Riddle 55 (or 53)

Riddle 55’s translation is by Franziska Wenzel from Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Franziska is currently writing a PhD on the Exeter Book riddles, their Latin counterparts and narratological theory.


Ic seah in healle,      þær hæleð druncon,
on flet beran      feower cynna,
wrætlic wudutreow      ond wunden gold,
sinc searobunden,      ond seolfres dæl
5     ond rode tacn,     þæs us to roderum up
hlædre rærde,     ær he helwara
burg abræce.     Ic þæs beames mæg
eaþe for eorlum      æþelu secgan;
þær wæs hlin ond acc      ond se hearda iw
10     ond se fealwa holen;      frean sindon ealle
nyt ætgædre,      naman habbað anne,
wulfheafedtreo,      þæt oft wæpen abæd
his mondryhtne,     maðm in healle,
goldhilted sweord.      Nu me þisses gieddes
15     ondsware ywe,      se hine on mede
wordum secgan     hu se wudu hatte.


I saw in the hall, where the warriors drink,
four different kinds carried onto the floor,
a wondrous forest-tree and twisted gold,
a cunningly bound treasure, and some silver
5     and the sign of the cross of him who
raised a ladder for us up to the skies, before he
conquered the stronghold of the hell-dwellers. I can
easily speak before men of the tree’s nobility:
there was maple and oak and the hard yew
10     and the tawny holly. All of them
together are useful to a lord; they have one name,
wolf’s-head-tree, that often obtained a weapon,
for its lord, treasure in the hall,
a gold-hilted sword. Now reveal to me
15     the answer of this song, he who has the courage
to say with words how the wood is called.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Shield, Scabbard, Harp, Cross, Gallows, Sword rack, Sword box, Hengen (see commentary for more on this last one!)

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Commentary for Riddle 54

For this post, we’re going to experiment with a new commentary style. I’m all for collaboration, so Andrea Di Carlo and I are going to take turns talking about Riddle 54. Will it work? You can be the judge of that! (but don’t actually judge us, because our egos are too fragile for all that)

Let’s start with the basics: what are the “obscene” riddles and how does Riddle 54 fit in?


Andrea: Over the last few decades, the riddles of the Exeter Book have attracted a lot of scholarship, especially after the critical reviews carried out by Mercedes Salvador-Bello, Glenn Davis, Patrick Murphy and Ruth Evans. If, in 1910, Frederick Tupper had rejected any type of unsavoury interpretation and overruled the category “obscene riddles,” George Phillip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie later made allowances for euphemistic wording and images, and acknowledged that obscene content had to be taken into account.

Riddle 54 perfectly fits into this category because its imagery is certainly problematic and far from ambiguous. Krapp and Dobbie solve the riddle as “churn” (page 188), relying on the earlier suggestion of Moritz Trautmann. The backdrop of the obscene riddles tends to be mundane, as is the case with the start of Riddle 54: readers follow the progress of a young man travelling toward a woman, only to hear that, when he arrives in the corner where the woman stands, he thrusts stiþes nathwæt (line 5b) (something stiff) under her girdle.


Megan: Okay, so pretty obviously euphemistic then. While we can translate nathwæt as just “something,” the nat part of the compound is actually from the contracted verb, nytan, that is: ne + witan (to know not). In other words, it means something like “a stiff know-not-what.” This is a pretty obvious attempt to avoid saying what it is the poet means, which just screams euphemism! Nathwæt also appears in Riddle 45 and Riddle 61, both of which are interested in sex in their own right.

So, the word is a dead giveaway that we’re definitely looking at a rude riddle.


Andrea: What else are we readers supposed to think? It’s pretty clear that the anonymous riddle-composer is showing us a short scene of sexual intercourse (suspicion is only aroused further by the use of wagedan in line 6, which means “shake” or “shag,” and by the tillic esne (capable servant) hastening in lines 7-8a). This idea is emphasised by Murphy (pages 184-195) and Evans (page 28), whose interpretations of the text are based upon these sequences of obscene and potentially aggressive images: the hyse (young man) of line 1a worhte his willan (line 6a) (worked his will), while the female figure stands there.


