Who doesn’t like gold, right? It’s shiny, malleable-but-also-hard (because metal), you can use it to add a touch of class to all sorts of things (clothing! tapestries! books!), and you can eat it. Seriously, you can. (can you tell I haven’t had my afternoon cup of tea and biscuit yet?)
Gold nuggets! Photo from the Wikimedia Commons.
But enough about my interest in gold, let’s talk about Anglo-Saxons. They were pretty keen on gold too. In fact, when you look up the word in the Dictionary of Old English database, it lists 725 occurrences – and then there are all the compound words like goldbeorht (bright with gold), goldfæt (gold vessel), goldfinger (ring finger…not that Bond character who looks a bit like ex-Toronto mayor, Rob Ford), and MANY more. So gold things, rather than diamonds, are an Anglo-Saxon’s best friend. And whatever is described in Riddle 48 is made of gold. Is this important? Possibly, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Hold your horses!
What else is going on in Riddle 48? Well, in addition to being golden and round – i.e. ring-shaped – we have the classic paradox of a something that is silently speaking (this one doesn’t even have a tongue, so we know it’s an object). Mercedes Salvador-Bello’s hot-off-the-presses-new book points out that this feature is shared across the riddles immediately leading up to and following this one (page 365). She also notes that there’s no end punctuation immediately following Riddle 47, which may suggest a thematic link between the two poems (page 360). As you may remember, Riddle 47 describes a little critter (possibly subbing in for a dim-witted monk or young student) devouring a religious book without understanding it, while Riddle 48 describes a loud-but-silent treasure that will lead to salvation for humans.
It’s this salvation that Mary Hayes talks about in an article focusing on voices and the soul. She argues that “the reader’s voice represents his or her own soul, offered to God as the prayer written on the sacred vessel is spoken aloud” (page 124).
So, what treasure or sacred vessel is this riddle talking about? Most people reckon it’s some sort of sacramental vessel – a chalice or paten (dish that holds the Eucharist) – used in Christian worship. This solution seems most likely, although which object in particular has been the subject of some debate. Before I elaborate on that, let me also outline the other proposed solutions.
Elisabeth Okasha gives quite a few possibilities, including: paten, chalice, coin, bell, brooch and finger-ring. She goes through each and weighs them up on the basis of whether not we have surviving evidence – both in the form of archaeological finds and in written references from the time – that points to them being
2) inscribed (because this riddle appears to bear writing) and
3) in a large quantity.
Based on her findings, she concludes that because there are quite a few gold, inscribed finger-rings floating around this is the most likely solution. (coincidentally, the Old English word for finger-ring is hring, which might seem quite obvious given its use in the opening line…then again, Riddle 47 seems to begin with its solution too)
I personally don’t think an absence of evidence should be used as evidence of absence (in fact Okasha points out that survival rates don’t match up with the number of objects likely in existence at the time), so I’m not terribly inclined to agree with this solution. And anyway, it makes total sense for there to be fewer sacramental vessels than finger-rings, because church equipment is on display to and symbolically shared by the entire congregation in a way that a finger-ring is not.
The fact is we do have very specific written evidence for sacramental vessels made of gold that comes from Anglo-Saxon England. For example, Ælfric’s Pastoral Epistle states: And witað þæt beo ælc calic geworht of myldendum antimbre . gilden oððe seolfren . glæren oððe tinen . ne beo he na hyrnen ne huru treowen (Thorpe, page 384, section 45) (And see to it that each chalice is made of molten material, gold or silver, amber or tin; let it not be of horn nor indeed wood).
In lieu of an Anglo-Saxon chalice, check out the early medieval Irish Ardagh Chalice (made of silver, with some decorations in gold and other metals). Photo (by Kglavin) from the Wikimedia Commons.
Craig Williamson argues that the gold in Riddle 48 points to “chalice” (OE calic or husel-fæt) as the more likely solution, since the ecclesiastical laws mention using gold for chalices, rather than patens (page 287). And, for example, Aldhelm’s Carmina Ecclesiastica describes a gold chalice and a silver paten:
Aureus atque calix gemmis fulgescit opertus,
Ut caelum rutilat stellis ardentibus aptum,
Ac lata argento constat fabricata patena:
Quae divina gerunt nostrae medicamina vitae.
(song 3, lines 72-5; Ehwald, page 18)
(and the gold chalice covered with gems glitters, just as heaven set with burning stars glows, and the broad paten fashioned from silver matches: those which carry the divine remedies of our life.)
The early medieval Irish Derrynaflan Paten. Photo (by Kglavin) from the Wikimedia Commons.
What Williamson doesn’t quote, though, is this reference from the Canons of Ælfric, which makes a fairly explicit link between both objects: Beo his calic eac of clænum antimbre geworht . unforrotigendlic . 7 eallswa se disc (Thorpe, page 349, section 22) (Let his chalice also be made of pure material, incorruptible, and likewise the dish). With no surviving chalices and patens in the archaeological record, it becomes difficult to say for certain whether gold points clearly to chalice over paten.
I have more thoughts on this, but I think I’m going to save them for a future update because I need to do some more digging. So, stay tuned for now and feel free to chime in with your own thoughts in the comments section below.
My further thoughts on this riddle are now published in an online first/open access academic article, available here. I’ll update this post with a slightly more accessible version of my findings at some point, I swears!
References and Suggested Reading:
Cavell, Megan. “Powerful Patens in the Anglo-Saxon Medical Tradition and Exeter Book Riddle 48.” Neophilologus, vol. 101 (2017), pages 129-38. Available open access here.
Dictionary of Old English: A-G Online. Ed. by Antonette diPaolo Healey, Dorothy Haines, Joan Holland, David McDougall, and Ian McDougall, with Pauline Thompson and Nancy Speirs. Web interface by Peter Mielke and Xin Xiang. Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2007.
Ehwald, Rudolf, ed. Aldhelmi Opera. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919.
Hayes, Mary. “The Talking Dead: Resounding Voices in Old English Riddles.” Exemplaria, vol. 20, issue 2 (Summer 2008), pages 123-42.
Okasha, Elisabeth. “Old English hring in Riddles 48 and 59.” Medium Ævum, vol. 62 (1993), pages 61-9.
Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 359-60.
Thorpe, Benjamin. Ancient Laws and Institutes of England. Vol. 2. London: G. Eyre and A. Spottiswoode, 1840.
Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.