Bite Me: Rude Food and the Anglo-Saxon Riddle Tradition
Lecture given at the University of Toronto, February 14, 2013
I heard that something or other was growing in a confined space
swelling and surging, pushing up its covering;
on that boneless thing a bride took up a grip,
proud, in her hands, a lord’s daughter,
clothed with a covering that bulging thing.
~ Exeter Riddle #43. The answer is bread dough.
Andy Orchard, one of the world’s leading experts in Old English literature, presented on the tradition of early medieval riddles, and how the themes of food and sex can be found in these works. While some scholars have dismissed these riddles as unimportant, Orchard finds that they “give us a direct window into the world of the Anglo-Saxons.”
He begins by noting that riddles were popular in the ancient world, with examples being found in classical works and the Bible. When well-educated Romans got together for dinner, they would have a drinking game that involved asking each other riddles as they got drunk.
A North African poet named Symphosius, who lived between the 4th-6th century AD, was known to have created a series of riddles that were three lines long an heavily repetitive. By the 680s/690s these riddles were being used to teach people Latin in Anglo-Saxon England, and would remain very influential in the early Middle Ages.
There are several sources of riddles from the Anglo-Saxon era. The largest is the Exeter Book, a tenth-century collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Orchard believes that the this work originally contained 101 riddles, but the manuscript has been damaged, leaving only 91 riddles. Other sources of Anglo-Saxon riddles include the Berne and Lorsch collections, and in the work Carmen de virginitate, by Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury (c.639-709). Orchard also notes that Bede, Alcuin and Boniface all wrote riddles, and that these examples show that they were part of “a learned literate Latin tradition” in Anglo-Saxon England.
Part of the reason riddles were so popular was that they had a lot of pedagogical value – they could be used in schools to get students interested in language.
Turning to the topics of the various Anglo-Saxon riddles, ones that dealt with food or animals were the most popular, while others another frequent topic was the letters of the alphabet. Orchard also notes how many of them also have a subtext of sexuality. For example, scholars have estimated that one-third of the riddles in the Exeter Book could be solved as penis. When asked about why Anglo-Saxon monks would have been interested in creating sexual innuendo in their riddles, Professor Orchard speculated that part of it was it made their working more titillating or exciting, or that they enjoyed creating challenging riddles with their double meanings. He was also surprised how good the poetry was among these riddles.
Here are some examples of Anglo-Saxon riddles read by Professor Orchard
Andy Orchard’s next book, The Anglo-Saxon Riddle Tradition, is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2013.