Commentary for Riddle 38

So, what am I gonna say about Riddle 38, eh? That’s the question, my friends. That is the question.

I suppose I could talk about how this riddle seems to depict a young ox or bullock, i.e. a castrated bull. This makes for a rather ironic use of the lovely Old English compound wæpned-cynn, which literally means “weaponed kind” and metaphorically means “dudes” (or maybe “the male sex”…depends on whether you’re translating for the internet or for an essay/exam/any-academic-enterprise-in-which-the-word-dude-is-unfortunately-a-no-go).

Riddle 38 isn’t the only Old English text to use the term wæpned-cynn or the related compounds wæpned-bearn/-cild (male child), wæpned-had (male sex), wæpned-hand/-healf (male side/line), wæpned-man (male person). In fact, these compounds are fairly common in prose and appear in several poetic texts, including Beowulf, Exodus and Genesis A. The last of these poems also includes the first element of the compound on its own in the formula wif and wæpned (women and men) (lines 195a and 2746a).

Distinguishing men by the weapons they carried seems to have roots in Germanic tradition. In fact, a Thuringian law-code that survives in a tenth-century manuscript refers to the male line as lancea (spear) and the female line as fusus (spindle) (von Schwerin, page 61, line 25). The ox of Riddle 38 is obviously not carrying a spear or sword (because hooves!), but horns and antlers are characterized as weapony in other riddles (highlight here to see which #spoilers: Riddles 14, 88 and 93). Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t another sort of weapon in this riddle. The Old English term wæpen was a euphemism for a particular part of the male anatomy, if you know what I mean (penis…what I mean is obviously penis…you may all stop giggling now). This is where I read the irony in Riddle 38. The poem refers to an ox – although obviously still a male creature with a penis, the castrated beast of burden is lacking in other rather obvious features of the male body (testicles…now I’m referring to testicles…seriously, STOP laughing). Is this riddle making fun, perchance? Possibly. Although I should also note that the reference to ploughing in this poem is problematic, as I’ll discuss below. So, maybe we’re wrong to assume this fella is a castrated ox…maybe he’s just a run of the mill, fully intact young bull.

I hope I haven’t put you all to sleep by musing about cattle genitalia. If not, let’s move on to some other, slightly less physical compounds: geoguðmyrþe in line 2a and ferðfriþende in line 3a. Geoguðmyrþe means something like “youthful joy,” which goes quite nicely with the fantastic image in my head of a frolicking calf following his mum around a field. This is what the calf in my head looks like:


FLUFFY! Photo (by Aconcagua) from the Wikimedia Commons.

The manuscript actually reads geoguð myrwe, but most scholars accept the change to geoguðmyrþe, since myrwe presents all manner of linguistic problems, which I promise not to bore you with (if you want to know more, see Williamson, page 256). As for ferðfriþende, this compound means “life-saving,” and it’s a bit unclear what it refers to (i.e. the mother cow – which is how I read it – or the four springs). In fact, lines 2b-4 are quite tricksy in general and have been translated all sorts of different ways (see Williamson, pp. 256-7).

I should also mention the weird shift in grammatical gender (grammar, wonderful grammar!) that comes at the end of the riddle. Line 6 begins with what is clearly the feminine form of the third-person pronoun (i.e. Modern English “she/he/it”…here “she” = hio), while line 7 includes the masculine form of the third-person pronoun (he). The first, feminine instance may refer back to the grammatical gender of seo wiht (the creature) and the second, masculine instance may refer to the natural gender of the ox/bull. Why shift, though? Most scholars/translators just elide the shift entirely and translate with “he” or “it,” but I suppose it’s possible that the “she” is the mother cow, who will go on to become a beast of burden, while the “he” is the calf, who will go on to become leather. Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith have recently pointed out that female cattle may have also played a role in ploughing, particularly in small-scale agriculture (page 108). So, we can’t make the claim that only an ox would be appropriately placed to “break the hills.”

