Commentary for Riddle 28

I know what you’re all thinking. You’re thinking: “Goodness gracious me! What a lot of past participles!” See – I’m psychic. But I’ll tell you what: not only does this riddle contain all the past participles in the world, it also has a ridiculous number of suggested solutions. Pretty much everyone who has a crack at it solves it differently. So we’re going to have to opt for a speedy run-through according to group. (I almost used the word “cluster” here, but then I decided not to because it sounds too much like “crusty” and that word can only legitimately be used of bread. True story.) Please note that I’m going to be skipping some solutions, specifically Barrow and Trial of Soul (suggested by Jember) because the poem’s direct reference to death makes these seem a bit too obvious (and because Jember suggests Trial of Soul for like a million riddles). If I were going to talk about barrows, I’d probably post a photo kind of like this one:

Riddle 28 Uley_Long_Barrow_-_End_chamberPhoto inside Uley Long Barrow (by Pasicles) from the Wikimedia Commons.


Group Number One: Alcohol

Forget picking up a quick bottle or two from a shop on your way to a party. And forget picturesque images of vineyards and stomping on grapes in giant barrels. And definitely forget every hipster-ish micro-brewery tour you’ve ever gone on. Because according to this poem, getting your hands on alcohol ain’t convenient and it certainly ain’t pleasant. One of the earliest suggested solutions for Riddle 28 was John Barleycorn, the barley-man known to us through folk literature and ballads (perhaps most famous from the Robbie Burns version). The harvesting of this much put-upon, personified cereal crop is depicted as torture and murder…hence the link to Riddle 28’s turning, cutting and binding. Of course, the speculative leaps required to trace John Barleycorn back to Anglo-Saxon England mean that some scholars prefer Beer/Ale/Mead (or Wine Cask, for that matter, since there’s no mashing, boiling or fermenting in this riddle) as the solution – that’s beor/ealu/medu in Old English (and I suppose “wine cask” would be something like win-tunne, although this compound isn’t attested). These solutions are certainly possible, especially when we take into account the fact that the preceding riddle very likely describes alcohol. Mightn’t Riddle 28 be a companion riddle? Indeed, it might…or perhaps the scribe/compiler of the manuscript understood it that way. The power dynamics are flipped, of course, since Riddle 27 focuses on alcohol’s ability to completely thrash people, while those in charge of crafting whatever Riddle 28 describes are very much in control. But what about lines 7b onward? That’s where the next solution seems a better fit. But first, beer:

Riddle 28 GravityTapThis is what beer looks like today. Photo (by SilkTork) from the Wikimedia Commons.


Group Number Two: Musical Instrument

If we’re completely honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the construction-y words at the beginning of the poem could really be applied to almost any object. They’re all vague enough that their meanings could be stretched to fit more than one solution, and some of them may well have been included simply because they rhyme. Old English poetry doesn’t often rhyme, by the way, so the poet is clearly interested in being a bit flashy. That means what we should be doing is focusing on the second half of the poem when we’re looking for a solution. Except that this is where things get confusing. Grammatically-speaking, these lines have a lot of people flummoxed. That’s right, flummoxed. Here are some of the reasons why: 1) we don’t really know what clengeð means (although we’ve got some good guesses based on similar words in Middle English), and 2) þara þe is plural, but the verbs in lines 9-10 are all singular. So the question is: does the relative phrase in lines 9-10 refer back to line 7b’s dream (joy) or line 8a’s cwicra wihta (of living beings)? Or should þara þe really read þær þær (there where) instead? (see Williamson, page 224) Your guess is as good as mine. What is clear from these lines is that there’s a living-dead, silent-vocal contrast going on: whatever object we have was made from a living thing that only gained a voice in death. It’s this suggestion that links the riddle to the earlier work of the Latin riddler, Symphosius. His Enigma 20, Testudo reads:

Tarda, gradu lento, specioso praedita dorso;

Docta quidem studio, sed saevo prodita fato,

Viva nihil dixi, quae sic modo mortua canto. (Glorie, vol. 133A, page 641)

(Slow, with sluggish step, furnished with a beautiful back; shrewd indeed through study, but betrayed by fierce fate, living I said nothing, but dead I sing in this way.)

