Exeter Book  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Exeter Book, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, also known as the Codex Exoniensis, is a tenth-century book or codex which is an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is one of the four major Anglo-Saxon literature codices. The book was donated to the library of Exeter Cathedral by Leofric, the first bishop of Exeter. It is believed originally to have contained 131 leaves, of which the first 8 have been replaced with other leaves; the original first 8 pages are lost. The Exeter Book is the largest known collection of Old English literature that exists today.


Historical context

Though the precise date of the Exeter Codex's inscription is still unknown, it may generally be described as one of the great works of the English Benedictine revival of the tenth century, and proposed dates of authorship generally range from 960 to 990. This period saw a rise in monastic activity and productivity under the renewed influence of Benedictine principles and standards. At the opening of the period, Dunstan's importance to the Church and to the English kingdom was established, culminating in his appointment to the Archbishopric at Canterbury under Edgar and leading to the monastic reformation by which this era was characterised. Dunstan died in 998, and by the period's close, England under Æthelred faced an increasingly determined Scandinavian incursion, to which it would eventually succumb.

The Exeter Book's heritage becomes traceable as of 1050, when Leofric was made Bishop at Exeter. Among the treasures which he is recorded to have bestowed upon the then-impoverished monastery is one famously described "mycel englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoðwisan geworht" (i.e., "a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things"). This book has been widely assumed to be the Exeter Codex as it survives today.


The Riddles

Among the other texts in the Exeter Book, there are over ninety riddles. They are written in the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry and range in topics from the religious to the mundane. Some of them are double entendres, such as Riddle 25 below.

Here are two of these Anglo-Saxon riddles, both in Old English and translated into modern English. The answers to the riddles are included below the text.

Riddle 25

For a good analysis of the sexual content of these riddles, consult Medieval Obscenities by Nicola McDonald, University of York, Centre for Medieval Studies

Old English

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht wifum on hyhte
neahbuendum nyt; nægum sceþþe
burgsittendra nymthe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah stonde ic on bedde
neoðan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor
modwlonc meowle þæt heo on mec gripe
ræseð mec on reodne reafath min heafod
fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona
mines gemotes seo þe mec nearwað
wif wundenlocc. Wæt bið þæt eage.

Modern English

I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation,
a service for neighbors. I harm none of the citizens
except my slayer alone.
My stem is erect, I stand up in bed,
hairy somewhere down below. A very comely
peasant's daughter, dares sometimes,
proud maiden, that she grips at me,
attacks me in my redness, plunders my head,
confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly,
woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye.

Answer: Onion

Riddle 26

Old English

Mec feonda sum feore besnyþede, woruldstrenga binom, wætte siþþan, dyfde on wætre, dyde eft þonan, sette on sunnan þær ic swiþe beleas herum þam þe ic hæfde. Heard mec siþþan snað seaxses ecg, sindrum begrunden; fingras feoldan, ond mec fugles wyn geond speddropum spyrede geneahhe, ofer brunne brerd, beamtelge swealg, streames dæle, stop eft on mec, siþade sweartlast. Mec siþþan wrah hæleð hleobordum, hyde beþenede, gierede mec mid golde; forþon me gliwedon wrætlic weorc smiþa, wire bifongen. Nu þa gereno ond se reada telg ond þa wuldorgesteald wide mære dryhtfolca helm—nales dol wite. Fif min bearn wera brucan willað, hy beoð þy gesundran ond þy sigefæstran, heortum þy hwætran ond þy hygebliþran, ferþe þy frodran, habbaþ freonda þy ma, swæsra ond gesibbra, soþra ond godra, tilra ond getreowra, þa hyra tyr ond ead estum ycað ond hy arstafum lissum bilecgað ond hi lufan fæþmum fæste clyppað. Frige hwæt ic hatte, niþum to nytte. Nama min is mære, hæleþum gifre ond halig sylf.

Modern English

Some fiend robbed me from life, deprived me of wordly strengths, wetted next, dipped in water, took out again, set in the sun, deprived violently of the hair that I had after, the hard knife's edge cut me, ground from impurities, fingers folded and a bird's delight spread useful drops over me, swallowed tree-ink over the ruddy rim, portion of liquid, stepped on me again, traveled with black track. After, a man clad me with protective boards, covered with hide, adorned me with gold. Forthwith adorned me in ornamental works of smiths, encased with wire Now the trappings and the red dye and the wondrous setting widely make known the helm of the lord's folk, never again guard fools. If children of men want to use me they will be by that the safer and the more sure of victory the bolder in heart and the happier in mind, in spirit the wiser. They will have friends the more dearer and closer, righteous and more virtuous, more good and more loyal, those whose glory and happiness will gladly increase, and them with benefits and kindnesses, and they of love will clasp tightly with embraces. Ask what I am called as a service to people. My name is famous, bountiful to men and my self holy.

Answer: Bible

See also

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