The Exeter Book, compiled by 10th-century clerics, contains a number of surprisingly euphemistic riddles. Megan Cavell explores what these bawdy puzzles tell us about sex and gender in Anglo-Saxon England.
The Exeter Book contains almost 100 riddles and several saints’ lives (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501, f. 112v)
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Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.
[A moth ate words. That seemed to me
a curious happening, when I heard about that wonder,
that the worm, a thief in the darkness, swallowed
a certain man’s song, a glory-fast speech
and its strong foundation. The stealing guest was not
at all the wiser for that, for those words which he swallowed.]
(translation by Megan Cavell)
In describing the biting of a bookworm as thoughtless thievery, this Old English riddle provides a lesson about the dangers of consuming knowledge without understanding it. Despite it being written down over a thousand years ago, the poem contains a timeless message that I am sure we can all appreciate. In particular, it is a poem that has proven to be invaluable for educators, and we are still mobilising it today!
The bookworm riddle can be found in the Exeter Book, one of the greatest literary treasures to survive from Anglo-Saxon England. Produced at some point in the late 10th century, the manuscript – written mainly in Old English and exclusively in verse – brings together poems as short as one line and as long as 25 pages. Topics vary widely, from religious praise poetry to musings on obscene vegetables, from the highest of high art to the lowest of the low. Perspectives range too, from the deeply emotional first-person lyric to the grandiose third-person epic. The riddle genre – among the many genres that make an appearance in the Exeter Book – beautifully encapsulates all of this variety.
The Anglo-Saxon riddle tradition
Riddles are some of the most fascinating early English literary texts, in part because so very many of them have survived the test of time. Whether read or recited aloud, riddles were clearly a popular form among the monastic communities (i.e. monks and nuns) producing manuscripts, and perhaps also among everyday folks – though unfortunately we have no written record from the latter. In addition to approximately 95 Old English riddles from the Exeter Book, we have hundreds of Latin poetic and prose enigmata by Anglo-Saxon authors that survive in English and European manuscripts. While the poetry of the Exeter Book is mainly anonymous, some of the authors composing Latin riddles are named. From the 7th/8th century, we have poems by Aldhelm (sometime abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Sherborne), as well as Tatwine (archbishop of Canterbury), the cleric Eusebius (whose CV is a little more obscure) and even some by St Boniface (Anglo-Saxon missionary and archbishop of Mainz in the Frankish Empire – i.e. modern-day Germany). This all-star line-up tells us that Anglo-Saxon riddling was not just a juvenile game or trivial exercise, but a prestigious literary genre in its own right.
The riddles from the Exeter Book are almost unique within the wider genre, because they are written in the vernacular – in Old English, rather than Latin (apart from one Latin riddle, which sits towards the end of the book). We have only one other surviving Old English riddle, an example in a separate manuscript: the ‘Leiden Riddle’, which was added to a blank space in a manuscript of Latin riddles from the Continent (Leiden, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, Vossius lat. Q. 106, at f. 25v). The 8th-century Franks Casket – now housed in the British Museum – also includes a riddling description of a beached whale in the beautifully engraved Anglo-Saxon runes on the front panel.
While we also find runes in some of the Old English riddles in the Exeter Book, what we do not find are accompanying solutions (unlike in many of the Latin collections). Naturally, this has provided hours, months, years even (!) of entertainment for scholars debating how to solve them. This exercise is complicated by the fact that we have no titles at all in the Exeter Book, and so it can sometimes be difficult to tell where one poem begins and another ends. The manuscript’s scribe generally includes large initial letters at the start of each riddle and punctuation at the end … but this practice is not always consistent, and there are also areas of the manuscript so badly damaged that riddle divisions are still an issue of debate.
Sex and suppression
The solutions and numbering are not, however, the only controversial thing about the riddles. While many of the riddles take on religious themes, the collection also explores topics of an unmistakably earthly nature and includes a number of poems which make full use of double entendre. Rubbing shoulders with dignified devotional and biblical poetry on the one hand and laments for lost lovers on the other, the riddles explore everything in between – sometimes with a level of detail that rather shocked the scholars producing early published editions of the manuscript.
In his 1842 edition and translation of the Exeter Book, for example, Benjamin Thorpe ‘deemed it advisable’ to include only the original text of a handful of riddles, which he claimed were too difficult to translate into modern English (Codex Exoniensis, p. x). It is very unlikely that it was the words that stumped him here, since he even had a go at translating some of the heavily damaged riddles from the end of the manuscript. When faced with descriptions of a saucy onion (Riddle 25), sexy chickens (Riddle 42), a lewd key (Riddle 44), suggestively swelling bread dough (Riddle 45) and a rather exuberant butter-churning situation (Riddle 54), however, Thorpe chose not to engage with his material. To say he censored the text would perhaps be too harsh, but he certainly made it impossible for anyone without a specialist knowledge of Old English to access these riddles.
