Commentary for Riddle 58

Well, well, well. Here we go with Riddle 58.

Early critics had little trouble solving this riddle, because apparently early critics were far better versed in basic irrigation technology than I am. Have you ever seen one of these?

Well_sweep._Żuraw_studzienny._-_panoramio.jpegPhotograph (by Rafał Klisowski) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

No, neither have I. It’s a well-sweep, also known as a shaduf or shadoof, a counterpoise lift, a well-pole, or a swep. Also the creature described in Riddle 58 (proposed long ago by Holthausen).

It’s actually a pretty snazzy piece of machinery. That tall vertical pole (the anfot of the riddle) creates a base on which the diagonal rod can pivot. The diagonal rod is weighted on the one end (the heavy tail), and the other (the small head) is attached to a long rope (the tongue), carrying a bucket. When you want water, you pull on the rope to lower the bucket; when it’s full (and heavy), you simply let go – the counterweight does the job of raising the water so you don’t have to. Genius.

Ok, so here’s my first question. Why isn’t this one of the obscene riddles? How is it that Anglo-Saxons found more suggestive imagery in an onion than this particular contraption? Maybe it was just too easy. Low-hanging fruit and all that. Moving on.

Any fan of the Exeter Book riddles knows how fond they are of playing positive and negative attributes against one another: things are in turn portrayed by what they are and what they’re not. But I can’t think of another riddle that manages the balance between the two quite as skilfully as this one. Starting at the start (where else?) we get a very important detail: our wiht is one-footed. But that’s left behind almost immediately, as we move onto a list of the things it doesn’t do. This creature doesn’t get around much on its lone foot: not by riding, nor flying, nor sailing on boats – and that’s pretty much all the travel options covered. But then we’re back to what it is, or at least what it has. Its body parts include a tail, a head, a tongue – but no teeth – and a measure of iron. It doesn’t drink, but it does carry water; it doesn’t boast of life but it does serve its master (nice iteration of the implement trope here; see Neville).

There’s a kind of rhythm that develops as we read through this flip-flopping description. The repeated use of ne gives a secondary alliteration on n-, particularly in lines 2-4, but it’s only in line 5 that we find n- carrying metrical alliteration, and that finishes by describing something that the creature is (a nyt “benefit”) rather than what it isn’t. We could compare these oscillations to the see-sawing motion of the well sweep in action. Or at least, I assume we could. I’ve only seen them in pictures.

riddle-58-well-sweep2A well-sweep in “action” from Wikimedia Commons (license: public domain)

These oscillations continue across the poem. The verb ferian (to carry) is used three times (lines 2, 4, 11). The first two are negative: this is a creature that neither moves itself nor is carried by ships. But then in line 11 we’re told that it fereð (carries) water – and it does it a lot. Water, too, is evoked both positively and negatively. This creature doesn’t drink (line 10a), but it does raise lagoflod (water: line 12a). It’s also a wiht (thing: line 2a), but it ne wiht iteþ (doesn’t eat a thing: line 10b). No nægledbord (nail-boarded) boat carries it (line 5a), but it does have its own share of isern (iron: line 9a), and we might think here of the visual and material affinities between a boat and a bucket. We’re told it doesn’t travel – either on the earth, in the air, or over water (lines 2-4). And yet later we find it traversing an earthen hole in order to lift water into the air (lines 9-12).

I said that critics have had little trouble solving Riddle 58 and that’s true. Sort of. The thing being described does seem to answer to all the attributes of a well-sweep. But what’s the Old English for well-sweep? Apparently it’s a three letter word with rad at the start. Unfortunately, no Anglo-Saxon ever bothered to write it down for us.

I ask because the riddle ends not by describing its subject, but by describing the name of its subject. Specifically, a name comprised of three ryhte runstafas (right rune-letters), and starting with rad (lines 14b-15). Runes aren’t all that common in the Exeter Book riddles, and when they are used they tend to be something of a showpiece: either introduced early (as in Riddles 19, 42 and 64), or discussed over several lines (as in Riddle 24, and also the other three I just mentioned). But Dieter Bitterli isn’t wrong when he describes these closing lines as rather abrupt (page 98). I guess if there’s anything better than runes, it’s surprise runes. The rune here is indicated using its name rather than its letter (a technique we’ve also seen in Riddle 42). In the manuscript there’s an accent over rad, perhaps as a hint at the word’s significance.

On its surface the runic conundrum that ends Riddle 58 is as straightforward as they come. Rad (riding) is the name of the rune ᚱ (‘r’). There’s only so many three-lettered words, and not even most of them start with r-. How hard can it be? Early critics settled on rod (rod). Job done.

Others, though, took the puzzle another way: they put the element rad– at the start of a three-letter word to make a compound, like radlim (riding-pole) or radpyt (riding-pit, well) (see Blakeley and Grein). Williamson notes, entirely in passing, that radrod (riding-rod, sweep?) may be a better fit, since “it is the pole and not the pit that is the subject” (page 312).

riddle-58-well-sweep3And yet, still not about sex.
Photograph (by Jan Stubenitzky) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hang on, though. Radrod? That works both ways! It’s a compound comprising rad– and a second element, with that second element being a three lettered word starting with r- (Murphy, page 65). It even captures tonally the poem’s see-sawing rhythm. Better yet, because runic letters can stand for their names as well as their phonemes, it’s possible to write rad-rod in runes as ᚱ-ᚱᚩᛞ. As Niles points out (page 92), this construction contains only three distinct letters (with ᚱ repeated), and it starts with rad. So much for a creature that ne fela rideð (doesn’t ride much: line 3a), and yes I do think that’s an intentional joke by the riddle’s author (see Bitterli, page 105). By the end of the poem there’s quite a lot riding on ᚱ.

I’ll stop now.

The runic conundrum at the end of this riddle is uniquely peripheral, but it raises an interesting question. When we solve riddles, do we do it with objects or with words?

I have to confess, the term “well-sweep” meant not a thing to me the first time I read it; my “aha!” moment only came when I saw the photo at the top of this post. Niles argues for the importance of answering the riddles in their own language (that is, Old English rather than modern English), but the riddles themselves tend to place much greater emphasis on their subjects’ physical attributes than on their names. Many of the riddles begin by describing the form of a thing (ic seah “I saw,” or ic eom “I am”). Then again, many also end by asking us to say or to name their subject (saga hwæt ic hatte “say what I am called”).

So, have we solved Riddle 58 when we’ve identified an object that fits all the clues in its first fourteen lines, or when we’ve found an Old English word that answers the letter game in its final two? Is this riddle asking us to think about a thing in the world, or about the word used to signify that thing?

Bonus question: does it matter that the word radrod is a modern invention not attested anywhere in the Old English corpus?
Photograph (by Andrzej Otrębsk) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)


References and Suggested Reading:

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.

Blakeley, L. “Riddles 22 and 58 of the Exeter Book.” Review of English Studies, vol. 9 (1958), pages 241-252.

Grein, Christian W. M. “Kleine Mittheilungen.” Germania, vol. 10 (1865), pages 305-310.

