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.

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.

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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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Commentary for Riddle 51

[This post is under construction]

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Riddle 51 (or 49)

Riddle 51’s translation is once again by Dr. Britt Mize (who translated and provided commentary for Riddle 33). Britt is Associate Professor and Interim Associate Head of English at Texas A&M University where he works on Old and Middle English language and literature, with special interests in linguistics, poetics and drama.


Ic seah wrætlice      wuhte feower
samed siþian;     swearte wæran lastas,
swaþu swiþe blacu.      Swift wæs on fore,
fuglum framra      fleag on lyfte;
5     deaf under yþe.     Dreag unstille
winnende wiga,      se him wegas tæcneþ
ofer fæted gold      feower eallum.

[note that the punctuation of the above Old English text differs from Krapp and Dobbie’s ASPR edition at lines 4 and 6]


I saw four wondrous creatures
travel together. Black were the tracks,
very dark footprints. It was swift in its going;
fleet in the sky, faster than birds;
5     it dove under wave. Vigorously he labored,
the striving warrior who showed it —all four—
the paths across ornamental gold.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solution: Pen and fingers

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Commentary for Riddle 50

When I was little, bonfires were all the rage. My siblings and I used to run around our backyard gathering up heaps of fallen twigs and then we’d BURN THEM ALL! I am not an arsonist. Proper permits were observed. But there was still something exciting about huddling around a warm outdoor fire on a chilly Canadian evening and slowly feeding the flames until they ate everything up. That’s why Riddle 50 is one of my favourites (I know…I say this about every riddle).


A massive bonfire! Photo (by Fir0002) from the Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


So, obviously, “fire” is the solution I’m going for, and it’s the one that most scholars accept. I’ll give a brief nod to an alternative that was suggested in the early days of riddle scholarship: dog. The problem with the “dog” reading is that dogs aren’t typically torht (“bright”…as in light, not intelligence), and they’re no more wundrum acenned (wondrously brought forth/born) than humans or other animals (Williamson, page 292). Because of this, “dog” has fallen out of fashion and most people go with “fire.”

Why is “fire” a good solution? All sorts of reasons. First of all, we have the clue that the solution is something that’s bright and potentially violent, and also a treasure for people (smithy connotations here?). Think of life in a dark, wooden hut in rainy ol’ England with no heating and that treasure part will make perfect sense. In fact, I’m now having flashbacks to my days of student accommodation (turn on the heat, you sadists!).

Anywho, the fire in this riddle is also the result of a miraculous birth from dumbum twam (two speechless ones). The speechlessness implies inanimate (or at least non-human) parents, which most scholars read as flint and metal. As for that miraculous birth, well Riddle 50 isn’t the only Anglo-Saxon riddle to associate this sort of thing with fire. There are a whole slew of Latin riddles by Aldhelm and Tatwine (as well as in an anonymous collection from the continent) that deal with fire or sparks in this way. I won’t include them all here, but in case you want to follow up, here’s a list:

  • Aldhelm: Enigmata 44, De Igne (On fire) and 93, De scintilla (On a spark)
  • Tatwine: Enigma 31, De scintilla (On a spark)
  • Bern collection: Enigma 23, De scintilla (On a spark)

These riddles also all deal with the immense power of a small thing that grows up quickly, which kind of goes with the Old English riddle’s reference to feeding and to the fire as a wiga (warrior).


Here’s some more fire. Photo (by Awesomoman) from the Wikimedia Commons.


There’s also another riddle by Tatwine, which focuses on the varying gifts fire can give. Enigma 33, De Igne (On fire) reads:

Testatur simplex triplicem natura figuram
Esse meam, haut mortales qua sine uiuere possunt;
Multiplici quibus en bona munere grata ministro,
Tristia non numquam; tamen haut sum exorsus ab illis.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 200)

(My single nature gives evidence of my existing triple form, without which mortals can by no means live; I supply to them pleasing profits through variable tribute, sometimes sorrowful ones too; but I am not derived from them.)


