Commentary for Riddle 68 and 69

From previous blog posts, you may now be getting the sense that the final run of riddles in the Exeter Book is where everything has gone to pot. You’re not wrong. As I explained in my commentary for Riddle 63, there’s a rather large and irritating hole that has damaged multiple works toward the end of the manuscript.

That’s not, however, the problem we have here. The problem with Riddles 68 and 69 and deciding whether they’re one poem or two is totally the scribe’s fault! Because, you see, there’s punctuation in the manuscript that suggests Riddle 68 ends at gegierwed, and an enlarged initial W on Wundor that implies Riddle 69 is the start of a new poem. I don’t have a copyright-free photo to share with you, so here’s my finest attempt at an artistic rendering:

Riddle 68 and 69 transcription.jpg
#notapalaeographer #noracalligrapher #sozlol

What, what, WHAT do we do with this information? Well, let’s remember that this isn’t the first time we’ve been in this sort of situation. Riddles 47 and 48 present us with the complete opposite problem. In that part of the manuscript, we have no punctuation to separate out what – from their content – seem to be two different poems. But they’re run together on the manuscript page, and, where we’d expect a punctuation mark like the one at the end of Riddle 68 (and most riddles), we have nothing.

There’s also the matter of Riddles 1-3, which are set out on the page like separate poems, but all deal with similar subjects. Some editors think they’re one big riddle in three movements. Some think they’re three separate poems that have been placed near each other on purpose.

And the list of problem riddles goes on.

The long and the short of it is…the layout of the riddles (and other poems in the Exeter Book) can be a bit messy! In fact, Mercedes Salvador-Bello argues that the assembling of these particular riddles and the ones around them “was done in a rather careless way” and “the compilers increasingly resorted to opportunistic improvisation in place of planned arrangement” (page 398). Whether there’s any sort of method to this mess is a matter for the manuscript specialists, and not little ol’ me.

But I’ll allow myself to have opinions about the poetic content…because the only thing I love more than poetry is having opinions.

When it comes to Riddles 68 and 69, I’m going to side with the editors who read the poems as one. The sense of wonder and the travelling on ways/waves go quite nicely together – so nicely, that Craig Williamson suggests this variation of on weg (line 1b: on the way) and on wege (line 3a: on the wave) is the “trick” of the riddle (page 335). And that beautiful final half-line, wæter wearð to bane (water turned to bone), explains the whole wondrous situation very tidily. Ice! (Old English Is!)

Riddle 68 and 69 Iceberg.jpg
Photo (by yours truly) of an iceberg at Jökulsárlón in Iceland

The specific form of ice is up for grabs. The riddle is often solved as Iceberg, hence the dramatic shot above. There is, after all, another iceberg riddle in the Exeter Book: do you remember the monstrous creature of Riddle 33? They’re quite different poems on the whole, but there is some verbal overlap, as we can see in Riddle 33’s first line:

Wiht cwom æfter wege      wrætlicu liþan
(Something wondrous came moving over wave)


Leaving Iceberg to one side, John D. Niles has also suggested Frozen Pond (Old English Is-mere) (page 143), and Patrick J. Murphy recently made quite a good case for Icicle (Old English Gicel) (page 8). Murphy pointed out the riddle tradition’s “penchant for defamiliarizing common objects,” and noted that icicles and bones are associated in folk riddles (page 8). This makes sense, of course, since they have a similar shape! Or as Murphy puts it (rather nicely, I think): “the elongated, rodlike forms of ice […] would most readily activate the image of ossification” (page 8). If we’re worried about the travelling of those elongated ossificatory icicles (say that three times fast!), we needn’t be. Icicles are still made of water, after all, and the travelling could refer to the way they extend and grow longer over time.

Photo (by Barfooz) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0

Anywho, back to the issue of one vs two riddles: it’s also worth pointing out that – if we don’t solve Riddles 68 and 69 together – the solution to Riddle 68 is a lot harder to come by. A creature travelling on a path who’s miraculously adorned could be…a lot of things. We definitely need more to go on than that! Not to mention the fact that nearly the exact same lines that make up the whole of Riddle 68 are found earlier in the Exeter Book as the start of Riddle 36:

Ic wiht geseah     on wege feran,
seo was wrætlice     wundrum gegierwed.
(I saw a creature travel on the way/wave,
she/it was miraculously adorned with wonders.)

This particular riddle is pretty messy too, and may represent the smooshing together (that’s the technical term, I believe) of two separate riddles. The best solution seems to be Ship – so there’s definitely a thematic connection between water, ice and sea travel.

Riddle 68 seems to be drawing on formulaic language about this sort of thing. It’s possible, of course, that the scribe copying out the riddle simply didn’t finish it, and went straight on to the next one. When I’m tired, my eyes skip across the page all the time. These things happen.

Either way, though, Riddle 69 can certainly function on its own:

Wundor wearð on wege;       wæter wearð to bane.
(There was a wonder on the wave; water turned to bone.)

In fact, it’s a very nice example of the riddle form in brief. This riddle describes something that should be recognizable, but from a strange perspective. Like metaphors, which represent one thing in terms of another, riddles ask us to think outside the box. Here, the riddle asks how water can become bone. It doesn’t say ‘ice is bony’ (not the most eloquent of metaphors!), but instead demands that we make the logical leap from water-turned-bone to ice. What a nice little example of riddling.

And look at all that alliteration! We have no fewer than FIVE ‘w’ words in one line! In fact, apart from the prepositions, bane (bone) is the only word in the line to start with a different letter. The sounds of these letters almost resemble the wobbly flowy-ness of water solidifying into a sharp bursting ‘b’. That’s not the most articulate sentence I’ve ever written, but hopefully you get a sense of what I mean. If not, try reading the line out loud to yourself!

