There is much to be gained from interpreting the tenth-century Exeter Book riddles as a characteristically biographical group of texts. They comprise a rich source of information for the study of Anglo-Saxon concepts of life courses and life stages, but have yet to be treated as such despite current enthusiasm surrounding the study of historical life cycles. Probably this is due to their status as biographies of largely non-human subjects. Equipped with the insights of life-writing scholarship, including Paul de Man’s argument that all autobiography is prosopopoeia and personification, it becomes possible to see the riddles’ value as discourses on life progression and indeed as early examples of life-writing and ‘object biography’ in the English vernacular. Building on a consideration of the riddles alongside their Latin analogues as well as influential contemporary schemes of the life course, this paper advocates the interrogation of such critical labels as ‘anthropomorphism’ and ‘personification’, often applied to the riddles. These terms are so imprecise as to obfuscate more than they reveal of the ideas of human and non-human life experience and progression at work in these texts.
The verse riddles of the tenth-century Exeter Book, around ninety in number, have on occasion been recognized as tending toward a form of biography.1 Often such observations have been made on the level of individual poems, as in the case of Riddle 9, the ‘cuckoo’ riddle, which Marie Nelson describes as ‘an expanded development of individual life’.2 More broadly, scholars have highlighted biographical elements of the riddles when drawing contrasts between these almost entirely vernacular texts and those of the Latin tradition, including the riddles of Symphosius, Aldhelm, Tatwine and Eusebius.3 The Exeter Book riddles are often characterized as more expanded and linearly narrative than the highly concise and paradoxical Latin aenigmata, despite a number of exceptions to this rule.4 In his 1910 edition, Frederick Tupper remarked how ‘life [is] lent’ to the subjects of the Exeter Book riddles through the narration of ‘a change of state, by which the creature is bereft of early joys’, forging a contrast between ‘youth and later life’.5 Although many of the riddles are indeed bipartite in structure, they invoke ideas of life courses that are of greater complexity than acknowledged by Tupper.
The recent explosion of interest in the theory and practice of ‘life-writing’ provides a valuable new opportunity to reassess these texts with new critical tools at hand. Since the late twentieth century, interest in traditions of biography and ‘life-writing’, generally considered the more capacious of the two labels, has boomed. As a category, life-writing has been seen to ‘include not only memoir, autobiography, biography, diaries, autobiographical fiction, and biographical fiction, but also letters, writs, wills, written anecdotes … lyric poems, scientific and historical writing, and digital forms.’6 Scholars have scrutinized the ways in which these texts assert ‘assumptions about what a person is, about the parameters of consciousness, motivation, and memory, and about the understanding, interpretation, and restructuring of experience’, all of which have implications for the riddles.7 Critical attention has turned also to ‘object biographies’, narratives of the experiences of things; many of the Exeter Book riddles can lay claim to be just this.8 The poems describe entities which change over time, often responding to human intervention.9 In doing so, they offer responses to the kind of questions which Igor Kopytoff sees as necessary for the production of a ‘biography of a thing', such as ‘Where does the thing come from and who made it?’ and ‘What are the recognized “ages” or periods in the thing’s “life”[?]’10 The riddles can nonetheless be understood as participating in the genre of life-writing in a manner which exceeds the field of ‘object biography’. In his 1979 essay ‘Autobiography as De-facement’ Paul de Man argued that all autobiography amounts to the rhetorical device of prosopopoeia, so commonly associated with the riddles.11 In considering all autobiographical writings as acts of impersonation, de Man elides any division between human and non-human subjects for biography. As will be seen, the riddles themselves trouble this distinction, describing the development of non-human entities while at the same time engaging with culturally constructed patterns for human life development.
Alongside theoretical explorations of life-writing, the social and cultural study of lived life cycles has also advanced rapidly in recent years, including the study of early medieval life courses.12 The riddles have yet to be analysed in this context. Historians of early medieval life stages often warn against the relevance of literary texts, perceived to stand at a remote distance from ‘real’, lived experience; Patrick Joseph Ryan argues to the contrary that all kinds of literary representations should be read ‘for discourse’, ‘patterns of meaning’ which ‘frame the thoughts and feelings’ present in cultures including the Anglo-Saxons’.13 Such an approach, closing the presumed gap between literary texts and historical experience, is ultimately beneficial for discussion of the riddles, allowing them to constitute a resource for the study of life courses in Anglo-Saxon England.
The riddles are well known for their diversity as a group of texts and any generalizations made about the collection as a whole will necessarily be incomplete and artificial. Nevertheless, this essay aims to bring together a group of riddles and examine their representations of life courses; no assertion or conclusion is intended as applicable to all the riddles in the Exeter Book. For the sake of clarity, and to a large degree reflecting divisions within the texts, this paper will partition patterns of life progression into three broad areas: early development, subsequent maturity, and intimations of old age. In my analysis I aim to remain continually aware of potential genre-related issues impacting the presentation of life narratives, particularly strategies of description often seen as specific to riddlic discourse. These include Murphy’s concept of ‘metaphorical focus’, which organizes a riddle’s obfuscating description but is separate from its named solution,14 as well as Williamson’s identification of more specific tendencies toward ‘selected details’, ‘multiple comparisons’, ‘arithmetical’ description and the language of ‘family relation’.15 The riddles do nonetheless concern themselves with concepts of life courses in a manner which interacts with and exceeds these modes of description. Motifs emerge with coherency and seem to bear relation to influential life course schemes such as those of Augustine and Isidore. The texts can be found to yield references to repeated, potentially culturally resonant ideas attached to the maturation of human and non-human entities; in this regard, they respond well to being read within the interpretive framework of life-writing.