See the link? Quiet in life and singing in death? To really drive this link home, we should note that Old English dream, which I’ve translated as “joy” also means “song.” This is one of many reasons that Laurence K. Shook (building on earlier suggestions of harp/stringed instrument) solves Riddle 28 as Latin testudo (tortoise/musical instrument).

Riddle 28 British Lib tortoise lyreIn case you wondered just what exactly a tortoise lyre was. Photo © Trustees of the British Museum and subject to the Standard Terms of Use.

 Craig Williamson isn’t so keen on this solution, but does agree with the musical instrument angle. And so, he raises the possibility of Yew-horn in his edition of the riddles (pages 218-24). Yew is a hard wood (hence, line 2a: heardestan (hardest)) and it’s poisonous (hence, lines 2b and 3a: scearpestan (sharpest) and grymmestan (fiercest)). He also points out that a yew-horn dating from between the eighth and tenth centuries was discovered in the River Erne in Northern Ireland. So make of that what you will.


Group Number Three: Other Crafted Object

Williamson’s suggestion was just barely in print by the time the next solution came ’round, so let’s pretend that Yew-horn hadn’t happened yet and jump back to tortoise-lyre briefly. We know that instruments made out of tortoise shells existed in other countries as far back as classical Greece, but the evidence for Anglo-Saxon England is thin on the ground. And by thin, I mean there is none…except for the fact that Symphosius’ works were known in England at this time. Arguing that this lack of evidence rules out the tortoise-lyre solution (what about other instruments?!), Heidi and Rüdiger Göbel solve Riddle 28 as a “pattern-welded sword.” A pattern-welded sword (sweord in OE) is, of course, a weapon made by twisting multiple strips of metal together for extra strength. The Göbels give quite an in-depth breakdown of the processes involved in sword-making, but slightly undermine their interpretation by basing it upon “the desire to take the superlatives heardestan, scearpestan and grymmestan literally” (page 187). Is it just me, or is taking anything in a riddle literally kind of missing the point? At any rate, they also argue for a change in perspective at the end of the poem, when the owner of the sword who was so full of joy to receive the object (lines 7-8) is killed by it. Hence, they translate æfter deaþe deman onginneð, meldan mislice as “after death he changes his opinion and talks differently” (page 191).

Speaking of things that speak without speaking…do you remember Riddle 26? Well, I know that books don’t actually talk for realzies (unless you’ve got an audio-book or one of those birthday cards with the little chip in it that makes it sing really annoyingly whenever you open it), but they do contain words, and the idea that letters speak from the page is an old one. This leads to the final solutions I’m going to discuss: Parchment and Biblical Codex (Boc-fell or Cristes boc in OE).

Riddle 28 Peterborough.Chronicle.firstpageHere’s some parchment. Specifically, the first page of the Peterborough Chronicle. Photo (by en:User:Geogre) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Waltraud Ziegler argued for the first of these after looking at several Latin riddles that cover similar ground. Cattle/parchment-y imagery can be found in the enigmatic collections of the Anglo-Saxons, Tatwine and Eusebius, as well as in other collections known to the Anglo-Saxons. For example, the Bern riddle, Enigma 24, De membrana, reads:

Lucrum uiua manens toto nam confero mundo

Et defuncta mirum praesto de corpore quaestum.

Vestibus exuta multoque uinculo tensa,

Gladio sic mihi desecta uiscera pendent.

Manibus me postquam reges et uisu mirantur,

Miliaque porto nullo sub pondere multa. (Glorie, vol. 133A, page 570)

(Remaining alive, I provide profit for the entire world, and dead I furnish remarkable gain from my body. Deprived of garments and pressed by many chains, cut by a sword my innards hang down. Afterward kings admire me with hands and sight, and I carry many thousands with no weight.)