Please do this in public. Or in your workplace. Or maybe in a silent reading room in a library. Are people looking at you funny yet? Then my work here is done.


References and Suggested Reading

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 8-9.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 398-9.

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


Commentary for Riddle 67

Riddle 67‘s commentary is once again by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Go, Brett, go!

Let me start by assuring you that this is not a connect-the-dot puzzle, though it looks like one. The rows of periods show where we cannot read the riddle because the manuscript has been damaged. In the Middle Ages, manuscripts weren’t used just used for writing. The manuscript in which most of the Old English riddles are found, the Exeter Book, was used as a coaster, a chopping-board, and later even as kindling for fire! (though to be fair, I should say that this last use was accidental). When you add to that dirt, dust and mould, and natural wear and tear over time, it actually isn’t surprising that the manuscript is damaged. It’s more surprising that it survived, and that we’re fortunate enough to read it today.

That said, though, we’re still faced with the problem of reading this riddle. It may not be a connect-the-dot, but what if it were a fill-in-the-blank exercise? Here is the poem after filling in some of the blanks with suggestions made by various scholars (these are summarized in Krapp and Dobbie, pages 368-9):

Ic on þinge gefrægn    þeodcyninges
wrætlice wiht,    wordgaldra [sum
secgan mid] snytt[ro,    swa] hio symle deð
fira gehw[am. . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
. . . .] wisdome.    Wundor me þæt [þuhte
þæt hio mihte swa]    nænne muð hafað.
fet ne [folme. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .]    welan oft sacað,
cwiþeð cy[mlice . . . . . . . . .] wearð
leoda lareow.    Forþon nu longe m[æ]g
[awa to] ealdre    ece lifgan
missenlice,    þenden men bugað
eorþan sceatas.    Ic þæt oft geseah
golde gegierwed,    þær guman druncon,
since ond seolfre.    Secge se þe cunne,
wisfæstra hwylc,    hwæt seo wiht sy.

O.k., so it’s still not perfect, but we could at least say it’s a bit better. And it can help us flesh out our translation:

I have heard of a wondrous creature
in the king’s council, speaking magical words
with wisdom, as it always does
men[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . .] wisdom. It seemed a wonder to me that
it could speak as it has no mouth.
No feet or hands[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .] often contend for wealth,
says fittingly [. . .] “(I) have become
a teacher of peoples. Therefore now for a long time,
always unto life, I can eternally live,
in various places, while people inhabit
the expanses of the earth.” I have often seen it,
adorned with gold, treasure and silver,
where men drank. Let him who knows,
each one who is wise, say what that creature is.

Now the riddle is – though still unclear – legible enough to point to a solution. Most agree that its solution is “Bible,” or some sort of gilded religious book. Lines 5-6 express amazement that this speaker, whoever or whatever it is, is mouth-less. And a mouth-less speaker in Latin and Old English riddles often suggests a kind of writing or writing utensil, since a written text conveys its message to the eyes of the reader without making a sound (see Riddle 60, Riddle 95, and Eusebius’ Latin Enigma 7, De Littera and 33, De Membrano). Besides having no mouth, this strange speaker also has fet ne (no feet), and possibly no hands (if we accept the reconstruction of folme), and it speaks wordgaldra (magical words). Magical words suggest that the book has power outside of its covers; it has authority in the “real” world. It is, after all, a leoda lareow (teacher of peoples). What kind of book would have this kind of authority and power? The Bible, with its message of salvation and world transformation, would seem to fit the bill.

The strongest hint at the religious nature of this book is the fact that it is gilded with gold and silver (lines 13b-15a). Gold and silver were often used to decorate Bible manuscripts. We’ve already seen this kind of decoration in Riddle 26, but just to refresh our memories, here is an example from the Lindisfarne Gospels showing the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew:

Photo from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

This kind of attention was usually reserved for religious texts such as Bibles, psalters, lectionaries, and books of hours. The elaborate decorations reflected the value placed on the content of the manuscript.

So if the answer is a Bible, why are we told that it is often seen þær guman druncon (“where men drank,” line 14b)? If you’re like me, you probably think of reading as a quiet, solitary activity. When I read I make myself a cup of tea, go to a quiet room, and maybe turn on some mellow music. I don’t invite friends over for a party and then pull out a book. Though we may not often think of reading as a public event, it is an activity that provides an opportunity for social bonding. Have you ever been to a public poetry or book reading? Or have you ever read a children’s book to your son or daughter at bedtime? Have you heard the Bible read out loud during a Sunday church service? If so, you’ll have a sense of what this riddle is talking about. In fact, in medieval monasteries it was a common practice to listen to the Bible read out loud during meals. We might say, then, that Riddle 67 uses the kingly hall to represent the monastery. I’m not sure who this comparison would flatter more, the monks or the warriors, but it is not an uncommon comparison in the Exeter Book riddles.

If you’re interested in reading more about Anglo-Saxon Bibles, you might want to compare this riddle to Riddles 26, 59, and perhaps 95 (coming soon to theatres near you).


References and Suggested Reading:

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.

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


Commentary for Riddle 66

This commentary post is once again by Erin Sebo at Flinders University in Australia. Take it away, Erin!


Riddle 66 is the second of the three “Creation Riddles” in the Exeter Book (Riddles 40, 66 and 94). Although it’s common to find several riddles with the same answer – or which seem to have the same answer – the creation riddles are unusual because they are all versions of the same riddle, just “edited” a bit. (Or in the case of Riddle 94, a lot.)

All riddles have a trick at their heart: a paradox, an ambiguity, a misdirection; the thing that makes the riddle hard to solve. It’s the thing that makes a riddle a riddle.

