Commentary for Riddle 47

First of all: sorry this post has been so long in the making. I’ve been pretty distracted by spiders recently. That is, I was writing a lecture on Anglo-Saxon spiders, which ate up all my time. Of course, creepy crawlies eating things up is pretty much the whole point of Riddle 47, so I think this excuses me. See what I did there?

At any rate, this riddle is quite explicit about which critter it most literally concerns. The obviousness of the opening half-line, Moððe word fræt (a moth ate words), has actually annoyed some scholars into claiming this isn’t a riddle at all…like any Old English text is easy to categorise, pigeonhole and explain! Pfft, I say to that.

This riddle is, in fact, so complex and layered and clever and complex (did I say that already?) that it has amassed an absolute heap of scholarship…too much for me to break down into bite-sized chunks for you. So, I’m going to stick to a few basics and suggest that, if you’re academically inclined, you hop over to Martin Foys’ webpage for the pre-publication draft of his forthcoming article on Riddle 47. It’s pretty comprehensive in the scope of its analysis and literature review, so will be much more helpful than my ramblings below.

But ramble I shall.

Let’s start with the critter that the riddle seems most interested in. Moððe (moth) in line 1a and wyrm (worm) in line 3a tell us we’re dealing with a particular sort of insect in both its adult and larval forms.

Pine Processionary Moth

Photo of a Pine Processionary Moth (by Alvesgaspar) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Given the reference to just what it is the creature is eating (words!), many people take the riddle’s solution to be “bookworm” or “bookmoth.” Others, however, want to push this further and identify an underlying metaphor. Given the popularity of the concept of ruminatio – a Latin term that literally refers to certain animals digesting their food and figuratively to the understanding of religious literature that comes with careful thought and study – Mercedes Salvador-Bello suggests Riddle 47 may point to a monk or student (pages 356-7). Likewise, Martin Foys says that we’re presumably dealing with a student here, given that it’s the larval form of the moth that’s chomping down on the words in question (pages 35-8). I can’t wait to introduce this interpretation to my own students, by the way, since I’m sure they’ll be positively chuffed to be referred to as larvae.

Within this context of education I should also mention that Riddle 47 has a Latin source. That would be Symphosius’ Enigma 16, Tinea (bookworm), which goes a little something like this:

Littera me pavit, nec quid sit littera novi.
In libris vixi, nec sum studiosior inde.
Exedi Musas, nec adhuc tamen ipsa profeci. (Glorie, vol. 133a, page 637)

(Letters fed me, but I do not know what letters are. I lived in books, but am no more studious for that. I devoured the Muses, but still have not myself progressed.)

These two poems are pretty clearly related, but they do have some important distinctions. One is the Old English play on word. As Craig Williamson (pages 285-6), Geoffrey Russom and Nicholas Jacobs all stress, the Old English poem isn’t quite as straightforward as modern folks might think. Because word in Old English doesn’t automatically signify writing. As Riddle 47’s references to songs indicate, we’re dealing with the nexus between orality and literacy here. The Anglo-Saxons trying to solve this riddle have to first figure out what sort of speech can be eaten – that is, they have to figure out that the words are written down. In fact, Jacobs feels that this is so important a point that we ought to be solving the riddle as “writing on vellum.” And John D. Niles reckons line 3b’s reference to wera gied sumes (a certain man’s song) in the riddle actually indicates a particular text: the psalms of King David, which we know were integral to Anglo-Saxon religion and culture (page 121-2). He’d have us solve the riddle as maða ond sealm-boc (“maggot and psalter”).

At any rate, once we’ve figured out that this poem refers to written words, the references to a thief in the darkness that appear in the Old English riddle start to make a lot more sense. That is, thieves steal material objects, sort of like this critter. In fact, this poem may well be pointing toward the treasurely nature of written words; keep in mind that books are pretty high status at the time, especially when blinged out with decorative boards and golden illumination. That context is hit home by the reference to moths and thieves and treasures in Matthew 6.19, which in the Vulgate reads:

Nolite thesaurizare vobis thesauros in terra: ubi aerugo, et tinea demolitur: et ubi fures effodiunt, et furantur

(Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal.)

So, we’re dealing with that ever-popular theme of fragility and impermanence (Russom, page 133). Creepy crawlies come up in this context a lot in Old English, partly because they’re small and therefore fundamentally fragile, and partly because they invade homes and bodies and so point to our own fragility. Human concerns about being food for worms were, after all, around well before Hamlet expressed them, as many Anglo-Saxon texts attest (see, for example, the middle of Soul and Body I / Soul and Body II).

I think my favourite quote on this comes from Foys, who says: “Unlike other Exeter Book riddles, this riddle redacts its humanity; the animal here is not used to make the book, but to unmake the self-proclaimed status of the human form within the proclamation. As with Aldhelm’s De Creatura, the lower form of nature paradoxically, humblingly exposes the fragility of human endeavour through the textual artifice that both professes and constitutes it. Humans: 0, dumb bug: 1” (page 43).

Of course, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t remind you that the word wyrm, though certainly used in the sense of Modern English “worm” at the time, is also the Old English term for dragons.

Image from public domain pictures

Although there’s nothing in this poem to indicate that we should be fleeing in terror from the word-chomping wyrm of Riddle 47, let’s take a moment to think of another creature associated with treasure and thieves and darkness and maybe even swallowing up speeches (while still on the lips of their speakers!). I’m, of course, thinking of the dragon that sends Beowulf to his grave:

Æfter ðam wordum      wyrm yrre cwom,
atol inwitgæst,     oðre siðe
fyrwylmum fah     fionda niosian,
laðra manna—     ligyðum for. (2669-72)

(After those words the angry dragon came another time, terrible and malicious, stained with surging fire to seek out an enemy, the hateful men – travelled with a wave of fire.)

 So, let’s just be thankful that the wyrm of Riddle 47 doesn’t seem at all inclined to breathe fire. Because those poor Anglo-Saxons were living in a fragile enough world as it was…


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, esp. pages 191-3.

Jacobs, Nicholas. “The Old English ‘Book-moth’ Riddle Reconsidered.” Notes and Queries, new series, vol. 35 (1988), pages 290-2.

Foys, Martin. “The Undoing of Exeter Book Riddle 47: ‘Bookmoth’.” In Transitional States: Cultural Change, Tradition and Memory in Medieval England, A Festschrift for Allen Frantzen. Edited by Graham Caie and Michael D. C. Drout. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, forthcoming 2016. Pre-publication draft available online: (if you’re citing this for an essay, keep in mind that the page numbers will change when the book is published in 2016)

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, vol. 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Robinson, Fred C. “Artful Ambiguities in the Old English ‘Book-Moth’ Riddle.” In Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation, for John. C. McGalliard. Edited by Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores Warwick Frese. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975, pages 355-62.

Russom, Geoffrey. “Exeter Riddle 47: A Moth Laid Waste to Fame.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 56 (1977), pages 129-36.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 355-9.

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


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Riddle 47 (or 45)

Moððe word fræt.      Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd,     þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg     wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro,     þrymfæstne cwide
5     ond þæs strangan staþol.    Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra,    þe he þam wordum swealg.


A moth ate words. That seemed to me
a curious happening, when I heard about that wonder,
that the worm, a thief in the darkness, swallowed
a certain man’s song, a glory-fast speech
5     and its strong foundation. The stealing guest was not
at all the wiser for that, for those words which he swallowed.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Book-worm, Book-moth, Maggot and psalter

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Commentary for Riddle 46

Like its translation, the commentary for this riddle is provided by the very capable Dr. Victoria Symons of University College London. Enjoy!


At first glance, following on from two very explicitly sexual riddles (“þrindende þing,” indeed), Riddle 46 is almost disappointingly tame – just a family having dinner together. In fact, it is anything but. It may not look like it, but what we have here is yet another riddle that, once again, is all about sex.

It starts with a situation familiar from Anglo-Saxon poetry: a man sitting down to a drink. Keeping him company are his wives – yes, both of them – his two sons, his two daughters, their two sons, and each sons’ father, uncle and nephew. It’s quite a gathering! Except, as we learn in the final line, there are only five people in the room. Like the Tardis, this is a family that’s bigger on the inside.



Photo (by Steve Collis) from the Wikimedia Commons.


The test of the riddle, then, is to work out how this small group can have quite so many relationships binding them together. The answer starts with sex: this family’s been having rather a lot of it.

Something about incest seems to lend itself to riddles. In Apollonius of Tyre, which was translated into Old English in the eleventh century, the “wicked” King Antiochus requires his daughter’s potential suitors to solve a riddle about his incestuous relationship with her (Lees, pages 37-9; for other examples see Bitterli, pages 57-9). The source material for the similarly incestuous set-up of Riddle 46 is found in the Bible (where else?). After fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and leaving his wife behind as a pillar of salt, Lot finds himself holed up in a cave, together with his two daughters:

And the elder said to the younger Our father is old, and there is no man left on the earth, to come in unto us after the manner of the whole earth. Come, let us make him drunk with wine, and let us lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father. And they made their father drink wine that night: and the elder went in and lay with her father: but he perceived not neither when his daughter lay down, nor when she rose up. And the next day… They made their father drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in, and lay with him: and neither then did he perceive when she lay down, nor when she rose up. So the two daughters of Lot were with child by their father. (Genesis 19:31-36)


So there you have it. The riddle’s five people are Lot himself, his two daughters, and their sons by him. That makes the boys both the sons of Lot, the sons of his daughters, and each others’ uncle and nephew. Everything is accounted for!

Or at least, almost everything. There’s one relationship in the riddle that doesn’t appear in the Genesis story. In Genesis, Lot is seduced by his daughters, but he doesn’t marry them. In Riddle 46, however, they are referred to as his wifum twam. A reference to multiple wives would, I think, have particular connotations for an Anglo-Saxon reader. There’s evidence to suggest that, before the Conversion, it was accepted for Anglo-Saxon men to have several wives, or concubines (Clunies Ross; Lees). The practice persisted well into the Christian era, although the church was most certainly not ok with it:

Se man ðe rihtæwe hæfð ond eac cyfese ne sylle him nan preost husl ne nan gerihto þe man cristenum mannum deð butan he to bote gecyrre. (Frantzen, Old English Penitential, 2.9)

([Concerning] the man who has a legal wife and also a concubine, let no priest give him the eucharist nor any of the rites which are performed for Christian men, unless he turns to repentance.)


Furthermore, Margaret Clunies Ross argues that polygamy was “practiced much more extensively among the upper classes [of Anglo-Saxon society] … than in the lower social ranks” (page 3), and Clare Lees describes “serial polygamy and concubinage” as “the prerogative of the ruling family of the West Saxons’ (p. 37). It’s fitting, then, that the characters of Riddle 46 are described variously as freolic, ides, æþeling and eorl: all terms with a predominantly aristocratic flavour.

Now you may find yourself wondering how the Anglo-Saxon church justified its stance on concubines (not ok), when there’s polygamy a plenty in the Old Testament – as this riddle itself demonstrates. And you wouldn’t be alone. Ælfric specifically discusses this point in his Preface to Genesis:

On anginne þisere worulde, nam se broþer hys swuster to wife and hwilon eac se fæder tymde be his agenre dehter, and manega hæfdon ma wifa… Gyf hwa wyle nu swa lybban æfter Cristes tocyme, swa swa men leofodon ær Moises æ oþþe under Moises æ, ne byð se man na cristen.

(In the beginning of this world, a brother took his sister as a wife, and sometimes also a father had a child with his own daughter, and many [men] had multiple wives… [but] if anyone wishes to live now, after Christ’s coming, in the same way that men lived before Moses’ law, or under Moses’ law, that man is not a Christian.)


Ælfric’s argument is that things were different back in the day, and Old Testament practices can’t simply be copied without some interpretation. By presenting an Old Testament story in the guise of contemporary Anglo-Saxon culture, I think our riddler is making a similar point. Take the Old Testament literally, and next thing you know you’ll be sitting down to dinner with your brother-uncle. No one wants that.

Read in the context of these penitentials and homilies, we can see how this riddle engages with some pretty topical social issues. Both the specific subject of marriage, and the more general dangers of incorrectly interpreting Biblical material, are touched upon here, with perhaps a bit of a jab at the upper classes thrown in for good measure. As Jennifer Neville summarises, it’s not every day you find a Bible story repackaged into a joke about sex, masquerading as a number game!

But there’s another way that we can read this riddle, too. For all its playfulness, there’s an underlying suggestion of something darker going on. Because, of course, the story of Lot is not simply the story of a man with one too many wives. It’s also a disturbing narrative about incest and exploitation. And I don’t think that’s lost on the author of this riddle.

We get our first sense of this with the reference to wine in the first line. This detail comes straight from the Genesis story, so in one way it gives us a hint about the riddle’s solution (Murphy, page 144). But it also draws attention to the role played by alcohol in all of this. Drinking was, of course, a not uncommon Anglo-Saxon pastime, but nor was it universally celebrated (see Riddle 27, for example). The poem Judith, another Anglo-Saxon adaptation of an Old Testament story, firmly links drunkenness with sexual wrongdoing.

Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_by_CaravaggioThis is where too much drinking gets you in Judith. Image of painting by Caravaggio from the Wikimedia Commons.


The words inne and insittendre place a particular emphasis on the interiority of the setting in this riddle. Combined with the insistent repetition of ond in the opening and closing lines, the poet creates an unsettlingly claustrophobic atmosphere. This is a family that, behind closed doors, is rather too close for comfort.

Now, the Genesis story very clearly presents Lot’s daughters as the incestual instigators, up to and including getting their father insensibly drunk first. That’s problematic enough, but Riddle 46 complicates things even further. Here, the father is presented in a much more central role; the words wær and fæder are positioned prominently at the very start and exact middle of the poem, while the three-fold repetition of his in the opening lines emphasises his authority over everyone else present. It’s a subtle change, but it’s one that encourages us to consider the complexity of the power dynamics at play. In combination with its claustrophobic atmosphere and suggestion of drunkenness, the riddle hints at the more troubling implications that undercut the narrative’s superficially playful presentation.

When reading the Exeter Book riddles, it’s always worth having a look at what’s near them in the manuscript. In this case, Riddle 46 follows hot on the heels of two explicitly sexual riddles, full of raunchy imagery and innuendo-laden puns. Riddle 46 continues the focus on sex, but explores it in a much broader way: in relation to society, to the Bible, to families, and to power. It’s at once short and playful, but also serious and, I think, pretty dark. Not bad for a little poem about family dinner!


References and Suggested Reading:

Ælfric. “Preface to Genesis.” In The Longman Anthology of Old English, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Norman Literatures. Edited by Richard North, Joe Allard and Patricia Gillies. London: Routledge, 2014, pages 740-45.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Clunies Ross, Margaret. “Concubinage in Anglo-Saxon England.” Past & Present, vol. 108 (1985), pages 3-34.

Frantzen, Allen J., ed. The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials: A Cultural Database. 2003-2015.

Godden, Malcolm. “Biblical Literature: The Old Testament.” In The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Edited by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pages 214-33.

Lees, Clare A. “Engendering Religious Desire: Sex, Knowledge, and Christian Identity in Anglo-Saxon England.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 27 (1997), pages 17-46.

Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011.

Neville, Jennifer. “Joyous Play and Bitter Tears: The Riddles and the Elegies.” In Beowulf and Other Stories: A New Introduction to Old English, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Norman Literature. Edited by Richard North and Joe Allard. London: Pearson, 2007, pages 130-59.

Swanton, Michael, trans. “Apollonius of Tyre.” In Anglo-Saxon Prose. London: Dent, 1975, pages 158-73.

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Riddle 46 (or 44)

This week’s translation is a guest post from the terribly clever and witty Dr. Victoria Symons. Victoria teaches Old and Middle English at University College London and researches medieval attitudes toward the written word. Stay tuned for her commentary post next week.


Wær sæt æt wine      mid his wifum twam
ond his twegen suno     ond his twa dohtor,
swase gesweostor,      ond hyra suno twegen,
freolico frumbearn;      fæder wæs þær inne
5     þara æþelinga      æghwæðres mid,
eam ond nefa.      Ealra wæron fife
eorla ond idesa     insittendra.


A man sat [drinking] wine with his two wives
and his two sons and his two daughters,
the dear sisters, and their two sons,
noble firstborns. The father of each
5    of those princes was in there,
uncle and nephew. In all there were five
warriors and women sitting within.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the likely solution: Lot and his family

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Commentary for Riddle 45

Riddle 45 is yet another example of a riddle that’s simply throbbing with double entendre. In case you hadn’t noticed.

The interpretation most widely accepted is that the riddle refers to bread dough (OE dag). After it rises, the woman in the riddle kneads and shapes it and then puts a piece of cloth over it. But of course this is all masked by the har-dee-har-har references to a bride grasping a banleas (bone-less), swelling thing and then covering it with her garment. Apparently, bread-making is an erotic activity. Who knew?

Riddle 45 Kneading dough

Look at that sexy, sexy kneading. Copyright-free image from the Wikimedia Commons.

Riddle 45 Bread dough 1Dough after kneading. Looking good. Photo (by ElinorD) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Riddle 45 Bread dough 2Dough after rising. My how you’ve grown. Photo (by ElinorD) from the Wikimedia Commons.


A hint about why the poem refers to a woman of high status (i.e. the daughter of a þeoden or “ruler” / “lord”) may lie in the Old English word hlafdige. Although this term, which literally seems to have meant “loaf-kneader,” only appears a couple of times in the Old English writen record, it’s the root of our modern English word “lady” (compare to hlaford (lord), whose etymological roots point to the meaning: “loaf-keeper”).

The woman is also referred to as hygewlonc (proud in mind), which Mercedes Salvador-Bello reminds us is often associated with sexual activity (page 85). In fact, proud-minded swelling is also found in other texts that are linked to this poem by the use of the term þrindende (swelling) (page 83). Although this particular spelling is unique to Riddle 45, scholars have argued that it’s the same word that appears in the poem Vainglory at line 24b and in Riddle 37 at line 2a. In the first example, we see that pride swells up (þrinteð) within an arrogant man. In the second, another rather sexually explicit riddle, the belly or womb of a bellows is swollen (aþrunten) with air. So, if we accept that these words are all related, then there seems to be a basis for playing on a link between sex/pride/swelling.

But there also seems to be a bread/sex link that goes beyond the hard work of kneading a loaf with a pair of particularly grabby hands, like those imagined in Riddle 45. As Thomas D. Hill points out, the tenth/eleventh-century continental bishop Burchard of Worms includes an interesting passage in his treatise on canonical law, the Decretum. Book 19 of this text declares:

Fecisti quod quaedam mulieres facere solent? Prosternunt se in faciem, et discoopertis natibus, jubent ut supra nudas nates conficiatur panis, et eo decocto tradunt maritiis suis ad comedendum. Hoc ideo faciunt, ut plus exardescant in amorem illarum. Si fecisti duos annos per legitimas ferias poenitas. (see Burchard, column 974)

(Hast thou done as certain women are accustomed to do? They lie down on their face and having uncovered their buttocks, they order that bread should be made upon [their] nude buttocks; and having cooked it they give it to their husbands to eat. This they do so that they [their husbands] should burn with love for them [the wives]. If thou hast done this, thou shalt do penance for two years on the appointed days.) (translation from Hill, page 54)


Apparently this was a thing that some women did…

And Burchard considered it to be quite a bad thing to do (magic! stomp it out!), judging from the long penance that he demanded. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be thinking of this next time an elderly family member refers to someone’s bottom with the term “buns.” (or is my family just weird?)

The long and the short of all this is that, as Hill points out, “Dough is the material which a woman uses to nourish her family; it is potentially a rich symbol of a woman’s power within the home, and the way in which it rises (apparently) spontaneously can provide the basis for erotic metaphor” (page 59).

While I understand why the sexually-charged imagery of Riddle 45 has been interpreted this way, I still can’t help reading this riddle and thinking of pregnancy rather than penises. It’s the phrase “bun in the oven,” as well as caressing and covering of a swelling, bread-shaped body-part that makes reminds me of a pregnant belly. And this would of course still invite a sexual reading (because of the lead-up to pregnancy, not some yummy-mummy fetish). The only hiccup in this interpretation is the banleas (bone-less) nature of the swelling thing, although a bit of digging into early theories of fetal development demonstrates that this isn’t really an issue.

An Old English text known as De generatione hominis (on the generation of a human) is found on folio 38b of the manuscript London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius A.iii (see Deegan, page 23). Part of it reads:

On þam feorþan monþe he bið on limum staþolfæst. On þam fiftan monþe […] þa ribb beoð geworden, þonne gelimpð þære manigfeald sar þonne þæs byrþnes lic on hire innoþe scipigende bið. On þam syxtan monþe he byþ gehyd, ond ban beoð weaxende. (Cockayne, vol. 3, page 146)

(In the fourth month it is firm in limbs. In the fifth month […] the ribs are formed, then various troubles occur when the body is forming inside the bearer. In the sixth month it is provided with skin, and the bones are growing.)


So, bone-less-ness isn’t a problem for my pregnancy reading of Riddle 45, since even a fetus in the second trimester was thought to not yet have bones by the writer of this Anglo-Saxon medical text! You learn something new everyday…

Righto, I’m going to leave it there today. Feel free to sift through my commentary and post any comments/questions that rise up!


References and Suggested Reading:

Burchard of Worms. Decretum. Patrologia Latina Database. Vol. 140.

Cockayne, Thomas, ed. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England. 3 vols. London: Holland Press, 1961.

Deegan, Marilyn. “Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Anglo-Saxon Medical Texts: A Preliminary Survey.” In Medicine in Early Medieval England. Edited by Marilyn Deegan and D. G. Scragg. Manchester: Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies, University of Manchester, 1987, pages 17-26.

Hill, Thomas D. “The Old English Dough Riddle and the Power of Women’s Magic: The Traditional Context of Exeter Book Riddle No. 45.” In Via Crucis: Essays on Early Medieval Sources and Ideas in Memory of J. E. Cross. Edited by Thomas N. Hall and Charles D. Wright. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2002, pages 50-60.

Salvador(-Bello), Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96 (esp. 82-6).

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Riddle 45 (or 43)

Ic on wincle gefrægn      weaxan nathwæt,
þindan ond þunian,      þecene hebban.
On þæt banlease      bryd grapode,
hygewlonc hondum.      Hrægle þeahte
5     þrindende þing      þeodnes dohtor.


I heard that something was growing in the corner,
swelling and sticking up, raising its roof.
A proud bride grasped that boneless thing,
with her hands. A lord’s daughter
5     covered with a garment that bulging thing.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solution: Dough

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Commentary for Riddle 44

So…this riddle is pretty unambiguously raunchy, am I right? Something stiff that hangs under a man’s clothing by his thigh? The filling of an equally long hole? All the basics of a nudge-nudge joke are there for even the most sheltered of individuals to catch.

With imagery as blatantly obvious as this, the question then becomes “what other object acts this way?”

The answer seems to be a key, although “dagger” has also been suggested in the past. But key makes a great deal of sense, especially when we look at other medieval and biblical references to a sexy sort of unlocking. The favourite, here, is #49 of The Cambridge Songs, sometimes referred to as Veni dilectissime (for its first line):

Veni, dilectissime

et a, et o,

gratam me invisere.

et a, et o, et a, et o!

In languore pereo,

et a, et o!

Venerem desidero,

et a, et o, et a, et o!


