Sex and Marriage between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades

From the start of the First Crusade, Christian men were fascinated with the possibility of marrying Muslim women. In his account of the Battle of Antioch (1097-1098), Peter of Tudebode narrates an incident about the Emir, Yaghi Siyan, offering the Crusaders the following bargain: “Deny your God, whom you worship and believe, and accept Mohammed and our other gods. If you do so we shall give to you all that you desire such as gold, horses, mules, and many other worldly goods which you wish, as well as wives and inheritances; and we shall enrich you with great lands” (pp. 58-59). The bargain included wives.

Image to accompany paragraph 1
Kerbogha, the Atabeg of Mosul and the renowned Turkish soldier, defends Antioch from the Crusaders in 1098

Fulcher of Chartres’s utopian version of the intercultural interaction reads like a propaganda piece meant to attract prospective settlers to the newly established Crusader territories. He provides an idyllic vision of assimilation that took place at the meeting point of the East and the West. According to him, assimilation was achieved through the acquisition of inheritable properties and servants by Occidentals, the mutual blending of languages, and most importantly through intermarriages between Christian men and non-Christian women through baptism as he boasts, “Some have taken wives not merely of their own people, but Syrians, or Armenians, or even Saracens [medieval term for Muslims] who have received the grace of baptism” (p. 281). Fulcher’s account, written around 1125 appeals to the aspirations of prospective male settlers in Western Christendom—their aspirations for property and wives. The two examples provided above, resist a simplistic version of what happened between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades. Popular portrayals suggest that the Crusades were violent religious conflicts in the Middle Ages with Christianity on one side and Islam on the other.

Image to accompany above paragraph
Miniature from the 13th century (original held at the National Library in Paris) depicting the violence between Christians and Muslims during the Siege of Jerusalem

However, violence is only one part of the story. Relations between these two religious groups were much more complex. The writings of both Fulcher and Tudebode suggest that the idea of securing local wives was tempting to the Crusaders and the settlers of newly acquired territories. The Crusades reveal that medieval attitudes towards sexuality were not always rigid and repressed. 

Even though the earliest laws in the Crusader states reveal concerns about the danger miscegenation posed to Christian sexual purity, they focus on sexual acts and do not explicitly forbid interfaith marriages. The Canons of the Council of Nablus of 1120, the earliest laws in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem prescribed draconian measures against the rape of Muslim slave-women by Christian men. Canons 13 and 14 punished sexual activity between Christian men and Muslim slave-women with castration and expulsion. In the same vein, Canon 15 of the Nablus prohibits consensual sex between Muslim men and Christian women. Thus, these Canons reveal an anxiety about intermixing and the impurity incurred by sexual acts between Christians and Muslims. 

However, the Nablus laws were not concerned about interfaith marriage. Marriages between Christians and non-Christians (pagans, Muslims and Jews) were quite common in the initial stages of the Crusades. In fact, there is no law in the Nablus that prohibits consensual or non-consensual sex between Christian men and free Muslim women. There are two possible reasons for this: either every single Muslim woman was enslaved once Jerusalem was captured during the First Crusade or sexual acts between Christian men and free Muslim women were not considered threats to sexual purity. 

The conspicuous absence of a law prohibiting sexual acts between Christian men and free Muslim women silently condones the Christian penetration of Muslim culture and, hence, the latter’s subordination through sexual acts with free Muslim women; just as Canon 15 prevents the Muslim subordination of Christians by prohibiting sex between Christian women and Muslim men. The Nablus laws reveal a nuance in how the idea of sexual purity worked in the Crusader states. In a master-slave dynamic, when the Muslim was already in a subordinated state, the fact that she was Muslim was important. A Christian man having sex with a Muslim slave constituted sexual impurity. However, when the Muslim woman was free, the dynamic was dramatically altered. The focus then was on the fact that the Muslim is free, suggesting that a member of an antagonistic religious group had autonomy. The existence of a free Muslim presented evidence that complete subordination of the community was not achieved. Consequently, sex with a free Muslim woman did not constitute impurity. Rather it was an act of nullifying the autonomy of the Muslim community through religious conquest disguised as sexual penetration. 