Holthausen, Ferdinand. “Beiträge zur Erklärung und Textkritik altenglischer Dichtungen.” Indogermanische Forschungen, vol. 4 (1894), pages 379-88.

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

Neville, Jennifer. “The Unexpected Treasure of the ‘Implement Trope’: Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles”. Review of English Studies, vol. 62 (2011), pages 505-519.

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

Symons, Victoria. Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.

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

Commentary for Riddle 57

This commentary post is once again by Michael J. Warren from Royal Holloway. Take it away, Michael!


This has to be my favourite of all the Old English riddles, for two reasons. Firstly, the solution is probably a bird (my specialism), but even more intriguing is the fact that we just don’t know what the solution is. The Exeter Book riddles are renowned, of course, for their enigmatic absence of answers in the manuscript (unlike the various Anglo-Latin examples), but this is one of the few that still lacks a solution with general or near unanimous agreement. Anglo-Saxonists are still debating the possible solutions for this little critter; the only thing most scholars agree on is that the “subject is quite firmly assigned to the category bird” (Barley, page 169).

For John D. Niles, the “most likely self-naming black bird we are ever likely to snare” (page 129) is the crow, but a wide number of avian suspects have been recommended over the years, and various other “flying” answers as well (see the solutions following my translation of this riddle). For starters, then, what this pithy riddle does is demonstrate very nicely how this collection of conundrums is still playing out its effects over a thousand years after the poems were written down: they continue to tease us with a curious blend of obfuscation and illumination. As it turns out, this is something birds characteristically do as well. I like to think it’s no accident that birds are probably the answer to Riddle 57: a devious subject at the heart of a devious genre that continually escapes identification and finality.


Pretty much all European corvid species have been suggested as solutions to Riddle 57, but only jackdaws and rooks habitually gather in groups. Photo (by Bob Jones) of jackdaws from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0)

When we compare the mystery subjects of this Riddle 57 with the other bird riddles (Riddles 7, 8, 9, 10 and 24), there are enough similarities to make me think that some sort of bird must be the answer. These creatures hlude cirmað “cry loudly” (like the nightingale in Riddle 8, line 3b), the lyft byreð “the air bears” the birds in the same way it does the swan (Riddle 7, lines 4b-5a) and barnacle goose (Riddle 10, line 9b), and both the swan and the birds of Riddle 57 tredað “tread” when they alight, inhabiting opposing human and nonhuman territories. These nifty birds also inhabit what I call the “sometimes” motif – hwilum “sometimes” (line 5b) behaviours typify these creatures. As we’ll see below, birds are known for this sort of unpredictability (see Riddle 24’s jay for a whole load of hwilum!).

The final half line also seems like it really should be a clincher: Nemnað hy sylfe. The grammar of this line allows us to read it in two ways: either “Name them yourselves,” which fits the usual instruction from the riddles’ subjects (“Say what I am called”), or the now more popular reading, “They name themselves.” The latter might point us, then, to song as a clue. Certainly in other bird riddles, sound can be an important indicator, and many Old English bird names recorded in the glossaries onomatopoeically mimic song. On this basis, Dieter Bitterli has argued for an etymological tactic for solving the bird riddles: the diversity of the bird’s call in Riddle 8 leads us to nightingale (OE niht “night” + galan “to sing”) as evident in the poem’s synonym æfensceop “evening-singer” (line 5a). Similarly, Riddle 7 leads us to Old English swan (mute swan) through the use of paronomasia (word play on similar sounding words): the various /sw/ words direct us towards the name of the bird and its characteristic wing-music in flight.


Photo of swifts (by Keta) – a popular solution to Riddle 57 – from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)


Bitterli’s theory is convincing. The problem is that while birds do conveniently sometimes spell out their names for us with their calls, they also have a tendency to transform, obscure and avoid identity. Take Riddle 24, for instance. We know what the answer is here, because it’s spelt out for us in runes which we must translate into Old English (higoræ “jay”), but the most distinctive sonic feature of this bird is that its tell-tale song keeps changing – it’s defined, apparently, according to the fact that it sounds like just about everything else. And birds generally in the Exeter Book riddles are characterised by their continual changing: the swan (Riddle 7) is paradoxically silent and loud, and travels afar. The cuckoo (Riddle 9), also a far-traveller, grows to be a huge bird that far outsizes the nest of its host and its usurped earlier identity, so moving from cuckoo to host-species to cuckoo again. The barnacle goose (Riddle 10) undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, emerging and deriving from another creature entirely, and, like two other birds, does a disappearing act for half the year. The nightingale (Riddle 8) and jay (Riddle 24) change their voices as they please, also appropriating new identities.

Readers will undoubtedly continue to propose answers to Riddle 57. I’m for swift or swallow as it goes, but, actually, I think this might be beside the point. Perhaps we shouldn’t be in the business of seeking an answer at all. In fact, my point is rather to suggest that these secretive lytle wihte “little creatures” (line 1b) achieve their impact so well because they can’t be identified. This might seem counterintuitive on the face of it, but it’s borne out by other Anglo-Saxon writings on birds. Indeed, scholars across the medieval period stress that what is most birdy about birds is their transformative abilities. Or to put it another way, what most defines birds is their habit of avoiding definition – they’re intrinsically unknowable in some respects, escapologists.

The most popular encyclopaedist of the late Middle Ages, Bartholomew the Englishman, notes repeatedly that there’s an in between-ness apparent in their very substance, þat beþ bytwene þe tweye elementis þat beþ most heuy and most liȝt (that is between the two elements that are most heavy and most light) (Seymour, page 596). Bartholomew’s immediate source, though, is one of the most influential texts of the Anglo-Saxon age – Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In his introduction to birds, Isidore remarks how “They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways” (Barney, page 264). In his commentary on Riddle 51 on this site, Britt Mize makes a great case for the importance of paths or tracks (a motif that occurs in a number of the riddles). In Riddle 51, birds and (inky) paths are associable. As Britt suggests, “a reader, just like a hunter or tracker, must carefully observe and interpret the signs he or she finds, endeavouring to stay with them, going where they lead in pursuit of a goal.”


Page of from Isidore’s Etymologies (8th century), Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)


In Isidore’s statement, however, and in Riddle 57, this pursuit turns out to be rather more complicated. Birds outfly our pursuit, and overwhelm us with their great variety and multitude: “There is a single word for birds, but various kinds, for just as they differ among themselves in appearance, so do they differ also in the diversity of their natures” (Isidore, in Barney, page 263). Names and categories, it is implied, just aren’t sufficient to account for all the bird species that there are, even if we could know them all, which we can’t, because birds can disappear without signe neiþer tokene (sign nor token) (Bartholomew, in Seymour, page 596) – it’s impossible for mankind “to penetrate all the wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia, so as to know the kinds of birds and their differentiating characteristics” (Isidore, in Barney, page 263). These sentiments are echoed in a 10th century Latin poem on birdsong:

Quis volucrum species numeret, quis nomina discat?
Mille avium cantus, vocum discrimina mille.
Nec nostrum (fateor) tantas discernere voces.
(De cantibus avium, lines 1-3, in Buecheler and Riese, page 197)

(Whoever counts the types of birds, who learns their names? There are a thousand songs of birds, a thousand different voices. Nor do I, myself, claim to distinguish such voices.)

