Commentary for Riddle 12

This post once again comes to us from Cameron Laird:

The solution to this one is the ever-helpful Ox (OE Oxa), who not only pulled the plough for planting crops but also provided leather for all sorts of useful things in Anglo-Saxon England. Ælfric (c. 955-1010), an abbot of the monastery at Eynsham, tells us that the farmer or ploughman (OE yrþlingc) led his oxen to the field early in the morning and yoked them to the plough (OE sulh), which was fitted with blades to cut and turn over the soil. (1) Using a sharp poker to motivate the poor oxen, the farmer guided the plough back and forth across the field before seeding. Since there were no big work horses in those days, Anglo-Saxons used the ox as their go-to beast for plowing fields, though some poorer folks who couldn’t afford to buy, feed, and house these expensive animals had to push their ploughs around by hand – just wait till Riddle 21 to see how much fun they had! But if you were a farmer in Anglo-Saxon England, you’d definitely want to have some oxen so that they could do all the hard work for you. So valuable were livestock, in general, that the very word for money in Old English, feoh, also means cattle or livestock. No wonder farmers had someone called an ox-herd (OE oxanhyrde) watch over and protect their oxen from thieves whenever they weren’t ploughing. Even after death, the ox was good to have around, providing meat to eat and also skin for leather. According to Ælfric, the Anglo-Saxon shoe-maker (OE sceowyrhta) made a lot more than just shoes (OE sceos) with this leather, including bags (OE pusan), bottles (OE butericas), pouches (OE fætelsas) and stuff for riding horses like reins (OE bridelþwancgas) and straps for the spurs (OE spurleþera). Oh, and did I mention the leather pants?! (OE leþerhosa)

Though there’s – perhaps, regrettably – no mention of leather pants in Riddle 12, it’s the ox’s many uses, especially after death, that take up most of the riddle. Lines 3b-4b portray the speaker as leather straps (“I bind fast swarthy slaves, sometimes better people”). In lines 5a-6a, the speaking leather has been made into a drinking vessel (“I give drink to a brave man from my breast”). Then, lines 6b-7a describe a woman walking on him as if he were shoes (“a bride treads on me so proudly with her feet”). Finally, a fourth object is described in lines 7b-13a, but what it is exactly is the subject of much debate, and I’ll return to it later. But besides leather objects, Riddle 12 also portrays the ox as a living beast (“I travel on feet, tear the ground, the green fields, while I bear my spirit”) and again at the end (“I … who, living, ravages the land”). In both cases, the ox’s life is immediately contrasted with its fate after death as leather (first at line 3a “If life leaves me …” and also at line 15 “and after death serves men”). In fact, this contrast of the ox’s life and death in Riddle 12 is one of the main reasons we can be sure the answer to this one is, in fact, an Ox. Let me explain.

Although almost all the Riddles in the Exeter Book are unanswered, many share – at times striking – similarities to Latin riddles, most of which were composed by Anglo-Saxons too. They really loved riddles! Most manuscripts of these Latin riddle collections include solutions, so we can be fairly certain what their answers are. Riddle 12 is closely related to not just one but a whole bunch of Latin riddles which are solved as Young Bull (Latin Iuvencus) or a Calf (Latin Vitulus) and the like. (2) All these contrast the animal’s life of labour and its uses after death, like the one by Aldhelm (c. 639-709), where the young bull says “while living I break up the deepest clods of earth with a great exertion of force, but when my spirit leaves these cold limbs, I can restrain men with terrible bonds.” (3) Later Latin versions retain the same duality of life and death as well as describing various uses for leather like bonds and shoes, so there seems to be a tradition of riddling this topic using the same sort of clues. In fact, besides Riddle 12, two other Exeter Book Riddles share details with these same Latin enigmas and are solved unanimously by scholars as Ox (and/or Leather: OE Leþer or Ox-hide: OE Oxanhyd). (4)

