Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Say What I Am Called

Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book & the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition

  • Book Info
    Say What I Am Called
    Book Description:

    Perhaps the most enigmatic cultural artifacts that survive from the Anglo-Saxon period are the Old English riddle poems that were preserved in the tenth century Exeter Book manuscript. Clever, challenging, and notoriously obscure, the riddles have fascinated readers for centuries and provided crucial insight into the period. InSay What I Am Called, Dieter Bitterli takes a fresh look at the riddles by examining them in the context of earlier Anglo-Latin riddles. Bitterli argues that there is a vigorous common tradition between Anglo-Latin and Old English riddles and details how the contents of the Exeter Book emulate and reassess their Latin predecessors while also expanding their literary and formal conventions. The book also considers the ways in which convention and content relate to writing in a vernacular language. A rich and illuminating work that is as intriguing as the riddles themselves,Say What I Am Calledis a rewarding study of some of the most interesting works from the Anglo-Saxon period.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8907-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations and Symbols
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-10)

    As the oldest extant collection of vernacular riddles in western Europe, the ninety-five Old EnglishRiddlesof the Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501) occupy a unique place within both the history of the genre and the literary heritage of Anglo-Saxon England. Copied in the south of England towards the end of the tenth century, they appear to be a compilation of poetic riddles by perhaps more than one author, inserted in three uneven batches into an anthology of religious and secular poetry in Old English. The codex is defective, especially at the beginning and towards the end, and several...


    • 1 Latin Riddling and the Vernacular
      (pp. 13-34)

      Among the didactic writings of the Anglo-Saxon scholar and poet Alcuin of York (d. 804), the shortDisputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico(‘Debate between the Princely and Noble Youth Pippin and Alcuin the Teacher’) strikes us as a unique blend of rhetorical wit, verbal playfulness, and condensed poetry. The work was written for Charlemagne’s son, Pippin, most probably when Alcuin served as an adviser and teacher at the Carolingian court in Aachen between 781 and 794.¹ It is a prose dialogue between the youthful and quick-witted Pippin and his erudite instructor, and it consists of a...

    • 2 Tell-Tale Birds: The Etymological Principle
      (pp. 35-56)

      It has been argued that, as a collection, the Exeter BookRiddleslack an ordering scheme, and that the arrangement in which the three uneven sets of riddles were copied into the manuscript is rather haphazard.¹ At least for two groups of poems at the beginning of the collection, this is not quite true. TheRiddlesopen on fols 101a–102b of the Exeter Book with three poems – the two shortRiddles1 and 2 and the longRiddle3 – whose common subject is the storm in its various manifestations (wind, rain, thunder, lightning) and with its destructive power on land and...

    • 3 Crossings: Combinatorial and Numerical Riddles
      (pp. 57-80)

      TheDisputatio Pippini cum Albinois not the only didactical work associated with the name of Alcuin of York. The Anglo-Saxon scholar and poet is also believed to be the author – or at least the compiler – of a collection of some fifty mathematical problems in Latin prose, known asPropositiones ad acuendos iuvenes. These short ‘Problems to Sharpen the Young’ belong to the genre of recreational mathematics and were probably written – like Alcuin’sDisputatio– for the Court of Charlemagne.¹ Many of thePropositionesshow close affinities to the riddling questions of the early medieval wisdom dialogues as well as to...


    • 4 Runic Strategies
      (pp. 83-97)

      The Exeter Book contains some of the most striking examples of English manuscript runes. These are occasional letters or words written in the Anglo-Saxon runic futhorc or, in two of theRiddles, spelled in roman script by their rune-names such asæsc, nyd, andrad. Except for a few runic or pseudo-runic marginalia that were obviously added much later,¹ all runes and runic clues in the manuscript are an integral part of the text and were carefully drawn in ink by the same scribe who single-handedly copied the entire anthology. Where runic and roman scripts occur side by side, the...

    • 5 Bits and Pieces
      (pp. 98-113)

      Of the six riddles in the Exeter Book that employ runes,Riddles58 and 75 have elicited comparatively little scholarly interest. It has been argued that the two items are imperfect or fragmentary (although there is no textual loss or gap in the manuscript), and that therefore their solutions are uncertain. The fifteen lines ofRiddle58 end rather abruptly, andRiddle75 is so brief that some have taken it for no more than a scrap or opening line of a lost poem. It is most likely, however, that the enigmatic creature of this very short riddle is an...

    • 6 Letter Games
      (pp. 114-132)

      As we have seen in chapter 3, the Anglo-Latin riddle-poets occasionally employed logogriphs as linguistic clues that help both to obscure and to identify the subjects of their riddles. Aldhelm’s and Eusebius’s letter games with pairs of words that look and sound similar such asparies-ariesorlumen-flumen-fluvius, however, not only are playful reminiscences from the classroom, but also exhibit a deeper interest in Isidorian concepts of morphology, etymology, and synonymy.¹ It is no surprise, therefore, that even the letters themselves – together or individually – became the subject of medieval riddling, as in Tatwine’s and Eusebius’senigmataabout the alphabet, or...


    • 7 Silent Speech
      (pp. 135-150)

      The Exeter BookRiddlesoften invite us to think about the very act of riddle-making and riddle-solving, of writing and reading. Some of them can be interpreted as assessing the use of the vernacular within a received literary genre and context that is predominantly Latin, learned and monastic. InRiddle85, for instance, the versatile fish in the river evokes the Old English riddle-maker, who both depends on the ‘stream’ of Latin riddling and, at the same time, challenges this tradition. Similarly, the warbling nightingale ofRiddle8 stands for the Anglo-Saxon poet, whose vernacular song echoes and surpasses the...

    • 8 Beasts of Battle
      (pp. 151-169)

      Even more than the soldierly ‘quill pen,’ the two long riddles whose common subject is the scribe’s inkhorn (nos 88 and 93) explore traditional generic boundaries and oscillate between the enigmatic, heroic, and elegiac modes of Anglo-Saxon verse.

      In the early medieval scriptorium, ink was normally held in simple horns from bovids or deer, such as bulls or stags. The animal horns were hollowed out with a sharp knife and prepared in a similar fashion to the creation of drinking horns described inRiddles14 and 80, but they were commonly smaller and had fewer decorations or fittings, except perhaps...

    • 9 The Flesh Made Word
      (pp. 170-190)

      When we talk about books, we tend to personify and anthropomorphize them, referring to their parts in terms of the human body. As if a book had feet, a back, and a head, we speak of its ‘footnotes,’ its ‘spine,’ and the ‘heading’ of its pages. Like living beings, medieval manuscripts survive as families; they are housed in libraries and enshrined in bookcases, sometimes protected by a chemise or dust jacket; they have a long afterlife within a corpus of texts, and they are subjected to an autopsy when codicologists examine them. In the Middle Ages, the notion of the...

    • 10 Coda
      (pp. 191-194)

      Through a glorifying representation of the codex as a lasting shrine of the Divine Word, the Old English ‘book’ riddles construct an idealized picture of what is ultimately a frail product of Anglo-Saxon material culture. Even in the most renowned scriptoria and libraries, occasional damage could not be avoided. Symphosius, the late Roman father of all enigmatists, already knew this. His three-line riddle on the damaging bookworm (Tinea) is a humorous contemplation of the fragility and ephemerality of human artefacts and of the very medium of literature: A moth ate words. This seemed to me a wondrous event, when I...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 195-212)
  10. Index
    (pp. 213-218)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 219-219)