These sorts of issues seem to me to be at the heart of Riddle 57. The brief description identifies something which is very bird-like (particularly in comparison with the other bird riddles), and yet avoids offering us anything more precise. They force us to inhabit a space somewhere between knowledge and ignorance, just as the birds themselves sometimes dwell with niþþa bearna “the sons of men” (line 6a) and sometimes move beyond our boundaries to the bearonæssas “woody headlands” (lines 5a). Whatever its immediate sources or contexts may have been, Riddle 57 manifests the sorts of anxieties over naming birds and their characteristics evident in texts like Isidore’s – these are birds that apparently name themselves, but (still) can’t be named.

All of this avian mystery points up another potential, related concern of this poem. Birds remind us how frequently these poems cause us to go round in circles: the switchback evasions of the dark birds in Riddle 57 place them firmly in line with an important effect of the Exeter Book riddles’ strategies – they expose the limits of knowledge, even within texts that urge us to exceed limitations and certify uncertainties. In my reading of Riddle 57, then, two important aspects come together – birds and elusive answers – to emphasise the sophistication of these texts that are so often about testing the limits of knowledge. Birds, that is, might actually be employed purposefully in this riddle and in other bird riddles, because like the mysterious and evasive solutions that we’re required to guess at through complex linguistic play, they’re continuously seen to escape definition or certainties.

In her discussion of wonder in the Exeter Book riddles, Patricia Dailey observes that by “forcing us to think through the means of how we come to know the creature described in language,” these texts highlight “a link in epistemological knowing and a limit inscribed in naming” (page 464). In other words, even if we can correctly guess a solution, a name can only get us so far – there is still a gap between the mysterious thing itself and the name we choose to give it; mysteries still exist. Birds, I think, show us this particularly well. In Riddle 57, the grammatical ambiguity of line 6b demands, on the one hand, that we partake in the typical naming game, and on the other states that the birds, in fact, name themselves, neither requiring our intervention (as namers), nor, in fact, allowing us this privilege. Naming birds doesn’t satisfactorily encompass their ever-changing, diverse identities, and particularly not when we can’t saga “say” a name at all.


References and Suggested Reading:

Barley, Nigel F. “Structural Aspects of the Anglo-Saxon Riddle.” Semiotica, vol. 10 (1974), pages 143-75.

Barney, Stephen A., and others, trans. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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.

Buecheler, Franciscus, and Alexander Riese, eds. Anthologia Latina, sive Poesis Latinae supplementum. 2 vols. Leipzig: B. G. Teubneri, 1869-1926. Translation from Latin by Virginia Warren.

Dailey, Patricia. “Riddles, Wonder and Responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon Literature.” In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Edited by Clare A. Lees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pages 451-72.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. 6 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931-1953.

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

Seymour, M. C., and others, ed. On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Commentary for Riddle 51

This post is once again by Britt Mize from Texas A&M University. Take it away, Britt!


Riddles, as a type of wisdom poetry, ask us to learn something by viewing ordinary things in extraordinary ways. When I teach about the Exeter Book riddles, sometimes I turn a chair upside-down on the floor. Then I ask the students to write one sentence describing its “chair-ness” in some way that is made possible only by looking at it from an unusual point of view.

Like this classroom exercise, Old English riddles are a game of perspective manipulation, and this manipulation of viewpoint is often a source of their obscurity. Readers must reverse-engineer the text, using the details that are provided and trying different ways of fitting them together, until they finally catch sight of what the writer has described in a defamiliarizing manner.

Riddle 51 is usually a stumper for people now when they first encounter it. This may have something to do with changes in writing technology (I am typing this on a laptop, not handwriting it with a pen, and even if I were, I wouldn’t be dipping mine in an inkwell). But I think it is mainly because this riddle’s manipulation of perspective involves the additional trick of violating scale. We’ve all seen the photographers’ gimmick of zooming in on something normal, and further and further in, until it becomes bizarre and unrecognizable. This riddle starts out “zoomed in” in exactly that way, and in order to solve it, we must “zoom out” with our mind’s eye and realize that the thing described is connected to the rest of a human body.

After my students make a few guesses, I ask them—the dwindling number of them who are taking notes on paper!—to look down at what they’re doing themselves, right at that very moment. At that point, someone always blurts out the solution: a pen and the three fingers guiding it. The creator of this riddle gives us an extreme close-up of a hand moving a quill tip across the writing surface, and back and forth from inkwell to page, as a scribe (the winnende wiga, “striving warrior”) writes out the text of what is probably imagined to be an expensively decorated or bound gospel manuscript, because such adornments would be most typically given to that kind of book.


Photo (by Urban) of some rather creepy, quill-wielding monk mannequins in the Museum of Bayeux from Wikimedia Commons (license CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are two metaphors I’d like to focus on in this riddle.

The more minor one is the “striving warrior” description near the end. This phrase usually provokes a few chuckles in a classroom setting because it seems overblown, if not self-aggrandizing, when used by a monkish writer to describe a person like himself. Similar remarks could be made about many language choices in the Exeter Book riddles, and maybe people a thousand years ago thought it was funny too. But the representation of writing as a kind of combat might also tell us something about how difficult the activity of manual text-copying is, not only in its bodily labor (which does become grueling after as little as a couple of hours: try it and see), but also in the concentration and perseverance that must be maintained to carry out the task with accuracy. Or it may be that a monk writing a holy text could quite seriously see himself as engaged in spiritual warfare against the powers of darkness and not find the martial language high-falutin at all.

The other, more interesting metaphorical pattern in this riddle imagines the act of writing as a journey or expedition—the verb siþian means to go on one of these—by something that leaves tracks behind. The way the fingers and pen are spoken of here defamiliarizes the writer’s hand by making it seem zoological, and the repeated insistence that the object described is somehow both singular and fourfold will probably encourage a reader to think of some sort of quadruped. The animal associations are continued, and the solution further estranged from ordinary viewpoints on a person’s hand, by the comparison with birds, and then by the surprise in the next line that this/these “wondrous creatures” can move deftly in liquid as well as upon the earth and through the air.

I have always loved the image of dark ink on a pale page as tracks across the ground (lastas and swaþu are words for the prints or trail that a person or animal leaves behind). The nuances of this metaphor say something about reading, too, not just about writing: unless somebody comes along later who can understand and follow these traces, they mean nothing. The implication is that a reader, just like a hunter or tracker, must carefully observe and interpret the signs he or she finds, endeavoring to stay with them, going where they lead in pursuit of a goal.