Still, this explanation may be reaching slightly when we take the clunkiness of the final lines into account. Because the real problem with Riddle 38 is that the beginning and the end kinda jar. We start off with a nice little pastoral poem, which seems poised to build into one of those riddles that contrasts the happy freedom of youth with the sad incarceration of age. There are unique compounds and careful metrics. And then, where we’d expect a turn in the poem, we get a quick formulaic ending in a verse style that’s full of strange metrical irregularities (Williamson, page 257). This has led some scholars to suggest that the end of the poem may have actually been prose, which was tacked on to the beginning of a poem for some reason (Williamson, pages 257-8).

In fact, you may remember the formulaic ending from Riddle 12 and its commentary. Lines 13b-15 of that riddle read:

                         Saga hwæt ic hatte,

þe ic lifgende      lond reafige

ond æfter deaþe     dryhtum þeowige.

(Say what I am called, I who living ravage the land and after death serve the masses.)

Similar sentiment, eh? Even closer to Riddle 38 is the Latin prose riddle of pseudo-Bede: Vidi filium inter quatuor fons nutritum: si uiuus fuit, disrupit montes; si mortuus fuit, alligauit uiuos (Bayless and Lapidge, page 144, no. 144) (I saw a son raised among four springs: if he was living, he shattered mountains; if he was dead, he fettered the living). Springs and shattering mountains and fetters! We know that these elements were travelling around in a bundle because we also have similar depictions of the living/dead bovine binary in Aldhelm’s Latin Enigma 83, De iuvenco and the Lorsch riddle, Enigma 11, De tauro.

But, actually, the closest Latin enigma to Riddle 38 is from the collection of the Anglo-Saxon Eusebius. His Enigma 37, De vitulo goes a little something like this:

Post genitrix me quam peperit mea saepe solesco

Inter ab uno fonte riuos bis bibere binos

Progredientes; et si uixero, rumpere colles

Incipiam; uiuos moriens aut alligo multos. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 247)

(After my mother bore me, I often used to go forth to drink among two by two [i.e. four] streams from one source; and if I live, I will begin to break the hills; or dying I bind many of the living.)

Scholars like to comment that these two poems are very closely related (Bitterli, pages 28-9), and they most certainly seem to be. But I’d also like to point out that Eusebius has two other bovine riddles in his collection: Enigma 12, De bove and 13, De vacca. The first of these is all about the toil of ploughing, while the second is about the nourishing nature of the cow. De vacca reads:

Sunt pecudes multae mihi, quas nutrire solebam;

Meque premente fame non lacteque carneue uescor,

Cumque cibis aliis et pascor aquis alienis;

Ex me multi uiuunt, ex me et flumina currunt. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 223)

(There are many creatures for me, which I used to nourish; but with hunger oppressing me I do not consume milk or meat, since I feed on other foods and different drinks; many live from me, and from me streams flow.)

I can’t help but wonder if the emphasis on the mother as life-saver in Riddle 38 draws not only on Eusebius’ calf poem, but also his cow riddle. Either way, I think it’s time for me to moo-ve on and stop milking this post for all it’s worth.

References and Suggested Reading:

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

Bayless, Martha, and Michael Lapidge, eds and trans. Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae. Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 14. Dublin: School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1998.

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.

von Schwerin, Claudius, ed. Leges Saxonum und Lex Thuringorum. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Fontes Iuris Germanici Antiqui. Hanover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1918.

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

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Riddle 38 (or 36)

Ic þa wiht geseah     wæpnedcynnes,

geoguðmyrþe grædig;     him on gafol forlet

ferðfriþende      feower wellan

scire sceotan,     on gesceap þeotan.

5     Mon maþelade,     se þe me gesægde:

“Seo wiht, gif hio gedygeð,     duna briceð;

gif he tobirsteð,      bindeð cwice.”