Megan: So, is this a disturbing example of sex where the woman is simply the object of the man’s desire, or could there be something more going on here? Well, Murphy actually provides an alternative interpretation to the two-people-having-sex-in-a-corner reading. He reminds us that we shouldn’t confuse the grammatical and natural gender of pronouns – that is, the poet never actually describes the female character (while other rude riddles, like Riddle 25 and Riddle 45, do include more elaborate descriptions), and so she might not be a woman at all.

The female pronouns (hio/hie/hire, i.e. she/her) could also be applied to objects that are grammatically feminine…which, coincidentally, Old English cyrn is. So, if we read every reference to “she/her” as “it” instead and swap the translation “belt” for “girdle,” then maybe we’re actually witnessing a young man working his will on his “capable servant” all by himself. This certainly makes the joke a lot less aggressive and so, I’d say, funnier. And it just gets more amusing when we read this potential masturbation scene alongside the more wholesome butter churn interpretation.


Andrea: Yes! We should always expect some sort of a twist in the Old English riddles. And the turning point takes place in the last line, where our sexual assumptions are quashed and we’re brought back to a reality that both encourages and rejects the double entendre. In lines 11-12 we hear that under the woman’s girdle (or man’s belt) grows what men mid feo bicgað (buy with money). Surely, there’s no euphemistic way to read this financial transaction?! With these lines, the sexual reading of Riddle 54 is dispelled and we find that the author was simply referring to the making of butter in a churn.

Riddle 54 Icelandic butter churn.jpg

Here are some Icelandic butter churns on display at a museum Megan once visited. Sadly, she has no idea where she saw these bad boys. Possibly in the south of Iceland?


Megan: If we accept that we’re hearing about a cyrn or churn, then the riddle also provides a useful corrective to any food prep-based gender assumptions we might want to make. It’s tempting to assume that all food production was a female task in Anglo-Saxon England, and certainly much of women’s work did involve preparing food. We do, for example, have a reference to a female cheese-maker whose duties also involved making butter from the eleventh-century law-text known as the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum (Rights of Different People).

It reads: cyswyrhtan gebyreð hundred cyse, & þæt heo of wringhwæge buteran macige to hlafordes beode (a hundred cheeses are allotted to the cheese-maker, and that she makes butter from the whey pressed out of cheese for the lord’s table (Liebermann, vol. 1, page 451, no. 16). The feminine ending attached to the cheese-maker here tells us that she’s female. But the method of preparation – of cheese first and then butter – also tells us that the raw material is likely sheep’s milk (Banham and Faith, pages 111-12). Could this be important?

Because, after all, the person doing the churning here in Riddle 54 is definitely male. And he’s not the only man to own up to doing a bit of churning on the side. In fact, he reminds me of the shepherd in Ælfric’s Colloquy (a dialogue-style, bilingual text aimed at teaching Latin to young Anglo-Saxons). After the teacher asks the pupil assigned the role of shepherd what work he does, the pupil replies that he watches over the sheep in their pastures, milks them, etc., and finishes with the statement: ge cyse ge buteran ic do, ond ic eom getrywe hlaforde minum (I make both butter and cheese, and I am faithful to my lord) (Ælfric, page 22). So, perhaps it makes sense to think of farming as the task of a household rather than dividing specific bits and pieces of it down gender lines.

Someone had better tell the be-skirted churners at the Durham Medieval Family Fun Weekend I attended last year to get their male collaborators to help out a bit more!

Riddle 54 Butter Churn Durham Medieval Day 2015.jpg

The butter churn on show at the Medieval Family Fun Weekend, Durham Cathedral, August 2015.


So, we’ve heard about the various ways of reading this riddle’s sexual encounter, and we’ve heard a bit about churning butter (which is really tiring, hard work, by the way!). But what’s the take-home point of this riddle, then?