Photo (by David Castor) of rabbit tracks from Wikimedia Commons

The poet of Riddle 51 and I are not the only ones who have enjoyed contemplating this image, either. At least one 9th-century Anglo-Saxon prose writer liked it too, because the same metaphor lies behind a famous statement found in the preface to the Old English Pastoral Care. The preface is attributed to King Alfred of Wessex (r. 871–899), and here he, or whoever wrote on his behalf, contemplates the monastic libraries in his kingdom, full of Latin books that he says no one can read anymore. The writer grieves the present, illiterate generation’s terrible loss of earlier generations’ learning and intellectual labor:

Ure ieldran . . . lufodon wisdom, ond ðurh ðone hie begeaton welan ond us læfdon. Her mon mæg giet gesion hiora swæð, ac we him ne cunnon æfterspyrigean. Ond forðæm we habbað nu ægðer forlæten ge ðone welan ge ðone wisdom, forðæmðe we noldon to ðæm spore mid ure mode onlutan. (Sweet, vol. 1, page 5)

(Our predecessors . . . loved wisdom, and through it they gained prosperity and left it to us. One can still see their track here, but we do not know how to follow after them. And for that reason we have now lost both the prosperity and the wisdom: because we would not bend down to the track with our mind.)


King Alfred’s West Saxon Version of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care in MS Hatton 20 (fol. 001r) from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

A modern poet, the Welsh priest R. S. Thomas (1913–2000), also returned more than once to the image of writing on a page as a track or path that something left behind its movement. In his 1961 poem “The Maker,” Thomas describes a poet preparing to create. After taking “blank paper,” the poet

drilled his thoughts to the slow beat
Of the blood’s drum; and there it formed
On the white surface and went marching
Onward through time, while the spent cities
And dry hearts smoked in its wake.
(Thomas, page 42)

The path here is one of military destruction, and it’s all too legible. In a later poem, “The Word” (1975), Thomas comes back again to the metaphor of writing as a track, this time in a way somewhat more similar to Riddle 51:

A pen appeared, and the god said:
“Write what it is to be
man.” And my hand hovered
long over the bare page,

until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out

the word “lonely.” And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s
window cried out loud: “It is true.”
(Thomas, page 86)

R. S. Thomas’s “footprints of the lost traveller” resonate sympathetically with the disorientation lamented by the writer of the Pastoral Care preface. But there is still an important difference, and it’s one of perspective, which brings us back to the game that the riddles so often play.

For Anglo-Saxons, the message of a text doesn’t just sit, as “content,” inside the block of writing that is present before the reader like a container, the way we tend to think of it. Instead, the message moves along the writing, or out in front of it (imagine a cursor on a computer screen that keeps going steadily forward), such that the inattentive or uncommitted reader is in danger of being left behind. This has to do with the fact that a thousand years ago writing was normally read aloud to listeners: receiving a text’s meaning was usually a time-bound, unidirectional event, like watching a movie is for us, that made it hard for audiences to go back and re-process the language as we can so easily do now when we privately read books or other textual media that we can freely manipulate. This condition of reception made for a different concept of “where” meaning is, in relation to its written manifestation, and what one must do to access it.

The important point here is that in an Anglo-Saxon cultural context, writing suggests a message, a target of pursuit, that is always receding from the reader, a follower who must search for its signs and grasp at it. It must be actively kept up with.

This sense of distance and active pursuit is inherent in following an organic track along the ground. It can be seen, too, in language like that used in Beowulf, when Grendel’s severed arm, torn off at Heorot, is said to last weardian “guard his trail” (line 971b). The phrase simply indicates, in poetic language, that the limb is left behind when Grendel flees; but it does so by invoking the trail extending forward from the arm, a sort of dotted line connecting that dismembered body part with the target of pursuit, Grendel himself. Such a trail may be followed successfully, or may get lost in the faintness or unintelligibility of its signs. The realistic difficulty of tracking one’s prey or one’s fore-goer is captured well by the image, and we need to apply this sense to the metaphor of written language as a track, too.

In his poems cited above, R. S. Thomas always assumes of written tracks that observers can read them, if they wish. In “The Word,” they represent knowledge based on common experience, available to all and lost only if the many voices that affirm it are stifled; in “The Maker,” the written “wake” signals only a poem’s continuing ability to threaten its present readers like an army on a scorched-earth campaign. In both of Thomas’s poems the meaning, the “where” of the message, moves toward readers who may or may not wish to know it.

In contrast, the written traces that interested Anglo-Saxon writers are signs left behind by a message, by wisdom, that elusively moves away from readers and must be followed with great effort. The writer of the Pastoral Care’s preface worries that the trail is cold, that the learned predecessors are too far out of range to follow anymore.

It seems likely to me that the same implicit danger underlies Riddle 51’s controlling metaphor. The holy book whose copying this little Old English poem describes is a materially precious object, adorned with gold leaf. But in order for its value to transcend its material splendor, it must be read—and reading isn’t easy, least of all in Latin in 9th- or 10th-century Britain. Does Riddle 51’s (mock-)heroic tone, its sense of the monk-copyist’s triumphant skill, constitute a challenge to its readers or hearers not to let the wisdom of books get away? That challenging posture would certainly be appropriate to the genre of the riddle. So would a hint that the wisdom of books, like the solutions to riddles, must be sought with diligence, alertness to all possibilities, and readiness to see things from a new, unfamiliar perspective.



Fulk, R. D., Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, eds. Klaeber’s Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburh. 4th edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Sweet, Henry, ed. King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care. 2 vols, Early English Text Society, old series 45 and 50. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1871; reprint, Millwood, NY: Kraus, 1978.

Thomas, R. S. The Poems of R. S. Thomas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1985.

Commentary for Riddle 42

We’re stepping back in time this week to revisit a riddle translation from last year! The fabulous Jennifer Neville (from Royal Holloway, University of London) shares some thoughts on chickens, sex and the Anglo-Saxon hall:


Riddle 42 is often classified as one of the double entendre riddles, but actually this is a single entendre riddle: when the text tells us, in its very first sentence, that it’s about sex (hæmedlac), it isn’t lying and it isn’t being metaphorical (although it does resort to metaphor a couple lines later).  Unlike any other Old English text, this one does not cloak its depiction of sex in either euphemism or double-meaning. Everything is up front and open (undearnunga), public and outside (ute): if the man is up to the job, the lady will get her fill. This openness would make Riddle 42 even less prudish than most modern media, if it were about people, but, of course, it’s not. It’s about chickens.


Photo of a cock and hen (by Andrei Niemimäki) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0)

Chickens are interesting, and there are some things we could note here about Anglo-Saxon husbandry. For example, the chickens are apparently running loose outside, not contained in a pen. The hen, at least, is not boring brown but proudly blonde (wlanc, hwitloc); perhaps some Anglo-Saxon farmer has been practising selective breeding for colour. But the text doesn’t invite us to linger on those things. Rather, it wants us to think about sex.