Image to accompany below paragraph
Livre des Assises de la baisse Court, c’est de la Court dou Visconte dou Reaume de Chipre; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliotek, Cod.gall. 51, [S.l.] Zypern, ca. 1315
By the mid-thirteenth century, the Canons of the Council of Nablus fell into disuse and were gradually replaced by the secular law codes Livre des Assises de la Cour des Bourgeois. The Assises protected the economic stakes of Christians, that is, wealth tied in property, and consequently prohibited intermarriages. Chapter 177, for instance, states that, “the holy faith prohibits a Christian from marrying a Saracen, because everyone should know that according to the holy foundations of Jerusalem, a woman is entitled to half of all the property that her husband earns with it after they were married, because as a man and a woman are one flesh, all that a man acquires the lifetime of his wife, falls in half possession of his wife legally.” Along the same lines, Chapter 200 states that one third of the property of a baptized former slave without legitimate heirs goes to his former lord and-or lady. This stipulation prevents illegitimate heirs from inheriting the entire estate. Illegitimate heirs of a former slave would likely have been Muslim. Most slaves in Jerusalem were Muslim and while the conversion to Christianity granted them freedom, it also made their marriage to their Muslim partners illicit. Therefore, this law intended to keep at least part of the wealth and property, that the baptized former slave accrued, in Christian hands. Chapter 235, on a slightly different note, authorized the son to “disinherit his father and mother of all his property” if the parent goes to Muslim territories and denies his faith or becomes a “Jew or a Saracen.” 

Thus, the laws pertaining to sex and marriage in Crusader states evolved with the evolving necessities and concerns in Western Christendom. At the start of the First Crusade, the exertion of Christian dominance over Muslim subjects entailed sexual acts and marriage between Christian men and free Muslim women as suggested by Nablus laws. By the mid-thirteenth century, intermixing was increasingly prohibited for economic reasons. 

Ambika Natarajan
Oregon State University

Ambika Natarajan received her Ph.D. in the History of Science from Oregon State University and she specializes in the History of Science and Sexuality in the Habsburg Monarchy. Her research work focuses on multiple aspects of migrant female work, including domestic work and sex work and how working-class women altered the discourse on labor and migration. Her work has appeared in The Austrian History Yearbook and she is currently working on a book manuscript. She also has graduate degrees in English Literature and Biotechnology and diplomas in German, French, and Creative Writing and has taught courses in Biostatistics and graduate-level biology courses, Russian History, American Diplomatic and Religious History, and History of Science and Religion internationally. To learn more about her research, visit her website.

From Bobbio to South Bend via Milan: The Modern Fate of an Early Medieval Library

Many readers of this blog will know that Notre Dame’s Rare Books and Special Collections Department in Hesburgh Library boasts a large—and growing!—collection of medieval manuscripts. Perhaps less known is a manuscript collection of a different sort, housed in the Medieval Institute on the seventh floor of Hesburgh. I am referring to Notre Dame’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana Collection, which contains over 10,000 microfilms of manuscripts held in one of the world’s great libraries, the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, Italy. In partnership with Notre Dame, the Ambrosiana recently launched an initiative to digitize its manuscripts and make them freely available to all on the web. The first fruits of this effort can already be enjoyed: at the time of writing 382 manuscripts are viewable online. For now, though, the Medieval Institute remains the only place to access many of the Ambrosiana’s treasures outside of Milan. In celebration of the Ambrosiana, its new digital library, and the unique microfilm collection at Notre Dame, this post will briefly trace the history of the library of the northern Italian monastery of Bobbio, whose early medieval manuscripts make up one of the most important components of the Ambrosiana’s holdings.

The monastery of Bobbio was founded c. 613 by the Irish monk Columbanus with the support of the Lombard king Agilulf, who richly endowed it. In the centuries that followed its foundation, the monastery amassed one of early medieval Europe’s largest libraries, both by acquiring manuscripts from elsewhere and by producing them in its own scriptorium. Among Bobbio’s oldest and most well-known codices are its palimpsests—manuscripts in which the original text has been scraped away and then written over—including four in which the lower (i.e., erased) text is in the Gothic language.