I. Portrayals of Early Life
As, in Nelson’s words, ‘an expanded development of individual life’, Riddle 9 has attracted considerable attention in its representation of a life course. The riddle is commonly understood to describe a cuckoo chick, placed as an egg into the nest of a bird of a different species.16
Mec on Þissum dagum deadne ofgeafun fæder ond modor; ne wæs me feorh Þa gen, ealdor in innan. þa mec an ongon, welhold mege, wedum Þeccan, heold ond freoÞode, hleosceorpe wrah 5 swa arlice swa hire agen bearn, oÞÞæt ic under sceate, swa min gesceapu wæron, ungesibbum wearð eacen gæste. Mec seo friÞe mæg fedde siÞÞan, oÞÞæt ic aweox, widdor meahte 10 siÞas asettan. Heo hæfde swæsra Þy læs suna ond dohtra, Þy heo swa dyde.17
(In these days my father and mother gave me up for dead; there was no life in me yet, vitality inside. Then began a certain one, a most faithful kinswoman, to cover me with clothes, kept and cared for me, wrapped me in a protective-garment, as graciously as she did her own children, until under a covering, as was my fate, I became increased with spirit among the unrelated. The fair kinswoman fed me afterwards, until I grew and might wider set my paths. She had fewer dear ones, son and daughters, because she did so.)
Neville has engaged with this text most thoroughly from the perspective of youth and age and their associated behaviours, arguing for its pertinence to broader cultural narratives of childhood, specifically fosterage.18 She sees the latter part of the riddle as a ‘sinister nightmare’ revolving centrally around the mother bird’s tragedy in losing her biological children.19 Nelson contrastingly stresses the riddle’s interest in the cuckoo child’s own perspective; followed later by Bitterli, she stresses the cuckoo’s isolation, its status as a ‘survivor’ and a figure caught between states.20 The riddle is indeed preoccupied with the egg’s straddling of a boundary between death and life. The chick begins without feorh, in concordance with Isidore’s theory that eggs remain lifeless until heated sufficiently.21 Eventually, under the mother’s coverings, the cuckoo finds itself eacen gæste, ‘increased in spirit’ (8b). The text does not dwell upon a specific moment of genesis, like emergence from the egg, as a significant event; instead, the early development of the bird is incremental and accumulative. After the cuckoo is invested with feorh, the mother ‘feeds’ it; the verb fedan is semantically broad and can also be understood as to ‘nourish’ more generally.22
The indistinct, gradual nature of the cuckoo’s early development is resonant across the Exeter Book riddle collection. Scenes of birth or parturition appear to be avoided. Where they do occur, they correspond in all but one instance to a parallel in a related Latin text, and the single remaining example may be indirectly related to a Latin analogue. The texts consistently find analogues in Aldhelm’s collection of riddles in particular; this is unsurprising given, as Lapidge and Rosier observe, ‘[n]early one third of the Enigmata contain an explicit reference to birth’, as part of Aldhelm’s intense interest in generation, parturition and viscera.23 The following table traces instances of the Old English verbs cennan and acennan when used to describe creatures in the riddles.24 As can be seen, these verbs almost always correspond to the Latin verbs gignere (‘to beget, bear, bring forth’) or generare (‘to beget, procreate, engender’) in Latin aenigmata:25
References to Birth in the Exeter Book Riddles
Neither of the two Old English verbs is precise in its designation: cennan has a wide breadth of meaning within the field of human procreation, capable of signifying ‘to generate’, ‘to bear or bring forth (a child)’, ‘to conceive’ and ‘to be pregnant’.33Acennan is even broader and carries more abstract senses like ‘propagate’, ‘grow’ and even ‘declare’.34 This breadth is typical of verbs able to denote ‘to give birth’ in Old English; no specific word denotes solely the moment of parturition. Plank concludes a study of the verbs (including notably also tieman and beran) by observing ‘most … are referentially quite versatile’ in that they ‘do not specifically designate one and only one phase in the process of a child’s coming into existence, but may alternatively refer to several phases’, while ‘many of them are preferably used as rather generic descriptions of the entire episode’.35 Old English in general can thus be seen to harbour an ambiguity around the creation of offspring on the level of its available verbs. Nonetheless, even as these verbs are broad and capacious, they are only used by the riddles to describe the creation of individual entities in the four places recorded in the table.