We are used to hearing how negative Anglo-Saxon writers were about sex, but here we see something different. Depending on how you look at them, the heanmode chickens are either ‘high-spirited’ (frisky?) or ‘low-minded’ (having their minds focused on worldly things?); regardless, their activity is not characterised as sinful. We are also familiar with the idea that sex should be only for the purposes of reproduction, but here there is no reference to offspring. Instead, the activity seems to take place purely for its own sake, and it is not a slothful leisure activity: the metaphor used to sum it up is weorc ‘work’. Interestingly enough, most of the other twelve Old English riddles with (apparently) sexual content (Riddles 12, 20, 25, 37, 44, 45, 54, 61, 62, 63, 80, and 91) also use the idea of work to indicate the sexual act. Is this how the Anglo-Saxons really felt about sex? Was it simply hard ‘work’? If so, they share the idea with us in the 21st century: the 2015 song by Fifth Harmony, ‘Work from Home’, for example, explores the metaphor in great detail.

But the always fascinating topic of sex takes us only as far as line 5. At this point, we have to change gears and move into the world of the hall: the social centre of Anglo-Saxon noble society, the place where kings presented gifts to their followers, where social drinking occurred, and where the speaker of this text offers to reveal the names of the sexy couple to the men drinking wine in the hall.[1] Again, this statement is tantalising: did the Anglo-Saxons exchange riddles with each other in the hall, just as Symphosius did, centuries earlier, at his Saturnalian feast?[2] Before it was written down in the Exeter Book, was Riddle 42 part of an evening’s entertainment, an alternative to playing board games, singing a song in turn (as Caedmon refused to do), or listening to a professional singer?

Riddle 42 Hall.JPG

The hall at the place formerly known as Bede’s World. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.


Perhaps. But the only people who could solve this riddle would be those who could assemble and unscramble the letters named in the text, and most Anglo-Saxon laymen were not literate. A normal gathering in the meadhall would have very few of those þe bec witan ‘who know books’ (line 7a). Literacy was a technology reserved—for the most part—for the clergy. Once again, then, we need to change gears and move into another world, the world of the monastery and the scriptorium.

In the world of the scriptorium, there were plenty of people who could read ordinary letters, but in this text even that education wouldn’t be enough. The successful solver of the riddle would have to recognise the names of the run-stafas ‘runic letters’ that have been woven into the metre and alliteration of this poem (Nyd, Æsc, Ac, and Hægl), assemble the collection of letters (some of which have to appear twice), and then rearrange them into not one but two words, hana ‘cock’ and hæn ‘hen’. The runic letters themselves don’t appear in the manuscript: a reader (or listener) would have to know that the words ‘need’, ‘ash’, ‘oak’, and ‘hail’ represent letters in order to understand what the text was asking him or her to do next.

riddle-42-runesThis is what the runes would’ve looked like if they had been included (and rearranged to spell hana and hæn)


It’s thus unsurprising that the text taunts us: who here is smart enough to unlock the orþonc-bendas [3] ‘cunning bonds’ that conceal the solution of this text? Not me: I’m very glad that Dietrich managed to work it out back in 1859. Otherwise, there would be no way to see the chickens. We could probably guess that they weren’t human beings having sex out in public, but, without the letters, their identity would most definitely not be undyrne ‘manifest, revealed, discovered’.

Another puzzle remains, however: why are well-educated monks talking about fornicating fowls? And how did they get away with writing it down? The fact that we can’t answer those questions tells us that we still don’t know as much about the Anglo-Saxons as we might have thought.



[1] Or on the floor: flet literally means ‘floor’, but it can be metonymy for the whole building.

[2] There’s a recent edition by T. J. Leary, or you can read Symphosius’ riddles (in Latin and in two published translations) on the LacusCurtius site.

[3] Tolkien uses this word, Orþonc, as the name of Saruman’s tower, which is unassailable by human or entish hands.


References and Suggested Reading:

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

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

Dietrich, F. “Die Rätsel des Exeterbuchs: Würdigung, Lösung und Herstellung.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum, vol. 11 (1859), pages 448-490.

Lerer, Seth. “The Riddle and the Book: Exeter Book Riddle 42 in its Contexts.” Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 25 (1989), pages 3-18.

Nolan, Barbara, and Morton W. Bloomfield. “Beotword, Gilpcwidas, and the Gilphlæden Scop of Beowulf.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 79 (1980), pages 499-516.

O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. Cædmon’s Hymn: A Multi-media Study, Edition and Archive. SEENET 8. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2006.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” 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 60-96.

Smith, D. K. “Humor in Hiding: Laughter Between the Sheets in the Exeter Book Riddles.” In Humour in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000, pages 79-98.

Symons, Victoria. Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.

Commentary for Riddle 56


I love Riddle 56 for many, many, many, many, many, many reasons, and I’ve been working on it on and off for about eight years, so BE PREPARED for me to unleash my inner geek. Disclaimer: this inner geek is possibly not quite as well hidden as I sometimes believe it to be. At least I’m self-aware.

So. Riddle 56. Why do I love it so much? Well, one of the reasons is that it’s very hard to solve without knowledge of Anglo-Saxon material culture and craft. And the harder to solve ones are always more fun, non? The reason we need a bit of insight into Anglo-Saxon craft is because the two most convincing solutions are Loom and Lathe.

“Tell us more, Megan,” I hear you cry! And I will. Oooooooh, I will.

Let’s start with Loom. One of the main types of weaving looms that the Anglo-Saxons used is called the warp-weighted loom (sounds ominous!). Here’s what it would’ve looked like.


Drawing of a loom from Montelius’s Civilisation of Sweden in Heathen Times, p. 160, via Roth’s Ancient Egyptian and Greek Looms, p. 34



Reconstructed loom on display at a Viking craft fair in York, 2010


This sort of loom would’ve stood upright and likely leaned against a wall. It had a large number of vertical threads – together referred to as the “warp” – dangling down to where they were tied in bunches. These threads would be tied not just to each other, but also to clay weights, which kept tension in the threads. Why so tense? Well, the weaver would be hard at work rapidly pulling and pushing the threads forward and backward by means of a horizontal bar partway down the front of the loom (known as a “heddle rod”). When one group of threads was pulled forward, the weaver would insert the horizontal (weft) threads. Then she’d push that lot back and insert the weft thread through a second batch of warp-threads. The tension stops the threads from getting all stuck together and ensures some easy peasy weaving (weavy?). The weights, by the way, often looked like doughnuts. I’m not even joking. Behold some doughnut-like weights!:


Photo of Anglo-Saxon loom weights at Bedford Museum from Wikimedia Commons


Doughnutty loom-weights aside, how does this sort of loom map onto the action of Riddle 56? Let’s start with the struggling creature: that appears to be the cloth mid-production. Its swinging and fixed feet seem to be the two separate groups of warp-threads (i.e. the ones pulled back and forth, and the ones that stay hanging at the back). The turning wood is probably a bar holding the finished fabric, which could be rotated to allow for weaving a longer piece of cloth than the actual size of the loom would normally allow.

There’s plenty of room to interpret this set-up as a bit torture-y, and John D. Niles has argued for this very assessment when analysing Old English descriptions of devices for hanging and stretching criminals (pages 61-84). And, of course, all those references to darts and bound wood that together inflict heaþoglemma (battle-wounds) and deopra dolga (deep gashes) in lines 3-4 of the riddle point quite clearly to a context of physical pain and punishment. This is helped along by the fact that the weaver would use a wooden or sometimes iron sword-shaped beater (or batten) to thwack the woven threads up and into place, as well as small picks to straighten out the occasional stubborn patch. Several surviving beaters were actually fashioned out of blunt swords or spear-heads (Walton Rogers, pages 33-4). So, there are definitely some violent undertones to textile-making.