Andrea: I think it’s important to note that the riddles capitalise on double entendre and dubiety, because it’s in their nature to intellectually challenge and defy readers. “No sex, please, we’re Anglo-Saxons,” as Hugh Magennis famously wrote some time ago! I’d argue that sexual imagery or sexually laden content in the riddles conveys a more domestic and less remote picture of the past, while also challenging commonplaces about sexual life in medieval Europe.

In the end, mystifying or nonplussing the audience is the main target of the riddle-composer and this one perfectly manages to play his/her cards right: the poet tricks us into believing we’re viewing sexual intercourse in the opening lines, only to undercut our assumptions at the end by making it clear that it wasn’t sex at all, but the making of something that can be bought and sold (butter, of course!). And, after all, this is the nature of riddles, to engage participants in a mental and intellectual process that’s supposed to enrich their knowledge, as Krapp and Dobbie maintain. Or, in this case, to baffle them!


References and Suggested Reading:

Ælfric of Eynsham. Ælfric’s Colloquy. Edited by G.N. Garmonsway. London: Methuen, 1939.

Banham, Debby, and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Davis, Glenn. “The Exeter Book Riddles and the Place of Sexual Idiom in Old English Literature.” In Medieval Obscenities. Edited by Nicola McDonald. York: York Medieval Press, 2006, pages 39-54.

Evans, Ruth, ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Record, vol. 3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.

Liebermann, F., ed. Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. 3 vols. Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1903-16.

Magennis, Hugh. “‘No Sex Please, We’re Anglo-Saxons’? Attitudes to Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry.” Leeds Studies in English, vol. 26 (1995), pages 1-27.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96.

Trautmann, Moritz. “Alte und Neue Antworten auf altenglische Rätsel.” Bonner Beiträge zur Anglistik, vol. 19 (1905), pages 167-215.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr., ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book, Boston: Ginn, 1910.

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Riddle 54 (or 52)

This post comes to us from Andrea Di Carlo, who’s a PhD candidate at Pisa University. Andrea’s research interests include the “obscene” riddles from the Exeter Book, and Protestant medievalism in Renaissance England. Take it away, Andrea:


Hyse cwom gangan,      þær he hie wisse
stondan in wincsele,      stop feorran to,
hror hægstealdmon,      hof his agen
hrægl hondum up,      hrand under gyrdels
5     hyre stondendre      stiþes nathwæt,
worhte his willan;      wagedan buta.
Þegn onnette,      wæs þragum nyt
tillic esne,      teorode hwæþre
æt stunda gehwam      strong ær þon hio,
10     werig þæs weorces.      Hyre weaxan ongon
under gyrdelse      þæt oft gode men
ferðþum freogað      ond mid feo bicgað.


There came walking a young man, to where he knew
she was standing in a corner. From afar he went,
the resolute young man, heaving his own clothing
with his hands, pushing something stiff
5     under her girdle while she was standing there,
worked his will; the two of them shook.
A retainer hastened, his capable servant
was useful sometimes; still, at times, he grew tired
though stronger than her at first,
10     weary due to work. Under the girdle,
there began to grow what good men often
love in their hearts and buy with money.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Butter churn, Baker’s boy and oven

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Commentary for Riddle 53

This commentary comes to us once again from Sharon Rhodes of the University of Rochester. Congratulations on successfully defending your thesis this week, Sharon!


There have been three major solutions proposed for Riddle 53: battering ram, gallows, and cross. Battering ram seems the most literal — something that was a once tree, but was then chopped down, outfitted with metal fittings and used to storm castles. But gallows and cross stretch our perspectives. In any case, the development of these modern solutions has a history.