Building on Ziegler, Dieter Bitterli suggests Biblical Codex is more apt than simply Parchment, since the object of Riddle 28 is bound and adorned (pages 178-89). You can look back at Riddle 26’s commentary for a discussion of book-making because many of the steps covered there could be applied to the past participle-y list at the beginning of this riddle (and I wouldn’t want to get repetitive, would I?). But for lines 7b onward, we now have a tidy little religious interpretation: the lasting nature of the living joy/song and the posthumous praising/declaring are down to the creature’s recruitment to a martyr’s higher purpose. Keep in mind that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were penned and maintained by clerics. And keep in mind that they were obsessed with martyrdom and general affliction. So obsessed, in fact, that the Old English reading group my co-editor and I used to attend had one rule and only one rule: if you don’t know what a word means, translate it as “affliction” and move on. I think I’ll take that advice now.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: the Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

Göbel, Heidi, and Rüdiger Göbel. “The Solution of an Old English Riddle.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 50 (1978), pages 185-91.

Jember, Gregory K., trans. The Old English Riddles: A New Translation. Denver: Society for New Language Study, 1976.

Shook, Laurence K. “Old-English Riddle 28—Testudo (Tortoise-Lyre).” Mediaeval Studies, vol. 20 (1958), pages 93-97.

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Ziegler, Waltraud. “Ein neuer Losungsversuch fur das altenglische Ratsel Nr. 28.” Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik, vol. 7 (1982), pages 185-190.

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Riddle 28 (or 26)

Biþ foldan dæl      fægre gegierwed

mid þy heardestan      ond mid þy scearpestan

ond mid þy grymmestan      gumena gestreona,

corfen, sworfen,      cyrred, þyrred,

5     bunden, wunden,      blæced, wæced,

frætwed, geatwed,      feorran læded

to durum dryhta.      Dream bið in innan

cwicra wihta,      clengeð, lengeð,

þara þe ær lifgende      longe hwile

10     wilna bruceð      ond no wið spriceð,

ond þonne æfter deaþe      deman onginneð,

meldan mislice.      Micel is to hycganne

wisfæstum menn,      hwæt seo wiht sy.


A portion of the earth is garnished beautifully

with the hardest and sharpest

and fiercest of treasures of men,

cut, filed, turned, dried,

5     bound, wound, bleached, weakened,

adorned, equipped, led far

to the doors of men. The joy of living beings

is within it, it remains, it lasts,

that which, while alive, enjoys itself

10     for a long time and does not speak against their wishes,

and then, after death, it begins to praise,

to declare in various ways. Great is it to think,

for wisdom-fast men, [to say] what the creature is.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: John Barleycorn, Wine cask, Beer, Ale, Mead, Harp, Stringed instrument, Tortoise lyre, Yew horn, Barrow, Trial of soul, Pattern-welded sword, Parchment, Biblical codex

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Commentary for Riddle 27

Here’s Dr. Wendy Hennequin‘s follow-up to her translation:


The general consensus about Riddle 27 (Riddle 28 in some editions) is that the solution is “mead” (Tupper Jr., page 132; Rodrigues, page 131; Niles, page 135). Tupper and Rodrigues note that whip and sleep have also been proposed (pages 132; 131). Niles has recently proposed a double solution: “nectar (honey-dew) and mead” to account for both the first part of the poem regarding the origins of honey and the second part of the riddle, which describes mead’s effects (pages 135-36). Certainly, Niles is correct in identifying two parts of the riddle—a sort of “before and after.” At first, the mysterious object is found everywhere: mountains, valleys, woods, and cities. Then, afterwards, the object fells men. The transition between these two stages is the bath in a barrel (or bucket). The other proposed solutions, whip and sleep, do not account for that transition.

320px-Honey-Fruit-Mead-BrewingHere’s a picture of some home-brewed honey-fruit mead. Photo (by Evan-Amos) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Except for Niles’ very brief discussion of word play in Riddle 27 (pages 135-36), I have not found any critical discussion of Riddle 27. Only a few of the Exeter Book Riddles have been examined extensively beyond the search for their solutions and their relationships to other riddles, Latin or Old Norse. [editorial note: Elinor Teele's PhD thesis does devote a section to this riddle, but it is -- very unfortunately -- not widely available. If you are ever in Cambridge, a trip to the University Library to read it is highly recommended]