Photo of a 9th-century sword beater from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (license CC BY 2.0)


In the Old Norse tradition, this violence is very noticeable. The poem Darraðarljóð (which can be found in Njáls saga) describes in great and gruesome detail a group of Valkyries weaving on a loom made from human body-parts. Likewise, Jómsvíkinga saga involves a dream sequence of the same sort. Their loom weights aren’t delicious doughnuts at all, but severed heads. Which is obviously gross.

All this means that violence is part and parcel of at least some northern medieval textile traditions. The question is, then, am I just a warped individual (get the pun? get it? get it?) or do I have a more nuanced reason for being attracted to Riddle 56, this most violent of riddles?

Well, I like to believe the latter is true. I personally think the combination of creative construction and violent destruction makes this riddle absolutely fascinating. Even if we don’t take the thing-being-made as a textile (some people have problems with that tree at the end of the poem, though it’s also been explained as a distaff standing near the loom, like in the drawing above), we’re certainly dealing with a riddle that describes a craft. And imagining a skilled craftsperson as a violent tormentor is, frankly, solid gold to anyone interested in ecocriticism (i.e. approaching literary texts by focusing on their representation of the natural world). Whether this is wool or flax twisted into a new shape – or whether it’s a completely different, wooden object – the raw material would once have been a part of the Anglo-Saxon environment.

Which leads me to the second option for the riddle’s solution: Lathe. This is one that I become more and more convinced by each time I read the riddle. I know I’ve spent years talking about the poem in the light of textiles research, but a little part of me thinks that maybe, just maybe, the lathe reading works…even better. Here’s a video of a reconstructed pole lathe in process:


So, what we have here is a very clear case of one foot being fixed (i.e. the bit of the wooden pole stuck into the ground) and one swinging (i.e. the bit of the wooden pole that’s pulled and released by the foot treadle). Riddle 56’s reference to turning wood is especially apt, since a lathe is used to rotate wood while the operator shaves and grinds it into a particular shape (this is what’s going on behind the group of onlookers). A metal blade is also an essential part of the process, which explains all those battle-wounds. What do we make of that leafy tree in line 9, though? Well, this could potentially refer to the use of a fresh, green tree, which would be necessary for the lathe to keep its springiness.

And, finally, the creature that’s brought into the hall – well in this case it would be a bowl, cup or another dish made from wood. In the case of the loom, it would be a high-status textile, perhaps an item of clothing or a wall-hanging for decking out the hall. Either would be appropriate in the context of a feast for warriors. But, of course, a cup would add to the drinking party atmosphere in a pretty obvious way.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read many interpretations of this riddle that accept Lathe as the solution. Drawing on the passing suggestion of early riddle-scholars, Hans Pinsker and Waltraud Ziegler solve it this way in their German edition of the riddles, but they don’t go into a great detail (pages 277-8). This is too bad, because I think someone out there could make a real go of this. Maybe it could be you? If so, be sure to get in touch, eh?


References and Suggested Reading:

Cavell, Megan. “Looming Danger and Dangerous Looms: Violence and Weaving in Exeter Book Riddle 56.” Leeds Studies in English, vol. 42 (2011), pages 29-42. Online here.

Cavell, Megan. Weaving Words and Binding Bodies: The Poetics of Human Experience in Old English Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Clegg Hyer, Maren. “Riddles of Anglo-Saxon England.” In Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, c. 450–1450. Edited by Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “The Old English Loom Riddles.” In Philologica: The Malone Anniversary Studies. Edited by Thomas A. Kirkby and Henry Bosley Woolf. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1949, pages 9-17.

Montelius, Oscar. Civilisation of Sweden in Heathen Times. Translated by Rev. F.H. Woods. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1888.

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

Pinsker, Hans, and Waltraud Ziegler, eds. Die altenglischen Rätsel des Exeterbuchs. Heidelberg: Winter, 1985.

Roth, H. Ling. Ancient Egyptian and Greek Looms. Halifax: Bankfield Museum, 
1913. Online at Project Gutenberg.

Walton Rogers, Penelope. Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England: AD 450–700. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2006.

Commentary for Riddle 55

Riddle 55’s commentary is once again by Franziska Wenzel of Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Take it away, Franziska!


A tree, splendid and otherworldly? Sounds familiar. Wasn’t there a movie about that? Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain? Except that’s not what we’re talking about; we’re talking about an Old English poem. No problem, I know it either way: that’s The Dream of the Rood! Oh, wait…except it’s not. It’s another riddle pretending to be about something entirely different than you’d think.

Still, it reminds me of The Dream of the Rood very much, especially the beginning. For comparison, the tree in that poem is introduced as follows:

Þuhte me þæt ic gesawe     syllicre treow
on lyft lædan,       leohte bewunden,
beama beorhtost.     Eall þæt beacen wæs
begoten mid golde;     gimmas stodon
fægere æt foldan sceatum,     swlyce þær fife wæron
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne.     Beheoldon þær engel Dryhtnes ealle,
fægere þurh forðgesceaft.     Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga.
Ac hine þær beheoldon     halige gastas,
men ofe rmoldan     ond eall þeps mære gesceaft.
(Swanton, page 89)

(It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous tree spreading aloft spun about with light, a most magnificent timber. The portent was all covered with gold; beautiful gems appeared at the corner of the earth and there were also five upon the cross-beam. All the beautiful angels of the Lord throughout the universe gaze thereon; certainly it was not the gallows of a criminal there, but holy spirits gazed thereon, men across the earth and all this glorious creation.) (Bradley, page 160, lines 4-12).

Similar to that wondrous tree, the tree in Riddle 55 is adorned with gold, and it also bears the sign of the cross. The riddle even alludes to the harrowing of hell (see lines 5-7a), an apocryphal biblical story in which Jesus frees human souls from hell after his crucifixion. Thus, the riddle deliberately alludes to Christ and the cross upon which he died. And yet the last lines invite us to use our wits and find out hu se wudu hatte (what the wood is called), so there’s more to the riddle than just a short version of The Dream of the Rood. Our mysterious wrætlic wudutreow (wondrous forest-tree; line 3a) isn’t the same wood of which Christ’s cross was made, but we’re made to feel as if it is.

So what kind of wood is it then?

One early solution is “harp” (Trautmann, page 113), because a hall is where you’d play such an instrument. This solution has already been dismissed, but it’s still an interesting idea, so I’d like to comment on it briefly.

 Watch Michael J. King demonstrating his replica Anglo-Saxon lyre (a similar-ish instrument to the harp).