In 1859, F. Dietrich solved Riddle 53 as “battering ram.” The iron work involved in battering rams allows us to read line 6 quite literally: deope gedolgod, dumb in bendum (deeply wounded, silent in his shackles). Cross and gallows are less clear and more dependent on context: there are multiple ways of constructing a gallows, crucifix or otherwise. The first solution also allows for an easy reading of lines 8b through 10a: Nu he fæcnum weg / þurh his heafdes mægen hildegieste / oþrum rymeð (Now he, through the might of head, clears the path to another treacherous enemy). If the solution is “battering ram,” then this is a simple description of attacking and then plundering a castle.

Riddle 53 Battering Ram.jpg

Photo of a battering ram (by eltpics) from Flickr (license: CC BY-NC 2.0)


But “battering ram” is a solution that is contextually lacking: there were no battering rams in Anglo-Saxon England! At least, according to Craig Williamson, “there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of an Anglo-Saxon battering ram,” which makes sense when we recall that there were no Anglo-Saxon castles to lay siege to with a battering ram (page 297). Of course, there’s no reason to think that Anglo-Saxons couldn’t comprehend battering rams and Aldhelm’s Riddle 86 — a Latin riddle written in Anglo-Saxon England — suggests a battering ram at least twice (Williamson, page 297):

Sum namque armatus rugosis cornibus horrens.
Herbas arvorum buccis decerpo virentes,
Et tamen astrifero procedens agmine stipor;
Culmina caelorum quae scadunt celsa catervis.
Turritas urbes capitis certamine quasso
Oppida murorum prosternens arcibus altis.
Induo mortales retorto stamine pepli;
Littera quindecima praestat quod pars domus adsto.
(Aldhelm, ed. by Juster, pages 52-3)
(Yes, armed with wrinkled horns, I’m quite a fright. / I chew huge mouthfuls of the meadow grass, / Yet starry swarms escort me as I pass; / They rise in hordes to Heaven’s highest height. / Headstrong, I bang the turrets of the town / So its tall fortress walls will tumble down. / With twisted thread I fill man’s clothing needs; / I’m right at home if letter fifteen leads.)

Riddle 53 Battering_ram_head.JPG

Photo of a battering ram head (by Clarinetlover) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)


However, while Aldhelm’s riddle dances between the idea of a ram (male sheep) and the siege weapon — the Latin word aries can refer to either — there’s no real sheep reference in Exeter Riddle 53, unless you consider sheep inveterate thieves of the night.

Riddle 53 Gutebagge.jpg

Photo of a Gute ram (by Oskari Löytynoja) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY 3.0)


So too, the imagery of Riddle 53 is strikingly similar to that of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood. For instance, the dreamer describes the Rood tree as forwundod mid wonnum (sorely wounded with wounds) at line 14, which is reminiscent of Riddle 53’s line 7: wriþen ofer wunda, wonnum hyrstum (racked all over with wounds, adorned with dark ornaments). In fact, Jonathan Wilcox reads Riddle 53 as an analog of The Dream of the Rood and, accordingly, suggests the solution of “gallows,” and Andy Orchard reads The Dream of the Rood as a riddle writ large and, consequently, solves 53 as “cross”: a very specific gallows.

Riddle 53 Bewick Gallows and Crows.jpg

Image of crows and gallows from Bewick, page 71.


As Orchard points out, The Dream of the Rood uses the word beam — which occurs in Riddle 53 — with a number of meanings. Beam can mean “tree,” “gallows” or “sunbeam” — the cross’s function as Christ’s retainer — so this singular word accounts for the rood-tree’s three states, a trinity, so to speak. Through its homonyms, beam points to multiple aspects of the rood-tree’s function and identity. And beam of course is exactly how we’re introduced to the solution of Riddle 53 in line 1: Ic seah on bearwe beam hlifian (I saw a tree towering in a wood).

Riddle 53 cross.jpg

Photo of a cross (by Ian Britton) from Flickr (license: CC BY-NC 2.0) license.


