Welcome to the third Exeter Book riddle featuring the hardworking ox or cow. Will it be the last we see of the bovines? No spoilers! This one is slightly more enigmatic than average, because the manuscript is damaged towards the end and there’s a huge hole where the start of the riddle should be. But we get a general idea of nostalgia for early childhood: the speaker remembers being little, having a sister, and feeding happily. But the youthful scene quickly becomes more riddle-y: this kid pulled four brothers who dispensed drinks through separate holes??? Luckily, constant readers of the Exeter Book will have a giant clue, because the creature narrating Riddle 38 also had four springs shooting forth brightly, which made them murmur with delight, and probably meant lunchtime. So yes, we’ve once again got a young bovine here, feeding off his mum’s four teats and enjoying it a lot.
But where the brief Riddle 38 jumps straight to the punchline poser (“That creature, if she survives, breaks the hills; if he dies, binds the living”), this critter’s life takes a dark and mournful turn. They must give up “that,” i.e. their mother’s milk, to a dark herder, a human who consumes the nourishment the calf once had. Meanwhile, the older ox or cow is forced to tread a lot of paths with a ring on their neck, bound under a beam. Life is hard, and you are constantly being poked by an iron goad.
That’s a pretty melancholy ending for any riddle, right? Of course, the formulaic ending about living and breaking, then dying and binding, shared by the other two cow/ox Exeter riddles and several Latin riddles, is also kind of depressing. Riddle 72 reshuffles the deck with the bovine riddle motifs: youthful delight from four teats, subsequent toil, ploughing when alive, leather when dead.
The themes of deprivation and consumption run broad and deep, across gender and generational boundaries. Eusebius’ Latin Enigma 12, De bove (“Bullock”) catalogues the animal’s work for humans, and the sad lack of reward for it:
Nunc aro, nunc operor, consumor in omnibus annis;
Multae sunt cereres, semper desunt mihi panes;
Et segetes colui, nec potus ebrius hausi.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 220)
(Now I plough, now I toil, I am consumed through all the years;
Many are the harvests, but there is never bread for me;
I tilled the fields, but never drank strong drinks.)
In the following Eusebian riddle, Enigma 13, De vacca (“Cow”), a mother cow grieves that although she has fed many children, she herself consumes only cibis aliis (other food) and aquis alienis (someone else’s waters), because her own mother’s milk is long gone. The previous riddles, of course, have pointed out that the cow’s children are themselves consumed by a life of toil and deprived of their mother’s milk (just like in Riddle 72):
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)
(My cattle are many, whom I used to feed;
And when hunger presses me I take no milk or meat,
Since I am fed with other food and someone else’s waters;
Many live off me, and rivers flow from me.)
The poetic tradition of lamenting the lives and fates of domesticated agricultural animals goes at least as far back as Virgil, whose Georgics famously catalogue the toil of cattle, the fact that they never get to enjoy themselves with booze like humans do, and the nasty diseases they can catch:
Ecce autem duro fumans sub vomere taurus
concidit et mixtum spumis vomit ore cruorem
extremosque ciet gemitus. it tristis arator,
maerentem abiungens fraterna morte iuvencum,
atque opere in medio defixa relinquit aratra.
(But lo, the bull, smoking under the ploughshare’s weight, falls; from his mouth he spurts blood, mingled with foam, and heaves his dying groans. Sadly goes the ploughman, unyokes the steer that sorrows for his brother’s death, and amid its half-done task leaves the share rooted fast.) (pages 212-13)
Bovines also featured heavily in the Old Testament, frequently signifying the wealth of an individual or a people, the transfer of wealth between people or groups, or the loss of property resulting from illness or death. A popular passage from Deuteronomy 25.4 about an ox threshing grain (“thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn”) was quoted twice by St Paul, to signify that everyone needs to be able to get on with his or her work or office, and in particular that priests and preachers should always be free to go about their business. In First Corinthians 9.9, however, Paul asks a provocative question: Numquid de bubus cura est Deo? Does God care about oxen? No; he insists on the allegorical force of the textual ox, explicitly rejecting any literal compassion for actual oxen (a number of other patristic writers also rejected the idea that humans should care about individual animals).