I am struck, however, by the image of the riddle’s object being a scourger, a hurler. This image is noteworthy not only for its vividness, but for its repetition: we are told twice that the riddle’s object can knock people flat on their backs. This wrestling imagery brings to mind the Snorri Sturluson’s Old Norse story of Thor’s journey to the house of Útgarða-Loki. While there, Thor wrestles an old woman named Elli in order to prove his strength and prowess. Elli forces him to kneel even though Thor is the god of strength (Sturluson, pages 44-45). Elli turns out to be Old Age. (Kevin Crossley-Holland retells this story as “Thor’s Journey to Utgard” in The Norse Myths; the story has also appeared frequently in children’s books). Elli, like the mead in the riddle, can fell anyone, “for there never has been anyone, and there never will be anyone, if they get so old that they experience old age, that old age will not bring them all down” (Sturluson, page 45).

In contrast, Riddle 27 emphasizes that overindulgence in mead is foolish (lines 12 and 17) and that it is a choice. We don’t have to wrestle with mead: we can stop seeking folly before it’s too late (line 12). Elli’s victory is inevitable. But mead wins only when we allow it. This emphasis on the imprudence of getting drunk—and that getting drunk is a choice—may indicate something of the Anglo-Saxon attitude towards alcohol and drunkenness. Certainly, poems like Beowulf and The Wanderer tell us that sharing mead was an integral part of the communal culture of the comitatus (war-band) and the mead hall. But Riddle 27’s portrayal of drunkenness as folly and defeat, and its invocation of an image of defeat by an old woman, tells us that Anglo-Saxon culture did not consider intoxication an inevitable part of mead sharing but rather as an unfortunate and foolish loss of self-control that leads to the defeat of one’s body and senses—if one is lucky. For some of Hrothgar’s thanes in Beowulf are not so lucky: their drunken boasts to defeat Grendel lead to their deaths (lines 480-87). Certainly, Riddle 27 emphasizes a metaphorical and temporary defeat: the loss of physical and mental control while intoxicated. But in a world of feuds and Viking incursions (let alone mythical monster attacks), a drunk warrior might well suffer a more permanent and lethal defeat if he chose to fall to the power of mead.


References and Suggested Reading:

Beowulf. Ed. Francis Klaeber. 3rd ed. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1950.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of Texts. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2006.

Rodrigues, Louis J. Sixty-five Anglo-Saxon Riddles. 2nd ed. Felinfach, Wales: Llanerch, 1998.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Ed. and trans. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman / J.M. Dent, 2002.

Teele, Elinor. “The Heroic Tradition in the Old English Riddles.” Diss. University of Cambridge, 2004.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr., ed. and introduction. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968.

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Riddle 27 (or 25)

This week’s riddle comes to us from Dr. Wendy Hennequin (you may remember Wendy from Riddle 17). She has provided us with a poetic translation (and a few notes), as well as a prose translation. You’ll have to scroll all the way down to find the possible solutions. Take it away, Wendy!


Ic eom weorð werum,      wide funden,

brungen of bearwum      ond of burghleoþum,

of denum ond of dunum.     Dæges mec wægun

feþre on lifte,      feredon mid liste

5     under hrofes hleo.      Hæleð mec siþþan

baþedan in bydene.      Nu ic eom bindere

ond swingere,      sona weorpe

esne to eorþan,      hwilum ealdne ceorl.

Sona þæt onfindeð,      se þe mec fehð ongean,

10     ond wið mægenþisan     minre genæsteð,

þæt he hrycge sceal      hrusan secan,

gif he unrædes     ær ne geswiceð,

strengo bistolen,      strong on spræce,

mægene binumen;      nah his modes geweald,

15     fota ne folma.     Frige hwæt ic hatte,

ðe on eorþan swa      esnas binde,

dole æfter dyntum     be dæges leohte.


Poetic translation:

I am worthy to folk,    and found widely,

Brought from forests      and fortress-hills,

From dales and from downs.      By day, feathers

Brought me by craft,      carried me aloft

5     Under house-roof’s shelter.     Heroes afterwards

Bathed me in barrels.      Binder now I am,

Striker and scourger (1),    and soon, hurler

Of old freemen     even to the earth.