Riddles 40, 66, and 94 and their parent, Aldhelm’s epic Latin De Creatura (the last riddle in his riddle sequence), all have the same trick and the same solution. They’re same riddle, even though the words are different.

If the number of surviving versions is anything to go on (and maybe it’s not), it was the most popular riddle in early England. Or, if not the most popular, perhaps the most important? The best known? Whatever it was, the complier(s) of the Exeter Book thought it was worth the vellum to write out different versions of it.

But it’s not how Riddles 40, 66, and 94 are the same that’s the most interesting bit; what’s really interesting is how they’re different. Each version of this riddle gives us a slightly different insight into how the world was imagined. In the case of Riddle 66, it gives us an insight into how ordinary people, or at least some ordinary people, imagined the world. That’s rare in early medieval texts.

De Creatura was written by a theologian (Aldhelm), and Riddle 40 was translated by someone who was at least educated enough to read Latin, but from the way Riddle 66 has been adapted, made shorter, more focused, more memorable, it may well have spent time in the oral tradition, being told and retold. For example, the litany of oppositions, often illustrated by obscure or exotic animals or materials and underpinned by allusions to scripture, of Riddle 40, is replaced by simple, broad elemental images. On the other hand, the memorable and unusual word hondwyrm is preserved. (Often something that’s characteristic will stick in people’s minds so these elements tend to survive.) Otherwise, very few of the same details survive, just the overall idea, which is typical of the way oral texts change. So while most of the Exeter Riddles are composed and meant to be read this one was probably told – and given the lack of details which reveal specialist knowledge, not to mention the highly unorthodox (potentially heretical) view of the world, it may well have been told by ordinary people.

So, how did the ordinary medieval person of this riddle imagine the world? The most striking thing is that the riddle doesn’t mention God. Riddle 40 imagines Creation more or less like this:

Riddle 66 Psalter World Map.jpg
13th-century Psalter World Map from a manuscript called British Library Add. MS 28681, via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

God on the outside, who healdeð ond wealdeð (holds and controls) (Riddle 40, line 5a), is keeping an eye on things. But in Riddle 66, Creation is imagined not as a collection of all the things that make up the physical and/or metaphysical worlds, but rather as a force, racing around the world, diving under the seas. Unlike Riddle 40 which has a series of dichotomies, with a positive and a negative side, Creation in Riddle 66 is made up of excellent qualities only: it’s fast and bright and can reach the angels. It’s expansive. Although creation says it’s laesse, most of the riddle is about how it fills the oceans and extends through the fields. By the same token, it dives under hell but there’s no mention of devils, only of soaring as high as angels. It’s an optimistic force. And it’s not clear what its relationship to God is because this is never quite articulated. It is described more like an irresistible force, racing freely around the space it inhabits, than an expression of God. It does not describe itself as enacting God’s plan or acting on his orders. And the fact it only reaches angels, not God himself seems to suggest that they are not connected.

It’s an unusual idea of the world.

And it’s as surprising in its details as it is in its overall conception and I want to end with one of its strangest, tiniest details; tiny hondwyrm. It seems to be a parasitic insect but we’re not sure what kind exactly. And it’s also the only animal mentioned. There are no birds or fish or mammals – including humans. So, I’ll finish the commentary on this riddle with a question – why is this tiny insect more important than all other creatures?


References and Suggested Reading:

Michelet, Fabienne. Creation, Migration and Conquest: Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Neville, Jennifer. Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Sebo, Erin. In Enigmate: The History of a Riddle from 400-1500. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017. (coming out in October!)

Wehlau, Ruth. The Riddle of Creation: Metaphor Structures in Old English Poetry. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

Commentary for Riddle 64

Do you like runes? Well I hope the answer’s yes, because there’s rather a lot of them going on here. Runes crop up relatively often in the Exeter Book, mostly clustered in and around the riddles. But Riddle 64 really goes to town on the old script mixing. Did you know this poem has a higher ratio of runes-to-lines than any other in the Exeter Book? True story.

Not that the runes make this poem particularly…poetic. Of all the runic riddles, this one has received the least scholarly attention in its own right. That’s because there’s just so little of it, apart from the runes. And they don’t seem to offer much help. For the record, wi (ᚹᛁ) is not a meaningful word, and nor are any of the other pairs of runes in this poem. Craig Williamson points out Riddle 64’s “absurd difficulty” (page 327), and he isn’t wrong.

Riddle 64 Wisconsin
Searching for the word ‘Wi’ only brings up lots of images of Madison, WI.
Which is… not much help.
Credit: Dori via Wikimedia Commons (Licence: Dual GFDL CC)

To make any sort of headway with Riddle 64, we need to cast our minds all the way back to the first of the Exeter Book’s runic riddles: Riddle 19. In fact, it’s worth having another read of that poem and commentary before going further. You’ll quickly see these two riddles have a lot in common, beyond their fondness for runic puzzles. They both describe a siþ (journey) over a wong (plain), embarked upon by a collection of runic-ly encoded creatures, some of which carry others.

These similarities can be pushed further still. The first runic creature in Riddle 19 is hors (horse). Another word for “horse” in Old English is wicg, which might conceivably be an expansion of that first pair of runes on line 1 (ᚹᛁ / wi). Next, Riddle 19 gives us mon (man) and wiga (warrior) (?), synonyms for which include beorn (ᛒᛖ / be on line 2) and þegn (ᚦᛖ / þe on line 4). Finally, Riddle 19’s haofoc seems to be replicated in Riddle 64 as hafoc (ᚻᚪ / ha, line 3), and paralleled by fælca (ᚠᚫ / , line 5). I’ll come back to the final three runes, which are bit trickier, but you get the idea.

