Commentary for Riddle 5: De mensa


Date: Fri 18 Dec 2020
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 5: De mensa

Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child.
William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1, Scene 4 (lines 278-81).

The pages of English literature are filled with stories of put-upon parents and their thankless children. But I doubt that there are any other examples where the parent has four legs and is made of wood. This innovative riddle transforms the description of a dining table into a tragic lament about filial ingratitude—the human “children” greedily use the table for dinner, before clearing it and putting it away.

Riddle 5 is the first Bern riddle where the parent is speaking, rather than the children—and her speech is laced with emotion. Just as Bern Riddle 4 made us sympathise with the poor bench who is kicked, so Bern Riddle 5 makes us feel sorry for the neglected table, whose fond memories of her infant children contrast with the undeserved abuses that they now heap upon her.

According to Mercedes Salvador-Bello (pages 222-4), the riddle plays upon an established literary tradition of personifying wisdom as a breastfeeding mother. Similar tropes appear in several other riddles. Perhaps the earliest example is found in the Pseudo-Bedean Collectanea, an early medieval collection of 388 texts of different kinds, which probably dates from the eighth century.

Dic mihi, quaeso, quae est illa mulier, quae innumeris filiis ubera porrigit, quae quantum sucta fuerit, tantum inundat?
Tell me please—who is the mother who offers her breasts to innumerable children, and who gives flow as much as she is sucked?
Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae, page 122.

The answer is sapientia (“wisdom”), who offers the milk of knowledge that her “children” need for their intellectual growth.

Nursing Madonna
“The Nursing Madonna by Bartolomeo Vivarini (c. 1450). Photograph (by Sailko) from Wikipedia Commons(licence: CC BY 3.0)

Depictions of wisdom as a breastfeeding mother appear in several early Irish texts from the 7th and 9th centuries, as well as in another riddle from the 11th, the Bibliotheca magnifica de sapientia collection (Salvador-Bello, pages 216-221). Other riddles play with the motif in different ways. For example, in his riddle on terra (“earth”), Aldhelm depicts the soil as a “nursemaid” (altrix) who feeds all the world (Aldhelm Riddle 1). But the closest analogue to Bern Riddle 5 is another table riddle, Tatwine Riddle 29. Tatwine depicts his table in a similar way—as a generous, well-dressed lady who is stripped and robbed, and whose nudata… membra (“naked limbs,” line 5) are left behind. However, in Tatwine’s riddle, the woman seems to be depicted as a prostitute rather than a nursemaid (Salvador-Bello, page 223-4).

The meaning of the last line is slightly uncertain. Firstly, does “per angula” mean that the children tip their mother on her side or in a corner? Secondly, does “nudata me pede… versant” mean that the table was completely naked (“they tipped me over, naked, by foot”) or merely barefoot (“they turned me over, naked in foot”)? Fortunately, these different readings do not affect the meaning too much.

So, there you have it. Riddles love ideas of overthrow and change, and this one is no exception. The table-mother rears her children with kindness, but they soon grow up and the tables are turned—literally!


References and Suggested Reading:

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), Vol. 37 (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2020), pages 87-104.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Nursemaid, the Mother, and the Prostitute: Tracing an Insular Riddle Topos on Both Sides of the English Channel” in Riddles at Work in the Early Medieval Tradition: Words, Ideas, Interactions. Edited by Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Edited by R. A. Foakes. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 1997.

Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae. Edited by Martha Bayless and Michael Lapidge. Scriptes Latini Hiberniae Vol. XIV. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1998.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Bern Riddle 5: De mensa