Turning to specific instances, Riddle 35 stays close to Aldhelm’s ‘Lorica’, as does the very similar Leiden Riddle with which the Exeter Book text shares its opening lines.36 The use of cennan in this context aligns with gignere. Similarly, Riddle 40 uses cennan to parallel generare in Aldhelm’s ‘Creatura’. The specific phrase geong acenned forms part of a small group of similar collocations in Old English poetry, including also wundrum acenned. In the entire corpus, this second phrase appears only twice, in the following two entries on the table, Riddle 50 and Riddle 84, although other collocations involving wundrum do occur across the riddle collection more broadly.37 Riddle 50’s reference to a wondrous creation echoes Aldhelm’s ‘Ignis’ as well as Berne Riddle 23. Riddle 84 has no clear Latin analogue, but it is possible to suggest a relationship between Riddle 50 and Riddle 84, particularly as the half-line wundrum acenned appears in precisely the same position in both texts. In both cases it seems to describe the origins of an entity born on eorÞan, although due to manuscript damage the phrase on eorÞan is supplied in Riddle 84 by editors following Tupper.38 In one respect the phrase wundrum acenned is more appropriate in Riddle 50 than in the later riddle. The ‘fire’ riddle is more concerned with surprising birth in terms of failures of inheritance: the Old English text highlights the dumb quality of the flints, while Aldhelm’s and the Berne Riddle emphasize cross-generational contrasts of cold and hot, hard and soft and rough and smooth. ‘Water’ lacks such a sense of disrupted inheritance in the wondrous nature of its birth; its parentage is not explicitly identified in the text as it survives, though as modor (‘mother’, 4a) of many creatures the element is aligned with God the fæder (9b) and Christ the sunu (10b). Peter Orton has recently suggested that the composition of the second block of riddles in the Exeter Book manuscript (Riddles 61–95) may have been informed by a reading of the first block (Riddles 1–59).39 As part of this argument, he notes a similarity between Riddle 84 and the earlier Riddle 41, also solved as ‘water’, in their description of the substance as ‘the mother of many species or creatures’ (Riddle 84, 4; Riddle 41, 2).40 Riddle 84 could similarly be seen to draw from Riddle 50 in its reference to the wondrous birth on eorÞan of its ‘water’ solution. In echoing this earlier riddle, the poem would then form an indirect relationship with Aldhelm’s ‘Ignis’ and Berne Riddle 23. Each reference to the event of birth in the Exeter Book riddles could therefore be seen as relating to a Latin analogue to some degree. Three out of the four are clear in their connection to a Latin text.
This close relationship between Old English and Latin references to birth in the riddles suggests a reluctance to introduce new references to birth in the collection as a whole. It should be noted that birth as the point of origin for an individual life is by no means the only conceptual model available for Anglo-Saxon poets. In fact, the paucity of writings on birth surviving from Anglo-Saxon England has been noted by scholars of the medical literature, even taking into account a lost chapter on gynaecology from Bald’s Leechbook.41 It is only possible to speculate for what reasons birth is absent in the corpus; it has been suggested, for instance, that birth may have been women’s area of expertise, situated at a distance from predominantly male contexts of textual production.42 Despite the absence of writings on birth, there was seemingly an established tradition of embryology in Anglo-Saxon England.43 In his Laterculus Malalianus, Theodore dwells upon Christ’s prenatal life, drawing from Augustine’s embryological scheme.44 The anonymous author of the Old English ‘Formation of the Foetus’ adapts a chapter of Vindicianus’ late fourth-century Gynaecia into a vernacular account of the foetus’ growth in monthly stages, tracing the development of veins and limbs before noting the stage at which the foetus begins to move and becomes cwic (‘alive’), a point of ‘animation’ situated in the fifth month.45 In light of their apparent cultural significance, schemes of embryology may provide a useful context for presentations of early life in the riddles.
In addition to setting out an influential embryological scheme, Augustine also meditates upon the nature of infantia and pueritia, or ‘infancy’ and ‘childhood’, in a manner which foregrounds a mode of gradual, staggered development. Later given precise age spans of 0–7 years and 7–14 years by Isidore, Augustine’s accounts of infantia and pueritia in De Genesi contra Manichaeos are aligned, like the rest of the seven ages, with a day of creation and an age in the history of man:46
Primordia enim generis humani, in quibus ista luce frui coepit, bene comparantur primo diei quo deus fecit lucem … quia et unusquisque homo, cum primo nascitur et exit ad lucem, primam aetatem agit infantiam. Haec tenditur ab Adam usque ad Noe generationibus decem. Quasi vespera huius diei fit diluvium, quia et infantia nostra tamquam oblivionis diluvio deletur.
Et incipit mane a temporibus Noe, secunda aetas tamquam pueritia, et tenditur haec aetas usque ad Abraham aliis generationibus decem. Et bene comparatur secundo diei quo factum est firmamentum inter aquam et aquam; quia et arca, in qua erat Noe cum suis, firmamentum erat inter aquas inferiores in quibus natabat et superiores quibus compluebatur. Haec aetas non diluvio deletur, quia et pueritia nostra non oblivione tergitur de memoria.47
(For the beginnings of the human race, in which it began to enjoy this light, can well be compared to the first day on which God made the light … For every man, when he is first born and comes into the light, passes through the first age, infancy. This age extends from Adam to Noah over ten generations. The flood came like the evening of the day, because our infancy too is wiped out by the flood of forgetfulness.
In the morning the second age, like childhood, begins with the time of Noah, and this age extends up to Abraham over another ten generations. It can well be compared to the second day on which was made the firmament between the waters. For the ark, in which Noah was with his family, was the firmament between the lower waters on which it floated and the higher waters which rained upon it. This age is not wiped out by the flood, because our childhood too is not wiped from our memory by forgetfulness.)48
These accounts of infantia and pueritia both stress intermediacy. Temporal intermediacy is evident in the first stage, brought to a close by the flood. Augustine does not extend the moral element of humanity’s necessary purging by the flood into any statement on the sinfulness of infancy or the need for baptism, but even so there is a sense of a false, or at least partial, start within Augustine’s scheme in that human memory of infantia is erased. Rather than proceeding forcefully and teleologically to the next phase, an aspect of infantia is lost. The account of pueritia foregrounds spatial intermediacy both in the position of the firmament and Noah’s ark, suspended between two bodies of water. While Augustine identifies infantia with the undifferentiated waters on the first day of creation, pueritia sees an evolution into a more distinct and ordered mode of existence, more fixed also on a temporal level, as pueritia is not forgotten.
