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. 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 pauit, nec quid sit littera noui.
In libris uixi, 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 21).

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 2017. 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)

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.


3 thoughts on “Commentary for Riddle 47

  1. Pingback: Commentary for Riddle 48 | The Riddle Ages

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