Riddle 64 Horse.jpg
Like this, but more runey.
Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

It still feels like a bit of a cheat, though. I don’t think modern readers would’ve gotten very far with this riddle if we didn’t have Riddle 19 to crib from, and I do wonder whether our Anglo-Saxon counterparts would’ve fared much better. On that note, Riddle 64 isn’t the only runic puzzle on this page of the Exeter Book. The manuscript’s upper margin boasts its own runic message, written in dry point (ie scratched with a sharp tool) some time after the manuscript was completed. As far as anyone can make out, the letters seem to read:

ᛒ ᚢ ᚷ ᚱ ᚦ (bugrþ)  or  ᛒ ᚢ ᚾ ᚱ ᚦ (bunrþ)

What does this mean, you ask? No one knows! Williamson comments – half jokingly – that the latter sequence could be expanded into Beo unreþe (“Don’t be cruel!”, page 327): the complaint of a frustrated reader. My feeling is that this frustrated reader could have left an intentionally nonsensical enigma to match the apparently unreadable runes in the riddle. But the meaning of this little message is still very much up for grabs, if you’ve got a better idea!

Coming back to the poem. Riddle 64 is similar enough to Riddle 19 that scholars generally agree the two share a common solution. Those solutions tend to fall into one of three groups: something to do with hunting (Trautmann; Tupper); something to do with writing (Eliason; Shook); something to do with boats (Williamson; Griffith). Megan’s already done an ace job of setting out the arguments for and against each, and incidentally I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to re-post some of Megan’s A-grade artwork:

Riddle 10 Writing

I’ve chosen this picture not only for its fine artistic qualities, but because it’s an excuse to talk a little more about the “writing” solution first put forward by Eliason. Although most recent scholarship on these two riddles has favoured a solution relating to boats, I actually think “writing” deserves at least equal consideration. There’s some interesting overlaps between Riddle 64 (and 19, for that matter), and several of the Exeter Book’s writing riddles.

Journeying as a metaphor for writing was a popular trope in early medieval literature. In his influential Etymologiae, Isidore of Seville claims that: litterae autem dictae quasi legiterae, quod iter legentibus praestent (letters [littera] are so called as if the term were legitera, because they provide a road [iter] for those who are reading [legere]) (I.iii.3, in Barney, page 39).

Riddle 64 Isidore.jpg
Isidore of Seville: never one to let actual etymology get in the way of good imagery.
Image credit: Luis García via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic)

We see this metaphor employed in Riddle 26 (lines 7-11), and it’s the central image of Riddle 51. It’s also used in Riddle 95, which Willamson solves as “book” (pages 397-402), and Murphy as “pen” (page 88). Riddle 51, in particular, emphasises the unity of the travelling companions (Murphy, page 86), in a way that’s quite reminiscent of Riddle 64.

These writing riddles also feature quite a lot of birds (Bitterli, pages 35-46; Murphy, page 85), and for a good reason. Pens at the time were often quills made from feathers of larger water birds, such as geese or swans.

Riddle 64 Quill Pen.jpg
Like so.
Image credit: Kijker Museum via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Public Domain)

If you’ve ever found a seagull feather on the beach and swished it about a bit (don’t do this – seagulls are pretty gross), you’ll know they offer up quite a bit of air resistance. You can imagine a scribe experiencing something similar when writing with a quill. And this overlap between pens, feathers and flight gives rise to some of the most imaginative imagery of the writing riddles, such as when Riddle 26 describes its pen as the “bird’s joy” (fugles wyn, line 7b), or when the pen in Riddle 51 moves through the air “faster than birds” (fulgum framra, line 4a). Riddle 95 refers to the “delight of plunders” (hiþendra hyht, line 5a), which has been taken as a kenning for a quill pen (Murphy, page 95), and gives us a nice parallel to the description in Riddle 64 of the falcon as the “keeper’s joy” (habbendes hyht, line 3a).

To recap: in this interpretation, the “warrior” is the hand of the scribe (contributing its “share of the power”), while the “horse” that carries him on this journey is the point of the pen, and the “falcon” joyously flying above them is the pen’s plume swishing through the air as the scribe writes. They’re all travelling in unison across the “plain” of the manuscript page, and having a jolly good time about it.

Which just leaves that tricky last set of runes: easp. Although it’s difficult to be sure what the poet had in mind for this one, Williamson argues convincingly that it’s a contraction of the compound ea-spor, meaning “water-track” (page 326). There could be a parallel to this in Riddle 19 if the runic group on line 6 is taken to be wega “wave” rather than wiga “warrior.”

This word gives some support for the “boat” interpretation, but I don’t think it rules out “writing” either. Riddle 51 is quite taken with the image of the pen as a bird soaring through the air and then diving under the waves (ie into an ink pot), and both it and Riddle 26 describe pens leaving inky lastas “tracks” (see also Riddle 95, line 11b). So, to keep with our writing solution, the “water-track” is the line of ink left in the wake of the warrior scribe. And this is as good a place as any to bring in my favourite sea-related writing metaphor, which is from a colophon (or notation) added by one Æthelberht at the end of an eighth-century book of Psalms:

Finit liber psalmorum. In Christo Iesu domino nostro; lege in pace. Sicut portus oportunus nauigantibus ita uorsus [sic] nouissimus scribentibus.

(Here finishes the book of the Psalms. In Christ Jesus our Lord; read in peace. Just as the port is welcome to sailors, so is the final verse to scribes.) (Gameson, page 35; see also this excellent blogpost by Thijs Porck)

Riddle 64 Ship
Image credit: Urban via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Dual GFDL CC)

So, that’s the case for solving this riddle as writing. I think there’s something quite appealing in the image of a pen in hand as a warrior and entourage, venturing forth across the page, leaving dark trails of watery ink in their wake. And this solution also helps to explain the inclusion of all those runes. What better place to show off your skill with not one but two alphabets, than in a poem that’s all about… writing!