I can think of a number of sorrowful gifts that fire can give, but let’s focus on the pleasant ones, since Riddle 50 talks about this too. The most obvious gift is cooking (yum! I love food!), which Riddle 50’s description of a woman binding fire seems to referring to. The Old English verb form is wrið, which has been read in a number of ways. It’s usually assumed that this form comes from the verb wriðan (to bind, tie, wrap around), but it could also be a form of wreon (to cover) (Williamson, page 292). Both of these interpretations work just fine: a fire is covered by cooking pots, but it’s also imprisoned or bound by any good cook who wants to ensure she (in the highly gendered Anglo-Saxon world) doesn’t burn the village down.

I like the idea of a woman binding a warrior, since this would be massively subversive in an Anglo-Saxon context. This is precisely the sort of topsy-turvy hierarchical play that Jennifer Neville talks about when she reads this riddle as a safely contained discussion of the dangers of a ruling class becoming too proud (see the riddle’s final line). She says, “Just as a fire raging out of control can destroy all in its path, so a warrior-class can destroy society if it is not restrained by the prosaic requirements of daily life and obligations to those whom they rule” (page 519). Neville is, of course, careful to note that this riddle is not a call to arms for the labourer class, since the poem accepts its hierarchies without question. But it’s still the role of riddles to subvert power relationships in all sorts of ways.

These power relationships are emphasized in the second half of the riddle when we have all those references to obeying and ministering to and feeding the flames. The feeding imagery also links this riddle to the one that comes before it (Salvador-Bello, page 365). Remember all that swallowing and servitude in Riddle 49? And, of course, both Riddles 48 and 49 depict speechless creatures, so these riddles do seem to be a thematic bundle (Salvador-Bello, page 365).

Speaking of bundles, the last shout out I want to give is to the suggestion that this riddle could be solved with a double solution. Marie Nelson reads the poem on two levels, arguing that it’s about both fire and anger. According to Nelson, “Anger is good if it helps you stay alive, but, uncontrolled, anger becomes a destroyer” (page 448). I quite like this association, especially since so much of Anglo-Saxon psychology is focused on the idea that powerful emotions swell up and boil over inside your body. Ever feel all hot and bothered when someone insults you? Well, the mental and bodily worlds haven’t always been considered as separately as they often are today, and the physical heat of anger was once linked to a hydraulic model of the mind (which, coincidentally, was thought to be located in the chest). If you’re interested in this idea, then I can’t recommend highly enough Leslie Lockett’s phenomenal Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. It’s terribly clever. Go read it now.

But, anyway, the link between fire and anger is clearly there in Anglo-Saxon psychology, and it may well be this link that the poet’s gesturing toward with that final reference to fire grimly repaying those who let it become proud. A kind of disturbing image to end on…so, here, have some Pixar-related comic relief:


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Nelson, Marie. “Four Social Functions of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Neophilologus, vol. 75 (1991), pages 445-50.

Neville, Jennifer. “The Unexpected Treasure of the ‘Implement Trope’: Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles.” Review of English Studies, vol. 62, issue 256 (2011), pages 505-19.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 359-60.

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

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Riddle 50 (or 48)

Wiga is on eorþan      wundrum acenned
dryhtum to nytte,      of dumbum twam
torht atyhted,      þone on teon wigeð
feond his feonde.      Forstrangne oft
5     wif hine wrið;      he him wel hereð,
þeowaþ him geþwære,      gif him þegniað
mægeð ond mæcgas      mid gemete ryhte,
fedað hine fægre;      he him fremum stepeð
life on lissum.      Leanað grimme
10     þam þe hine wloncne      weorþan læteð.


A warrior is wondrously brought forth on earth
for the profit of people, a bright thing produced
from two speechless ones, which one marshals in anger
foe against his foe. A woman often binds him,
5     the very strong one; he obeys them well,
peaceably serves them, if women and men
minister to him in a fitting manner,
feed him fairly; he furnishes them with benefits,
with the delights of life. Grimly he repays
10     those who let him become proud.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Fire, Anger, Dog

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