Who seizes me    and seeks to challenge

10     My mighty strength    soon will discover

That he must find the earth     flat on his back.

Unless he ceases earlier   to seek folly.

Stolen his might—      though strong his speech—

No power he has    of hands nor of feet

15     Of mind or of soul (2).      Say what I am called (3),

Who alone on earth,    by light of day,

So binds fellows (4)    with folly and blows.



  • (1) There is only one word in the original, swingere, which can mean both striker and scourger. I use both meanings, as variations of each other, to fill the half-line.
  • (2) Line 14b of the original, when translated into modern English, has three stresses and had to be split between lines 14a and 15a of my translation. In order to fit the poem poetically into its original number of lines, I eliminated the variation in the original riddle’s line 14a.
  • (3) Instead of the familiar tag line, “saga hwæt ic hatte,” which appears in Riddle 19, among others, Riddle 27 says, “frige hwæt ic hatte,” “learn by asking what I am called.” I’ve reverted to the more familiar formula to match the alliteration.
  • (4) The original’s esnas seems to mean a man of lower social class: Clark-Hall defines the word esne as “labourer, slave, servant, retainer: youth, man” (esne, 107). It is difficult to convey this connotation in Modern English without resorting to old-fashioned words such as “peasant.”


Prose translation:

I am worthy to men, found widely, brought from the woods and fort-hills, from dales and mountains; wings carried me aloft by day, brought with skill under the roof’s shelter. Afterwards, heroes bathed me in a bucket. Now I am binder, striker, and soon, thrower of an old churl even to the earth. He who seizes me and against my might contends—soon finds that he must seek the earth with his back if he doesn’t leave off his folly beforehand. Stolen his strength, strong his speech, deprived of might, he does not have the possession of mind, feet, or hands. Learn what am I called, who on earth so binds men, foolish (or with folly) after blows, by day’s light.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Mead, Whip, Sleep

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Commentary for Riddle 26

Let me warn you now: I’m sick and I might be contagious. Oh wait…this is the internet, and that’s not how germs work. Still, if this commentary comes across as particularly grumpy or incoherent, now you know why.

So, Riddle 26, eh? Straight from the inappropriate touching of root vegetables to animal martyrs and religious book-making in one fell swoop…no one ever said the Exeter Book compiler was a person of limited interests. “But why, oh why, are you so sure we’re dealing with religious book-making?” you might ask. My un-sick self would probably answer something like “What a good question. Let’s take a look at the scholarship.” My sick self, on the other hand, is going to reply thusly: “Because I bothered to read the riddle, and it’s soooooooooo obvious, and everyone else agrees with me anyway, you cheeky imaginary questioner, you.” Then I might stop to realize that I’m having this debate in my head and you, real-life readers, were probably on the same page as me the whole time. Sigh.

Anyway, let’s all stop arguing with myself and look at the details of the solution. I’ve listed Book, Bible and Gospel Book, although Hide has also been suggested in the past. Of course, we’re dealing with a period when book-making involved using the skins of animals (sheep, goats, cows, etc.), so all four of these solutions are really interconnected.

SAMSUNGHere’s a photo of parchment drying in Pergamena’s workshop from April Hannah Llewellyn’s website.

The question is, then, whether we’re dealing with a particularly religious book or not. Well, the reference to the ornamentation of the book being used to worship the dryhtfolca helm (protector of the people) in lines 16b-17a does seem to imply a Christian context. If you’re not convinced, then perhaps the even more strongly religious implications of the final line and a half will change your mind: Nama min is mære, / hæleþum gifre ond halig sylf (My name is famous, / handy to heroes and holy in itself). So, it’s a religious book then (case closed!). But why quibble between Bible and Gospel Book? Because it seems that complete Bibles were fairly rare in Anglo-Saxon England (see Niles, pages 118-19). This is not to say that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have access to biblical texts (whether in Old English or in Latin). Of course they did! It’s just that they didn’t necessarily all travel together in a tidy package. That’s why Gospel Book, or Cristes boc in Old English (as Niles solves it on page 141), is a solid suggestion.