Augustine’s presentations of early life are characterized by states of temporal and physical suspense, striking a note of accord with the caught-in-between state of Riddle 9’s cuckoo. Although the cuckoo’s memory extends before it is even invested with feorh, not erased in the manner of Augustine’s infantia, the text shares with Augustine’s account a sense of gradual development, beginning in liquidity. Elsewhere, other riddles align with Augustine’s accounts. Riddle 10 is commonly solved as ‘barnacle goose’, seemingly reflecting a belief that these birds developed from barnacles on driftwood.49
Neb wæs min on nearwe, ond ic neoÞan wætre, flode underflowen, firgenstreamum swiÞe besuncen, ond on sunde awox ufan yÞum Þeaht, anum getenge liÞendum wuda lice mine. 5 Hæfde feorh cwico, Þa ic of fæðmum cwom brimes ond beames on blacum hrægle; sume wæron hwite hyrste mine, Þa mec lifgende lyft upp ahof, wind of wæge, siÞÞan wide bær 10 ofer seolhbaÞo. Saga hwæt ic hatte.50
(My beak was in a narrow place, and I beneath water, flowed under by flood, very much sunk in mountain-streams, and in the sea I grew, covered above by waves, clutching with my body to a single wandering piece of wood. I had a living spirit when I came from the embrace of surf and beam, in a black garment; some of my trappings were white, when the air lifted me, living, aloft, wind from wave, and afterwards widely bore me, over the seal’s bath. Say what I am called.)
The creature is introduced in a state of ongoing development through the verb weaxan, used also in Riddle 9 (10a). Like the cuckoo, the goose is without a ‘living spirit’ (feorh cwico, 6a). The bird is furthermore submerged in an aquatic environment, underflowen by water (2a) and ‘covered over by waves’ (ufan yÞum Þeaht, 4a), reminiscent of Augustine’s firmament and ark positioned between waters above and below (aquas inferiores and superiores). As in Riddle 9, after this period of sheltered growth the bird begins to travel new spaces, away from the nearwe corner in which it grew (1a).
This motif of relocation is recurrent in the riddles, such that movement away from an initial fixed base arguably constitutes the most persistent feature of their life-course narratives. In Riddle 60, a reed is removed from its watery environment and transformed into an instrument of communication, whether this is a pen or (as has otherwise been suggested) a rune staff.51
Ic wæs be sonde, sæwealle neah, æt merefaroÞe, minum gewunade frumstaÞole fæst; fea ænig wæs monna cynnes, Þæt minne Þær on anæde eard beheolde, 5 ac mec uhtna gehwam yð sio brune lagufæðme beleolc. Lyt ic wende Þæt ic ær oÞÞe sið æfre sceolde ofer meodubence muðleas sprecan, wordum wrixlan.52 10
(I was by the sand, near the sea-wall, at the ocean shore; I dwelt fast in my first place. There were few if any of mankind who could observe there my abode in solitude, yet every dawn the dark wave played about with me in its embrace. I little thought that sooner or later I should ever speak, mouthless, above the mead-bench, exchange words.)
Again, no firm point of origin is narrated in the form of a birth-like experience. The speaker is introduced in its frumstaÞol or ‘first place’ (3a), repeatedly engulfed by the lagufæðm, with fæðm denoting ‘bosom’ or ‘embrace’, just as it does in Riddle 10 (6b).53 The reed’s beginnings in life again take the form of continuous existence, detached from human society and located within an encircling liquid environment.
Many other riddles participate in a similar structure, with creatures sharing aspects of characterization with Riddle 60. The oyster in Riddle 77 offers another example of secluded, nourished subaquatic growth left behind as the creature moves on, in this case to be eaten.54 Even when the environment is not aquatic, creatures are introduced as continuous presences gradually developing in fluid and nurturing environments. Riddle 53, commonly solved as ‘battering ram’, opens with a scene of ‘growing wood’, which ‘water and earth nourished beautifully’ (wudu weaxende, 3a; Wæter…ond eorÞe/ feddan fægre; 3b–4a).55 Riddle 73, ‘ash spear’, similarly states ‘I grew in a field, dwelt where the earth and the cloud of the sky nourished me’ (Ic on wonge aweox, wunode Þær mec feddon/ hruse ond heofonwolcn, 1–2a).56 The antler-turned-inkhorns of Riddle 88 and Riddle 93 are likewise introduced as growing or standing continuously, fixed upon the head of the stag (Riddle 88, 1–9; Riddle 93, 13b–14).57 The ‘ox’ riddles 38 and 72 both open with a phase of pleasurable nourishment and nurture, drawing to some degree from Latin analogues such as Aldhelm’s ‘Iuvencus’ and Eusebius’ ‘De Vitulo’.58 Riddle 38 makes use of a particularly interesting hapax legomenon, geoguðmyrÞ (2a), ‘youth glee’, combined with the adjective ‘greedy’ (grædig, 2a) to present youth as a voraciously hungry experience.59 The milk streams from which the ox drinks are also described in a manner which stresses continuity—they are ferðfriÞende, ‘life-maintaining’ (3a). All of these texts can be seen to portray early life in terms of gradual, ongoing development, often within an atmosphere of nurture, feeding and growth. In this they resonate with Augustinian schemes of gradual development in early life. They furthermore do not distinguish birth as a clear moment of origin, resembling contemporary embryological and theological schemes which trace various stages of development, including ‘animation’, underway before birth even takes place.