The Monastery of Bobbio
The Monastery of Bobbio. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the surviving books themselves, a valuable indicator of the scale and scope of Bobbio’s early medieval library comes down to us in the form of an inventory, made probably in the late ninth or in the tenth century. The original document has been lost, but the great Italian historian Ludovico Muratori obtained and published a fragmentary transcription of it in the eighteenth century. Even in its incomplete state, this inventory lists 666 items in the monastery’s library. (It was also in a Bobbio manuscript that Muratori discovered the so-called “Muratorian fragment,” the earliest known list of the books of the New Testament.)

The monastery suffered a decline in the Later Middle Ages; at one point, in 1346, only four monks and the abbot remained. The fate of its great library reflected this decline. When another inventory of the library was made in the mid-fifteenth century, it found only 243 manuscripts. An annotation in one surviving codex suggests that the monastery may have resorted to pawning some of its books. In 1493, a scholar working for Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, noticed the library’s still ample collection of classical texts. After this discovery, many books left the monastery in the hands of humanist scholars. While some of these manuscripts have since been identified in libraries elsewhere, many others have been lost.

Two large transfers of books out of Bobbio in the early seventeenth century have, fortunately, survived nearly intact. In 1606, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, requested and obtained 77 manuscripts from the monastery, in exchange for which he seems to have offered the monastery printed books. These manuscripts entered the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, founded by Borromeo in 1607 and formally opened in 1609, where they remain today. In 1618, at the request of Pope Paul V the monastery donated a further 29 of its manuscripts to the Vatican Library (one of these codices went missing in the eighteenth century). At some point in the early seventeenth century at least five of Bobbio’s manuscripts also found their way into the court library of the dukes of Savoy in Turin; the total number is unknown since some others may have been destroyed by a fire there in 1667. The great French scholar Jean Mabillon visited Bobbio in 1686 and had two of its manuscripts (including the famous “Bobbio Missal” of Merovingian origin) transferred to Saint-Germain-des-Prés; both are now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

The so-called Bobbio Orosius, seventh century, in insular (Irish) script. Likely written at Bobbio. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, D. 23. sup.
The so-called Bobbio Orosius, seventh century, in insular (Irish) script. Likely written
at Bobbio. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, D. 23. sup.
Note the Bobbio “ex libris” annotation (“Liber sancti columbani de bobio”) at the top of the page, added in the fifteenth century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By 1720, when another inventory of Bobbio’s library was made, only 122 codices remained there. Following the suppression of the monastery by Napoleon, Bobbio’s remaining books were sold at auction in 1803. As it happened, this last cache of books from Columbanus’s monastery was bought by an Irish-born doctor residing in Italy, Odoardo Raymond Buthler. After Buthler’s death the codices entered the Biblioteca nazionale universitaria in Turin. In 1904 a fire destroyed a large portion of this library’s holdings, including some of its Bobbiese manuscripts.

As a result of this tortuous history, many of Bobbio’s manuscripts have disappeared entirely, and those that remain are scattered in libraries across Europe, from Naples to Cambridge and from Vienna to El Escorial. The vast majority, however, can now be found in three repositories: the Biblioteca nazionale universitaria in Turin, the Vatican Library, and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

In a future post, we’ll look in a bit more detail a few of Bobbio’s early medieval manuscripts, and at the process that brought many of them—in microform—to the United States and to Notre Dame.

Michael W. Heil
2020–21 A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Medieval Studies at the Medieval Institute
Ph.D. in History (2013)
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Further Reading:

On Bobbio and its library, with references to further literature, see Alessandro Zironi, Il monastero longobardo di Bobbio: crocevia di uomini, manoscritti e culture (Spoleto, 2004); Leandra Scappaticci, Codici e liturgia a Bobbio: testi, musica e scrittura (secoli X ex.-XII) (Vatican City, 2008). In English see Michael Richter, Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages (Dublin, 2008).

Encoded References in Exeter Book Bird-Riddles

In continuing my discussion of cryptic information encoded in runes in the Exeter Book Riddles, in which I argue runic literacy functions as a form of esotericism, I wish to expand the conversation by considering the variety of specialized information contained in a group of Old English riddles featured in the collection (Riddles 7-10). I will refer to these as bird-riddles, by which I mean specifically a group of potentially related riddles in the Exeter Book whose accepted solutions are birds. As this description promises, these riddles feature bird imagery and their riddle-speaker is generally a specific bird of some kind. Patrick Murphy has suggested that bird-riddle imagery may act also as a mode of obfuscation in the Exeter Book Riddles, and he contends that in Riddle 57, letters (litterae), or rune-staves (runstafas or bocstafas), are probably the best solution to this verbal puzzle, which Murphy argues likens flocking black birds to letters forming words on vellum or parchment.