References and Suggested Reading:

Barney, Stephen A., W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof, eds and trans. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Dewa, Roberta. “The Runic Riddles of the Exeter Book: Language Games and Anglo-Saxon Scholarship.” Nottingham Medieval Studies, vol. 39 (1995), pages 26-36.

Eliason, Norman E. “Four Old English Cryptographic Riddles.” Studies in Philology, vol. 49 (1952), pages 553-65.

Gameson, Richard. The Scribe Speaks? Colophons in Early English Manuscripts. H M Chadwick Lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Griffith, Mark. “Riddle 19 of the Exeter Book: SNAC, an Old English Acronym.” Notes and Queries, new series, vol. 237 (1992), pages 15-16.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

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

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

Commentary for Riddle 63

If Riddle 63 has anything to teach us, it’s that people with hot pokers SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED NEAR MANUSCRIPTS! Sorry…got a bit shouty there. All those years of pent-up scholarly rage have to take their toll at some point. I’m fine now.


So, Riddle 63. This is the first of many very damaged riddles that we’re going to be working through from this point on. They’re damaged because – as you might have guessed – there’s a long, diagonal burn from where someone put a hot poker or fiery brand on the back of the Exeter Book.

20170606123017032 copy.jpg

A photo of the damage to this page of the manuscript (folio 125r). I am *very* grateful to the manuscripts and archives team for providing this Exeter Cathedral Library photo (reproduced by courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter)


Even with the damage, we can still have a conversation about Riddle 63 because – thankfully – several of its opening lines are intact, and intriguing hints survive further on in the poem. We have enough information, for example, to have a convincing stab at the solution, which seems to be a glass beaker or perhaps glæs-fæt in Old English (though early solvers also suggested “flute” and “flask”).

Glass beakers are a fairly common find in Anglo-Saxon graves, and there’s pretty good evidence for solving the riddle this way. Some of this evidence comes from within the poem: the references to a servant handling and kissing the object from line 4 onward suggest that it’s a drinking vessel. And the object’s statement Ne mæg ic þy miþan (Nor can I conceal that) in line 10a implies that it’s transparent.

Riddle 63 Claw beaker from Ringmere Farm British Museum.jpg

An early Anglo-Saxon claw beaker from Ringlemere Farm, Kent, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain). You can find out more about it here.


I suppose you could argue that the holes in flutes would make concealing anything difficult too, and of course kissing and pressing with fingers are entirely relevant for a musical instrument of that kind. But we also have evidence for reading Riddle 63 as glass beaker that comes from outside of the poem. There’s a really, really, really useful parallel in one of the Anglo-Latin riddles written by the 7th/8th-century abbot and bishop Aldhelm. His Enigma 80, Calix Vitreus (Glass Chalice) has a similar reference to grasping with fingers and kissing, you see:

Nempe uolunt plures collum constringere dextra
Et pulchre digitis lubricum comprendere corpus;
Sed mentes muto, dum labris oscula trado
Dulcia compressis impendens basia buccis,
Atque pedum gressus titubantes sterno ruina.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 496, lines 5-9)
(Truly, many wish to squeeze my neck with their right hand and seize my beautifully sinuous body with their fingers; 
but I change their minds, while I deliver kisses to their lips,
 dispensing sweet kisses to puckered mouths, and yet I throw off the faltering steps of their feet in a fall.)

This is a deeply disturbing vision of a sexual encounter loaded with complicated and competing power dynamics. There’s a lot of kissing here, sure, but there’s also a hint of violence in that term constringere, which can mean “to embrace,” but also “to bind/constrict” (hence I’ve gone for “squeeze”). Fifty Shades of Græg, amirite?

And while it’s the drinkers who initially want to inflict this violence on the drinking vessel, the vessel ends up turning the tables, so to speak, when the drinkers become so intoxicated that they fall over. This leads Mercedes Salvador-Bello to discuss Aldhelm’s Latin riddle in the light of Anglo-Saxon views on prostitution: she argues convincingly that the riddle imagines a prostitute bringing about the downfall of a man through a combination of sexual charms and excessive wine (page 371). She also suggests the poem might be alluding to the apocalyptic Whore of Babylon from the biblical Book of Revelation (see also Magennis, page 519). Heavy stuff.

I also think there’s a possible pun here in the verb muto (I change), which could easily be confused for the terribly rude noun muto (penis). I mean, it doesn’t work grammatically, but it might have caused an embarrassed titter nonetheless.

And this leads us back again to Riddle 63, which is equally euphemistic but with a very different tone (at least as far as we can tell!). There are certainly similarities between the Latin and Old English riddles – both involve what my mum used to call “kissy face, pressy bod” (otherwise known as “sex”). Riddle 63’s reference to the human in the riddle who wyrceð his willa (works his will) in line 7a should look familiar from Riddle 54 (line 6a). And þyð (presses) also appears in sexual contexts in Riddle 12 (line 8b), Riddle 21 (line 5b) and Riddle 62 (5a).

But what I quite like about this riddle is that the sexual act is clearly a mutually enjoyable one: þa unc geryde wæs (when it was pleasant for us two) (line 15b). Look at that glorious dual pronoun! Unc! “Us two”! This glass beaker is properly into it.