II. Representations of Maturity
As has already been suggested, many of the Exeter Book riddles seem to identify movement away from a fixed base as distinctive of a later phase of life. The horns of Riddle 88 and Riddle 93 both undergo a violent eviction by ‘younger brothers’ (gingran broÞor; Riddle 88, 17a); the loss of their first staÞol (Riddle 88, 5a) unites them with other riddles which frame an initial period of growth followed by relocation. Such a trend aligns with an argument made by Jordi Sánchez-Martí that Anglo-Saxon writings treat journeys as symbolic of maturity.60 Sánchez-Martí uses Widsith and one of the Durham Proverbs to support his point, but the riddles give far more solid evidence of the association. The philosophical background to such a link is also probably more complex than has been acknowledged. To return to Augustine, much of his description of the fifth age, senioris aetas, ‘not yet old age, but no longer youth’ (nondum senectus, sed iam non iuventus), foregrounds movement across new space:61
Et fit mane, transmigratio in Babyloniam, cum in ea captivitate populus leniter in peregrino otio collocatus est … Et bene comparatur illi diei quinto quo facta sunt animalia in aquis et volatilia caeli, posteaquam illi homines inter gentes tamquam in mari vivere coeperunt et habere incertam sedem et instabilem sicut volantes aves. Sed plane erant ibi etiam ceti magni … Ubi sane animadvertendum est quod benedixit deus illa animalia, dicens: crescite et multiplicamini et implete aquas maris, et volatilia multiplicentur super terram, quia revera gens Iudaeorum, ex quo dispersa est per gentes, valde multiplicata est.62
(In the morning there came the exile to Babylon, and in that captivity away from their fatherland the people hardly found rest … It is well compared to the fifth day, on which God made the living things in the waters, and birds of the heaven. For that people began to live among the nations, as in the sea, and to have, like the birds that fly, no certain and fixed abode. Clearly in that exile there were also the great sea animals … Here we should, of course, note that God blessed those animals, when he said, “Increase and multiply, and fill the waters of the sea, and let the flying things multiply above the earth,” For, from the time of their dispersal among the nations, the nation of the Jews really grew greatly in number.)63
The reference to ‘birds that fly’ and have ‘no certain and fixed abode’ in Augustine’s account certainly accords well with those riddles that describe birds gaining the power of flight and travelling widely. Perhaps the collection’s interest in avian subjects (see riddles 7 to 10, 13, 24, 42 and possibly 57) stems partly from the attractive model of individual growth and development which birds offer.64 Many of these texts invoke the shifting modes of spatial orientation available to birds, including the static, contained space of the egg giving way to release (central to Riddle 13, ‘ten chickens’),65 as well as acts of treading earth and stirring water contrasted with flight (as in Riddle 7, ‘swan’).66 Opportunities are abundant for the narration of movement into and through new space as the birds move through time.
The motif of travel in later life is nonetheless not constrained to bird riddles; it is present also in many other texts. Riddle 72 begins with a lytel ox (1a) situated in a context of feeding and nurture similar to those discussed above. The ox’s life takes place within a vaguely familial context in metaphorical terms, which textual damage renders unclear in its details. Over the course of the text the ox becomes yldra (‘older’, 10a), and its circumstances change:
Ic wæs lytel [… … … … … … … … .] fo[… … … … … … … … . . [… … .]te geaf [… … … … . . . . … … … . .]pe Þe unc gemæne [… . … … … … … …] sweostor min, 5 fedde mec [… … . ] oft ic feower teah swæse broÞor, Þara onsundran gehwylc dægtidum me drincan sealde Þurh Þyrel Þearle. Ic Þæh on lust, oÞÞæt ic wæs yldra ond Þæt an forlet 10 sweartum hyrde, siÞade widdor, mearcpaÞas Walas træd, moras pæðde, bunden under beame, beag hæfde on healse, wean on laste weorc Þrowade, earfoða dæl.67 15
(I was little … gave … what us two together … my sister, fed me … often I pulled at four dear brothers, who each separately during the daytime gave me drink abundantly. I drank in joy, until I was older and gave that one up to the dark herdsman, travelled more widely, trod the Welsh boundary-paths, traversed the moors, bound under a beam, had a ring around my neck, in the track of misery, endured work, a share of sorrows.)68
Megan Cavell argues that, upon entry to the later stage, the ox becomes an ‘exile’ on the terms of Stanley Greenfield, seeing this as ‘indicated by the appositive references to wandering paths’.69 However, given the trend across the riddles connecting later life and movement away from home, it is worth considering whether the riddle is invoking Greenfield’s ‘exile’ motif as a distinct, self-contained theme.70 These lines, and indeed the ‘exile’ theme more broadly, may be better understood as part of a wider scheme of association. In his account of senioris aetas Augustine forges a connection between the life stage and the exile of the Jewish people, dispersed ‘among the nations’ (inter gentes), linking the idea of travel among alien peoples with age progression. In an Old English context, Widsith, the lynchpin of Sánchez-Martí’s argument that travel is connected with notions of adulthood in Old English literature, makes use of a very similar register:
Swa ic geondferde fela fremdra londa geond ginne grund; godes ond yfles Þær ic cunnade, cnosle bidæled, freomægum feor, folgade wide.71
(Thus I travelled through many foreign lands over the wide region; I experienced there good and evil, parted from my kindred, far from my kinsmen, I served widely.)72
Language which Greenfield sees as key to the ‘exile’ motif occurs also in distinctly age-related contexts in the riddles, including the noun siÞas (‘paths’) and the verb asettan (‘to set’) in Riddle 9 (11a).73 It may ultimately be beneficial to review Greenfield’s delineation of the ‘exile’ theme in the light of the employment of the constituent language and conceptual structures in age-related riddle contexts. Although the mode of travel represented here is troubled and unhappy, as well as taking place amid alien environments, critical evaluation need not stop with the designation of the ‘exile’ theme. It is worth considering the apparently entrenched status of these experiences as a part of the general shape of the life course, a difficult yet typical, or even necessary, aspect of maturation across time.