Thorpe was not the only editor to become cagey when faced with the more sexually explicit riddles. Frederick Tupper Jnr’s 1910 edition is dripping with condescending judgements and moralisations. When discussing the double entendre of these ‘coarse’ texts, he states: ‘Almost any other answer will serve equally well as a grave and decent anti-climax to the smut and horse-laughter of the riddle’ (Riddles of the Exeter Book, p. xxv). Tell us what you really think, Frederick!
It is because of this history of suppression that I think we have a duty to engage with these riddles in particular. Isn’t it fascinating that a manuscript compiled by clerics, drawing on a tradition dominated by elite ecclesiasts and housed in a cathedral library since the 11th century, could include such blatantly bawdy poems? They did not suppress them, and neither should we.
Case study: Riddle 45
Here is just one example of a riddle that Thorpe politely declined to translate. At f. 112v of the Exeter Book, we read:
Ic on wincle gefrægn weaxan nathwæt,
þindan ond þunian, þecene hebban.
On þæt banlease bryd grapode,
hygewlonc hondum. Hrægle þeahte
þrindende þing þeodnes dohtor.
[I heard that something was growing in the corner,
swelling and sticking up, raising its roof.
A proud bride grasped that boneless thing,
with her hands. A lord’s daughter
covered with a garment that bulging thing.]
(translation by Megan Cavell)
For all that the swelling, boneless, garment-bulging thing wants to lead us in one particular direction, there is a fairly obvious and thoroughly innocent solution available to us. Did I hear you say ‘bread dough’? Ah yes, that makes sense.
Two people, depicted in the Smithfield Dectetrals, baking their risen bread dough in a communal bread oven.
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If you have never seen bread dough rise before, you may have missed this solution, but I am willing to bet that you did not miss the double entendre. Coming as this riddle does right after a highly suggestive poem about a key entering a lock, it is fairly obvious that we are dealing with a sexual metaphor here.
But I did not choose to include this riddle just for laughs (although, as Angela Carter persuades in her Chaucerian essay ‘Alison’s Giggle’, both sexuality and humour are important cultural phenomena that deserve discussion). Rather, I chose Riddle 45 because it is an important poem from the perspective of gender and sexual politics. Did you happen to notice how assertively the ‘proud bride’ handles the ‘boneless thing’? This assertiveness led Edith Whitehurst Williams to declare that there was a precedent for the sexual revolution of the 1960s–70s in these Anglo-Saxon riddles. Certainly, the woman depicted in Riddle 45 is the master of her own personal and sexual agency. Still, I cannot help but wonder whether we are supposed to be laughing at her or with her…
Annoyingly, there are no named female authors of riddles from Anglo-Saxon England who might shed some light on this matter. There were, however, a number of English women writing Latin poetry and prose across this period, and especially good evidence of their work survives from the Frankish Empire. These globe-trotting women included Leoba (whose letters and poetry to St Boniface discuss their joint efforts at encouraging religious conversion), Hygeburg (author of the Lives of St Willibald and St Wynnebald) and Berhtgyth (who penned a series of desperately sad letters and poems to her brother, which are incredibly moving to read), among others. As these women were missionaries, nuns and abbesses, they tended to stick to wholesome topics – or, at least, those are the writings that survive the test of time. We know, after all, that Charlemagne prohibited the nuns of the Frankish Empire from composing winileodas (songs for a friend/lover) in the year 789. Whether any of these nuns were Anglo-Saxon missionaries is impossible to tell.
Finding a window into the lives of Anglo-Saxon women is, therefore, really quite difficult. We have to look all over for clues to piece early medieval women ’s histories back together, and Old English literature provides us with one of the tools to do so. Luckily, most scholars today agree that, when a poem like Riddle 45 comes along we should celebrate rather than suppress it.
Codex Exoniensis: A Collection of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, from a Manuscript in the Library of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter, ed. and trans. by Benjamin Thorpe (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1842)
The Riddles of the Exeter Book, ed. by Frederick Tupper Jnr (Boston: Ginn, 1910)
Whitehurst Williams, Edith, ‘What’s So New About the Sexual Revolution?’, Texas Quarterly 18 (2) (1975), 46–55; reprinted in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, ed. by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 137–45