Anglo-Saxon riddles

Anglo-Saxon riddles are a significant genre of Anglo-Saxon literature. The riddle was a major, prestigious literary form in early medieval England, and riddles were written both in Latin and Old English verse. The pre-eminent composer of Latin riddles in early medieval England was Aldhelm (d. 709), while the Old English verse riddles found in the tenth-century Exeter Book include some of the most famous Old English poems.

Opening of Aldhelm's riddles in the late tenth- or early eleventh-century manuscript London, British Library, Royal MA 12 c xxiii, folio 84r


Antique inspirationsEdit

Riddles are an internationally widespread feature of oral literatures and scholars have not doubted that they were traditional to Old English culture.[1] But the history of riddles as a literary genre in England seems to be rooted in an influential collection of late Antique Latin riddles, possibly from north Africa, attributed to a poet called Symphosius, whose work English scholars emulated and adapted.[1][2][3]


As the conversion of England to Christianity proceeded during the seventh century, Old English-speakers studied Latin and gained access to Latin literacy and literary traditions. Apparently relatively early in his career, a prominent early Christian aristocrat, scholar, abbot and bishop from Wessex, Aldhelm, composed the Epistola ad Acircium, a Latin treatise on the poetic arts. Apparently inspired by the hundred enigmata ('enigmas') of Symphosius, as well as another, possibly north-Italian collection of metrical Latin riddles known today as the Bern Riddles, perhaps along with Byzantine literary riddling, Aldhelm included in this his own collection of one hundred hexametrical enigmata.[4][5][6]

Aldhelm's most prominent themes were 'the natural world, daily life, church furniture, and the classroom. A bookish quality is evident in many of the other topics addressed, which would certainly have been outside the daily experience of Anglo-Saxon England'.[4]

Bede, Tatwine, Eusebius, and BonifaceEdit

Perhaps because of its use in Anglo-Saxon education, Aldhelm's collection inspired several more Anglo-Latin riddle collections. Recent scholarship suggests that nineteen riddles attributed to Bede (d. 735) in an eleventh-century manuscript indeed belong to his partly lost Liber epigrammatum.[7] Bede's contemporary Tatwine (d. 734), a Mercian priest and Archbishop of Canterbury, composed forty acrostic riddles, which were supplemented by a further sixty attributed to a scholar with the name Eusebius whose identity is not securely known. These riddles of Tatwine and riddles of Eusebius survive in two manuscripts, as a set of one hundred riddles.[8] It is almost certain that Tatwine had read the riddles of Aldhelm;[9] Frederick Tupper believed that this influence was minimal,[10] but subsequent scholars have argued that Tatwine's riddles owed a substantial debt to those of Aldhelm.[11][12][13] Both Tatwine and Eusebius composed on everyday objects and abstract concepts, including the theological, philosophical, and mythological.[1]

Meanwhile, Saint Boniface (d. 754) composed a sequence of ten riddles on the virtues and another of ten on the vices.[14] These were "for the moral instruction of an unnamed female correspondent", were influenced greatly by Aldhelm, and contained many references to works of Vergil (the Aeneid, the Georgics, and the Eclogues).[4]

The Lorsch riddles are also thought to have been composed in Anglo-Saxon England.[15][16]

Old English riddlesEdit

Aldhelm's Latin riddling was also inspiring the composition of riddles in Old English as early as the eighth century: this is attested by the Leiden Riddle, a translation of Aldhelm's riddle on the lorica (breastplate).[17]

However, the vast majority of Old English riddles are attested in the later tenth-century Exeter Book, which in its current, fragmentary state contains around 94 riddles (scholars debate precisely how many there are because divisions between poems are not always clear). There is speculation that there may once have been, or have been intended to be, 100 riddles in the book, since this would match the Latin collections discussed above. The riddles are all written in alliterative verse; their solutions are not given, and several end with an injunction to 'say what I am called', suggesting that they were indeed recited as verbal entertainment; yet they clearly have diverse origins.[18][19][20] The search for answers to the riddles has been addressed at length by Patrick J. Murphy, focusing on thought patterns of the period, but there is still no unanimous agreement on some of them.[21]

There are also two Old English prose riddles, surviving on folio 16v in the mid-eleventh-century psalter British Library, Cotton Vitellius E.xviii, made in Winchester, within a short text on secret codes, found among a collection of notes, charms, prayers, and computistical tables.[22]

The Franks Casket, a box made of whale bone, also features a text written in Old English with runic script which some scholars have viewed as a riddle (with the proposed solution 'whale').[23][24]

