How do you solve a problem like a GIANT HOLE IN A MANUSCRIPT?

The damage to the Exeter Book is so extensive when it comes to Riddle 78 that nearly the entire riddle is wiped out. We have a handful of words at the beginning of the first few lines, and then just nothing at all until nearly the end of the text block. I suppose this means there are lots of exciting opportunities to fill in the gaps? That’s me trying to be an optimist (not my usual thing, so not sure whether it worked!).

Right, well I suppose what we can do is approach this problem from the zero point, and start with a list of things we do know about what’s going on in this riddle. Here we are:

1) There’s a first-person speaker.
2) The speaker can be found under the water, concealed by the waves.
3) The speaker has family or kin.
4) The speaker eats another creature.
5) Either the speaker or its victim travels through the water rather than staying at home.
6) The speaker’s hunting methods are particularly clever.

As in the previous riddle – usually solved as Oyster – there’s an overall focus on water and the concealment that comes from living in such an element, including some rather specific verbal overlap (flod, , (be-)wreon). Even so, this concealment doesn’t protect the speaker’s victim.

But what sort of animal is the speaker? Reacting to previous scholarship’s lack of interest in this mangled little poem – most folks just wrote it off as yet another Oyster riddle – Craig Williamson argues for Lamprey (pages 357-9). He interprets the clues (well…the ones we can actually read) as referring to a migratory creature with an interesting hunting adaptation. This leads him to suggest the fearsome sea lamprey: jawless, parasitic fish who feed by attaching their suctiony mouths to other fish and then chewing through the scales and flesh with their sharp teeth in circular rows until they can suck their blood.

640px-Boca_de_lamprea.1_-_Aquarium_Finisterrae
Photo of a sea lamprey’s mouth (by Drow male) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Wow. You’re not going to sleep tonight, are you?

Williamson’s solution is, however, more than a tad speculative, considering how little of this riddle survives. Much tidier is Mercedes Salvador(-Bello)’s suggestion that the aquatic predator of Riddle 78 may well be preying on an oyster not unlike the one being devoured by a human right before this poem in the manuscript (page 410). The predator and subject of Riddle 78, then, is likely a crab – because crabs were known as the fierce enemies of oysters.

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Photo of a shore crab (by Hans Hillewaert) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Strangely enough, crabs were reputed to have a particularly clever hunting behaviour: a number of sources from St Ambrose to Isidore of Seville (and beyond!) suggest that they waited for oysters to open their shells and then stuck stones inside to prevent them from closing properly. This enabled them to feast to their little hearts’ delight.

Of course, crabs don’t need to use stones in this way…their pinchers are actually super-efficient:

But this still got me thinking about animal tool use, and I went down the rabbit hole of the internetz to find out more. Interestingly, some types of crab have been observed using tools, even if not – as far as I can tell – in the manner described above (other aquatic animals do use rocks for bashing shells though!). A number of species of crab actually carry plants/algae, shells and rocks, or even deck themselves out with anemones for camouflage and protection (Mann and Patterson). Don’t say I never teach you cool facts.

Crab tool use isn’t just pretty amazing – it also kind of makes you think that late antique and medieval stories about crabs pummeling oysters with stones aren’t really that far-fetched. Unfortunately, we don’t have any of these in Old English, but this may well be what the 7th-century Aldhelm of Malmesbury was getting at in his Latin Enigma 37, Cancer (Crab):

‘Nepa’ mihi nomen ueteres dixere Latini:
Humida spumiferi spatior per litora ponti;
Passibus oceanum retrograda transeo uersis:
Et tamen aethereus per me decoratur Olimpus,
Dum ruber in caelo bisseno sidera scando;
Ostrea quem metuit duris perterrita saxis.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 421)
(Ancient Romans called my name ‘Nepa’: I stroll along the sodden shores of the foaming sea; I cross the ocean in reverse with turned steps, and yet celestial heaven is embellished by me, when I, rosy, ascend into the sky with twelve stars: the oyster dreads me, frightened by hard stones.)

Could this intimidating use of stones be the clever hunting method that the heavily damaged Riddle 78 was referring to? That’s certainly what Salvador(-Bello) reckons! She suggests that the audience of the Exeter Book riddles would likely have known about the oyster and crab’s association, and that they may have even interpreted the two allegorically. They clearly did so for oysters (see Riddle 77’s commentary), and we have early theological texts that suggest crabs were up for grabs, allegorically-speaking, as well. Here’s an excerpt from St Ambrose’s fourth-century Hexameron:

Sunt ergo homines, qui cancri usu in alienae usum circumscriptionis irrepant, et infirmitatem propriae virtutis astu quodam suffulciant, fratri dolum nectant, et alterius pascantur aerumna. Tu autem propriis esto contentus, et aliena te damna non pascant. Bonus cibus est simplicitas innocentiae. (book 5, chapter 8, number 22; Patrologia Latina sections 216A–216B)
(Now, there are people who, like crabs, skillfully creep into the trust of other people, and bolster the weakness of their own virtue by a certain cunning; they bind deceit to their brother, and feed on another’s hardship. Conversely, be content with what is your own, and do not feed on others’ misfortunes. An honest meal is the simplicity of innocence.)

This truly fabulous allegory leads Salvador(-Bello) to suggest that Riddles 77 and 78 make a very tidy thematic and moralistic pairing: innocent and defenseless oyster vs voracious crab.

We all know who wins in real life.

References and Suggested Reading

St Ambrose. Hexaemeron. Patrologia Latina Database. Vol. 14.

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

Mann, Janet, and Eric M. Patterson. “Tool Use by Aquatic Animals,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, volume 368 (2013), online here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4027413/

Salvador(-Bello), Mercedes. “The Oyster and the Crab: A Riddle Duo (nos. 77 and 78) in the Exeter Book.” Modern Philology, vol. 101, issue 3 (Feb. 2004), pages 400-19.

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

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