Travel is not the only motif attached to later life in the riddles. As the reed of Riddle 60 is dislocated, it moves from a socially detached state into a world of socially placed function in its role as a message-bringer (7b–17). In this respect the text forms part of a much broader theme of work and service in the collection. Tupper in 1910 identified ‘the trait of utility’:
The riddler may neglect place and form and colour of his subject, but he constantly stresses its uses to mankind. Indeed, men are in the background of every riddle-picture; and the subject is usually viewed in its relation to them.74
From this perspective, the focus on work and function in the riddles is a phenomenon contained by the genre, representing specific generic concerns about the relationship between human and non-human entities. However, the motif of work and labour can also be seen as associated with mid-life. In Riddle 72, as the ox becomes yldra (‘older’, 10a), it is forced to engage in weorc (14b), which is often translated as ‘pain’ but also understandable in the (historically separate) sense ‘work’.75 This riddle is solely focused on the labour of the ox pulling the plough; in this respect it differs from the other ‘ox’ riddles, 12 and 38 (and their Latin analogues), which describe the ox’s post-mortem use as leather (in addition to the ploughing function, in the case of Riddle 12).76 The central conceit of Riddle 72 may be seen to have more in common with an equivalence made by Isidore in his Etymologies:
Iuvenis vocatus, quod iuvare posse incipit; ut in bubus iuvenci, cum a vitulis discesserint. Est enim iuvenis in ipso aetatis incremento positus, et ad auxilium praeparatus. Nam iuvare hominis est opus aliquod conferentis. Sicut autem trecesimus perfectae aetatis est annus in hominibus, ita in pecudibus ac iumentis tertius robustissimus.77
(A youth (iuvenis) is so called because he begins to be able to help (iuvare), just as we name the young bullocks (iuvencus) among oxen, when they have separated from the calves. A youth is at the peak of his development and ready to give assistance – for a person’s ‘helping’ is his contributing some work. As in human beings the thirtieth year is the time of full maturity, so in cattle and beasts of burden the third year is the strongest.)78
Isidore draws a link between the maturation of the iuvenis and the iuvencus in terms of their capacity to ‘help’ or ‘assist’, making use of their peak levels of physical strength.79 The movement into working life of the ageing ox in Riddle 72 may invoke this perceived overlap with iuvenis. The ox’s transition is expressed as removal from its peers—the figurative ‘sister’ (5b) and ‘brothers’ (7a) formed by the mother cow and the cow’s teats respectively. Within this context, mid-life appears to be associated with notions of usefulness and industry, although in the Old English text, the painful and miserable aspects of the useful state are stressed. This negative emotional state is not part of Isidore’s account, just as it is absent from Augustine’s scheme of iuventus, as ‘among all the ages youth is truly king’.80 Riddle 72 appears more eager to present the maturation of its figure as troubled and mournful than Latin schemes of the ‘prime of life’ would suggest; it nonetheless shares Isidore’s link between maturity and the doing of work.
Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe has explored the close connection between vocation and identity in a group of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Latin writings.81 She focuses on Ælfric’s Colloquy, a dialogue intended to aid Latin language-learning but which has attracted much attention for its ventriloquizing of various labourers.82 With specific reference to the identities performed by the monastic oblates using the text, O’Brien O’Keeffe scrutinizes the resonance of the exhortation from the Consiliarius to esto quod es, ‘be what you are’, or beo Þæt Þu eart in the anonymous Old English gloss.83 Discussing this imperative and its surroundings, O’Brien O’Keeffe notes how identity is shown to be performed through the doing of work and the fulfilment of one’s cræft (able to signify ‘skill’ or ‘trade’, here glossing Latin ars) in the sense of ‘an occupation within the widest social understanding of the term … whether peasant, warrior, or religious.’84 In the words of the Consiliarius,
Et hoc consilium do omnibus operariis, ut unusquisque artem suam diligenter exerceat, quia qui artem suam dimiserit, ipse dimittatur ab arte.
And Þis geÞeaht ic sylle eallum wyrhtum, Þæt anra gehwylc cræft his geornlice begange, forÞam se Þe cræft his forlæt, he byÞ forlæten fram Þam cræfte.85
(And I give this advice to all workers, let each one go about his cræft keenly, because whoever abandons his cræft, will be abandoned by his cræft.)
