Commentary for Tatwine's Riddle 1


Date: Wed 30 Aug 2023
Matching Riddle: Tatwine Riddle 1: De philosophia

This commentary is by Alexandra Zhirnova, who is a PhD student at the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (University of Cambridge). Her research concerns the religious history of early medieval England, with a focus on women in theology. She holds an MPhil, also from ASNC, for which she researched Tatwine’s riddles as teaching tools for the medieval curriculum.


This one’s actually two poems in one, because the first few lines aren’t part of Riddle 1 at all – they’re an introduction to the whole riddle collection! The reason they’ve been crammed together under the same title is because the scribes who wrote them down were not paying attention. Did you notice how they misspelled the author’s name too?

Even so, the opening lines are actually quite important because they tell us something about how to read Tatwine’s riddles. If you’re not quite following, don’t worry – the scribes themselves didn’t know what was going on!

Tatwine’s introduction is actually the solution to an acrostic. An acrostic is a text that is hidden in the first or last letters of a poem’s line. You can see some of them in bold below:

  • Riddle 1    Septena alarum me circumstantia cingiT
  • Riddle 2    Una tres natae sumus olim ex matre sagacI
  • Riddle 3    Bis binas statuit sua nos vigiles dominatriX
  • Riddle 4    Dulcifero pia nos genitrix ditavit honorE
  • Riddle 5    Efferus exuviis populator me spoliaviT
  • Riddle 6    Nativa penitus ratione, heu, fraudor ab hostE
  • Riddle 7    Olim dictabar proprio sub nomine “CaesaR
  • etc.

So what we have here is the first letter of the first line of each riddle spelling out part of a sentence, and the last letter of every first line (this time going from bottom to top) spelling out the rest. You can only see the first words, “Sub deno” and the last word, “retexit,” here, but the acrostic runs through all 40 of Tatwine’s riddles, and, if you put all those first and last letters together, you get the opening lines in reverse: “Sub deno quater haec diverse enigmata torquens / Stamine metrorum exstructor conserta retexit” (The author recounts these riddles, connected by a thread of Verses, weaving forty in different directions).

This must have been an incredibly difficult job for Tatwine! Why did he bother? Well, one reason is that the acrostic helps to make sure that none of Tatwine’s riddles are lost in transmission: you need 80 letters to make the preface, so all 40 riddles have to appear together. This is important because the number 40 has a special meaning in the Bible. Moses spent 40 years in the desert, and Jesus was tested in the wilderness for 40 days. So the number 40 usually represents a test or trial, just like the riddles are a test of the readers’ knowledge.

Another reason Tatwine came up with this acrostic is that he probably wanted to outdo other writers like Aldhelm, whose own riddle collection’s preface has a simpler acrostic. And I think Tatwine’s acrostic is really impressive. Aldhelm only had to make sure that each line began and ended with the same letter (still quite a challenge!), but Tatwine had to keep the whole preface in mind as he wrote each riddle’s first line.


Click here to check out the acrostic preface to Aldhem’s riddles in the manuscript called Royal MS 12 C XXIII (folio 83r) on the British Library’s website.

So, you might wonder whether the scribes of Tatwine’s riddles bothered to highlight this in any way. NOPE. Take a look here. Given that these two key lines are written in the wrong order to match the acrostic, it’s possible that the scribes didn’t even realise it was there. Grrrr!

Okay, that’s enough enthusiasm and righteous indication about the preface! Let’s move on to Riddle 1.

If you’ve read this website’s commentaries on the Exeter Book riddles, you’ll remember that most of the commentaries discuss possible solutions, because the Exeter Book doesn’t include solutions for its riddle collection. You might think that, since the Latin riddles have solutions in their titles, we don’t need a commentary at all, but the thing is, not only are the solutions sometimes wrong (why couldn’t those Canterbury scribes just do their job properly???), but often there’s more than the one given in the title.

Riddle 1 is a great example of this. The manuscripts suggest that the riddle is De philosophia (About philosophy), which makes a lot of sense. Philosophy is both lofty and profound (aka deep); you “eat” her as you learn (this sounds creepy, but we still talk about “devouring” a book); and she “adopts” her students under the name “philosopher.” Philosophy’s seven wings are also interesting because they probably represent the Seven Liberal Arts – in other words, the medieval school subjects. So far, quite straightforward.


A 12th-century drawing of Philosophy with the seven liberal arts. Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

But besides the “official” solution, Tatwine liked to test his readers’ knowledge of the Bible. He was, after all, the archbishop of Canterbury!

So, let’s put on our Sunday School hats and try to spot which bits of the Bible Tatwine was trying to test us on. The number 7 is a handy clue. We find another wise figure in the Bible who liked both the number 7 and feeding people:

"1. Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars. 2. She hath slain her victims, mingled her wine, and set forth her table. 3. She hath sent her maids to invite to the tower, and to the walls of the city: 4. Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me. And to the unwise she said: 5. Come, eat my bread, and drink the wine which I have mingled for you. 6. Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence." (Proverbs 9:1–6, via DRBO)

This doesn’t really change the solution, though: Wisdom and Philosophy are pretty much the same thing, right? Well, not quite. Philosophy was considered a science which aimed to create a correct understanding of the world, while Wisdom was the skill of applying that understanding to one’s life. The Bible says that Wisdom comes directly from God to teach humans to live righteously, so that they may be saved from sin: “Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence.”

For a Christian reader studying biblical exegesis (the meanings of the Bible, especially in relation to Jesus), there was another interpretation of Old Testament Wisdom. Let’s look again at the last 5 lines of the riddle:

Nulla manus poterit nec me contingere visus
Cum, presens dubio sine, me quaerentibus adsto.
Mordentem amplector, parcentem me viduabo.
Est felix mea qui poterit cognoscere iura:
Quemque meo natum esse meum sub nomine rebor.

(No hand nor sight is able to touch me
When I, definitely present, stand near those who seek me.
I embrace that which bites me, deprive that which avoids me.
Happy is he who can know my laws:
I will judge him born under my name.)

So, we are dealing with an ever-present invisible being who embraces the one that bites it and adopts the ones who learn its laws “under [its] name.” Bearing in mind the Christian background of this riddle, we might also ask who in the Biblical canon gladly offers their body to be bitten into and despises the person who doesn’t bite it?

The answer is, of course, Christ. The biting refers to the Holy Communion, and the person “born under [his] name” is a Christian. The grammar of the riddle makes Christ feminine, but the cool thing about medieval exegesis is that it’s okay! There’s a whole bunch of medieval scholars who wrote about a “feminine Christ” – down to describing his “nourishing breasts” in, for example, Bede’s commentary on the Song of Songs 1 (for more on this, see Arthur G. Holder’s article, “The feminine Christ in Bede’s Biblical Commentaries”).

I hope you’ll agree that this riddle and its preface are both exceptionally cool, complex and profound pieces of work. And I hope they'll inspire you to go looking for hidden meanings – in the riddles on this website or somewhere else entirely.


A 16th-century image of Christ with his “body and blood” from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


Tags: anglo saxon  latin  Tatwine  Alexandra Zhirnova