George Hodan, “Flock Of Birds” (2007-2019).

The Exeter Book bird-riddles display a range of references, as they encode learned and folkloric knowledge. Most of the bird-riddles contain specific references to an encyclopedic source of medieval knowledge, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, which endeavors to define, interpret and explicate the Latin words contained therein. While Isidore reports his share of false etymologies, his text is widely considered authoritative with regard to the study of Latin terminology during the Middle Ages. Mercedes Salvador-Bello has demonstrated the profound extent to which information and even organization principles outlined in Isidore’s Etymologiae serve as models for zoological Exeter Book Riddles, though not all of the clues in the Old English riddles are shared by this Latin source (in fact, many times the information contained diverges significantly).

Diagrams of the path of the Sun and the phases of the moon; from Isidore of Seville, “Etymologies” (11th century), British Library, Royal MS 6 C I, f.30r

Most of the Exeter Book bird-riddles rely on some form of esotericism and references to specific information. I now will briefly consider three of bird-riddles, which encode specialized knowledge and may be associated with Isidore’s Etymologiae in addition to other classical sources, especially Pliny’s Historia naturalis. Furthermore, numerous riddle collections from early medieval England likewise feature bird-riddles, such as Anglo-Latin enigmata composed by authors such as Aldhelm (Enigmata 14, 22, 26, 31, 35, 42, 47, 57, 63-64) and Eusebius (Enigmata 38, 56-60),  a Latin literary tradition interwoven with its vernacular counterpart as Dieter Bitterli and other scholars have shown. Old English bird-riddles that seem to allude to Isidore’s Etymologiae XII, include Riddle 7 (solved swon “swan”), Riddle 8 (solve nihtegale “nightingale”), Riddle 9 (solved geac “cuckoo”) and Riddle 24 (solved higora “magpie”). Today’s discussion will center on Riddles 7-10 from the Exeter Book collection.

Exeter Book Riddle 7, Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051 f.103r. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Exeter Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter, Exeter Cathedral.
Riddle 7
Hrægl min swigað,      þonne ic hrusan trede, 
oþþe þa wic buge,      oþþe wado drefe. 
Hwilum mec ahebbað      ofer hæleþa byht 
hyrste mine,      ond þeos hea lyft, 
ond mec þonne wide      wolcna strengu 
ofer folc byreð.      Frætwe mine 
swogað hlude      ond swinsiað, 
torhte singað,      þonne ic getenge ne beom 
flode ond foldan,      ferende gæst.
“My dress is mute, when I tread the ground, or occupy my abode or stir the water. Sometimes my garments and this high wind heave me over the city of heroes, and then the strength of the skies bears me far and wide over the people. My adornments then resound loudly, and ring, and sing brightly, when I am not hanging on sea or land, a traveling spirit.”
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

The muted attire of the swan (swon) does not feature in the Etymologiae, and its feathers do not sing when in flight . The swan (cygnus) does produce cantus dulcissimos “the sweetest songs” according to Isidore’s Etymologiae XII.vii.1, and the etymological relationship between the swan and its song is repeatedly stressed, namely how cycnus autem a canendo est appellatus, eo quod carminis dulcedinem modulatis vocibus fundit “moreover, the swan is named for singing because it unleashes the sweetness of song with modulated voice” (Etymologiae XII.vii.18). However, this reference and emphasis on the creature’s beautiful vocalization probably does not explain the full extent of learned references in this riddle. The image of the swan’s melodious feathers is found also in the Old English Phoenix (131-39), and both J. D. A. Ogilvy and Craig Williamson consider these possible references to an epistle that describes the sweet and harmonious song of the swan’s wings by Gregorius Naziansenus to Celeusius, a Latin translation of which they believe may have circulated in early medieval England.

As with other bird-riddles, Exeter Book Riddle 7 refers to the bird’s hyrst “garment” (4). The word hyrst seems to be a repeated clue encoded in numerous bird-riddles, though the term itself operates somewhat more ambiguously, rather than making direct mention of feathers or otherwise explicit references to their riddle-subjects’ physicality.

