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Tracing an insular riddle topos on both sides of the English Channel
Mercedes Salvador-Bello

It is firmly established that Anglo-Latin riddles were known on the Continent. The extent of their influence, however, remains unresearched. This cultural transfer has often been interpreted as one-way, disregarding the influence of continental riddling on insular collections. There are, however, riddles of probable continental provenance, notably the Bern riddles, which were no doubt known to early medieval English authors such as Aldhelm. This chapter attends to the exchange of riddles that took place on both sides of the English Channel and proves how fruitful this cultural interaction was by focusing on a riddlic topos that seems to have been of special interest to insular authors: the metaphor of the nursemaid breastfeeding numerous children. This motif also offers a related variant with clues suggesting a prostitute sharing her physical charms, as well as wine and food, with many men. By looking into several versions of this widespread topos, the chapter aims to trace the history of this popular motif in riddles preserved in both insular and continental manuscripts.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Words, ideas, interactions

Riddles at work is the first volume to bring together multiple scholarly voices to explore the vibrant, poetic riddle tradition of early medieval England and its neighbours. The chapters in this book present a wide range of traditional and experimental methodologies. They treat the riddles both as individual poems and as parts of a tradition, but, most importantly, they address Latin and Old English riddles side-by-side, bringing together texts that originally developed in conversation with each other but have often been separated in scholarship. The ‘General Introduction’ situates this book in its scholarly context. Part I, ‘Words’, presents philological approaches to early medieval riddles—interpretations rooted in close readings of texts—for riddles work by making readers question what words really mean. While reading carefully may lead to elegant solutions, however, such solutions are not the end of the riddling game. Part II, ‘Ideas’, thus explores how riddles work to make readers think anew about objects, relationships, and experiences, using literary theory to facilitate new approaches. Part III, ‘Interactions’, explores how riddles work through connections with other fields, languages, times, and places. Together, the sixteen chapters reveal that there is no single, right way to read these texts but many productive paths—some explored here, some awaiting future work.

Astronomical tropes in Þragbysig (R.4)
Jennifer Neville

Þragbysig is one of the most resistant of the Exeter Book collection to being solved, and it has thus received more than its fair share of solutions (fifteen, by the author’s count). These solutions have ranged from the inanimate to the animate, from the homely to the exotic, from the physical to the spiritual, and from the plausible to the implausible. This chapter seeks first to pinpoint where previous solutions have failed, so as to identify the key ambiguous language and the riddling tropes that a successful solution must address. These include the relationship between the subject of the riddle, the thegn, and the lord; the multiple rings; the breaking of the bed; the ‘warm limb’; the idea of speaking and answering; and the foolishness of the thegn. It then suggests that a learned, scientific approach to the physical world—in particular astronomy—provides a different way of understanding the text’s intractable metaphorical surface. Drawing upon Bede, Boethius, and Isidore, the chapter argues that Þragbysig is a description of a winter sun, rising over the horizon accompanied by the planet Mercury.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Robert Stanton

The Exeter Book riddles present a symphony of acoustic effects, deploying a multitude of linguistic resources to reflect aesthetically on the metaphysical relationship, long examined by philosophers and grammarians, between sounds, speech, concepts, and subjects and objects both animate and inanimate. This chapter discusses the different ways that sounds signify in these riddles, especially the sensory, cognitive, and culturally formed categories through which sound effects evoke the rhythms and textures of natural phenomena, human artefacts, and human and animal experience. Like all Old English poetry but especially vividly, the riddles pleasurably combine received fields of knowledge and familiar poetic forms with the surprising, sometimes unsettling aural effects produced by specific lines. The chapter teases out connections between the concepts of sound, noise, and voice as early English writers inherited them from the classical and early medieval philosophical and grammatical traditions, and the achievable performative effects of sound via the techniques of English enigmatic poetry. Finally, following the lead of Maurizio Bettini, the chapter gestures toward the possibilities of a ‘sound anthropology’ of early medieval England.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Conceptual blending in Anhaga (R.5) and Wæpnum Awyrged (R.20)
Karin Olsen

The chapter examines the crucial role that conceptual blending plays in Anhaga (R.5) and Wæpnum Awyrged (R.20). In both riddles, the weapon or piece of armour is (partly) visualised as a warrior who serves his lord and fights in battle, yet the precise cognitive processes that underlie this visualisation and that lead to the ‘proper’ solutions are different. Wæpnum Awyrged forms an asymmetrical double-scope network in which culture-sensitive metaphorical and metonymic connections between the conceptual fields ‘warrior’ (input 1 or source domain) and ‘sword’ (input 2 or target domain) are activated. Anhaga, on the other hand, suggests the presence of multi-scope conceptual blending, as its vague textual details allow multiple target domains and thus multiple solutions. This chapter demonstrates that such a multiplicity of solutions ultimately stems from the diversity of ways in which humans think and process information.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
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The anatomy of wonder in the sex riddles
Sharon E. Rhodes