Still, there are some issues with class that muddy the waters a bit. Patrick Murphy reminds us that this riddle – like so many others – confuses the matter of who is serving whom; this speaker is “habitually compelled to serve men but also itself attended at times by a tillic esne ‘useful servant’” (page 205). While the one handling the glass beaker is imagined as a person from a lower status background, the beaker itself is glæd mid golde (shining with gold). This level of bling makes me wonder if Riddle 63’s glass beaker is – rather than a prostitute, like in Aldhelm’s Latin riddle – imagined as a high-status person having a fling with a servant in a private chamber. On a literal level, this gold could be metal ornamentation around the glass beaker (Salvador-Bello, page 372), but figuratively it might point to all those wondrous arm- and neck-rings that bedeck elite lords, ladies and retainers in heroic poetry.

I want to point to one final comparison before I close up shop for the day. A few weeks ago at a fascinating lecture about fear, Alice Jorgensen from Trinity College Dublin reminded me about a funny little reference in Blickling Homily 10, Þisses Middangeardes Ende Neah Is. This late 10th-century homily says that the dead will be forced to reveal their sins on Judgement Day:

biþ þonne se flæschoma ascyred swa glæs, ne mæg ðæs unrihtes beon awiht bedigled (Morris, pages 109/11)
(then the flesh will be as clear as glass, nor may its wrongs be at all concealed).

Isn’t this too perfect? The glassy flesh of sinners will no longer be able to conceal sins when the end of the world comes! Just like the glass of a beaker reveals what’s in it. Those sins – whether consensual sex between people of different social ranks, or the prostitute and drunken patron’s power struggle – are all going to be on display. A sobering note to end on, I know. (get it?)


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Leahy, Kevin. Anglo-Saxon Crafts. Stroud: Tempus, 2003, esp. pages 106-7.

Magennis, Hugh. “The Cup as Symbol and Metaphor in Old English Literature.” Speculum, vol. 60 (1985), pages 517-36.

Morris, Richard, ed. The Blickling Homilies. Early English Text Society o.s. (original series) 58, 63, 73. London: Oxford University Press, 1874-80.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, pages 204-6.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Sexual Riddle Type in Aldhelm’s Enigmata, the Exeter Book, and Early Medieval Latin.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 90 (2012), pages 357-85, esp. 371-2.

Stephens, Win. “The Bright Cup: Early Medieval Vessel Glass.” In The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World. Edited by Maren Clegg Hyer and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2011 (repr. 2013 by Liverpool University Press), pages 275-92.

Commentary for Riddle 62

Before we start, there’s something we need to clear up about Riddle 62. This is one of those riddles with two solutions. First, it’s a description of an implement of some sort – probably a poker or a wood-working tool. But, and bear with me here, there’s actually another solution at play. If you think about it really carefully you can maybe see how this riddle might also be describing a penis. I just wanted to get that out the way, in case anyone failed to pick up on the incredibly subtle imagery.

Now, you might not have seen this straight away. You might have read this riddle through and thought: “Ah yes. A poker. That is certainly what is being described here. That and nothing else.”

Riddle 62 Cards.jpg
Not this kind of poker. The kind that goes in a fire.
Photo: Graeme Main/MOD via Wikimedia Commons (Open Government Licence)

In which case, well done. It might be that. It might also be a borer or some other woodworking tool. Picture something like this:

Riddle 62 Borer
Source: Cassell’s Carpentry and Joinery via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

There’s really not much in it: both are hard, and pointed, and get pushed into things. The former gets hot from the fire. The latter gets hot from friction. It’s a little tricky to account for the womb that our speaker goes beneath if we’re picturing a borer. This is why I think poker makes the better fit. The womb would be an oven, or furnace, or fireplace. Winfried Rudolf has discussed the sexual imagery of ovens in relation to Riddle 45 (pages 511-13; see also Salvador-Bello page 360), and here are some fun images of medieval ovens being suggestively… poked. And with that, let us segue smoothly into our riddle’s less salubrious meanings. Because, believe it or not, a hard and pointy instrument that gets poked repeatedly into someplace warm and inviting lends itself to a different sort of solution entirely.

Riddle 62 Cards.jpg
Still not this.
Photo: Graeme Main/MOD via Wikimedia Commons (Open Government Licence)

Yes, we’re continuing the double-entendres from Riddle 61 (and there’s more to come in Riddle 63). The combination of everyday object with sexy subtext is one we’ve seen more than a few times in the Exeter Book, and this riddle pulls no punches with the suggestive imagery. In fact, almost every line includes vocabulary repeated in those other euphemistic riddles.  Our speaker is heard ond scearp and strong; the speaker of Riddle 44 is stiþ ond heard (line 3a), and strong appears in Riddle 54 (line 9b) and 87 (line 3a). The hrægl worn by our speaker’s wielder finds a number of parallels (44.4, 45.4, 54.4), as does the womb (37.1, 87.1) that our mystery subject goes beneath, and the nearo (25.10, 61.6) hol (44.5) it occupies. But just in case we missed all that, the poet drops the word nathwær into the closing lines. This – and the related term nathwæt – is a solid staple of the double-entendre genre, making an appearance in Riddles 25, 45, 54 and 61.

So not only is this riddle suggestive, it’s laden with language used suggestively in other riddles as well. “Keep some mystery in the bedroom” is an idea our poet apparently failed to internalise when composing this little vignette.

Riddle 62 Manuscript
“Hey guys! Guys! Have you heard the one about the poker?”
Image from Wikimedia Commons (photographic reproduction of work in public domain)

In fact, the poet comes perilously close to giving the game away in lines 6b-8a. The subject of the two hwilum clauses must be understood as the hæleð mid hrægle from line 6a. That’s fine for the first clause, as the man pulls his “poker” out from the “fire.” But then in the second clause it isn’t the poker that eft fareð but the man himself. Hang on, why would the man be putting himself back into the fire? As noted by Murphy (page 203), and Williamson before him (page 323), this makes no sense. Unless the tool this man is wielding isn’t really a poker at all, but a part of his own body, and he isn’t really venturing into a fire but into a… nathwær. Just as we think we’ve caught the poet – and the man – in the act, the curtain comes and we’re back in the realm of the implied. “I couldn’t possibly say where,” demurs the speaker, “and no I don’t know what you’re smirking about.”

