The early medieval contexts of Aldhelm’s cat riddle

Infamous for an ambivalence that riles some and charms others, the domestic cat’s relationship with humans is now the subject of extensive zooarchaeological study. The point at which domestication took place is the subject of a debate that is complicated by the interbreeding of domestic and wild cats. The complexity of the cat’s domestication goes some way toward explaining the sparse literary and linguistic evidence for this animal in early medieval England, where they seem to have existed largely without human interference. Despite this lack, Aldhelm’s fascinating Anglo-Latin riddle, Enigma 65, Muriceps, explores the role of the mouser in vivid detail. This chapter provides a close reading of Aldhelm’s riddle, after discussing the cat’s pathway to domestication and surveying comparative evidence from early medieval sources. It argues that the semi-domesticated nature of early medieval cats shines through in Aldhelm’s poem, which employs both positive imagery of the mouser’s domestic role (faithfulness, vigilance and guardianship), and negative imagery drawn from the biblical tradition (secretiveness, snare-laying and tribal enmity). Aldhelm’s cat is both a welcome cohabiter and diabolical presence in the human household, an ambiguity that is juxtaposed with the more thoroughly domesticated dog with whom the riddle-cat refuses to cooperate.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
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New translations of Exeter riddle fragments Modor Monigra (R.84), Se Wiht Wombe Hæfde (R.89), and Brunra Beot (R.92), accompanied by notes on process

This chapter offers new translations of some of the most fire-damaged riddles of the Exeter Book, accompanied by a translator’s note discussing the process of translating Old English fragments. While many translators attempt to smooth over missing language, the author is fascinated by the ways in which Old English poetry allows him to walk through its bones, and part of his translation instinct is about paying respect to gaps in these poetic remains, rather than attempting to force a seeming wholeness onto them. Old English poems already exist as sites of multiple kinds of loss. Given that these few remaining poems are in a language no longer spoken, are often damaged, and that many of them are considered without literary merit, it seems crucial to engage them in a way that honours their losses, instead of attempting to offer them ‘accessibility’. This place of loss and temporal and textual scarring is where these translations intervene and build. The translations presented in this chapter do not attempt to find answers to fragmented riddles. Instead, they communicate their words and their syntax, while preserving, rather than hiding, their damage.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

Several textual moments in the Vercelli Book have some similarity to the rhetoric of riddles. This chapter illustrates their conformity to a larger pattern in that manuscript’s texts, a pervasive engagement with conditional revelation that promotes what the author calls ‘enigmatic knowing’: a form of access to discourses of authority that stands in radical contrast to those that characterise modern academic structures of thought about similar problem-solving tasks. Many Vercelli Book poems and homilies show a preoccupation with revelation of truth only through the effort or virtue required to obtain privileged understanding; they posit a structuring of information or knowledge whereby signs inscrutable to many nevertheless contain what is needed to interpret them correctly, provided that their interpreters bring the proper ethical orientations and address themselves to the challenge with a spirit of responsibility. Such narratives of revelation often play out through rhetorical engagements with wisdom, celebrations of paradox, and scenes of intellectual confrontation that intersect the discursive mode of riddles in numerous ways.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
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An ecofeminist reading of Modor Monigra (R.84)

Recent studies of Exeter Book riddles and Old English literature have begun to reveal their ecological underpinnings, drawing on ecocriticism to explore the relationship between human beings and the rest of the created world. There is still much to explore in this growing field, including the relationship between the oppression of the natural world and the oppression of women. This chapter discusses Old English texts from an ecofeminist perspective, exploring the representation of, and forging links between, these two oppressed groups. It suggests that, where texts like The Wife’s Lament and The Order of the World depict both nature and women as dominated by an androcentric and anthropocentric worldview, a number of Exeter Book riddles challenge such depictions, offering us, for example, the depiction of water as both a feminine natural force and a celebrated monstrous female that is sellic (‘wonderful’) and freolic (‘free’). Drawing on recent ecofeminist scholarship in the field of eco-theology, this chapter suggests that certain riddles, including Modor Monigra (R.84), interrogate the human- and male-centred nature of wisdom and free early medieval women and the natural world from patriarchal oppression.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