Si cum clave veneris,

et a, et o,

mox intrare poteris,

et a, et o, et a, et o!

(Come, dearest love, with ah! and oh! to visit me with pleasure, with ah! and oh! and ah! and oh! I am dying of faintness, (refrain)! I am longing for love, (refrain)! […] If you come with your key, (refrain) you will soon be able to enter (refrain)!)

Catchy, right? Well, maybe not to everyone…someone took offence to this eleventh-century ditty and tried to erase parts of it from the manuscript. So, the version I’ve posted above involved a great deal of reconstruction by Peter Dronke (vol. 1, page 274; see also Ziolkowski, pages 126-7).

LIN2013-1256Behold, an Anglo-Saxon slide key! Copyright: Lincolnshire County Council (Attribution-ShareAlike License)


Mercedes Salvador-Bello has written on the links between Riddle 44 and Veni dilectissime, and she argues that both verses should be read in the context of the Song of Songs/Solomon (Salvador, page 78). All the kissing and seeking out of lovers there can be read allegorically, with Christ as the lover of the church or of an individual’s soul. Here are just a few verses to give you a taster:

Dilectus meus misit manum suam per foramen, et venter meus intremuit ad tactum ejus. Surrexi ut aperirem dilecto meo; manus meae stillaverunt myrrham, et digiti mei pleni myrrha probatissima. Pessulum ostii mei aperui dilecto meo, at ille declinaverat, atque transierat. Anima mea liquefacta est, ut locutus est; quaesivi, et non inveni illum; vocavi, et non respondit mihi (Song of Solomon 5.4-6).

(My beloved put his hand through the key hole, and my bowels were moved at his touch. I arose up to open to my beloved: my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers were full of the choicest myrrh. I opened the bolt of my door to my beloved: but he had turned aside, and was gone. My soul melted when he spoke: I sought him, and found him not: I called, and he did not answer me).

[I’m going to go ahead and suggest that “bowels” is the worst possible translation decision for venter here, but I’ve left it in since it’s from the Douay-Rheims translation of the Latin Vulgate bible. Venter can also mean “belly” or “womb” (so, basically, an unspecific term for the lower part of the torso), either of which is far more appropriate in this case.]


Salvador-Bello goes on to map out the wider context of key imagery that involves Christ unlocking heaven’s doors and locking up demons in hell. Given all this, she concludes that unlocking is an especially Christ-like thing to do…which goes a long way to explaining the presence of Riddle 44 in a manuscript belonging to a cathedral. But, even so, the raunchiness is not to be denied.

Of this erotic imagery, D. K. Smith says: “the riddler’s success, and the resulting laughter, rests on the potential for shame and embarrassment – the chance to catch his victims with their imaginative pants down. Yet, if these riddles have the power to threaten their victims with the potential for humiliation, that is only half the equation. Even more important is their ability, through the humor they generate, to defuse that same implicit threat” (page 82). In other words, raunchy riddles allow people living in a shame culture to discuss taboo topics.

If you were a monk and the enjoyment of sex was off-limits (okay, maybe just “sex was off-limits,” since no one – monk or otherwise – was supposed to be enjoying it at that time), you could still make a veiled reference to it in a riddle and hide behind the innocent solution if someone called you out. In fact, in order to call out the riddler, the audience would have to admit that their minds were also veering down a dark and dirty path (Magennis, page 16-17). So, cue the uncomfortable giggle and the drawn-out pause as solvers attempted to read past the sexual veneer and determine a socially acceptable solution.

And I feel like not much has changed when it comes to the English-speaking world’s sense of humour. Sure, there’s a lot more open discussion about sex, and sexually explicit material is all over the place. But giggly, taboo-based, penis jokes remain quite firmly in the public’s consciousness. Yeah, I said “firmly.” What’s wrong with that? You pervs.


References and Suggested Reading:

Dronke, Peter. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965-66.

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 (esp. 16-18).

Salvador(-Bello), Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96 (esp. 76-82).

Smith, D. K. “Humor in Hiding.” In Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000, pages 79-98 (esp. 88-94).

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland, 1994.


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