So even in a riddle as on-the-nose as this, there’s room for ambiguity. My favourite is forðsiþ in line 2a. It means “departure,” but forðsiþ can also refer to “death.” In renaissance literature, “death” is a familiar euphemism for orgasm (the “little death,” or “petite mort”), and it’s likely the metaphor was established at least by Chaucer’s day (Quinn, page 220). Think of Troilus “fainting” in Criseyde’s bed. Is this reference to the speaker’s forðsiþ an earlier iteration of the same euphemism? It might be. That’s the problem with suggestive language – it needs both the riddler and the riddlee to be on the same page, culturally speaking.

Speaking of which, what should we make of the speaker describing itself as scearp? It’s not the most obvious adjective to associate with a penis, right? It’s also not one we might expect based on other riddles of this nature (Riddle 44, for example, pairs heard with stiþ). As well as the modern sense “sharp”, scearp can also mean “keen” (think of something being “sharp sighted”). That sense does fit well enough with the rest of the riddle, which emphasises haste (line 4b) and urgency (line 8b). But scearp is also used to describe weapons – particularly swords – often enough that the suggestion of violence inevitably rears its head here (see Riddle 20). What’s really striking about scearp is that it introduces a perspective that’s otherwise very notably absent from this poem. It’s the person receiving the penis – rather than the penis itself or the man it’s attached to – who would experience its “sharpness”. Throughout the whole poem, scearp is the only insight we get into that other perspective, and (for modern readers at least) it gives a discomforting glimpse into a very different experience of an encounter otherwise dominated by the man’s pride in his own sexual performance.

Which leads us to the biggest scholarly sticking point of Riddle 62: the suþerne secg (line 9a). All the way through the poem, the speaker refers to its wielder in lofty and heroic terms, as frea, rinc, and hæleð. What, then, are we supposed to make of the man’s southern origins? Tupper takes it to mean that our “hero” is actually  a slave, akin to the “dark Welsh” who populate various other euphemistic riddles (page 203). On the other hand, Baum thinks the reference implies a skilled craftsman, as opposed to a “cruder man from northern districts” (page 59). Williamson argues that the line is euphemistic (probably a safe bet, all things considered), providing an oblique reference to “the direction of the thrust” (page 323).

Murphy proposes something a bit different (page 203). Rather than taking the suþerne secg as the subject – parallel to the hæleð mid hrægle – he instead argues that it’s the object: “He [the man] earnestly urges on his southern fellow [by which is understood the penis]”. It’s a fun interpretation, and it makes the riddle’s closing half-line especially bold. Having just referred to itself with a euphemistic epithet, the speaker then demands that we be the one to “say what I’m called.” A “tool,” an “implement,” a “southern fellow”? Don’t know what you’re talking about. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some “fires” to “poke.”

Riddle 62 Oven.jpg
Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons licence 4.0)


References and further reading

Condren, Edward I. Chaucer from Prentice to Poet: The Metaphor of Love in Dream Visions and Troilus and Criseyde. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.

Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Rudolf, Winfried. “Riddling and Reading: Iconicity and Logogriphs in Exeter Book Riddles 23 and 45.” Anglia-Zeitschrift für englische Philologie, vol. 130, issue 4 (2012), pages 499-525.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Sexual Riddle Type in Aldhelm’s Enigmata, the Exeter Book, and Early Medieval Latin”. Philological Quarterly, vol. 90, issue 4 (2011), pages 357-85.

Tanke, John W. “Wonfeax wale: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book.” In Class and Gender in Early English Literature. Edited by Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994, pages 21-42.

Commentary for Riddle 61

Do you find Anglo-Saxon men’s fashions particularly risqué? Well, whoever composed Riddle 61 sure seems to have done! That’s right, folks: it’s another riddle that’s chock-a-block full of double entendre.

The solution to Riddle 61 hasn’t proved as problematic as some of the other Exeter Book poems. Scholars have decided that it’s either a helmet (OE helm) or a shirt – though kirtle/tunic (OE cyrtel/tunece) are less anachronistic and more in line with Anglo-Saxon style. You can see this sort of get-up in the following snippet from the Bayeux Tapestry:

Riddle 61 Bayeux_Tapestry_scene1_Edward.jpg
Edward the Confessor and his messengers hold a meeting on the Bayeux Tapestry, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

And here’s a nice, Anglo-Saxon helmet for good measure:

The 8th-century Coppergate Helmet as photographed by York Museums Trust via Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s totally up to you whether you prefer a garment or helmet; I don’t have any strong opinions on this one. The long and the short of it is: whatever we’re talking about has to be an item with an opening that a man can put his head into or through. It has to come to rest on something hairy – could be his head, could be his chest. And it’s got to be small enough to store in a box, and not so heavy that the lady of the house couldn’t remove it by herself. I’m NOT saying that Anglo-Saxon women couldn’t be strong and/or badass (have you ever tried setting up a loom? that’s some strenuous labour right there), but some of that later medieval plate armour looks cumbersome at best. But this isn’t what we’re talking about – I seem to have gone off topic already!