Each of these solutions — battering ram, gallows and cross — reconfirms that the Exeter riddles are poems that force us to consider the parallels between different things by viewing them from unfamiliar perspectives. John D. Niles points out that the cross is a gallows — an instrument of execution — and a source of life in the Christian tradition (page 147; note that Niles suggests the Old English solution of gealg-treow (gallows-tree)).


Riddle 53 Biogradska_suma.jpg

Photo of Biogradska forest in Montenegro (by Snežana Trifunović) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)


Perhaps most significantly, Riddle 53 stands with The Dream of the Rood and other riddles of torture in forcing the audience to consider the world from the point of view of what humanity typically views as “raw materials” for our built world. As Jennifer Neville points out, “in Exeter Book Riddles 53 and 88, [. . .] a tree and the antler of a deer, both dwelling happily and naturally in the forest (bearu, holt), are seized, removed from their environment, wounded and used by human beings; as tools, as battering rams and ink-horns” (page 115). These things “are forced on wera æhtum ‘into the possessions of men’ (Exeter Book Riddle 88, 23b)” (page 115).

If we keep “battering ram” while adding “cross” and “gallows,” then we can start exploring the idea of Christ and the crucifix as invaders. Perhaps this is an oblique reference to the harrowing of hell — when Christ invaded hell to bring salvation to the righteous who died before his crucifixion, thereby “stealing” souls from Satan. As with so many of the Exeter riddles, no one solution is totally satisfying; it’s the collection of possible answers that allows us to see a tree in a forest for all of the potential lives it may lead after its felling.


References and Suggested Reading:

Aldhelm. Saint Aldhelm’s ‘Riddles.’ Edited and translated by A. M. Juster. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Bewick, Thomas. A History of British Birds. Vol. I (Newcastle: R. Ward and Sons, 1885) [Memorial Edition]

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009 (esp. pages 151-69).

Neville, Jennifer. Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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

Orchard, Andy. “The Dream of the Rood: Cross-References.” In New Readings in the Vercelli Book. Edited by Samantha Zacher and Andy Orchard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015, pages 225-53.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles 17 and 53.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69 (1990), pages 393-408.

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

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Riddle 53 (or 51)

This week’s translation post is brought to you by the fabulous Sharon Rhodes. Sharon has just completed her PhD at the University of Rochester (defending this summer!), where she worked on Old English, biblical translation and translation theory.


Ic seah on bearwe      beam hlifian,
tanum torhtne.      Þæt treo wæs on wynne,
wudu weaxende.      Wæter hine ond eorþe
feddan fægre,      oþþæt he frod dagum
5 on oþrum wearð      aglachade
deope gedolgod,      dumb in bendum,
wriþen ofer wunda,      wonnum hyrstum
foran gefrætwed.      Nu he fæcnum weg
þurh his heafdes mægen      hildegieste
10 oþrum rymeð.      Oft hy an yste strudon
hord ætgædre;      hræd wæs ond unlæt
se æftera,      gif se ærra fær
genamnan in nearowe      neþan moste.


I saw a tree towering in a wood
with radiant branches. That tree was in joy
growing in the forest. Water and earth
fed him well, until he, wise in days,
5     came into a second, miserable state
deeply wounded, silent in his shackles,
racked all over with wounds, adorned with dark ornaments
on his front. Now he, through the might of head,
clears the path to another
10     treacherous enemy. Often they stole by storm
the treasure together; he was unhesitating and unflagging,
the follower, if the first was compelled to undertake
the journey, as a companion in confinement.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Battering Ram is the most common solution, but Cross and Gallows have also been suggested

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Commentary for Riddle 52

Riddle 52’s commentary is once again by Dr. Lindy Brady, from the University of Mississippi. Take it away, Lindy!:


For such a short text, Riddle 52 has proven surprisingly tricky. A flurry of solutions were proposed by early scholars of the Exeter Book, but none of these has been embraced with complete enthusiasm. Much like Riddles 7, 8, 9, 10 and 24, where it’s clear to a casual reader that the answer is some type of bird, but narrowing down the exact species requires a bit more specialized knowledge, the problem with Riddle 52 is our lack of comfortable familiarity with the intricacies of Anglo-Saxon farming implements and agricultural life. We get the gist of the riddle, of course — a woman is performing a task with a tool formed from two anthropomorphized components bound together. But just what object is being described? The many proposed solutions for this stubborn little riddle take us on a fascinating tour of Anglo-Saxon farming life.