Riddles alter their audiences’ perceptions of familiar objects and phenomena through precisely true yet entirely foreign descriptions. Riddles can be accused of a topsy-turvy inversion of high and low subject matter or of falsely raising the low to the level of the high through so-called inappropriate diction. However, riddles can also be read as meditations, albeit often humorous ones. These short poems force readers to meditate on the wonders of the natural and constructed worlds. This chapter explores how the obfuscation inherent in the genre of the riddle and its poetic diction allows a shift in perspectives so that the wondrous nature of what appears quotidian becomes suddenly, if laughably, visible. Following a discussion of the cultural work of wonder, the chapter focuses on the ‘obscene’ riddles Womb wæs on Hindan (R.37), Wrætlic Hongað (R.44), Banleas (R.45), and In Wincsele (R.54), solved as ‘bellows’, ‘key’, ‘bread dough’, and ‘butter churn’. By insistently resisting the reader’s expectations of what merits poetic description, these riddles create space in which to appreciate the mundane and see past simple ubiquity to these things’, and their makers’, deep and foundational worth to society as a whole.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
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The poet and his times
J. J. Anderson

This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the four poems discussed in this book. It indicates how often they convey a sense of urgency in the speeches, a sense of drama in the situations. Pearl is the test case. Of the four poems it is stylistically the most ornate, metrically the most complex, the one in which 'art' is most in evidence. Pearl combines a language of great expressive potential with a demanding poetic form. The language of Cleanness conveys an intense reaction against filth, in which physical and metaphysical notions of filth are inextricably mixed. The message of God's love is present in Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience too, but the poet shows no confidence that people can grasp it. With Gawain too it is possible that the public and the personal intermingle to shake his faith in chivalry and the feudal model of social order.

in Language and imagination in the Gawain-poems
S. H. Rigby

Many of the present generation of Chaucer critics have been trained either as 'Robertsonians' or as 'Donaldsonians'. For Robertson, even those medieval poems which do not explicitly address religious issues were frequently intended to promote the Augustinian doctrine of charity beneath a pleasing surface; for Donaldson, there are 'no such poems in Middle English'. This chapter sets out the basics of the Augustinian doctrine of charity and of medieval allegorical theory and examines 'patristic' interpretations of Chaucer's work, particularly of the 'Nun's Priest Tale'. It looks at the humanist alternative to the patristic method and concludes with an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the patristic approach. The chapter argues that the 'Nun's Priest's Tale' can be seen as a satire of rhetorically inflated and over-serious accounts of the human condition.

in Chaucer in context
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Real-life observation versus literary convention
S. H. Rigby

Geoffrey Chaucer's lifetime, from his birth early in the 1340s to his death in 1400, encompasses one of the most dramatic periods of English history. The search for a historical Chaucer has led critics to look for the 'real-life models' of the pilgrims described by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. The pilgrims and the characters are best seen as active reinterpretations of reality in terms of the literary conventions, scientific doctrines and stock social satires of the day. Chaucer's works do not offer direct evidence about late fourteenth-century society. Chaucer's accounts of the pilgrims are often couched in terms of the stock 'scientific' stereotypes of his day and thus describe individuals in terms of the attributes thought appropriate to their age, astrological character and physiological make-up. Such 'scientific' stereotypes, Chaucer draws upon traditions of character-description which are more specifically literary in origin.

in Chaucer in context
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Society, allegory and gender
Author: S. H. Rigby

This book on Geoffrey Chaucer explores the relationship between Chaucer's poetry and the change and conflict characteristic of his day and the sorts of literary and non-literary conventions that were at his disposal for making sense of the society around him. Critics who consider the social meaning of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales fall into two main schools: those who present his social thought as an expression of the dominant spirit or ideology of his day and those who see Chaucer as possessing a more heterodox voice. Many of the present generation of Chaucer critics have been trained either as 'Robertsonians' or as 'Donaldsonians'. For D. W. Robertson, even those medieval poems which do not explicitly address religious issues were frequently intended to promote the Augustinian doctrine of charity beneath a pleasing surface; for E. Talbot Donaldson, there are 'no such poems in Middle English'. The book sets out the basics of the Augustinian doctrine of charity and of medieval allegorical theory and examines 'patristic' interpretations of Chaucer's work, particularly of the 'Nun's Priest Tale'. It looks at the humanist alternative to the patristic method and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the patristic approach. The book also outlines some of the major medieval discourses about sexual difference which inform Chaucer's depiction of women, in particular, the tendency of medieval writers to polarise their views of women, condemning them to the pit or elevating them to the pedestal.