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The early medieval contexts of Aldhelm’s cat riddle
Megan Cavell

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
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.

Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville

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
Abstract only
Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville

The Afterword celebrates the communal practice that is riddling—whether composing, solving, interpreting, or editing. It aims to draw together the individual voices of the riddles and of the chapters of this volume into a communal unity that celebrates diverse methods and perspectives. This book’s sections—Words, Ideas, Interactions—arguably move, flow, collapse inward, and reconstitute themselves through the act of interpreting, just as the riddles themselves invite constant re-reading and re-interpretation of clues and solutions. Hence, the Afterword also maps out possible directions for future work in the field of riddle studies: more engagement with the Latin collections and comparative work on Scandinavian and Celtic riddle traditions, as well as critical engagement with identity, especially identity informed by disability, race and gender theories. Finally, it suggests that the insights into daily life offered through the riddles’ subversive concealments and manoeuvrings make them ideal texts for the study of identity in all its complexity.

in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville

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
Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville

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
Megan Cavell, Jennifer Neville, and Victoria Symons

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