Commentary for Riddle 49

What do we do with Riddle 49, eh? It’s, like, so complex. And I don’t mean that in a sarky way…it really is very difficult to solve.

Some of this difficulty stems from debates about what particular words mean. The main one is gop in line 3a, which most editors and translators reckon might mean a servant or slave of some kind. It’s not clear whether the term is related to Old English geap (crafty) or geopan (to take in/swallow), or perhaps to Old Icelandic hergopa (bondwoman) (see DOE and Bosworth/Toller). Andrew Breeze has suggested that the word derives from Old Irish gop (snout), which has a fairly pejorative sense to it. Since Old English riddles are often quite nasty to slaves and those perceived as lower class, this sense still seems like the best we can do.

There are other phrases in Riddle 49 that’ve been foiling riddlers for many a year because we can’t pin down which particular words they’re using. The key one is gifrum lacum in line 3b, where the first term could be gifre (useful) or gifre with a long “i” (greedy), and the second could be lac (gift) or lacu (stream/pool). This half-line could be read as “with useful gifts” or “with useful streams/pools” or “with greedy gifts” or “with greedy streams/pools.” TOO MANY OPTIONS! Many of Riddle 49’s proposed solutions hinge on how we read this phrase.

But what are the proposed solutions?, I hear you asking.

And so, I list:

  • Oven
  • Beehive
  • Falcon cage
  • (Book)case
  • Pen and ink
  • Barrow
  • Sacrificial altar
  • Millpond and sluice

I’m not going to address “falcon cage,” “barrow” or “sacrificial altar” because these were suggested without elaboration (the first in 1859 by Franz E. Dietrich, the second two in 1976 by Gregory K. Jember). Dietrich later suggested “bookcase” (page 236), which Laurence K. Shook expands upon when solving the riddle as “pen and ink” (pages 224-5) and Craig Williamson gives some credit to when discussing “book” as a possible solution (pages 289-90). Everyone who writes on this sort of solution notes Aldhelm’s Enigma 89, De arca libraria (On a book-chest):

Nunc mea diuinis complentur uiscera uerbis
Totaque sacratos gestant praecordia biblos;
At tamen ex isdem nequeo cognoscere quicquam:
Infelix fato fraudabor munere tali,
Dum tollunt dirae librorum lumina Parcae.
(Glorie, vol. 133, pages 508-9)

(Now my insides are filled up with divine words and all my insides bear sacred volumes; and yet I am unable to learn anything from those: unlucky, I shall be cheated of such tribute by destiny, while the cruel Fates steal the illuminations of books.)


There’s defo a similarity, and all of Riddle 49’s talk about silence and lack of voice would make a scriptorium solution pretty ironically appropriate. But as Williamson notes, whether a book or bookcase, it would be weird for such a repository of knowledge to be marked by references to servants, slaves and dirtiness. Knowledge and literacy are nothing to be sneered at in Anglo-Saxon contexts.

Shook’s “pen and ink” solution stems from his reading of gifrum lacum as “useful pools,” gop as “craftsman” and the dirty-nosed servant as a pen at work (pages 224-5).

A reconstruction of an early modern reed pen. Photo from the University of Cambridge’s Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online project.


While this may get around some of the potential class issues (i.e. dirtiness), if the item in question is a pen swallowing ink then it doesn’t entirely make sense for it to be standing eardfæstne (earth-fast), as Williamson comments (page 290). All this makes the various scriptorium solutions a bit suspect.

Good thing there are millions of other solutions to consider…

Let’s move on to “oven” or OE ofen. This solution, proposed in 1905 by Moritz Trautmann (page 183), seems to be the most widely accepted option today. In fact, most scholars arguing for alternative solutions simply brush past “oven” with little comment. For example, A. N. Doane suggests that “oven” may be right, but it “does not bring the details into sharp focus as a proper solution usually does” (page 250). That seems to me sort of like saying “sure, it could be an oven, but I don’t want it to be.”