I saw a creature of the weaponed kind/male sex,

greedy with youthful joy; as tribute for him

the life-saving one let four springs

shoot forth brightly, murmur to his delight.

5     Someone spoke, the one who said to me:

“That creature, if she survives, breaks the hills;

if he dies, binds the living.”


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: (Young) Ox, Bullock

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Commentary for Riddle 37

When it comes to over-the-top manly virility, the smith has got it going on (is a sentence I never thought I would write until this very moment). So it makes sense that the smith’s tools – in this case, the bellows – might be associated with a certain amount of naughtiness. If you didn’t realize that this riddle is a bit naughty (bless), then please allow me to direct you to line 2a’s swollenness, whatever is shooting out of an “eye” in line 5b, as well as all the servantile following and filling going on in between. Still don’t believe me that this poem is chock-a-block full of double entendre? Then mosey on down to the final line’s reference to the impossibly incestuous fathering of sons (not unlike Riddle 33’s mother-daughter imagery). This riddle is having fun with tools, in every sense of the word.

“Why a smith?,” you might wonder. To which I reply:


Image of Völundr (apparently) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Whoa there, put away those guns! I am joking, obviously. This particular blacksmith is far too grim for my tastes. But it does remind us that hyper-masculinity is associated with smithing, servitude and sexual acts elsewhere in the Old English corpus. I’m referring to the poem Deor (also in the Exeter Book), which mentions the nasty lengths to which Weland/Völundr the Smith will go to take revenge on the enemy who imprisoned him because of his skillful smithing: namely, the rape and impregnation of his daughter, Beadohild/Böðvildr.

The goings on of Riddle 37 may be more consensual, although with a servant involved there’s an element of power/hierarchy here too. Furthermore, violence lurks under the surface in lines 5-7’s reference to death. This death reference is quite clever, since it relates to the expiration of the bellows: it breathes out all of its air, but rather than dying it is revived again and again. It’s this particular clue that makes the solution “bellows” fairly certain (despite “wagon” also having been suggested). In fact, the same clue can be found in Symphosius’ Latin bellows-riddle, Enigma 73, Uter Follis:

Non ego continuo morior, dum spiritus exit;

Nam redit adsidue, quamvis et saepe recedit:

Et mihi nunc magna est animae, nunc nulla facultas. (Glorie, vol. 133A, page 694)

(I do not die continually, when breath leaves; for it returns regularly, although it often departs: sometimes my supply of spirit is large, sometimes not.)

The Anglo-Saxon Aldhelm also has a Latin bellows-riddle (Enigma 11, Poalum), but it doesn’t overlap nearly as nicely as Symphosius’ text does.

A further indication that we’re dealing with a bellows rather than a wagon comes in the form of line 7b’s verbal play. Blæd (breath/glory) is the first element of the compound blædbylig, which glosses the Latin follis in The Harley Latin-Old English Glossary (Oliphant F625). What does follis mean? Dun-dah-dah-dun: Bellows! I think we have a winner, folks:

Bellows_(PSF)Drawing of a fireplace hand-bellows (by Pearson Scott Foresman) from the Wikimedia Commons.

One final thing to mention before I run away to frolic with lambs and stuff vast quantities of hoarded chocolate into my face (I  wrote this post over Easter): this is not the only Old English bellows riddle. Oh no, folks, it most certainly is not. You’ll have to wait a while to hear about Riddle 87, but I assure you it is a clear relative of Riddle 37. “Children of the bellows”…now if that isn’t a good title for some Old English riddle-inspired erotic fan fic, then I don’t know what is.


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, esp. pages 215-19.

Oliphant, Robert T. The Harley Latin-Old English Glossary. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.

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Riddle 37 (or 35)

Ic þa wihte geseah;     womb wæs on hindan

þriþum aþrunten.     Þegn folgade,

mægenrofa man,     ond micel hæfde

gefered þæt hit felde,     fleah þurh his eage.

