Commentary for Riddle 52

Riddle 52’s commentary is once again by Dr. Lindy Brady, from the University of Mississippi. Take it away, Lindy!:


For such a short text, Riddle 52 has proven surprisingly tricky. A flurry of solutions were proposed by early scholars of the Exeter Book, but none of these has been embraced with complete enthusiasm. Much like Riddles 7, 8, 9, 10 and 24, where it’s clear to a casual reader that the answer is some type of bird, but narrowing down the exact species requires a bit more specialized knowledge, the problem with Riddle 52 is our lack of comfortable familiarity with the intricacies of Anglo-Saxon farming implements and agricultural life. We get the gist of the riddle, of course — a woman is performing a task with a tool formed from two anthropomorphized components bound together. But just what object is being described? The many proposed solutions for this stubborn little riddle take us on a fascinating tour of Anglo-Saxon farming life.

One early answer to this riddle was a yoke of oxen, led into the barn or house by a female slave. This solution was snippily dismissed as one that “smacks of fatal obviousness” — ouch. Still, these early scholars were right to point out that a yoke of oxen, pictured below, is what’s literally being described, and not the riddle’s solution.


Engraving of a man with yoked oxen threshing corn by C. Cousen after R. Beavis. Photo from  Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY 4.0).


Another early solution that no one liked was “broom:”


Photo of a broom (by Schmidti) from  Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


You can see the problem here — unless your broom is made out of only two twigs, this doesn’t work as a solution. And I think we can all agree that a two-pronged broom is not really a broom anymore…


Photo of a pitchfork (by JohnM) from  Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


So what are some possible objects that could actually work as a solution to this puzzle? Another early answer was two pails, carried on a yoke (and thus bound together) by the woman described in the riddle, like so:


Photo of a Saint Petersburg woman carrying buckets of water on a yoke (by Branson DeCou) from  Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


This is certainly a much more satisfying solution than oxen, but it still doesn’t quite work — remember that the woman in the riddle is closer to one of the “captives” than the other.

This observation led to another good solution, the more precise well-buckets, as pictured below:


Photo of well-buckets, Ichijodani (by っ) from  Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


As you can see here, for those of you city slickers who’ve never had a well, the two well-buckets alternate positions as they’re dipped down and raised up, so one would always be nearer to the woman drawing the water. The “house” they enter is the well itself, under the roof where the pulley is attached.

Neat solution, isn’t it? It seems to fit all the conditions of the riddle, and it’s one which I actually think still works just fine. With such a short riddle, it’s hard to know exactly what makes a perfect fit!

Still, the most commonly accepted solution nowadays is “flail.” Again, if you didn’t grow up on a farm, you might be thinking: huh?


Photo of a threshing flail (by Schweitzer) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


As this photograph nicely illustrates, a flail is made of two pieces chained together. You hold one end and swing the other during threshing. Here’s an illustration of some flails in action:


Image from the 14th-century Tacuina sanitatis via  Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


Threshing, by the way, is performed by necessity on a threshing floor — and in damp Anglo-Saxon England, it would have had a roof! So, “flail” is a great solution to this riddle, and it’s the one most critics accept — but I for one do think “well-buckets” still fits the bill.

This list of answers addresses the direct puzzle of solving Riddle 52, but perhaps not all of its puzzling features. If you’re encountering this riddle for the first time, you’re probably wondering about the fact that the woman in this riddle is specifically described as dark-colored and Welsh. The level of detail this riddle provides leads us to some considerations of class and ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon England.

Riddle 52 is part of a group of Exeter Book riddles (along with Riddle 12 and Riddle 72) that mention a “dark-colored” Welsh man or woman in connection with some type of agricultural labor, particularly related to cattle. (For more about the rich history of cattle in Wales, see P.G. Hughes, Wales and the Drovers, listed below.) Two articles listed in the bibliography below, those by Nina Rulon-Miller and John W. Tanke, have done a particularly thorough job of teasing out the implications of class, gender, and ethnicity raised by this group of riddles in the Exeter Book. What these riddles have in common is that they depict someone performing lower-class manual agricultural labor, and they take the time to point out that that someone is both “dark-colored” and “Welsh.”

It’s hard to tell if the Anglo-Saxons had a sense that all Welsh men and women would have been identifiably distinct as “dark-colored.” More likely, this characterization is linked to the roles they’re depicted in within these riddles as agricultural laborers. Well throughout the twentieth century in many cultures (and still today in many places that haven’t embraced the horrors of tanning beds!) pale skin was a sign of high social class, as only those who worked outdoors performing tough manual labor would be tanned or sunburnt (consider the modern American class-based slur ‘redneck’, for instance).

The depiction of the Welsh performing agricultural labor fits the historical circumstances of Anglo-Saxon England as well. As scholar Margaret Lindsay Faull has demonstrated, the Old English word for “Welsh,” Wealh, shifted in meaning over time. Early in the Anglo-Saxon period, it meant simply “foreigner,” but as the Anglo-Saxons settled in the island of Britain it became more particularly applied to those peoples now known as the Welsh — and then, it came to mean simply “slave.” As many historians of Anglo-Saxon England have pointed out, this semantic shift indicates the historical reality that many Welsh men and women were enslaved by the Anglo-Saxons. If you’d like to read more about this, David Pelteret’s book on Slavery in Early Mediaeval England is an incredibly detailed and illuminating study of slavery during the Anglo-Saxon period. I’ve also argued that another layer of meaning to this riddle can be found in the Welsh woman’s control of “captives.” This alludes to the further historical reality that the Welsh were also active participants in the slave trade of the British Isles. During the Anglo-Saxon period, the area that would later become Wales was made up of many individual tribes and kingdoms engaged in frequent warfare, including cattle and slave raids. After the Viking attacks on the British Isles began in the late eighth century, the slave market became more profitable, and these raids grew worse.

In other words, even a simple, short text like Riddle 52 can have many layers of meaning embedded within it. Riddle 52 gives us a glimpse into so many facets of Anglo-Saxon life. It takes us on a tour of Anglo-Saxon farming while reminding us how much of daily life in Anglo-Saxon England remains unknown (though if you’d like to know more about Anglo-Saxon farming, check out the fantastic book by Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith listed in the references to this post!), at the same time raising complex issues of ethnicity, gender, and class in Anglo-Saxon England. Not bad for seven lines!


References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debby and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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.

Brady, Lindy. “The ‘Dark Welsh’ as Slaves and Slave Traders in Exeter Book Riddles 52 and 72.” English Studies, vol. 95 (2014), pages 235-55.

Faull, Margaret Lindsay. “The Semantic Development of Old English Wealh.” Leeds Studies in English, new series, vol. 8 (1975), pages 20-44.

Hughes, P. G. Wales and the Drovers. 1943. 2nd edition. Carmarthen: Golden Grove Editions, 1988.

Pelteret, David A. E. Slavery in Early Mediaeval England: From the Reign of Alfred until the Twelfth Century. Studies in Anglo-Saxon History 7. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995.

Rulon-Miller, Nina. “Sexual Humor and Fettered Desire in Exeter Book Riddle 12.” In Humor in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: Boydell, 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: Intersections. Edited by Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, pages 21-42.


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