Here’s a bread oven under construction at Edcott, the Anglo-Saxon village project in Escot Park, Devon.


Maybe the scholars who’ve written on this riddle before just don’t love bread as much as I do. But let’s give this solution its proper credit. The thinking behind “oven” is that such an object would most certainly be earth-fast, involve darkness/dirtiness (i.e. smoke), and require the labour of servants. An oven also creates something dear to all (especially if covered with garlic…but that’s just my opinion). You may remember from Riddle 45’s commentary that the words hlaford (lord) and hlafdige (lady) are rooted in loafiness…that is the first stems from a term meaning “loaf-protector” and the second from “loaf-kneader.” However, these aren’t the words used here in Riddle 49’s description of noble folk desiring the riddle’s solution (lines 6-7a). Instead, we have æþeling (noble), cyning (king) and cwen (queen)…surely if this is an oven riddle than the riddler has missed a trick.

But there are other aspects to the riddle that seem to imply we’re dealing with something people might want to consume: there are repeated references to swallowing (lines 2b and 11b) and the object in question is depicted as having a mouth (line 6a). Certainly bread is a useful and necessary thing that brings joy, and its use in religious rituals makes it a good candidate for an object that’s golde dyrran (dearer than gold). So “oven” is a contender.

Another option proposed by A. N. Doane is “millpond and sluice” (i.e. water channel with gate). A decent case is made for water being universally needed (page 251), and for it working no matter how we translate gifrum lacum (greedy/useful gifts/streams/pools) (page 252). This solution also works nicely given all the references to swallowing and to its earth-fast-ed-ness. Class issues are similarly put to rest, since Doane imagines the operator of the gate to be a servant (page 253).

But what, oh what, do we do with þæt cyn in line 8a? There, the riddler refuses to name þæt cyn (race/kind), which is rendering for the use of people whatever is shoved into the object’s mouth. Some people translate this term as “kind of thing,” which I suppose works. But really cynn carries connotations of race or nation or generations of a family or species (see DOE). And this, I think, is part of what makes Jennifer Neville’s alternative solution “beehive” so strong.

bee skep.jpg

Here’s a much later bee skep from the Historical Society of Montgomery County. But you get the picture…


Now, Jennifer hasn’t published this solution yet (it’s going to appear in her book on riddles), so I can’t give you many details. But, she did give a brilliant conference paper on this topic at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2015. While you’re waiting to read more about this solution when it comes to print, I’ll leave you with one final question: what’s dearer than gold, precious to royalty, and has every Anglo-Saxon in the poetic record a’hankering to swallow it? HONEY? MEAD? BOTH ARE DELICIOUS! Nuff said.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bosworth, Joseph, and T. Northcote Toller. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1898; Digital edition. Prague: Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2010.

Breeze, Andrew. “Old English Gop ‘Servant’ in Riddle 49: Old Irish Gop ‘Snout’.” Neophilologus, vol. 79 (1995), pages 671-3.

Dietrich, Franz E. “Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs: Verfasser, weitere Lösungen.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, vol. 12 (1865), pages 232-52.

Dietrich, Franz E. “Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs: Würdigung, Lösung und Herstellung.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, vol. 11 (1859), pages 448-90.

Doane, A. N. “Three Old English Implement Riddles: Reconsiderations of Numbers 4, 49, and 73.” Modern Philology, vol. 84, issue 3 (Feb. 1987), pages 243-57.

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.

Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

Jember, Gregory K., trans. The Old English Riddles: A New Translation. Denver: Society for New Language Study, 1976.

Shook, Laurence K. “Riddles Relating to the Anglo-Saxon Scriptorium.” In Essays in Honour of Anton Charles Pegis. Edited by J. Reginald O’Donnell. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1974, pages 215-36.

Trautmann, Moritz. “Alte und newe Antworten auf altenglische Rätsel.” Bonner Beiträge zur Anglistik, vol. 19 (1905), pages 167-215.

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.


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