ABOUT BONIFACE'S RIDDLES

The Devonian missionary and bishop, Boniface (c.675-754), was the leading figure in the English mission to Frisia and Germania during the 8th century. Many texts have been ascribed to Boniface in medieval manuscripts, some of them undoubtedly genuine and others more spurious. His best-known works are his letters to friends and colleagues across England and continental Western Europe. Less well-known are the riddles that are attributed to him, which appear in at least 10 manuscripts, all of which were produced on the continent. We have no reason to doubt the attribution, especially given that the riddles often appear next to other works by Boniface.

Whereas other riddle collections focus on the natural world and the world of objects, Boniface’s riddles concentrate exclusively on the supernatural world. The first ten riddles depict ten virtues, and the second ten depict ten vices. The solutions are included in the riddles using an acrostic on the first letter of most, but not all, lines. In many manuscripts, the riddles include a prologue and epilogue to the virtues, but none are given for the vices.

Ein 302
The opening page of Boniface’s riddles in Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 302 (450), p. 126. Image from E-codices (licence: CC BY 3.0).

All the riddles focus on the same theme—the role of the virtues and vices in helping humans to secure an eternal home in heaven or hell. This focus gives the riddles a distinctly didactic feel, given that their function is quite obviously to instruct the reader on how to reach heaven. The riddles also use a similar vocabulary. For example, because all the Latin words for the virtues and vices are grammatically feminine, Boniface refers to them as virgines (“maidens”). So, Humility is described as a lectissima virgo (“most excellent maiden”) and Virginity as the clarissima virgo ("brightest maiden"), while Negligence is the stultissima virgo (“stupidest maiden”) and Vainglory is a virgo maligna (“evil maiden”). In the poems, these women generally speak in the first person, although there are a handful of occasions where an unnamed speaker describes them instead. The riddles also show the influence of Aldhelm’s riddles and other works, such as his De virginitate (“On virginity”), in their word choice.

Boniface’s riddles are quite clearly different from most other riddles in the tradition. In fact, you could argue that they aren’t really riddles at all, given that their solutions are recorded in acrostics. Nevertheless, the riddles employ some tropes and motifs that are common to other riddles, such as virginity, birth, and desultory first-person narratives. Several of the riddles contain apparent paradoxes, usually related to heaven and hell. For example, Humility tells us in Riddle 9, Ima solo quantum, tantum dio proxima caelo (“As much as I am in the lowest place, I am also nearest to divine heaven”).

An easily accessible Latin edition with English translation and detailed notes can be found in Andy Orchard’s two-volume edition of the insular riddles:

  • Andy Orchard (ed. & trans.). The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2021, pages 182-221.
  • Andy Orchard (ed. & trans.). A Commentary on “The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition”. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2021 pages 230-257.

Useful editions include:

  • Ernst Dümmler, (ed.). Poetae Latini aevi Carolini, Volume 1. Berlin: MGH/Weidmann, 1881. Pages 3-15. Available online here.
  • Fr. Glorie (ed.) (with a German translation by Karl J. Minst). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968. Pages 273-343. Available online here.

An older edition can be found in:

  • John Allen Giles (ed.). Bonifacii opera, Volume II. Londo:: D. Nutt, 1844. Pages 109-115. Available online here.

Studies of the riddles include:

  • Amy W. Clark. "Familiar Distances: Beating the Bounds of Early English Identity." Diss. University of California, Berkeley, 2020 (esp. chapter 2).
  • Chauncey E. Finch. “The Text of the Aenigmata of Boniface in Codex Reg. Lat. 1553.” Manuscripta, vol. 6 (1962), pages 23-8.
  • Emily V. Thornbury. “Boniface as Poet and Teacher.” In A Companion to Boniface, edited by Michel Aaij and Shannon Godlove. Leiden: Brill, 2020. 99-122.
  • Emily V. Thornbury. Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2014 (esp. chapter 5).

Several manuscripts containing some or all the riddles are available online:

  • Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des manuscrits. Latin 13046. Folio 118 verso. Available here.
  • Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.5.35. Folios 382-5. Available here.
  • Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 302 (450). Pages 126-131. Available here.
  • Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. Lat. 1553. Folios 1-8 verso. Available here.
  • Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. Lat. 591. Folios 131 recto-137 verso. Available here.

View all posts for Boniface's Riddles

<< Back to Collections overview