Aldhelm (ca. 639-709), abbot of Malmesbury and later bishop of Sherborne, lived, worked, and wrote during the mid-seventh and early eighth centuries. He was tremendously learned and his work displays a huge range of classical knowledge, a sophisticated understanding of Latin metre and poetics, and a grasp of the language that was unmatched in early medieval England.

Among his verse compositions is a set of one hundred Latin riddles, which were included as examples in a metrical treatise he wrote. Now known as his Epistola ad Acircium (Letter to Acircius), Aldhelm sent this treatise to King Aldfrith of Northumbria—though the treatise and accompanying riddles were circulated and taught far beyond this one king’s court. In Aldhelm’s subject matter as well as in his choice to produce one hundred verse-riddles, he was most directly inspired by Symphosius, a late antique poet who was likely from North Africa and who wrote his collection to celebrate the feast of Saturnalia. Popularising Symphosius’s genre and adapting it to his own religious and cultural context, Aldhelm influenced the English riddlers who followed him, including Tatwine, Eusebius, Boniface, and the anonymous Exeter Book riddler. Aldhelm’s riddles also circulated across Europe, which points to an even broader reception history. Indeed, the riddles survive in whole or in part in over thirty manuscripts, including ones thought to be used as textbooks for classroom use, which would neatly account for this collection’s enduring influence in the period.

Aldhelm begins his riddles with a preface that sets out his thematic and formal agenda. He wishes to honour God, and he literally encases this ambition in a combination acrostic-telestich, meaning that both the beginning and ends of the lines spell out the same message: ALDHELMUS CECINIT MILLENIS VERSIBUS ODAS (Aldhelm composed poems in a thousand verses). Aldhelm is not only singing the joys of God’s creation, but, as this preface implies, he is also doing so while working within incredible poetic constraints.

As with other Latin riddles, the solutions of Aldhelm’s riddles tend to be given as their titles, so the reader has a starting point from which to work. The scope of the riddles themselves begin fairly straightforwardly, with compact musings on the earth (in Riddle 1’s Terra) and wind (in Riddle 2’s Ventus), but they get longer and more unconventional as they go on. Extended air-time is devoted to subjects as diverse as beavers in Riddle 56’s Castor and Scylla (of “Scylla and Charybdis” fame!) in Riddle 95. The individual detail lavished on what seems like an encyclopedia of subjects culminates in the longest riddle, Riddle 100’s Creatura (Creation), which pulls together and rounds off everything that has come before.

Editions and Translations

  • Ehwald, Rudolf, ed. Aldhelmi Opera Omnia. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi, 15. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919, pages 59-150. Available online here.
  • Glorie, Fr., ed. Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968, pages 359-40 (with English translation by I. H. Pitman). Available online here.
  • Juster, A. M., trans. Saint Aldhelm's Riddles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.
  • Lapidge, Michael and James L. Rosier, trans. Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1985. [translation only]
  • Orchard, Andy, ed. and trans. The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021, pages 2-93; and A Commentary on The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021, pages 1-112.
  • Stork, Nancy Porter, ed. and trans. Through a Gloss Darkly: Aldhelm’s Riddles in the British Library MS Royal 12.C.xxiii. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Studies and Texts, 98. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990.

Studies of Aldhelm’s Riddles

  • Cameron, M. L. “Aldhelm as Naturalist: An Examination of Some of His Enigmata.” Peritia, vol. 4 (1985), pages 117-33.
  • Cavell, Megan. “Domesticating the Devil: The Early Medieval Contexts of Aldhelm’s Cat Riddle.” In Riddles at Work in the Early Medieval Tradition: Words, Ideas, Interactions. Edited by Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020. Pages 57-75.
  • Howe, Nicholas. “Aldhelm’s Enigmata and Isidorean Etymology.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 14 (1985), pages 37-59.
  • Milovanović-Barham, Čelica. “Aldhelm’s Enigmata and Byzantine Riddles.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 22 (1993), pages 51-64.
  • O'Keeffe, Katherine O'Brien. "The Text of Aldhelm’s Enigma no. c in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson C.697 and Exeter Riddle 40." Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 14 (1985), pages 61-73.
  • Orchard, Andy. "Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Tradition." In Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge. Edited by Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe and Andy Orchard. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005, vol. 1, pages 284-304.
  • Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “Evidence of the Use of the Physiologus as a Source in Aldhelm’s Enigmata.” Review of English Studies, vol. 72, issue 306 (2020), pages 619-42.
  • Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2015. Especially chapters 1, 2 and 3.3.
  • Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Sexual Riddle Type in Aldhelm’s Enigmata, the Exeter Book, and Early Medieval Latin.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 90, issue 4 (2011), pages 357-85.
  • Scott, Peter Dale. "Rhetorical and Symbolic Ambiguity: The Riddles of Symphosius and Aldhelm." In Saints, Scholars and Heroes: Studies in Medieval Culture in Honour of Charles W. Jones. Edited by Margot H. King and Wesley M. Stevens. 2 vols. Collegeville, MN: Hall Monastic Manuscript Library, 1979, vol. 1, pages 117-44.
  • Sebo, Erin. In Enigmate: The History of a Riddle 400-1500. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018. Especially chapters 1 and 3.
  • Sebo, Erin. "The Creation Riddle and Anglo-Saxon Cosmology." In The Anglo-Saxons: The World Through Their Eyes. Edited by Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Brian W. Schneider. BAR British Series, vol. 595. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2014, pages 149-56.
  • Thornbury, Emily V. Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Especially chapter 2.
  • Weaver, Erica. “Premodern and Postcritical: Medieval Enigmata and the Hermeneutic Style.” New Literary History, vol. 50, issue 1 (2019), pages 43-64.
  • Weber, Benjamin. "The Isidorian Context of Aldhelm's "Lorica" and Exeter Riddle 35." Neophilologus, vol. 96 (2012), pages 457-66.
  • Weston, Lisa M. C. "Honeyed Words and Waxen Tablets: Aldhelm's Bees and the Materiality of Anglo-Saxon Literacy." Mediaevalia, vol. 41 (2020), pages 43-69.

And referred to throughout:

  • Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I am Called The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2009.
  • Cavell, Megan and Jennifer Neville, eds. Riddles at Work in the Early Medieval Tradition: Words, Ideas, Interactions. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020.


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