Scholarly interpretationsEdit

The Old English riddles have been much more studied than the Latin ones, but recent work has argued that the two groups need to be understood together as 'a vigorous, common tradition of Old English and Anglo-Latin enigmatography'.[25] Much past work on the Old English riddles has focused on finding and debating solutions,[26] but a new wave of work has started using riddles as a way to study Anglo-Saxon world-views through the critical approaches of eco-criticism.[27] The Exeter Book riddles can be situated within a wider tradition of 'speaking objects' in Anglo-Saxon culture and have much in common with poems such as The Dream of the Rood and The Husband's Message and with artefacts such as the Alfred Jewel or the Brussels Cross, which endow inanimate things with first-person voices.[28] By representing the familiar, material world from an oblique angle, many riddles from early medieval England complicate or challenge social norms such as martial masculinity, patriarchal attitudes to women, lords' dominance over their servants, and humans' over animals.[29] Thirteen, for example, have as their solution an implement, which speaks of itself through the riddle as a servant to its lord; but these sometimes also suggest the power of the servant to define the master.[30]

The Latin enigmata of Aldhelm and his Anglo-Latin successors are presented in manuscripts with their solutions as their title, and seldom close with a challenge to the reader to guess their solution.[4] Unlike the Latin Anglo-Saxon riddles, the Old English ones tend not to rely on intellectual obscurity to make the riddle more difficult for the reader,[31] rather focusing on describing processes of manufacture and transformation. The reader must be observant to any double meanings or "hinge words" in order to discover the answer to the riddle.[19][32]

Editions and translationsEdit

All Anglo-Saxon riddlesEdit

  • Andy Orchard (ed and trans), The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 69 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021); accompanied by Andy Orchard, A Commentary on the Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition, Supplements to the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2021).
  • The Riddle Ages: Early Medieval Riddles, Translations and Commentaries, ed. by Megan Cavell and others, 2nd edn (Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 2020–).

The Exeter Book riddles onlyEdit



  • Paull F. Baum, Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1963),
  • Kevin Crossley-Holland (trans), The Exeter Book Riddles, revised edition (London: Enitharmon Press, 2008)
  • Greg Delanty, Seamus Heaney and Michael Matto, The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (New York: Norton, 2010)
  • F. H. Whitman (ed and trans), Old English Riddles (Ottawa: Canadian Federation for the Humanities, 1982)
  • Craig Williamson (trans), A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982)

Anglo-Latin riddles onlyEdit

All Anglo-Latin riddlesEdit

  • Tatuini omnia opera, Variae collectiones aenigmatum merovingicae aetatis, Anonymus de dubiis nominibus, ed. by Fr. Glorie, trans. by Erika von Erhardt-Seebold, Corpus christianorum: series latina, 133-133a, 2 vols (Turnholt: Brepols, 1968), vol I, vol II.

Aldhelm's riddles onlyEdit

  • Aldhelmi Opera, ed. by Rvdolfvs Ehwald, Monumenta Germanicae Historica, Auctorum Antiquissorum, 15, 3 vols (Berlin, 1919)
  • Aldhelm: The Poetic Works, trans. by Michael Lapidge and James L. Rosier (Cambridge, 1985)
  • Through a Gloss Darkly: Aldhelm’s Riddles in the British Library ms Royal 12.C.xxiii, ed. and trans. by Nancy Porter Stork, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Studies and Texts, 98 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990)
  • Saint Aldhelm's "Riddles", ed. and trans. by A. M. Juster (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015)