O’Brien O’Keeffe emphasizes how the ‘consequence of not practising one’s cræft’ is being ‘left incoherent and without substance’, such that ‘the threat of abandonment by one’s cræft is a fundamental threat to identity itself within the understanding that ‘You are what you do.’’86 This conceptual framework may be considered as intersecting with the simultaneous interest in age relations that runs through the Colloquy, grounded in the age of its projected audience, young oblates (committed at around the age of seven) identified throughout as puer or cild.87 In addition to instilling principles of identity-formation founded upon social occupation, the text disseminates a notion of socially and economically contextualized adulthood in a manner congruous with Isidore’s notion of ‘use’ and the iuvenis. The Consiliarius’ address is rhetorically directed at individuals too young to have given up a diet which includes meat (140) and young enough to require instruction in Latin as well as the social stratification which the Colloquy describes and prescribes.88
Riddle 72, of course, does not depict labour undertaken by volition—the ox is forced into its task, participating in a discourse of slavery and forced labour.89 It is notable that animals, and cattle in particular, appear in the Ælfrician texts treated by O’Brien O’Keeffe as examples of beings who do not possess the power of choice. Translating Alcuin, Ælfric argues humankind is invested with moral responsibility, else ‘he would then be like an animal’ (he…wære Þonne swilce nyten).90 In Ælfric’s homily for the feast of St Paul, Saul is warned that if he does not choose to obey Christ, then he can be seen to ‘kick against the goad’ (spurne ongean Þa gade) in the manner of an ox: ‘If the ox kicks against the goad: it hurts him’ (Gif se oxa spyrnð ongean Þa gade‘. hit derað him sylfum).91 Riddle 72 may reflect this association of oxen with unwilling subjects. At the same time, a great array of different kinds of labour and employment is depicted in the riddles as a wider collection; as Cavell notes, it can be difficult to separate the languages of slavery, servitude and heroic obligation.92 Having been displaced by their gingra brothers, the horns of Riddle 88 and 93 do not voluntarily fulfil their roles as inkhorns: the speaker of Riddle 88 laments ‘I cannot escape’ (ic gewendan ne mæg, 30b), while that of 93 complains ‘I am not able to avenge/ my miserable experience on that warrior’s life’ (ic…ne wrecan meahte/ on wigan feore wonn-sceaft mine, 20b–22). Their language has much in common with the ‘shield’ or ‘chopping block’ riddle, Riddle 5, embroiled in inescapable combat and unable to effectively retaliate.93 Such complex dynamics of thwarted volition permeate the riddles, but in such texts as the inkhorn riddles and Riddle 72 they are firmly situated in the latter part of the text. Entrance into a social network of use and demand, along with accompanying issues of volition and constraint, appears to be associated with later life in these narratives. This connection may suggest a broader cultural association between entry into adulthood or mid-life and integration into a socially contextualized mode of existence, requiring strict delineation of individual identity as part of a system and contribution in accordance with this role.
Other riddles may not explicitly locate dynamics of obligation in contrast to an earlier state, but still employ age-related language in their treatment of the theme of compelled work or service. Riddle 20 has the apparent solution ‘sword’ or (allowing for a phallic double-meaning) wæpen.94 The speaker describes its social role in terms closely intertwined with two separate but parallel concepts of young male adulthood:95
ne weorÞeð sio mægburg gemicledu 20 eaforan minum Þe ic æfter woc, nymÞe ic hlafordleas hweorfan mote from Þam healdende Þe me hringas geaf. Me bið forð witod, gif if frean hyre, guÞe fremme, swa ic gien dyde 25 minum Þeodne on Þonc, Þæt ic Þolian sceal bearngestreona. Ic wiÞ bryde ne mot hæmed habban, ac me Þæs hyhtplegan geno wyrneð, se mec geara on bende legde; forÞon ic brucan sceal 30 on hagostealde hæleÞa gestreona.96
(that family will not become extended by offspring of mine, those that I generated from myself, unless I might turn, lordless, from the guardian who gave me rings. It is ordained from now that if I obey my lord, make war, just as I have done before, to satisfy my prince, I shall suffer the lack of the wealth of children. I may not have sex with a bride, but he still refuses me that hope-play, who earlier laid bonds on me; therefore, I must enjoy as a hagosteald the wealth of men.)
Here, the martial vocation of the sword is considered against procreative activity with a bryd, a ‘bride’ or ‘wife’.97 The term hagosteald is relatively precise in its denotation of age, seeming originally to describe a person who has not inherited a household, but later applied to groups as diverse as warriors, virgins and priests as part of the general sense ‘young unmarried man’ or ‘bachelor’; as a state the term carries the sense ‘celibacy’.98 Other riddles are similarly interested in the idea of the hagosteald. The speaker of Riddle 14, a ‘horn’, is another martial figure, decorated by a geong hagostealdmon (2a) and kissed by men (3b).99 Riddle 54 may use the term mockingly when it describes a hagostealdmon approach a butter churn and operate it in a flurry of sexual innuendo (3a);100 Murphy suggests that in this context the term hagostealdmon ‘seems to indicate an unmarried state’ and ‘may further suggest a lack of sexual experience’.101 Whether or not this is the case, all three riddles are interested in the representation of young adulthood in the form of the young hagosteald. In this respect they may support what Burrow sees as the primary age division of importance in texts such as Beowulf; the division between the geoguð and duguð, young unproved warriors without land of their own, and older, landed warriors.102 Riddle 20 in particular offers a representation of an unstable early phase of adult life, holding divergent ways of life in parallel as the sword is denied fulfilment of its procreative potential.
