Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.


My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in the “Medieval and Early Modern Education” special issue of History of Education Quarterly, and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd

[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).

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 head-sounds. 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.