5     Ne swylteð he symle,     þonne syllan sceal

innað þam oþrum,     ac him eft cymeð

bot in bosme,     blæd biþ aræred;

he sunu wyrceð,     bið him sylfa fæder.


I saw that being; its belly was in the back

greatly swollen. A servant followed it,

a mighty, strong man, and the great one had

brought forth what filled it; it flew through its eye.

5     He does not die continually, when he has to give

his insides to the other, but there comes again from him

a remedy in the breast, breath is raised up;

he makes sons, he is his own father.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Bellows, Wagon

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Commentary for Riddle 36

I gotta confess: I’ve never been a puzzler. This might come as a thoroughly shocking announcement from someone who spends her time wading through scholarship on Old English riddles, but it’s not the solving that I like…it’s all the other bits. So, you’ll understand when I say that writing up Riddle 36 has been tough. I mean, have you read Riddle 36? It’s a nightmare to solve. But I have learned things, and I intend to share them with you because I’m generous like that.

Soooooooooo, I’m guessing the first thing on your minds is: what, what, what is with line 5? (a reminder of what it looks like: monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs) Is this jumble intentional? Or did the scribe just have some sort of random hand spasm and reckon that no one would notice? A combination of the two? Maybe!

Scholarly opinion has it that line 5 was copied down by mistake. It seems to be a code for the solution that was scribbled between the lines, and some scribe or other managed to merge with the riddle itself. The code places the Old English words monn (man), wiif (woman) and hors (horse) next to a series of letter forms that conceal their Latin equivalents: homo (man), mulier (woman) and equus (horse). In order to get to these forms, we need to swap the consonants b, f, k, p and x with the vowels that precede them in the alphabet (a, e, i, o and u). We also need to account for copying errors, dropped letters and the replacing of “p” with the runic letter “wynn” (google it; they look similar). All this to say that line 5 really ought not to be in this riddle at all.

This particular cryptographic code seems to have been well known to early medieval folks. If you’re curious about puzzles like this, check out Dieter Bitterli’s book in the references below. Should you be at all like me, you may well guffaw loudly at Bitterli’s statement that “the boundaries between recreational mathematics on the one side and literary riddling on the other must have been fluid” at the time (page 68). What a shame that we don’t hear more about “recreational mathematics” these days.

Now back to the riddle in question. I say “riddle,” but of course some scholars think this is actually two separate riddles. Given that line 5 has actually been plunked down in the middle of a verse (the alliteration of lines 4 and 6 indicates that they’re meant to be one line), it’s not such a stretch to imagine that other mistakes have occurred. And the two parts of the riddle do read quite differently.

First we have a numerical, “add’em up”-style riddle, which is rounded off by a challenge to name the solution in line 8. And then we have a descriptive, “it’s sorta like this but not that”-style section with another challenge. Norman E. Eliason has argued that the adding-of-body-parts-section is reminiscent of both riddles that refer to a horse and rider and riddles that refer to a pregnant animal. This leads him to propose that lines 1-8 comprise a riddle that can be solved as “a pregnant horse with two pregnant women on its back,” while lines 9-14 make up a ship-riddle. He actually goes so far to claim “attempts to solve it as a single riddle are unsatisfactory, for the solutions proposed are so fanciful and complicated that the riddle is made to seem absurd” (pages 563-4). Because a pregnant horse carrying two pregnant women isn’t absurd at all. In fact, this poem has attracted sarcasm like no tomorrow. Craig Williamson, commenting on Eliason’s interpretation, writes: “This is a burden too heavy to bear.” HA! Get it? Too much of a burden for the horse AND too much of a burden for the interpretation. You’re terribly droll, Williamson.