The sexual elements of Riddle 20 and Riddle 54 may further be indicative of Anglo-Saxon conceptualizations of mid-life in their highlighting of procreative ability, also emphasized in Augustine’s characterization of adolescentia as the age that ‘can already bear children’ (filios habere iam potest).103 The sword interweaves its hypothetical sexual activity with the martial function that displaces it, supporting Neville’s assertion that sex in the Exeter Book riddles is ultimately perceived as work.104 It is spoken about in the same breath as other kinds of labour, as in Riddle 54, in which the metaphorical sex appears to be conducted primarily for the purpose of procreation: the riddle ends with a metaphoric pregnancy (10b–12). Similarly, Riddle 42 describes the copulation of a ‘cock and hen’: the sexual activity in this scenario is explicitly weorc (4b), with the ‘filling’ of the female its projected goal (fyllo, 5a).105 Riddle 20’s idea of sex is linked to the production of bearngestreona (27a), punning on gestreon as ‘offspring’ or ‘treasure’.106 The vision of young adulthood put forward by these texts seems to include the hypothetical ability to reproduce, framed in terms of industrious work. This is congruous with the wider interest in social and economic contribution in later life explored above.
In the examples discussed, experiences of maturity in the riddles appear to be characterized by travel and movement in an alien sphere, by the undertaking of work as a form of social obligation (often unwanted and difficult), and by the ability to procreate. It is notable that all of these activities involve some form of entrance into a new social network. Whereas the riddle-creatures’ experiences of early life take place either in solitude or amid familial relationships, the dynamics involved in travel, employment and procreation are reliant on wider spheres of social existence.
III. Suggestions of Old Age
In comparison to the earlier two phases, clear representations of creatures experiencing states of advanced or old age in the riddles are relatively few. As a group the extant references are diverse, but equally in their individual contexts they stress diversity.107 This can be seen as consistent with the resonance of frod as a key term for advanced age, emphasizing a wealth of (often negative) personal experience.108 One possible reference to old age that has attracted attention is the persona of the feaxhar cwene (‘grey-haired woman’, 2b) momentarily adopted by the amorphous creature of Riddle 74, identified by Niles as ac, ‘oak’ or ‘a ship made of oak’.109 The compound feaxhar has been interpreted by Niles as a reference to the fully-formed oak tree, as trees are described as har elsewhere in the Old English corpus.110 The rest of the riddle stresses simultaneity and breadth of experience as the riddle-creature claims ‘I flew with the birds and swam in the sea, dove under the wave and stepped on earth’ (Ic…fleah mid fuglum ond on flode swom/ deaf under yÞe…ond on foldan stop, 1–5a). The stag of Riddle 93 is in some ways a similar figure, described as dægrime frod (‘wise in the count of days’, 8a) and characterized by wide-ranging motion: the riddle reports it ‘waded’ (wod, 7b), ‘had to climb steep slopes (stealc hliÞo stigan sceolde, 9), and return ‘into deep valleys’ (in deop dalu, 11a). Being har or frod is linked on these occasions with a broad range of experience and the occupation of different places and states.
Other riddles make reference to frod existence as wide-ranging. In both Riddle 53 and Riddle 73, the word frod appears at the point of disjunction when the happily flourishing trees are torn down by human enemies.111 Riddle 53 locates a clear transition into a new phase: the tree grows ‘until, old in days, it came to be in a different, miserable state’ (oÞÞæt he frod dagum/ on oÞrum wearð aglachade, 4b–5). The passage recalls similar transformations elsewhere in the riddles, such as the ox’s in Riddle 72, but rather than being yldra, the tree of Riddle 53 is frod dagum. Riddle 73 makes use of a very similar ‘until’ clause to mark the ash’s change of state: ‘until those who hated me turned me aside, old in years’ (oÞÞæt me onhwyrfdon/ gearum frodne, Þa me grome wurdon
To be honest, I have no idea how to even start this problem. I'm sorry I don't have any work to show, but I'm just at a blank. Help?
University B, once boasted $17$ tenured professors of mathematics. Tradition prescribed that at their weekly luncheon meeting, faithfully attended by all $17$, any members who had discovered an error in their published work should make an announcement of this fact, and promptly resign. Such an announcement had never actually been made, because no professor was aware of any errors in her or his work. This is not to say that no errors existed, however. In fact, over the years, in the work of every member of the department at least one error had been found, by some other member of the department. This error had been mentioned to all other members of the department, but the actual author of the error had been kept ignorant of the fact, to forestall any resignations.
One fateful year, the department was augmented by a visitor from another university, one Prof. X, who had come with hopes of being offered a permanent position at the end of the academic year. Naturally, he was apprised, by various members of the department, of the published errors which had been discovered. When the hoped-for appointment failed to materialize, Prof. X obtained his revenge at the last luncheon of the year. "I have enjoyed my visit here very much", he said, "but I feel that there is one thing that I have to tell you. At least one of you has published an incorrect result, which has been discovered by others in the department." What happened the next year?"