Like Riddle 7, the speaker of Exeter Book Riddle 8 is clearly also some kind of songbird. Emphasis on this aspect exceeds even its treatment in the previous riddle.

Exeter Book Riddle 8, Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051, f.103r. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Exeter Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter, Exeter Cathedral.
Riddle 8
Ic þurh muþ sprece       mongum reordum,
wrencum singe,       wrixle geneahhe
heafodwoþe,     hlude cirme,
healde mine wisan,       hleoþre ne miþe,
eald æfensceop,       eorlum bringe
blisse in burgum,       þonne ic bugendre
stefne styrme;       stille on wicum
sittað nigende.       Saga hwæt ic hatte,
þe swa scirenige       sceawendwisan
hlude onhyrge,    hæleþum bodige
wilcumena fela       woþe minre.
“Through my mouth, I speak with many voices, I sing in variations. Frequently, I mix kindred voices. I cry out aloud, I keep my counsel. I do not conceal my voice. The old evening-poet brings bliss to men in cities, when I storm the citizens with my voice. They sit still, listening in their homes. Say what I am called, who so clearly proclaims loudly a feasting song, announces to heroes, many welcome things with my voice.”
Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

As with the swan, Isidore includes the nightingale in his catalogue of birds, stating that luscinia avis inde nomen sumpsit, quia cantu suo significare solet diei surgentis exortum “the nightingale is a bird that took its name because it is accustomed to mark the onset of the coming day by its song” Etymologiae XII.vii.37. This stress on the nightingale’s singing in the wee hours of the morning—in the dark calling the day—is alluded to in the characterization of the nightingale (nihtegale) as æfensceop “evening poet” (5), though surely calling the bird uhtsceop “daybreak-poet” would have been closer to Isidore’s suggestion that the nightingale (luscinia) summons the lux “light” specifically with its call, Latin terms the medieval lexicographer contends may be etymologically related.

Ambrose’s “Hexameron” (12th century), located in British Library, Royal MS 6 A.i, f1.r

On the other hand, considering niht “night” is referenced in the Old English word for this bird (nihtegale), emphasis on æfen “evening” would serve as a better vernacular clue. Salvador-Bello points out that the many voices of the nightingale (luscinia) may suggest knowledge of a passage from Pliny’s Historia naturalis (X.xliii.82-85), while Williamson posits this information may also come from Ambrose’ Hexameron (V.xxiv.85), as both texts emphasize the varied tones featured in the nightingale’s song in their discussion of this melodious songbird.

Of course, more obvious and likely is the reference in Aldhelm’s Enigma  22, solved acalantida (another Latin word for nightingale) reference directly after luscinia by Isidore (Etymologiae XII.vii.37). Aldhelm’s riddle explains how vox mea diversis variatur pulcra figuris,/ raucisonis numquam modulabor carmina rostris “my beautiful voice is varied by diverse styles, never will I sing songs with raucous beak” (1-2), which accounts for emphasis on how ic þurh muþ sprece mongum reordum,/ wrencum singe “through my mouth, I speak with many voices, I sing in variations” (1-2) in Exeter Book Riddle 8. Aldhelm’s Enigma 22 also states that non sum spreta canendo/ sic non cesso canens fato terrente futuro “I am not to be spurned for my singing, thus I do not stop singing even if doomed to a terrifying fate” (3-4), which corresponds to the description of reverence for the riddle-speaker’s song in the Old English bird-riddle.

Aldhelm’s “Enigma 22” (De acalantida), located in British Library, Royal MS C XXIII, f86v.

Moreover, Riddle 8 describes the nightingale (nihtegale) as æfensceop “an evening poet” (5), employing stock imagery in order to misdirect the solver, and allowing the riddle to expound on the nocturnal songs of the nightingale under the guise of storytelling and heroic tales. That the æfensceop “evening poet” is said to scirenige sceawendwisan/ hlude onhyrge, hæleþum bodige “clearly proclaim a feasting song, declare loudly, announce to heroes” (9-10) further extends the equivocation between bird and poet. Riddle 8 thereby uses formulaic language and heroic diction to obfuscate the riddle’s solution, again referencing hæleþa (10) as previously in Riddle 7 (3). Moreover, the notion that people revere the nightingale’s song and sit in attention—as warriors listening intently to heroic poetry—is corroborated by Alcuin’s elegy devoted to this songbird, titled De luscinia.

