Aldhelm's Riddles


Aldhelm’s Latin verse Enigmata or Riddles was widely read and studied in the Middle Ages, both in England and on the Continent. Thirty-two manuscripts of the work survive (in varying degrees of completeness).

There are 100 riddles in the collection, which appear as part of a larger text called Epistola ad Acircium (The Letter to Acircius). This text contains a treatise on poetic metre, a discussion of the significance of the number seven and a guide to Latin poetic composition which contains a list of words with different kinds of metrical ‘feet’ – the basic unit of poetic metre. The riddles, written in hexameters, appear to have been added by Aldhelm as a demonstration of the properties of this particular form of poetic metre. Made up of six feet per verse line, the hexameter is the standard metre used in classical Greek and Latin composition.

Who was Aldhelm?

Aldhelm (d. 709/10) was an abbot of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, and a bishop of Sherborne in Dorset. We do not know a great deal about him. He appears to have been born in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex and he seems to have had good court connections. He may have been related to the West Saxon king, and he dedicated the Epistola ad Acircium to Aldfrith, king of Northumbria (r. 685–705). What is clear, however, is that he was a man of great learning: in the preface to the work he says that no person of English or Germanic origin had ever before studied Latin poetry and learning so deeply.

Can you guess the solution to the following riddle?

(Solution at the bottom of the page)

Me dudum genuit candens onocratulus albam
Gutture qui patulo sorbet de gurgite limphas
Pergo per albentes directo tramite campos
Candentique uiae uestigia cerula linquo
Lucida nigratis fuscans anfractibus arua
Nec satis est unam per campos pandere callem
Semita quin potius milleno tramite tendit
Quae non errantes ad caeli culmina uexit

[I am bright white, born ages ago of the gleaming pelican
Who takes the waters of the sea into his open mouth.
Now I travel a narrow path over white-glowing fields
I leave blue footprints along the shining way
Obscuring bright fields with my blackened windings
It is not enough for me to open one pathway through the fields
Rather, the road runs its course in a thousand byways
And leads those who stray not to the heights of Heaven] (f. 93r – digitised image 7)

The manuscript

This manuscript was copied and decorated in southern England (possibly at Christ Church, Canterbury) in the late 10th or early 11th century.

It contains many notes (or ‘glosses’), written soon after the manuscript was copied. The interlinear glosses (meaning that they appear in the spaces between the lines) serve a variety of purposes. In the first line, the glossator has added the words ‘nomen avis’, meaning ‘the name of the bird’, above the word for ‘onocratulus’, meaning ‘pelican’ – presumably because the word was unfamiliar to him. Later, he has added ‘nigra’, meaning ‘black’, above the word ‘cerula’, which means ‘blue’ – perhaps thinking that this was more appropriate to the description of the ink. In the final line, the glossator adds ‘fideles’, meaning ‘the faithful’, above ‘non errantes’, which means ‘those who do not stray’ – perhaps in order to highlight the moral message of the riddle.

Solution: a writing quill.

View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.

Full title:
Julian of Toledo's Prognosticon futuri saeculi, with Latin glosses and an Old English gloss; riddles by various authors, including Aldhelm, Symphosius, Eusebius, and Tatwine, with Latin and Old English glosses; Pseudo-Smaragdus, Opus monitorium and monitory poems; Versus cuiusdam Scotti de alphabeto
Late 10th century – early 11th century
Aldhelm of Sherborne
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries, other than the UK

Held by
British Library
Royal MS 12 C xxiii

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Old English

Article by:
David Crystal
Language and voice

David Crystal charts the evolution of Old English through the 700 years during which it was written and spoken.

Saints and sanctity in medieval England

Article by:
Sarah Salih
Faith and religion

Sarah Salih explores how medieval Europeans memorialised the lives of real and fictional Christian saints, transforming them into the superheroes and celebrities of the Middle Ages.

The Exeter Book riddles in context

Article by:
Megan Cavell
Gender and sexuality, Form and genre

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.

Related collection items