It makes perfect sense to have a harp in a hall. The different types of wood mentioned in the riddle also make more or less sense for a musical instrument, as Moritz Trautmann points out when he explains his suggestion. And yet he never explains the feower cynna (four different kinds) that are brought into the hall as the parts of a harp in line 2b. A harp is made of wood, sure. Gold decorations? Okay, maybe. But silver strings? Animal guts were originally used to make strings, and nowadays nylon or metal. But no silver strings. Trautmann also proposes a psalterium, which is a similar type of instrument, but the solution has the same issues. There are some riddles that seem to be about musical instruments in the Exeter collection, so it’s not unthinkable to find another riddle on this topic. Still, it doesn’t quite fit. For the moment, let’s just keep in mind that it’s a valuable object in a hall because that’s important.

Craig Williamson, in his translation of the Exeter riddles, assumes that the riddle’s clues can’t be explained nowadays because the cultural knowledge behind them is lost to us (Feast of Creatures, page 196). However, it’s hard to imagine how it should be possible to combine actual kinds of woods into another, holy kind of wood. Therefore I believe that we don’t understand the metaphor correctly, which is probably more of a problem than a loss of cultural knowledge. Let’s move on, then, and keep trying.

Other suggested solutions are shield or scabbard, but neither is cross-shaped (also summarized in Williamson, Old English Riddles, page 301). A cross has also been suggested, which would be a simple solution. Trautmann thinks this would be too simple to be satisfying (page 112).

Riddle 55 Ruthwell Cross.jpg

The Ruthwell Cross (not made of wood, but still suitably Anglo-Saxon!)


A gallows has also been suggested. If this is a gallows, it would again be an interesting parallel to The Dream of the Rood, where it’s explicitly stated that the wondrous tree is not a gallows tree. If Riddle 55 describes a gallows tree, it would propose a counterpart to the holy rood upon which Christ died: two wondrous trees, one holy, and one vile.

Liebermann reads the first letters of the types of wood in Riddle 55 as an acrostic for gealga to support this solution. Unfortunately, that requires a quite liberal reading of the letters, and it would be the only acrostic in the whole Exeter collection. Acrostics are not unheard of in riddles: for example, Aldhelm’s entire introduction to his riddles is an acrostic. However, that does not mean that they we can necessarily expect all stylistic devices used in Latin riddles in the Exeter riddles as well. So – even though it can’t be ruled out (and it wouldn’t be too different from the clues in runic riddles) – it’s fairly unlikely (Williamson, Old English Riddles, pages 301-2). However, it would explain the wulfheafedtreo from line 12: if outlaws are metaphorically called wolves, they would hang on a wolf’s head tree when they meet their deaths (Williamson, Feast of Creatures, page 196). The solution “gallows” doesn’t explain the four kinds of wood, though.

A sword rack has also been proposed, but that has the same issue. Furthermore, there is no evidence for the use of sword racks in Anglo-Saxon England. Williamson doubts it and suggests it might rather be an ornamented box (Old English Riddles, pages 302-3).

John D. Niles has a different idea. He convincingly suggests that the riddle might not be about gallows or crosses of any sort at all, and that it might be a form of a hengen (basically anything on which you can…well…hang things). Thus, we’re talking about a cross-shaped rack with a mail-coat hanging from it, so it looks like a hanged man on the gallows (pages 73-80).


A mail-coat from the Museum of Bayeux from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)


Even Niles doesn’t explain what exactly is useful for a lord, though. The individual woods or the wonder-tree? Or the feower cynna (four different kinds) that are brought into the hall in line 2b? He raises the question as well, but leaves it open, for it doesn’t affect the solution he comes up with (page 64). Still, it makes me wonder whether we’re actually busting our chops trying to chew over the correct clues.

Anyway, what I like about this solution is that it means that Riddle 55 looks on the surface like a devotional poem, like a hymn, while its solution is a mundane object. It wouldn’t be the first riddle that reads not like a riddle but like another specific kind of poetry. I like to call this “literary mimicry,” and I love the Exeter riddles for it. The best examples I can think of are Riddle 6, which also sounds pretty hymnic and always reminds me of the hymn to the morning star and the sun in The Advent Lyrics; Riddles 3, 81, 88, and 93, which borrow elements from elegiac poems; Riddle 29, which reads like a mythical tale; and several riddles that read like miniature heroic poems, like most of the weapon riddles, or the very courageous animal in Riddle 15

In addition, Riddle 55 is one of twenty-seven “witness” riddles: it’s written from a first-person perspective, but the narrator is a bystander rather than the solution itself. Some unknown person relates his or her experiences to the audience. Sound familiar? That’s what the dreamer in The Dream of the Rood does, too. These narrators don’t reveal much about themselves, the witness in Riddle 55 even less so than the dreamer in The Dream of the Rood. They’re not interesting for being narrators. They’re interesting because the mode of presenting a narrative as the account of an eye-witness affects the mood of a poem. This is part of the reason why both poems sound devout and make us imagine such vivid pictures like glorious golden trees in our heads.

I’ll leave you at that. I still don’t know what the wonder-tree is. Niles’ approach sounds most plausible to me, but even it can’t explain all the mysteries of this poem. I choose not to bother but to enjoy it for all its beauty, and think of all the splendid, otherworldly wonder-trees I can recall from popular culture. As my inclination to read the poem as another instance of “literary mimicry” might tell you, I assume that this is what the Anglo-Saxon poet might have intended. It doesn’t matter that much which shape the mysterious wonder wood assumes. The poem describes what it’s like to look at it. I think we can enjoy that without actually knowing what we’re looking at.

Go hug a golden tree, folks!


References and Suggested Reading:

Adams, John F. “The Anglo-Saxon Riddles as Lyric Mode.” Criticism, vol. 7 (1965), pages 335-48.

Bradley, S. A. J., trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry: An Anthology of Old English Poems in Prose Translation. Everyman: London, 1982.

Galpin, Canon Francis W. Old English Instruments of Music. 4th edition. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1965.

Liebermann, F. “Das anglesächsische Rätsel 56: ‘Galgen als Waffenständer’.” Archiv, vol. 114 (1905), pages 163-4.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Studies in the Early Middle Ages 13. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2006.

Stewart, Ann Harleman. “Old English Riddle 47 as Stylistic Parody.” Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 11 (1975), pages 227-41.

Swanton, Michael James, ed. The Dream of the Rood. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996. Print. Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies.

Trautmann, Moritz, ed. Die Altenglischen Rätsel. Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1915.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr., ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1910.

Williamson, Craig, trans. A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

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

Commentary for Riddle 54

For this post, we’re going to experiment with a new commentary style. I’m all for collaboration, so Andrea Di Carlo and I are going to take turns talking about Riddle 54. Will it work? You can be the judge of that! (but don’t actually judge us, because our egos are too fragile for all that)

Let’s start with the basics: what are the “obscene” riddles and how does Riddle 54 fit in?


Andrea: Over the last few decades, the riddles of the Exeter Book have attracted a lot of scholarship, especially after the critical reviews carried out by Mercedes Salvador-Bello, Glenn Davis, Patrick Murphy and Ruth Evans. If, in 1910, Frederick Tupper had rejected any type of unsavoury interpretation and overruled the category “obscene riddles,” George Phillip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie later made allowances for euphemistic wording and images, and acknowledged that obscene content had to be taken into account.