I feel like that little debate deserves a picture:

Riddle 36 Pregnant Horse and Women

 Now that you’re all done appreciating my mad artist’s skillz, it’s time to accept that, even if we don’t solve the first section as a pregnancy party, it is very possible that the two sections are separate poems. Or that the second section is an elaboration on the first in a different style. Will we ever know? (prolly not…soz)

But what do we know? Well, we know that we’re dealing with the sort of imagery that crops up in other ship riddles (see Riddle 19 and Riddle 64). In these riddles, the man = the sailor, the horse = the ship and the bird = the sails. That’s why most scholars take Riddle 36 to point to a ship too. Williamson certainly agrees, and he argues that the likenesses of a hound and woman in lines 11-12 indicate figureheads on both the fore and aft. He points out that the Bayeux Tapestry includes an image of such a ship, although I couldn’t find an open access one. Here, have this single figure-headed ship pic instead:

Bayeux_horses_boatsPhoto from the Wikimedia Commons.

Incidentally, Williamson also thinks that this riddle can stand as one text, maintaining that the array of body parts in the first section refer thusly:

  • the four feet below = oars
  • the eight feet above = those of the oarsmen/travelers
  • the two wings = sails
  • the six heads and twelve eyes = those of the oarsmen/travelers and the figureheads

As you know, I’m not that into puzzles. So, as the simplest explanation of a very complicated poem (or poems), I’m inclined to agree with this interpretation. But if you don’t, feel free to rage and rail against me. Just do it in the comments section below…


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 68-74.

Eliason, Norman E. “Four Old English Cryptographic Riddles.” Studies in Philology, vol. 49 (1952), pages 553-65.

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

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Riddle 36 (or 34)

Ic wiht geseah     on wege feran,

seo was wrætlice     wundrum gegierwed.

Hæfde feowere     fet under wombe

ond ehtuwe

5     monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs

ufon on hrycge;

hæfde tu fiþru     ond twelf eagan

ond siex heafdu.     Saga hwæt hio wære.

For flodwegas;     ne wæs þæt na fugul ana,

10     ac þær wæs æghwylces     anra gelicnes

horses ond monnes,     hundes ond fugles,

ond eac wifes wlite.     Þu wast, gif þu const,

to gesecganne,     þæt we soð witan,

hu þære wihte     wise gonge.


I saw a creature travel on the way,

she was curiously adorned with wonders.

She had four feet under her belly

and eight

5     monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs

up on her back;

she had two wings and twelve eyes

and six heads. Say what she was.

It travelled the water-ways; nor was it only a bird,

10     but there was the likeness of every one of these:

of horse and of man, of hound and of bird,

and also the appearance of a woman. You know, if you understand

speaking, what we know [to be] the truth,

how the nature of that creature goes.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Ship; Man woman horse; Two men, woman, horses, dog, bird on ship; Waterfowl hunt; Pregnant horse, two pregnant women; Hunting; Sow and five piglets

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Commentary for Riddle 35 and the Leiden Riddle

Ding ding ding! It’s official, folks, we’ve reached the most popular Anglo-Saxon riddle in the world. I’m not just saying that because I’ve done research on early medieval textiles and this riddle includes pretty much ALL the Old English textile terms (k, slight exaggeration). And I’m not just saying that because scholars have been squabbling over the meaning of ONE of its half-lines for years (line 6a: “through the pressure of weights”?; “through the crowded many”?; “through the violence of blows”?; what does it mean?!). I’m saying that because this riddle exists in not one, not even two, but THREE versions!

“But wait, Megan,” I hear you saying. “You’ve been holding out on us. I distinctly remember the term BOGOFF being used in your translation post, and that means two.” And you’re not wrong. But there’s also a sneaky little Latin version – Enigma 33, De lorica (on the mail-coat) – that I neglected to mention. Let’s rectify that now:

Roscida me genuit gelido de uiscere tellus;

Non sum setigero lanarum uellere facta,

Licia nulla trahunt nec garrula fila resultant

Nec crocea seres taxunt lanugine uermes

Nec radiis carpor duro nec pectine pulsor;

Et tamen en ‘uestis’ uulgi sermone uocabor.