What makes Riddle 12 unique within this tradition is all that funny business between lines 7b-13a. What is that dumb, drunk girl doing to that piece of leather? Doing is right! She clasps, crushes, wets, warms, and generally has her way with our long-gone ox. Nina Rulon- Miller points out that the description fits a process of hardening leather called cuir bouilli (literally, “cooked leather”) in which soaked leather is molded into a desired shape, heated over a straw fire, and sealed with a mixture of beeswax, soot, and resin from pine trees. (5) In this case, the girl may be making something like a hard leather flask, though it’s also possible that the scene portrays the girl using an object such a leather shammy for cleaning dishes. Regardless, amid all the confusing flurry of activity performed by the girl, the description takes on another meaning altogether, which seems to be – wait for it – female masturbation with a leather dildo! To reflect this double-meaning, Nina provides two translations of Riddle 12, culminating in lines 11b-13a: the clean version, describing the cuir bouilli process, reads, “she pierces my surface with her skillful hand; she turns me often, rotates me through a black substance,” while the lewd version reads, “with her wanton hand she thrusts me into her womb; she writhes excessively, she swivels me all around her blackness.” (6) As Paull Baum first pointed out, the last verb performed by the girl, swifan, which typically means “to sweep” or “to revolve,” is also related to the Middle English Word swiven, which means “to have sex.” (7)

The sexuality of Riddle 12 has sparked questions about the audience who read this and other lewd riddles in the Exeter Book: how religious were they? Did they view this scene with laughter, with scorn, or both? These questions are further complicated by the identity of the girl in question, whose low social status is highlighted several times. First, she is called a wale, a word which means both “Welsh woman” and “female slave,” since the Anglo-Saxons often took their Celtic neighbours into captivity. It is unclear which sense is meant in Riddle 12, as both could be described as brought from afar (7b) and dark-haired (OE won-feax). But despite her low-class, she is, at least, not tied-up like her male counterparts are in line 4a (OE swearte wealas). And, in addition to giving her an active role throughout the riddle, the poet has gone to much effort to render the slave-girl a figure of poetic interest by dedicating three of four compound-words to describe her: she is dark-haired and a drunk-handmaiden (or drunk-slave- girl: OE drunc-mennen) whose hand is lustful or wanton (OE hyge-gal: hyge = thought, mind, heart; gal = wanton, lascivious, wicked). All three appear nowhere else in Old English, though it seems like they probably have pejorative connotations. Still, by being complex, compound words they add to the ambiguity of the action portrayed in lines 7b-13a where the poet evokes his raunchy scene.

That’s all for this week, folks. Now here’s a special treat for those of you who’ve managed to plough through this post to the end:

Highland Cow Wimpole FarmTechnically this is a Highland Cow, as opposed to an Anglo-Saxon ox. But still…Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.


(1) See Ælfric’s Colloquy, lines 5-11, 94-97, here.

(2) Dieter Bitterli gives a good account of these Latin riddles and their connect to the Old English ones in Say What I am Called, pp. 26-34. See suggested reading below.

(3) Aldhelm, Enigma 83, lines 3-6: “vivens nam terrae glebas cum stirpibus imis nisu virtutis validae disrumpo feraces; at vero linquit dum spiritus algida membra, nexibus horrendis homines constringere possum.”

(4) Spoiler alert! Highlight the following to see which riddles: 38 and 72

(5) In “Sexual Humor and Fettered Desire in Exeter Book Riddle 12,” pp. 119-121.

(6) p. 125.

(7) Paull F. Baum, Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1963, p. 24.

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, pages 26-34.

Cameron, Esther. “Leather-work.” In The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by M. Lapidge et al. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999, pages 280-1.

Higley, Sarah L. “The Wanton Hand: Reading and Reaching Into Grammars and Bodies in Old English Riddle 12.” In Naked before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Medieval European Studies, vol. 3. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 29-59.

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

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


3 thoughts on “Commentary for Riddle 12

  1. Pingback: Commentary for Riddle 38 | The Riddle Ages

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