Although the term hyrst “garment” from Riddle 7 does not appear in Exeter Book Riddle 9, the theme of clothing and adornments nevertheless pervades this riddle.

Exeter Book Riddle 9, Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051, f.103r. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Exeter Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter, Exeter Cathedral.
Riddle 9
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 
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 
siþas asettan.      Heo hæfde swæsra þy læs 
suna ond dohtra,      þy heo swa dyde. 
“In these days, father and mother gave me up for dead. There was no life yet in me, no spirit within. Then one well-meaning kinsman began to wake me in my garment, held and sheltered me, wrapped me in protective-gear so tenderly as her own child, until I, under her cover, became enlarged in spirit among my non-siblings as was my destiny. Afterward, that protective kinswoman fed me until I grew up, and could make wider journeys. She had fewer of her own sons and daughters because she did so.”
Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

In this riddle, the cuckoo (geac) is described as if it were a shapeshifter, and its famously treacherous behavior is stressed, as much of the paradox is centered on questions of kinship and the evolution of the bird’s experience from its abandonment—to fostering—and finally betrayal of its host family. Most of these details are outlined by Pliny the Elder.

Pliny’s “Historia Naturalis” (Liber X) from 12th century manuscript, British Library, Arundel MS 98, f85v.
Pliny, Naturalis Historia X.xi-26-27
26. inter quae parit in alienis nidis, maxime palumbium, maiore ex parte singula ova, quod nulla alia avis, raro bina. causa pullos subiciendi putatur quod sciat se invisam cunctis avibus; nam minutae quoque infestant. ita non fore tutam generi suo stirpem opinatur, ni fefellerit; quare nullum facit nidum, alioqui trepidum animal. 27. educat ergo subditum adulterato feta nido. ille, avidus ex natura, praeripit cibos reliquis pullis, itaque pinguescit et nitidus in se nutricem convertit. illa gaudet eius specie miraturque sese ipsam, quod talem pepererit; suos comparatione eius damnat ut alienos absumique etiam se inspectante patitur, donec corripiat ipsam quoque, iam volandi potens. nulla tunc avium suavitate carnis comparatur illi.
“It always lays its eggs in the nest of another bird, and that of the ring-dove more especially, mostly a single egg, a thing that is the case with no other bird; sometimes however, but very rarely, it is known to lay two. It is supposed, that the reason for its thus substituting its young ones, is the fact that it is aware how greatly it is hated by all the other birds; for even the very smallest of them will attack it. Hence it is, that it thinks its own race will stand no chance of being perpetuated unless it contrives to deceive them, and for this reason builds no nest of its own: and besides this, it is a very timid animal. In the meantime, the female bird, sitting on her nest, is rearing a supposititious and spurious progeny; while the young cuckoo, which is naturally craving and greedy, snatches away all the food from the other young ones, and by so doing grows plump and sleek, and quite gains the affections of his foster-mother; who takes a great pleasure in his fine appearance, and is quite surprised that she has become the mother of so handsome an offspring. In comparison with him, she discards her own young as so many strangers, until at last, when the young cuckoo is now able to take the wing, he finishes by devouring her. For sweetness of the flesh, there is not a bird in existence to be compared to the cuckoo at this season” (translation by John Bostock).

The parasitic nature of the cuckoo is referenced in Isidore’s Etymologiae, but the nature of their freeloading is quite different, as instead the cuckoo (cuculus) is accused of having milvorum scapulis suscepti propter breves et parvos volatus “taken up with the wings of kites because of its [the cuckoo’s] brief and short flight” (XII.vii.67). Isidore also notes that avium nomina multa a sono vocis constat esse conposita “many names of birds appear to be construed from the sound of their voice” (XII.vii.9), and includes the cuckoo (cuculus) in his list along with the swan (cyngus), but this detail is not mentioned in the Old English riddle.

Now for Riddle 10, the final and only bird-riddle in this sequence, whose riddle-subject appears nowhere in Isidore’s Etymologiae.

