Report on Riddles at the Leeds International Medieval Congress

This post serves two primary purposes:

1) It is an apology of sorts for not having posted in a while, and at the same time a place-holder for the next post (which is coming soon)


2) It is a business-like update on the current state of riddle-scholarship, or — perhaps more accurately — a report on the riddle papers given at a recent conference.

If you’re neither interested in apologies nor conferences…if, in fact, you’re only following this blog for the witty pictures and commentary, please enjoy the following and then continue at your own risk.

Cartoon from xkcd: A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language (original post here:


Here beginneth the report.

The Riddle Ages may seem quiet at the minute, but we’re actually incredibly busy (really, I swears!)! The week before last Matthias and I attended the International Medieval Congress in Leeds where we hosted two sessions and heard from five great speakers. Here’s a quick report on the papers.

Session I boasted two speakers (unfortunately we caught Erin Sebo mid-international move, so we’ll have to hear from her later!).

First off was David Callander, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, who gave a talk called “Old English and Early Welsh Riddles on the Wind: A Juxtapositional Study.” You may remember David from his witty commentary on Riddle 22. In his paper, he discussed Exeter Book Riddles 1-3 and the early Welsh Book of Taliesin riddle, Kanu y Gwynt (The Song of the Wind). He pointed out both the usefulness of comparative analysis and the clear differences between the two traditions’ approach to similar subject matter. One example is the way Kanu y Gwynt places a greater emphasis on praising the Christian God, while Riddles 1-3 seem to address him more in passing.

Second was Jennifer Neville, who translated and provided commentary for Riddle 9. A Reader in Anglo-Saxon literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, her paper, “Two Don’t Make a Match: The Strange Game of Sex in the Exeter Book Riddles,” explored a variety of Old English riddles with sexual imagery (i.e. Riddles 12, 20, 25, 37, 42, 44, 45, 54, 61, 62, 63, 80 and 91). In discussing these poems’ approach to sex, she focused on their lack of reference to reproduction, sin and pleasure, concluding that they are all unified by an emphasis on work. She also posed the greater question: is this how Anglo-Saxons viewed sex? I guess the monk-scribes writing these poems down might be slightly more interested in be-labouring hanky-panky than those who were actually allowed to…well…do it…

Session II was headed off by Sharon Rhodes, a PhD student at the University of Rochester. She gave a talk called “Exeter Riddle 60 and Christian Typology.” Focusing on Riddle 60 (obv), she also addressed imagery in Riddles 20, 26, 51, 69, 86 and 88, as well as other Old English poetry and Latin riddles. She ultimately tied riddles that involve transformations, where the end (i.e. the solution) is predicted in the beginning, to the wider role of prefiguration in Christian typology (that is, how the Old Testament can be seen to predict events of the New Testament). The riddle-writers may have achieved this effect through the use of potentially ambiguous words which can evoke different associations, e.g. for Riddle 60, Sharon argued for such ambiguity in the word “sonde” – usually translated as “sand” or “shore,” but potentially also implying a word for “sender, messenger” (or “message”). For a more detailed explanation you’ll have to wait until the commentary for Riddle 60…

The next speaker in this session was Britt Mize, Associate Professor and Rothrock Research Fellow at Texas A&M University. His paper was called “‘Semantic Prosody’ and the Odd Use of ‘Gifre’ in the Exeter Book Riddles.” This talk explored a linguistic concept relating to words’ statistical tendencies to occur alongside specific other words. Britt argued that the poets of Riddles 49 and 26, in using the term gifre, borrowed the word-patterning associated with a similar term, gīfre (i.e. with a long “i”). He also gave other examples of poetic formulas and “close enough-ness,” a term that I most certainly intend to steal.

And finally we heard from Helen Price, a recent PhD graduate at the University of Leeds, who gave a talk called “Riddles Beyond the Exeter Book.” In addition to Old English, the comparative riddle traditions she discussed included Anglo-Latin, Old Norse-Icelandic, medieval Spanish Hebrew and Arabic riddles and later English poetry. These she thematically linked by focusing on cross-cultural/chronological descriptions of water, which she found tended to associate water with life and death, loss and deception. Her focus on a variety of traditions over time emphasizes the similarities and differences between the way people address the same subject matter, and the role that their environments play in determining those associations.

In addition to the sessions hosted by The Riddle Ages, we also heard the following papers about riddles:

  • Melissa Herman (PhD student, University of York): “Perplexing Patterns and Visual Riddles: Aesthetic Hegemony.”
  • Victoria Symons (recent PhD, University College London): “Seeing Puns: Riddling Letters and Visual Ambiguities in Old English Manuscripts.”
  • and Corinne Dale (PhD student, Royal Holloway, University of London): “Degolfulnes dom and dyran cræftes: Knowledge, Control, and the Relationship between Man and Nature in the Exeter Book Riddles.”

All in all, it was a good week for riddle-scholarship! Of course, we likely missed one or two riddley talks because of the sheer hugeness that is the IMC. If we missed you, feel free to update us on your work in the comments section below.

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