This first chapter introduces how riddles work in the tradition of early medieval England and its neighbours. It argues that the balance between the communal and individual, struck by Aldhelm in the preface to his Enigmata, lies at the heart of the early medieval riddling tradition and underlies its current popularity. A brief reading of Heanmode Twa (Exeter Book Riddle 42) illustrates the interplay between the demand for solution and the other kinds of work—on value, literacy, sex, interpretation—that these texts initiate. An overview of scholarship, from 1857 to the present day, follows. The chapter notes particularly the past focus on solution-hunting, questions about genre, different contexts for interpretation, linguistic play, and categorisation. Above all it stresses the multifarious nature of the riddles themselves and the scholarship this has inspired. Finally the General Introduction summarises the book’s chapters, divided into three sections. Part I, ‘Words’, exemplifies interpretations based on close readings of texts. Part II, ‘Ideas’, engages with theory to examine how the riddles invite new ways of thinking about objects, relationships, and experiences. Part III, ‘Interactions’, showcases the ways in which the riddles lead us to make connections with other fields, languages, times, and places.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Incongruity in Feþegeorn (R.31)

Incongruity is the sine qua non for humour, as any good humour theory will suggest, conjuring up an appropriately inappropriate doubleness. But incongruity alone is never sufficient to explain humour. This chapter brings together consideration of humour theory with the interpretation of Feþegeorn (R.31) to ponder whether riddles can provide a key to understanding the humour of early medieval England. Pinpointing humour always requires an awareness of the multiple frames within which the comic stimulus works. For literary humour, this requires a sensitivity to register (with implicit questions of expectations of genre) as well as to meaning (attending to the doubleness of diction) and to context (since performance and social context plays a significant role). Interpreting humour also requires a fine-tuned sense of the timing of the revelation of doubleness, and here memory plays a significant role, since earlier tellings (of a riddle or of a joke) allow an audience to usefully anticipate the upcoming resolution.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

The chapters in this section explore words as words, sounds, and language, engaging to greater or lesser extents with the long history of philological approaches to Old English language and literature. Working from words outward—to text, genre, language as a whole—is rewarding because the gradual amassing of evidence as the frame of reference expands is orderly, methodical, and systematic. And yet it is never the only, or the correct, way to approach a text. Ultimately, philological approaches rely on the interpretation of words, and there are many ways to interpret both words and the texts in which they survive. These interpretations all rely on good close reading, on grappling with polysemy, and on translation and solving as an act of interpretation.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

The chapters in this section go beyond the riddles’ words to explore the ideas that theoretically-inflected approaches can reveal in them. This approach is not new; the study of early medieval riddles has already benefitted from gender and sexuality studies, among other interdisciplinary approaches. The chapters here use the riddles to test ideas about humour, sentience, monstrosity, ecofeminism, hyper-objects, and conceptual blending.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

The early medieval riddles reveal points of contact with the world in which they were created and with which they still interact today. These interactions occur on many levels: between texts within one manuscript, between collections within an overall tradition, between genres and disciplines within an intellectual tradition, between material cultures separated by time and distance, and between poets during the translation process. The chapters in this section seek to explore a small fraction of the interactions between the riddles of early medieval England and the wider world. Each of these chapters is unique and particular to itself, and cannot be reduced to a single, homogeneous approach, but it is perhaps useful to consider them all as aspects of ‘translation’ in its most basic meaning of ‘carrying across’. Fittingly, the collection ends with a chapter that offers new, creative translations of several Exeter Book riddles and reflects upon translation as a practice.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition

Many Exeter Book riddles refer to the primordial phenomenon that enables human life—fire—and the duplicate texts of Legbysig (R.30a) and Ligbysig (R.30b) are no exception. There is a wide consensus that the solution to the riddle is ‘tree or cross’, first suggested by F. A. Blackbaum in 1901. That solution fits very well with the text, which even refers to ‘a blooming grove’ (4a). Blackbaum’s solution depends on understanding the materiality of a tree and cross, the latter created out of the former. Although such a comparison of the tangible world and the fictional world represented in the approach is used widely in Old English studies to explore material culture in poetry, this chapter argues that focusing on materiality, especially on the function and sensory experience of materials, can lead to new interpretations of literary texts. Using an approach from material culture studies to discuss the role of sensory experience in materiality of fire in Legbysig, this chapter offers a new solution, ora (‘ore’, ‘metal in its unreduced state’).

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition