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Old English Riddling Poems

Class at Faculty of Arts |

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The course will explore a range of Old English texts characterized by broadly defined „riddling“ quality, from riddles „proper“ through lyric to wisdom poetry. Apart from enjoyable guesswork the texts will provide an opportunity to discuss and test the basic issues informing the reading of Old English literature in general: the dependence on, and interplay of, the oral/popular versus literate/literary tradition, with their concomitant features, such as the „agonistically toned“ and participatory way of presenting the objects described (to borrow a phrase from Walter J. Ong) on the one hand and the play with the manuscript form on the other, to name but a few of our concerns. These perspectives will provide a touchstone for testing the often voiced assumption that the riddles afford one of the few opportunities to catch a glimpse of the everyday world and concerns of the Anglo-Saxons, as opposed to the stylized and elite-focused character of the larger part of Old English poetry. Consequently, this course serves also as an introduction to Old English poetry and poetics in general. The initial sessions will also be devoted to helping the participants acquire the basic skills for reading Old English literature in the original.



A selection from the Exeter Book riddles

A selection from Aldhelm´s Enigmata

The Husband´s Message

The Rune Poem

The Exeter Book Maxims


• Irving, Edward B., Jr., "Heroic Experience in the Old English Riddles", in: Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings, ed. K. O'Brien O'Keeffe, Garland 1994, 199-212

• McLuhan, Marshall, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man,University of Toronto Press, 1962

• Niles, John D., Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts, Brepols, 2006

• Ong, Walter J., Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Routledge, 1988

• Orchard, Andy, 'Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Tradition', in: Latin Learning And English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge, Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe and Andy Orchard (eds), University of Toronto Press, 2005, 284-304

• Pope, John C., “Paleography and Poetry: Some Solved and Unsolved Problems of the Exeter Book.” In: Medieval Scribes, Manuscripts and Libraries, Essays Presented to N.R. Ker. Edited by M.B. Parkes, and Andrew G. Watson. London: Scolar, 1978. 25-65.

• Steen, Janie, Through the Looking-Glass: Riddles 35 and 40, in Verse and Virtuosity: The Adaptation of Latin Rhetoric in Old English Poetry (Toronto Old English Series, 2008), 89-109

• Williamson, Craig, The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book, Chapel Hill, 1977


Introduction (about the course, approaching the riddles 1

Approaching the riddles 2 2

Riddles and the heroic 1: heroic subject-matter

Riddles and the heroic 2: heroic perspective 3

Riddles in context: literature of learning 4

Latin and Old English riddles: translation, adaptation, transformation? 5

Riddles of the scriptorium 1 6

Riddles of the scriptorium 2: literary games and Germanic antiquities – runic riddles

Riddles of the scriptorium 3: literary games and Germanic antiquities – Rune Poem 7

Riddles in manuscript context: The Husband’s Message 8

The riddle as formal model: Exeter Maxims

The riddle as conceptual model: The Dream of the Rood


Active participation is of the essence. Students are also expected to give a presentation of 10-15 minutes and submit a paper of 1,000 words for a credit. In addition to that, an essay of 5,000 words should be submitted as a graded paper.

N.B. We will work with originals provided with interlinear gloss and grammatical apparatus. A working knowledge of the basics of Old English and/or the willingness to expend the effort of construing the text with the help of the apparatus provided is necessary (see OBJECTIVES).

Study programmes