One early answer to this riddle was a yoke of oxen, led into the barn or house by a female slave. This solution was snippily dismissed as one that “smacks of fatal obviousness” — ouch. Still, these early scholars were right to point out that a yoke of oxen, pictured below, is what’s literally being described, and not the riddle’s solution.


Engraving of a man with yoked oxen threshing corn by C. Cousen after R. Beavis. Photo from  Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY 4.0).


Another early solution that no one liked was “broom:”


Photo of a broom (by Schmidti) from  Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


You can see the problem here — unless your broom is made out of only two twigs, this doesn’t work as a solution. And I think we can all agree that a two-pronged broom is not really a broom anymore…


Photo of a pitchfork (by JohnM) from  Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


So what are some possible objects that could actually work as a solution to this puzzle? Another early answer was two pails, carried on a yoke (and thus bound together) by the woman described in the riddle, like so:


Photo of a Saint Petersburg woman carrying buckets of water on a yoke (by Branson DeCou) from  Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


This is certainly a much more satisfying solution than oxen, but it still doesn’t quite work — remember that the woman in the riddle is closer to one of the “captives” than the other.

This observation led to another good solution, the more precise well-buckets, as pictured below:


Photo of well-buckets, Ichijodani (by っ) from  Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


As you can see here, for those of you city slickers who’ve never had a well, the two well-buckets alternate positions as they’re dipped down and raised up, so one would always be nearer to the woman drawing the water. The “house” they enter is the well itself, under the roof where the pulley is attached.

Neat solution, isn’t it? It seems to fit all the conditions of the riddle, and it’s one which I actually think still works just fine. With such a short riddle, it’s hard to know exactly what makes a perfect fit!

Still, the most commonly accepted solution nowadays is “flail.” Again, if you didn’t grow up on a farm, you might be thinking: huh?


Photo of a threshing flail (by Schweitzer) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


As this photograph nicely illustrates, a flail is made of two pieces chained together. You hold one end and swing the other during threshing. Here’s an illustration of some flails in action:


Image from the 14th-century Tacuina sanitatis via  Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


Threshing, by the way, is performed by necessity on a threshing floor — and in damp Anglo-Saxon England, it would have had a roof! So, “flail” is a great solution to this riddle, and it’s the one most critics accept — but I for one do think “well-buckets” still fits the bill.

This list of answers addresses the direct puzzle of solving Riddle 52, but perhaps not all of its puzzling features. If you’re encountering this riddle for the first time, you’re probably wondering about the fact that the woman in this riddle is specifically described as dark-colored and Welsh. The level of detail this riddle provides leads us to some considerations of class and ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon England.

Riddle 52 is part of a group of Exeter Book riddles (along with Riddle 12 and Riddle 72) that mention a “dark-colored” Welsh man or woman in connection with some type of agricultural labor, particularly related to cattle. (For more about the rich history of cattle in Wales, see P.G. Hughes, Wales and the Drovers, listed below.) Two articles listed in the bibliography below, those by Nina Rulon-Miller and John W. Tanke, have done a particularly thorough job of teasing out the implications of class, gender, and ethnicity raised by this group of riddles in the Exeter Book. What these riddles have in common is that they depict someone performing lower-class manual agricultural labor, and they take the time to point out that that someone is both “dark-colored” and “Welsh.”

It’s hard to tell if the Anglo-Saxons had a sense that all Welsh men and women would have been identifiably distinct as “dark-colored.” More likely, this characterization is linked to the roles they’re depicted in within these riddles as agricultural laborers. Well throughout the twentieth century in many cultures (and still today in many places that haven’t embraced the horrors of tanning beds!) pale skin was a sign of high social class, as only those who worked outdoors performing tough manual labor would be tanned or sunburnt (consider the modern American class-based slur ‘redneck’, for instance).