The riddlers’ sympathy for the animals’ toil and loss extends further, across boundaries between species, and even animate and inanimate objects. Jennifer Neville has written about riddles that use tools (sword, bellows, battering ram, bow, key, reed pen, etc.) to explore issues of servitude, binding, and exploitation. The narrator of Riddle 21 (“Plough”) laments its own hard labour, objectification, and even abuse at the hands of its lord, while transferring some sympathy to the ploughman, perhaps a slave, who steers it, and maybe even the ox who pulls it. In their deeply emotional identification with suffering, both the Exeter ox/cow riddles and the implement riddles have a lot in common with elegiac poems like The Wanderer and The Seafarer, which also feature emotional scenes of deprivation and loss. Most of the implement riddles share some of the ox/cow riddles’ traumatic deprivation of comfort in youth followed by violent handling and/or consumption in a human system of servitude; Jonathan Wilcox has eloquently summarized this as “the lament for a movement from natural innocence to manufactured suffering” (Wilcox, page 398).
In our current riddle, bovines who plough (and then get used for leather) are further associated with the Welsh, who often stand in for general foreigners or slaves in worrying ways (as in Riddle 12, with the drunken Welsh slave girl manipulating a leather object by the fire). Line 12, mearcpaþas Walas træd, moras pæðde (trod the paths of the Welsh marches [borderlands]) causes a problem because it has too many syllables, but the presence of Walas points implicitly to the theme of slavery, or at least captivity, perhaps along the English/Welsh border; Lindy Brady has recently raised the possibility that the ox in this riddle is part of a cattle drive in this part of the island (pages 94-96).
So what do we do with the emotion and sympathy evoked by this poem and its nearest relatives: the other cow/ox riddles, other animal riddles, and the implement riddles? The ambiguous nature of riddles, especially the first-person “say what I am” variety, both hinders and helps us here. The confusion caused by an apparently animate narrator who turns out to be an inanimate object is part of the humor, like when the plough says “my nose in downward,” but it’s really part of a broader project, the blurring between subject and object, that uses confusion to elicit pleasure. If a tool made of wood and iron can talk, that’s slightly unsettling and funny; if a working animal can talk, that’s even more confusing, still a bit funny, but maybe even a bit more emotional. A fictional ox narrator can carry all sorts of baggage from all the other works that influenced it (Bible verses, Virgil’s Georgics, other riddles), but can still jump off the page and demand your care and attention in ways that no poetic genres can fully contain.
Furthermore, both the writers and readers of the Exeter Book riddles would have been fully aware of just how much they depended on both the labour of bovines (ploughing and hauling goods) and the materials taken from their bodies. People have been talking a lot lately about the fundamental connection between animal slaughter and medieval manuscript production. In eighth- and ninth-century England (roughly the time period of the riddles), all major monasteries kept livestock, larger ones sold meat and dairy products for income, and establishments producing large calf-skin manuscripts produced higher dairy yields, since more calves producing manuscripts meant more lactating cows, and hence, more milk. Monastic economies, like those of manors, depended on the ploughing capability of oxen, the yield of meat from slaughtered animals, the production of milk, cream, cheese, and other dairy commodities, and the manufacture of useful objects from other parts of the animal’s body – especially hide, whether tanned into leather or not, but also including horn and bone.
While the people who wrote and read riddles about cows and oxen living lives of toil and despair had to be aware of the animals’ central place in their own human lives, the literary representations of those beasts could reach across species boundaries to forge emotional and sympathetic bonds. The battered plough, the shivering ploughman, and the exhausted ox share a life of servitude on the losing side of consumption, but in a few brief, painful lines of poetry, they can gain a voice.
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.
Brady, Lindy. Writing the Welsh Borderlands in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.
Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.
Holsinger, Bruce. “Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal.” PMLA, vol. 124 (2009), pages 616-23.
Kay, Sarah. Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.
Neville, Jennifer. “The Unexpected Treasure of the ‘Implement Trope’: Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles.” Review of English Studies new series, vol. 62 (2011), pages 505-19.
Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid Books I-VI. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 63. Trans. by H. Rushton Fairclough. Revised by G.P. Goold. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935.
Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles: Riddles 17 and 53.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69 (1990), pages 393-408.
Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.