  1. ^ a b c Andy Orchard, "Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Tradition," in Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge, ed. by Andy Orchard and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, 2 vols (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), I 284-304.
  2. ^ Erin Sebo, 'In scirpo nodum: Symphosius' Reworking of the Riddle Form', in The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry, ed. by Jan Kwapzt, David Petrain, and Mikolaj Szymanski, Beiträge zur Altertumskunde (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), pp. 184-95.
  3. ^ Sebo, Erin, 'Was Symphosius an African? A Contextualizing Note on Two Textual Clues in the Aenigmata Symphosii', Notes & Queries, 56.3, (2009), 324-26.
  4. ^ a b c d Andy Orchard, 'Enigmata', in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. by Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, and Donald Scragg, 2nd edn (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), s.v.
  5. ^ Milovanović-Barham, Čelica, 'Aldhelm's Enigmata and Byzantine Riddles', Anglo-Saxon England, 22 (1993), 51-64, doi:10.1017/S0263675100004300.
  6. ^ Klein, Thomas (2019). "Pater Occultus: The Latin Bern Riddles and Their Place in Early Medieval Riddling". Neophilologus. 103 (3): 399–417. doi:10.1007/s11061-018-9586-4. S2CID 166052153.
  7. ^ Joseph P. McGowan, review of Michael Lapidge, ed. and tr. Bede's Latin Poetry. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2019. Pp. xvi, 605. $135.00. ISBN 978-0-19-924277-1, in The Medieval Review (4 April 2021).
  8. ^ Salvador-Bello, Mercedes (2014). Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press. p. 221. ISBN 9781935978527.
  9. ^ Salvador-Bello. Isidorean Perceptions of Order. p. 222.
  10. ^ Tupper, Frederick (1910). The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn. pp. xxxiv.
  11. ^ Lapidge, Michael; Rosier, James (2009). Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer. p. 66. ISBN 9781843841982.
  12. ^ Orchard, Andy (1994). The Poetic Art of Aldhelm. CAmbridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 242. ISBN 9780521034579.
  13. ^ Salvador-Bello. Isidorean Perceptions of Order. pp. 222–4.
  14. ^ 'Aenigmata Bonifatii', ed. by Fr. Glorie, trans. by Karl J. Minst, in Tatuini omnia opera, Variae collectiones aenigmatum merovingicae aetatis, Anonymus de dubiis nominibus, Corpus christianorum: series latina, 133-133a, 2 vols (Turnholt: Brepols, 1968), I 273-343.
  15. ^ Archer Taylor, The Literary Riddle before 1600 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1948), p. 64.
  16. ^ 'Aenigmata "lavreshamensia" [anigmata "anglica"]', ed. by Fr. Glorie, trans. by Karl J. Minst, in Tatuini omnia opera, Variae collectiones aenigmatum merovingicae aetatis, Anonymus de dubiis nominibus, Corpus christianorum: series latina, 133-133a, 2 vols (Turnholt: Brepols, 1968), I 345-58.
  17. ^ Thomas Klein, ‘The Old English Translation of Aldhelm’s Riddle Lorica’, The Review of English Studies, n. s., 48 (1997), 345–49.
  18. ^ Black, Joseph, et al., eds. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Volume 1: The Medieval Period. 2nd ed. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press,2009. Print.
  19. ^ a b Lind, Carol. Riddling the voices of others: The Old English Exeter Book riddles and a pedagogy of the anonymous. Diss. Illinois State University, 2007.
  20. ^ Sebo, Erin (2018). In enigmate : the history of a riddle, 400-1500. Dublin, Ireland. ISBN 978-1-84682-773-0. OCLC 1055160490.
  21. ^ Patrick J. Murphy. 2011. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park: Penn State University Press.
  22. ^ Dieter Bitterli, 'Two Old English Prose Riddles of the Eleventh Century', in Words, Words, Words: Philology and Beyond: Festschrift for Andreas Fischer on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, edited by Sarah Chevalier and Thomas Honegger (Tübingen: Franke, 2012), pp. 1-11.
  23. ^ Cross, Katherine (2015). "The Mediterranean Scenes on the Franks Casket: Narrative and Exegesis". Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 78: 1–40. doi:10.1086/JWCI26321947. ISSN 0075-4390. JSTOR 26321947. S2CID 193610364.
  24. ^ Karkov, Catherine E. (2017), "The Franks Casket Speaks Back: The Bones of the Past, the becoming of England", Postcolonising the Medieval Image, Routledge, doi:10.4324/9781315232164-3, ISBN 978-1-315-23216-4, retrieved 2022-01-30
  25. ^ Dieter Bitterli, Say what I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition, Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series, 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).
  26. ^ E.g. Patrick J. Murphy, Unriddling the Exteter Riddles (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), p. 16, citing Glorie and Sorrell.
  27. ^ E.g. Helen Price, 'Human and NonHuman in Anglo-Saxon and British Postwar Poetry: Reshaping Literary Ecology' (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2013),
  28. ^ James Paz, Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Material Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), pp. 17-26;
  29. ^ Helen Price, 'Human and NonHuman in Anglo-Saxon and British Postwar Poetry: Reshaping Literary Ecology' (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Leeds, 2014), esp. ch. 2;;
  30. ^ Jennifer Neville, 'The Unexpected Treasure of the "Implement Trope": Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles', Review of English Studies, 62 [256] (2011), 505-519. doi: 10.1093/res/hgq131.
  31. ^ Sebo, Erin (2018). In enigmate : the history of a riddle, 400-1500. Dublin, Ireland. ISBN 978-1-84682-773-0. OCLC 1055160490.
  32. ^ John D. Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts, Studies in the early Middle Ages, 13 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006).