Spicula non uereor longis exempta faretris. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 417)

(The dewy earth brought me forth from its icy innards; I am not made from the bristly fleece of wool; no loom-leashes pull me nor do noisy threads rebound, nor do Chinese worms weave me from their yellow floss; I am not tortured by beams nor beaten by the cruel comb; yet, lo, I am called a coat in common speech. I do not fear arrows drawn from long quivers.)

This lurvely little gem appears in a late seventh-century metrical treatise, known as the Epistola ad Acircium, which the Anglo-Saxon poet Aldhelm sent to King Aldfrith of Northumbria. What’s that? Northumbria? Isn’t there a Northumbrian Old English riddle bouncing around too? OH YES THERE IS! Sorry, I’m getting carried away with the caps lock. I’ll try to calm myself down.

Dating the Northumbrian version has presented a few problems (dating always does, my dears; it always does), but it has recently been assigned to the eighth century. That would be the poem, not the manuscript in which the Leiden Riddle is copied at a later date. This manuscript also includes Latin enigmata by Symphosius and Aldhelm, so the Old English riddle isn’t terribly out of place.

The biggest differences between the poems (aside from language/dialect) are the differing final lines of Exeter Book Riddle 35, as well as the shifting of clues in both Old English versions (so the torturey image occurs after the fate-filled silkworms, rather than before, as in the Latin poem). There are also minor differences here and there, like the very fact that the silkworms are associated with wyrda (“fates,” plural) in the Exeter Book version and only uyrdi (“fate,” singular) in the Leiden Riddle. Any talk of fate in relation to textiles and scholars start to get antsy (think Greek Fates spinning/measuring/snipping your life-thread), so I feel like I should point out that there doesn’t seem to be anything fate-ish in the Latin enigma. There, the worms are associated with the silk-producing region of their origin.

An image should’ve gone here. But you trying googling “silkworms.” EURGH!

Of course, the textiley imagery in these poems has been quite popular in and of itself. The riddles are some of the only poetic texts to preserve information about daily life, so this poem often gets read alongside the list of textile implements found in Gerefa, an eleventh/twelfth-century guide for an estate manager or reeve. From this list, we learn all sorts of interesting terms, like gearnwindan (yarn-winder), amb (beater?) and sceaðele (shuttle).

Riddle 35 textiles

Here are some textiley bits from the Viking Craft Fair in York, February 2010.

But these riddles don’t actually show us a textile, do they? That’s, well, sort of the whole point. For a long time, scholars focused on the poetic paradox of a shirt that vocally negates any relationship to weaving. “I’m not woven!” it seemed to say. “Not even a little bit!” Then along came the very sensible Benjamin Weber to remind us that this shirt most definitely IS woven, just not with the materials that are used to weave textiles. He reminded us that the interlocking of metal rings to make mail-coats is referred to as “weaving” all over the place in early medieval literature.

Riddle 35 mail

Photo (by MatthiasKabel) of 2nd-century Roman replica mail armour from the Wikimedia Commons.

This is a common way of describing the making of mail in Beowulf, Elene and even Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies: Lorica vocata eo quod loris careat; solis enim circulis ferreis contexta est (The lorica is called thus because it lacks leather ties; for it is woven from entirely iron hoops) (2: XVIII.xiii.1). So, the paradox of this poem isn’t: “I’m not a woven shirt; what am I?” It’s: “I’m a shirt that’s woven, but not out of what you might think.” Does that make sense? I feel like it’s an important distinction, but then again I do like me a good bit o’ textilin’.

But you know what I like more? Sleep. So no more writey tonighty.


References and Suggested Readings:

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

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum sive Originum libri XX. Edited by W. M. Lindsay. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911.

Weber, Benjamin. “The Isidorian Context of Aldhelm’s “Lorica” and Exeter Riddle 35.” Neophilologus, vol. 96 (2012), pages 457-66.

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