕλης τμητοσιδήρου
ὕπτιον ὀρθὰ τρέχοντα, ποσὶν δ᾿ οὐχ ἥπτετο γαίης

[I once saw a beast running straight on its back through a wood cut by the steel, and its feet touched not the earth.]

“Enigma 14,” The Greek Anthology, Book 14. Pages 36-7.

The answer is a louse, in case you were wondering—the wood is the head full of hair and the steel is a comb! Anyway, Symphosius’ idea of a thing that erases their own tracks was enthusiastically adopted by medieval riddlers. The 9th century scholar and poet, Alcuin of York, includes the idea as a trick question in his mathematical puzzles, Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes (“Questions to Sharpen the Young”).

Bos qui tota die arat, quot vestigia faciat in ultima riga?

[An ox ploughs for the entire day—how many footprints does he make in the final furrow?]

Alcuin, Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes. Number 14, column 1148.

The answer is none, since all the footsteps are erased by the plough that comes behind it! Other examples of riddles that describe things that leave no tracks include Bern Riddles 11, 55 and 59, and Exeter Riddle 95.

”The biblical figure, Tubalcain, and his plough, from Bodleian Library MS. Junius 11, page 54. Photo from Digital Bodleian (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)”

However, another group of riddles talk about footprints that are very visible. These riddles describe the marks made by the pen on the page as if they were the tracks made by the plough in the field. For example, the 8th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Tatwine, wrote riddles on a pen (No. 6) and parchment (No. 5) that tell us:

In planum me iterum campum sed verterat auctor

[But a creator had turned me into a level field.]

Tatwine Riddle 5: De membrano. Page 172, line 3.

Planos compellor sulcare per aequora campos.

[I am forced to plough flat, level fields.]

Tatwine Riddle 6: De penna. Page 173, line 4.

Similarly, Exeter Riddle 51 speaks of four amazing creatures (i.e., the fingers) who leave swearte… lastas / swaþu swiþe blacu (“dark… tracks, very black footprints”). Another pen riddle, by the anonymous 8th century riddler, Eusebius, link the nourishment grown in the field with the spiritual harvest carried on the page: sed mea nunc sapiens vestigia quisque sequetur (“but now all the wise follow my tracks”).

Today’s riddle is firmly in this tradition. But rather than depicting the pen as a plough, it begins by describing it as a “virgin” (virgo), a portrayal that contrasts glaringly with the portrayal of most women as unchaste in Lorsch Riddle 7. She irrigates the page with dark, inky “tears” (lacrimas), which reminds me of how Tatwine Riddle 6 describes ink as the tears from a writer’s labour. The second line sets up the apparent paradox that such a person could leave tetra… vestigia (“foul footprints”) on the white “fields” (campos). And the last line adds a twist—these foul, filthy tracks nevertheless lead “to the bright halls of the starry sky” (lucida stelligeri… ad atria caeli). The meaning is that the written word, which transmits wisdom and Christian doctrine, can lead a person to heaven.

Lorsch Riddle 9 only has three lines, but it is part of a much larger conversation with other riddles and riddle collections. So, when you read other medieval riddles, try to see how many examples of tracks and traces you can find! But don’t read too many, or you might stay up long pasture bedtime!


References and Suggested Reading:

The Greek Anthology, Books 13-16. Edited and translated by W. R. Paton. Volume 5, Loeb Classical Library 86. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1918. Pages 25-108.

Alcuin, Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes. In Alcuini Opera Omnia. Edited by Jacques-Paul Migne. Volume 2. Patrologia Latina, Volume 101. Columns 1143-1160.

Fr. Glorie (ed.). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968, Page 182.

Symphosius. Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. Edited and translated by T. J. Leary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Tags: latin 

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