Anywho, it also sounds like the object in question is a tad on the valuable side, since it’s kept locked away and it claims to be frætwedne (adorned). This very brief reference to adornment is what reminds us we’re dealing with a constructed object instead of a sexual encounter. This was before vajazzling, after all. Though Sarah Higley suggests the text may be hinting at contraceptive items (and reminds us that we don’t know an awful lot about such things in early medieval England (pages 48-50)), I think it’s safe to say that it would be pretty impractical to adorn whatever sorts of things were used.

But enough about ancient prophylactics! (is a sentence I never thought I’d write) “Are there any other references to domestic scenes of husbands and wives and handing out garments in Old English?,” I hear you asking. Good question. There are indeed. There are indeed. The obvious passage is from the wisdom poem Maxims I, which refers to a Frisian woman washing her husband’s clothes, giving him new ones and perhaps a little more than that (wink wink, nudge nudge). Why she has to be Frisian is beyond me (maybe just because it alliterates with flota (ship)?).

Here’s the passage I’m talking about:

                      leof wilcuma
Frysan wife,      þonne flota stondeð;
biþ his ceol cumen      ond hyre ceorl to ham,
agen ætgeofa,      ond heo hine in laðaþ,
wæsceð his warig hrægl     ond him syleþ wæde niwe,
liþ him on londe      þæs his lufu bædeð. (lines 94b-9b)

(the dear one [is] welcome to his Frisian wife, when the ship stands; his boat has come home and her man, her own food-giver, and she calls him in, washes his dirty clothing and gives him new garments, gives him on land what his love requires.)

All I can think about when I read this poem is that this guy must smell horrible if he’s just coming back from a sea-voyage with little-to-no spare clothing. No wonder his wife is keen to get him into clean kit before the marital reunion commences.

But notice the similarities between this poem and Riddle 61 too: the husband-wife relationship, sexual implications, garment-giving. I wonder if his clothes are kept in a box too?

Speaking of which, the chest that holds the garment or helmet in Riddle 61 is also interesting because, as Edith Whitehurst Williams reminds us, it’s pretty impossible to apply it in a literal way to the bawdy reading of the poem (page 141). She reckons it’s “a metaphoric statement for the lady’s great modesty which is set aside only in the proper circumstance – when her lord commands” (page 141).

At this point you, like me, may be a bit annoyed with the unequal gender relations of this riddle. What’s all this commanding and bidding nonsense? I mean, of course we don’t want to impose an anachronistic view of women’s agency onto this very-very-very old poem, but still. If you do happen to find this aspect problematic, then I would suggest taking a look-see at Melanie Heyworth’s fascinating and insightful interpretation of this riddle. Hers is a nice and balanced, and fully contextualised reading of the poem (pages 179-80). Importantly, she points out that the woman gives/entrusts (the verb is sellan) her sexuality to her partner only gif (if) his ellen (strength/courage) is dohte (suitable/worthy). Now, I had translated line 7 as a reference to sexual potency – a crass sort of “if he can get it up and keep it going” sort of thing – but I quite like Heyworth’s version, since it suggests that both partners in this Anglo-Saxon relationship are bringing something to the table. She’ll have sex with him only if he’s worthy, in other words. Admittedly, this comes across as a deeply conservative, heteronormative view of the world, but it was a very different world, so let’s try to keep our morals and theirs separate. Again, as Heyworth points out, Riddle 61 shows us an idealised, Anglo-Saxon marriage (page 180). In fact, she says its aim is to prescribe behaviour: “to urge its audience to similar conduct to that of the riddle-wife and her husband” (page 180).

Did everyone listen? Well, no, of course they didn’t. Would you need to prescribe behaviour if everyone was already on board?

We can find a great example of a woman who reputedly did NOT lock her sexuality away and entrust it only to her husband on the Bayeux Tapestry once again:

Panel depicting Ælfgyva and a cleric with naughty connotations, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

You may be confused about what’s going on in this picture. They’re fully clothed, so what’s all the bother about? Look closer. And look down and to the left. Behold the tiny naked man squatting at the bottom of this high-status textile! Most likely embroidered by English women during the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman rule, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts all manner of political and martial escapades relating to the famous conquest of 1066.

Now we don’t know the full story of this picture, partly because there’s no verb to tell us what’s going on: the Latin title just says Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva (Where a certain cleric and Ælfgifu). We also don’t know for certain who this panel depicts because the Old English name Ælfgifu, meaning “Elf-Gift,” was pretty common (for a good guess, check out J. L. Laynesmith’s article and podcast below). But even without that knowledge, we can say is that the picture seems to refer to some sort of scandal. That cleric probably shouldn’t be reaching through the archway to touch Ælfgifu’s face (is he caressing her? hitting her?). And the fact that the little naked man is mirroring the cleric, at least in his upper body and arms, strongly implies that the two are connected.

So, to tie this discussion up, I’d like to point out that it wasn’t just Anglo-Saxon riddlers and scribes who revelled in double entendre. Early medieval women – in this case embroiderers – were also known to author some rather saucy stories. Intriguing ones too.

Bet you’ll never look at the Bayeux Tapestry with a straight face again.


References and Suggested Reading:

Heyworth, Melanie. “Perceptions of Marriage in Exeter Book Riddles 20 and 61.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 79 (2007), pages 171-84.

Higley, Sarah L. “The Wanton Hand: Reading and Reaching into Grammars and Bodies in Old English Riddle 12.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 29-59. Available online via Higley’s page.

Laynesmith, J. L. “The Bayeux Tapestry: A Canterbury Tale.” History Today, vol. 62, issue 10 (Oct. 2012). (podcast freely available here)

Whitehurst Williams, Edith. “What’s So New about the Sexual Revolution? Some Comments on Anglo-Saxon Attitudes toward Sexuality in Women Based on Four Exeter Book Riddles.” In New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Edited by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pages 137-45.