Exeter Book Riddle 10, Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051, f.103v. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Exeter Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter, Exeter Cathedral.
Riddle 10
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 .
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
ofer seolhbaþo.     Saga hwæt ic hatte.
“My beak was in narrowness, and I was beneath the water, I was subsumed by the ocean, I was sunk deep in the briny current. I awoke in my swimming, covered over by waves, near those travelers of wood, with my body. I had a living spirit, when I came from the bosom of sea and tree in black garments. Some of my decorations were white, when the breeze heaved me up, living, the wind from the wave, after that it bore me widely across the seal-bath. Say what I am called.”
Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)

As mentioned, Riddle 10 is unique because—unlike the other subjects of Exeter Book bird-riddles—the barnacle goose (bernaca) is conspicuously absent from the catalogue of birds in Isidore’s Etymologiae. The riddle is rather generic in its description of the bird being on blacum hrægle “in black garments” (7), and wearing white hyrste “decorations” (8). Moreover, the description of how lyft upp ahof “the breeze heaves me up” (9) echoes other bird-riddles. However, the solution can be deduced if one is familiar with Insular folklore surrounding the barnacle goose (bernaca), first attested in this riddle but corroborated by later sources such as Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hiberniae (c.1188). This legend suggests that the barnacle goose is born by spontaneous generation on trees that grow over water. And, there is an added level of equivocation resulting from a homographic pun on hyrst (8), which could refer either to the masculine noun hyrst “copse, wood” or more likely to the feminine noun hyrst, meaning “ornament, decoration, trapping” and this pun connects the bird’s physical characteristics with its unnatural birth from water and wood. If the solver is familiar with this insular barnacle goose legend, the solution is revealed, but if not it is obscured.

Owl and other birds from medieval bestiary, British Library, Harley MS 4751, f47r.

A careful source study of this sequence of Exeter Book bird-riddles (Riddles 7-10) demonstrates how although Isidore’s Etymologiae does discuss three of the four bird-riddles in the group, in many cases the specifics of the Old English riddles reference information in sources a bit more ancient and esoteric, and other sources from classical Latin (such as Pliny’s Historia naturalis) to more contemporary Old English (such as the Exeter Book Phoenix) and Anglo-Latin (such as Aldhelm’s Enigma 22) offer arcane details displayed in the riddles more precisely. This suggests that while Salvador-Bello may have identified an Isidorean orientation, intellectual framework and organizing principle behind the Exeter Book Riddles, Old English riddlers and enigmatists were reaching beyond the Etymologiae and further afield into more obscure territory, especially folklore and esotericism, when creating their verbal puzzles in early medieval England.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Editions and Translations:

Aldhelm. Aldhelmi Opera (MGH), edited by Rudolf Ehwald, 211-326. Berolini and Weidmann, 1961.

—. Enigmata. In Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis (CCSL 133), edited by Maria De Marco, 359-540. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1968.

—. Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Translated by Michael Lapidge and James L. Rosier. Dover, NH: D. S. Brewer, 1985.

Eusebius. Enigmata. In Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis (CCSL 133), edited by Maria De Marco, 209-71. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1968.

Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. Edited by Bernard J. Muir. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Edited by Craig Williamson. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Translated by Stephen A. Barney. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Pliny, The Elder. Natural History, with an English Translation. Edited and translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943.

—. The Natural History. Edited and translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley. London, UK: Taylor & Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1855.

Tatwine and Eusebius. “The Riddles of Tatwine and Eusebius.” Edited and translated by Mary J. M. Williams. Dissertation: University of Michigan, 1974.


Works Cited and Further Reading:

Bayless, Martha. “Alcuin’s Disputatio Pippini and the Early Medieval Riddle Tradition.” In Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, edited by Guy Halsall, 157-78. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Dailey, Patricia. “Riddles, Wonder and Responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon England.” In Early Medieval English Literature, edited by Clare A. Lees, 451-72. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Fahey, Richard. “Reading Runes in the Exeter Book Riddles.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame, Medieval Institute. February 17, 2017.

Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Ogilvy, Jack D. A. Books Known to the English, 597-1066. Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1967.

Orchard, Andy. “Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Tradition.” In Latin Learning and Old English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge, edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard, 284-304. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, WV. West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Williamson, Craig. A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.