CodexAureusCanterburyFolios9v10rHere is a VERY PRETTY picture of an 8th-century Latin gospel book known as the Codex Aureus of Canterbury (folios 9v and 10r). Photo (by David Stapleton (Dsmdgold) from the Wikimedia Commons.

But let’s look a bit more at the contents of the poem. The first thing that strikes me and likely strikes most people (probably since it’s…well…the first thing we read) is the nastiness of the opening lines. In identifying with whichever animal provided the raw material, the speaker accuses the book-maker of being feonda sum (a certain enemy) who robs and steals the animal’s life and strength. This may sound a bit out of place for a religious text: shouldn’t those who practice this religion believe the book’s making is a happy thing? Well, maybe in other cultures and literary traditions, but in Anglo-Saxon England, I assure you that the tone is spot on. Not only is the movement from alive/free to dead/in service a common Old English riddling trope, but it also speaks to a broader interest in affliction throughout Anglo-Saxon literature. To put it simply, Anglo-Saxon poets love a good martyr. In this literary context, if you aren’t suffering, then you probably aren’t doing it right. So, even though it might make a modern audience a bit uncomfortable to think that the clerical types making books and writing this poetry down were very much aware of the sacrifice that their enterprise required, it really does provide an excellent window into Anglo-Saxon culture. Of course, biblical and apocryphal narratives are full of suffering and sacrifice, so why shouldn’t the manuscript that contains them be?

M0001845 John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H.Page 114 of a later medieval (14th- or 15th-century) Leech-book. Photo courtesy of Wellcome Library, London ( Search L0073621in their catalogue.

Speaking of manuscripts, how’s about a little intro to medieval book-making? Well, you really need look no further than the images of Riddle 26. K, maybe a little bit further, but that was a classy sentence and I reserve the right to include classy sentences in my blog from time to time. But, seriously, from the second line of the poem, we have a list of processes involved in making a manuscript. The soaking refers to the water and lime bath that help loosen the skin’s hairs and fat. After scraping these away, the skin would be stretched on a frame and smoothed. When ready, it would be cut and folded, ruled and written on. This is where we get the lovely image of the fugles wyn (bird’s joy) making tracks upon the speaker. This little riddle within the riddle points toward the quill pen used for writing. We also have references to tracks in other, related Anglo-Saxon riddles like Tatwine’s Latin Enigma 5, De membrano:

Efferus exuviis populator me spoliavit,

Vitalis pariter flatus spiramina dempsit;

In planum me iterum campum sed verterat auctor.

Frugiferos cultor sulcos mox irrigat undis;

Omnigenam nardi messem mea prata rependunt,

Qua sanis victum et lesis praestabo medelam. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 172)

(A savage ravager robbed me of my clothing, and likewise deprived my pores of the breath of life; but a craftsman turned me into a level plain again. A cultivator soon irrigates fertile furrows with waves; my meadows render a harvest of balsam of every kind, with which I will supply nourishment to the healthy and healing to the sick.)

But the Old English text pays much closer attention to the nitty-gritty of book-making. After the preparation of the manuscript and writing of the text, the riddle alludes to additional steps: the stitched up gatherings of folded manuscript pages (or leaves) would be bound to the front and back boards and covered in leather. The riddle’s manuscript is also blinged out beyond mere functionality. It’s covered in gold and intricate metalwork. This sort of fancy-pants decoration was generally reserved for biblical and liturgical books in early medieval England (see Bitterli, page 177). There are lots and lots of lovely images of ornamented books available online, but check out the 12th-century Eadwine Psalter on Trinity College, Cambridge’s website for a particularly user-friendly, scrollable one that includes the front and back covers:

There’s lots more to say about this riddle’s style, diction, poetics, etc., but I think I’m going to leave it there. Mainly because I’m giving you homework! (I think you and I knew it would come to this eventually). Luckily for you, the homework is fun and optional! If you want to learn more about medieval book history, then I strongly suggest that you trot on over to the University of Nottingham’s website here and take advantage of the resources (videos! photos! links!) provided on the materials and processes involved in manuscripting. I’ve just coined that verb. Or verbed that noun, rather. Which seems to me a good place to say good-bye for now. Go do your homework.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: the Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Studies in the Early Middle Ages 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