The depiction of the Welsh performing agricultural labor fits the historical circumstances of Anglo-Saxon England as well. As scholar Margaret Lindsay Faull has demonstrated, the Old English word for “Welsh,” Wealh, shifted in meaning over time. Early in the Anglo-Saxon period, it meant simply “foreigner,” but as the Anglo-Saxons settled in the island of Britain it became more particularly applied to those peoples now known as the Welsh — and then, it came to mean simply “slave.” As many historians of Anglo-Saxon England have pointed out, this semantic shift indicates the historical reality that many Welsh men and women were enslaved by the Anglo-Saxons. If you’d like to read more about this, David Pelteret’s book on Slavery in Early Mediaeval England is an incredibly detailed and illuminating study of slavery during the Anglo-Saxon period. I’ve also argued that another layer of meaning to this riddle can be found in the Welsh woman’s control of “captives.” This alludes to the further historical reality that the Welsh were also active participants in the slave trade of the British Isles. During the Anglo-Saxon period, the area that would later become Wales was made up of many individual tribes and kingdoms engaged in frequent warfare, including cattle and slave raids. After the Viking attacks on the British Isles began in the late eighth century, the slave market became more profitable, and these raids grew worse.

In other words, even a simple, short text like Riddle 52 can have many layers of meaning embedded within it. Riddle 52 gives us a glimpse into so many facets of Anglo-Saxon life. It takes us on a tour of Anglo-Saxon farming while reminding us how much of daily life in Anglo-Saxon England remains unknown (though if you’d like to know more about Anglo-Saxon farming, check out the fantastic book by Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith listed in the references to this post!), at the same time raising complex issues of ethnicity, gender, and class in Anglo-Saxon England. Not bad for seven lines!


References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debby and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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.

Brady, Lindy. “The ‘Dark Welsh’ as Slaves and Slave Traders in Exeter Book Riddles 52 and 72.” English Studies, vol. 95 (2014), pages 235-55.

Faull, Margaret Lindsay. “The Semantic Development of Old English Wealh.” Leeds Studies in English, new series, vol. 8 (1975), pages 20-44.

Hughes, P. G. Wales and the Drovers. 1943. 2nd edition. Carmarthen: Golden Grove Editions, 1988.

Pelteret, David A. E. Slavery in Early Mediaeval England: From the Reign of Alfred until the Twelfth Century. Studies in Anglo-Saxon History 7. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995.

Rulon-Miller, Nina. “Sexual Humor and Fettered Desire in Exeter Book Riddle 12.” In Humor in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: Boydell, 2000, pages 99-126.

Tanke, John W. “Wonfeax Wale: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book.” In Class and Gender in Early English Literature: Intersections. Edited by Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, pages 21-42.

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Riddle 52 (or 50)

Riddle 52’s translation is by Dr. Lindy Brady, from the University of Mississippi. Lindy works on all manner of medieval languages (Old and Middle English, medieval Irish and Welsh, Old Norse, Anglo-Latin!), and is especially interested multilingualism, landscape and identity.


Ic seah ræpingas      in ræced fergan
under hrof sales      hearde twegen,
þa wæron genumne,*      nearwum bendum
gefeterade      fæste togædre;
5     þara oþrum wæs      an getenge
wonfah Wale,      seo weold hyra
bega siþe      bendum fæstra.


I saw captives brought into the house
under the roof of the hall – a hard pair –
who were seized, fettered fast together
by narrow bonds.
5     Near to one was
a dark-coloured Welsh woman, she controlled them
both on their journey, fixed by bonds.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Buckets, Broom, Flail, Yoked oxen

*Note that the manuscript and ASPR edition read genamne; this emendation is from Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 99 and 296.

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