Riddle 54 perfectly fits into this category because its imagery is certainly problematic and far from ambiguous. Krapp and Dobbie solve the riddle as “churn” (page 188), relying on the earlier suggestion of Moritz Trautmann. The backdrop of the obscene riddles tends to be mundane, as is the case with the start of Riddle 54: readers follow the progress of a young man travelling toward a woman, only to hear that, when he arrives in the corner where the woman stands, he thrusts stiþes nathwæt (line 5b) (something stiff) under her girdle.


Megan: Okay, so pretty obviously euphemistic then. While we can translate nathwæt as just “something,” the nat part of the compound is actually from the contracted verb, nytan, that is: ne + witan (to know not). In other words, it means something like “a stiff know-not-what.” This is a pretty obvious attempt to avoid saying what it is the poet means, which just screams euphemism! Nathwæt also appears in Riddle 45 and Riddle 61, both of which are interested in sex in their own right.

So, the word is a dead giveaway that we’re definitely looking at a rude riddle.


Andrea: What else are we readers supposed to think? It’s pretty clear that the anonymous riddle-composer is showing us a short scene of sexual intercourse (suspicion is only aroused further by the use of wagedan in line 6, which means “shake” or “shag,” and by the tillic esne (capable servant) hastening in lines 7-8a). This idea is emphasised by Murphy (pages 184-195) and Evans (page 28), whose interpretations of the text are based upon these sequences of obscene and potentially aggressive images: the hyse (young man) of line 1a worhte his willan (line 6a) (worked his will), while the female figure stands there.


Megan: So, is this a disturbing example of sex where the woman is simply the object of the man’s desire, or could there be something more going on here? Well, Murphy actually provides an alternative interpretation to the two-people-having-sex-in-a-corner reading. He reminds us that we shouldn’t confuse the grammatical and natural gender of pronouns – that is, the poet never actually describes the female character (while other rude riddles, like Riddle 25 and Riddle 45, do include more elaborate descriptions), and so she might not be a woman at all.

The female pronouns (hio/hie/hire, i.e. she/her) could also be applied to objects that are grammatically feminine…which, coincidentally, Old English cyrn is. So, if we read every reference to “she/her” as “it” instead and swap the translation “belt” for “girdle,” then maybe we’re actually witnessing a young man working his will on his “capable servant” all by himself. This certainly makes the joke a lot less aggressive and so, I’d say, funnier. And it just gets more amusing when we read this potential masturbation scene alongside the more wholesome butter churn interpretation.


Andrea: Yes! We should always expect some sort of a twist in the Old English riddles. And the turning point takes place in the last line, where our sexual assumptions are quashed and we’re brought back to a reality that both encourages and rejects the double entendre. In lines 11-12 we hear that under the woman’s girdle (or man’s belt) grows what men mid feo bicgað (buy with money). Surely, there’s no euphemistic way to read this financial transaction?! With these lines, the sexual reading of Riddle 54 is dispelled and we find that the author was simply referring to the making of butter in a churn.

Riddle 54 Icelandic butter churn.jpg

Here are some Icelandic butter churns on display at a museum Megan once visited. Sadly, she has no idea where she saw these bad boys. Possibly in the south of Iceland?


Megan: If we accept that we’re hearing about a cyrn or churn, then the riddle also provides a useful corrective to any food prep-based gender assumptions we might want to make. It’s tempting to assume that all food production was a female task in Anglo-Saxon England, and certainly much of women’s work did involve preparing food. We do, for example, have a reference to a female cheese-maker whose duties also involved making butter from the eleventh-century law-text known as the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum (Rights of Different People).

It reads: cyswyrhtan gebyreð hundred cyse, & þæt heo of wringhwæge buteran macige to hlafordes beode (a hundred cheeses are allotted to the cheese-maker, and that she makes butter from the whey pressed out of cheese for the lord’s table (Liebermann, vol. 1, page 451, no. 16). The feminine ending attached to the cheese-maker here tells us that she’s female. But the method of preparation – of cheese first and then butter – also tells us that the raw material is likely sheep’s milk (Banham and Faith, pages 111-12). Could this be important?

Because, after all, the person doing the churning here in Riddle 54 is definitely male. And he’s not the only man to own up to doing a bit of churning on the side. In fact, he reminds me of the shepherd in Ælfric’s Colloquy (a dialogue-style, bilingual text aimed at teaching Latin to young Anglo-Saxons). After the teacher asks the pupil assigned the role of shepherd what work he does, the pupil replies that he watches over the sheep in their pastures, milks them, etc., and finishes with the statement: ge cyse ge buteran ic do, ond ic eom getrywe hlaforde minum (I make both butter and cheese, and I am faithful to my lord) (Ælfric, page 22). So, perhaps it makes sense to think of farming as the task of a household rather than dividing specific bits and pieces of it down gender lines.

Someone had better tell the be-skirted churners at the Durham Medieval Family Fun Weekend I attended last year to get their male collaborators to help out a bit more!

Riddle 54 Butter Churn Durham Medieval Day 2015.jpg

The butter churn on show at the Medieval Family Fun Weekend, Durham Cathedral, August 2015.


So, we’ve heard about the various ways of reading this riddle’s sexual encounter, and we’ve heard a bit about churning butter (which is really tiring, hard work, by the way!). But what’s the take-home point of this riddle, then?


Andrea: I think it’s important to note that the riddles capitalise on double entendre and dubiety, because it’s in their nature to intellectually challenge and defy readers. “No sex, please, we’re Anglo-Saxons,” as Hugh Magennis famously wrote some time ago! I’d argue that sexual imagery or sexually laden content in the riddles conveys a more domestic and less remote picture of the past, while also challenging commonplaces about sexual life in medieval Europe.

In the end, mystifying or nonplussing the audience is the main target of the riddle-composer and this one perfectly manages to play his/her cards right: the poet tricks us into believing we’re viewing sexual intercourse in the opening lines, only to undercut our assumptions at the end by making it clear that it wasn’t sex at all, but the making of something that can be bought and sold (butter, of course!). And, after all, this is the nature of riddles, to engage participants in a mental and intellectual process that’s supposed to enrich their knowledge, as Krapp and Dobbie maintain. Or, in this case, to baffle them!


References and Suggested Reading:

Ælfric of Eynsham. Ælfric’s Colloquy. Edited by G.N. Garmonsway. London: Methuen, 1939.

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

Davis, Glenn. “The Exeter Book Riddles and the Place of Sexual Idiom in Old English Literature.” In Medieval Obscenities. Edited by Nicola McDonald. York: York Medieval Press, 2006, pages 39-54.

Evans, Ruth, ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Record, vol. 3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.

Liebermann, F., ed. Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. 3 vols. Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1903-16.

Magennis, Hugh. “‘No Sex Please, We’re Anglo-Saxons’? Attitudes to Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry.” Leeds Studies in English, vol. 26 (1995), pages 1-27.

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

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96.

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

Tupper, Frederick, Jr., ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book, Boston: Ginn, 1910.