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Riddle 26 (or 24)

Mec feonda sum      feore besnyþede,

woruldstrenga binom,      wætte siþþan,

dyfde on wætre,      dyde eft þonan,

sette on sunnan,      þær ic swiþe beleas

5     herum þam þe ic hæfde.      Heard mec siþþan

snað seaxses ecg,      sindrum begrunden;

fingras feoldan,      ond mec fugles wyn

geond speddropum      spyrede geneahhe,

ofer brunne brerd,      beamtelge swealg,

10     streames dæle,      stop eft on mec,

siþade sweartlast.      Mec siþþan wrah

hæleð hleobordum,      hyde beþenede,

gierede mec mid golde;      forþon me gliwedon

wrætlic weorc smiþa,      wire bifongen.

15     Nu þa gereno      ond se reada telg

ond þa wuldorgesteald      wide mære

dryhtfolca helm,      nales dol wite.

Gif min bearn wera      brucan willað,

hy beoð þy gesundran      ond þy sigefæstran,

20     heortum þy hwætran      ond þy hygebliþran,

ferþe þy frodran,      habbaþ freonda þy ma,

swæsra ond gesibbra,      soþra ond godra,

tilra ond getreowra,      þa hyra tyr ond ead

estum ycað      ond hy arstafum

25     lissum bilecgað      ond hi lufan fæþmum

fæste clyppað.      Frige hwæt ic hatte,

niþum to nytte.      Nama min is mære,

hæleþum gifre      ond halig sylf.


A certain enemy robbed me of my life,

stole my world-strength; afterward he soaked me,

dunked me in water, dragged me out again,

set me in the sun, where I swiftly lost

5     the hairs that I had. Afterward the hard

edge of a knife, with all unevenness ground away, slashed me;

fingers folded, and the bird’s joy

[spread] over me with worthwhile drops, often made tracks,

over the bright border, swallowed tree-dye,

10     a portion of the stream, stepped again on me,

journeyed, leaving behind a dark track. Afterward a hero

encircled me with protective boards, covered me with hide,

garnished me with gold; therefore the wonderful

work of smiths glitters on me, surrounded by wire.

15     Now those ornaments and the red dye

and that wondrous dwelling widely worship

the protector of the people, not at all foolish in wisdom.

If the children of men wish to enjoy me,

they will be the more sound and the more victory-fast,

20     the bolder in heart and the more blithe in mind,

the wiser in spirit, they will have more friends,

dear and near, faithful and good,

upright and true; then their glory and prosperity

will increase with favour and lay down

25     goodwill and kindness and in the grasp of love

clasp firmly. Find what I am called,

useful to men. My name is famous,

handy to heroes and holy in itself.

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Contest Results

Thanks to everyone who took part in our Old English Riddles for the Modern World Contest (installment 1? maybe!). If you haven’t already guessed it (and quite a few of you have), the answer is “kettle” (OE cytel…although obv. the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have the electric kind that I had in mind when I was writing this riddle). Another great suggestion, “furnace,” just goes to show how riddles can often develop lives of their own and spawn multiple readings and interpretations.

Now, sometimes people say that it’s not about winning or losing, but about playing the game. Sometimes people say that we’re all winners in our own special way. Sometimes people say there are no winners if everyone’s having fun. And that’s just fine. But as far as this contest is concerned, there is an actual, non-touchy-feely winner: Cameron Laird. Unless my computer is lying to me, Cameron solved this riddle in under three minutes. Close runners-up include Linden Currie and Josh Smith. Since some of us are feeling generous today, we’ll be sending them some bookmarks too (but NO postcard, or Cameron may get jealous!).

Chances are we’ll run another contest like this in the autumn or winter, so start studying up. If you’re an instructor, think about encouraging your students to have a go. We’re not about shameless self-promotion here at The Riddle Ages.


UPDATE: here’s a photo of Cameron enjoying his prize. He tells me it was taken in the offices of the Dictionary of Old English project, which seems quite appropriate.

Riddle Ages

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