The Bern Riddles is the name for 64 anonymous medieval riddles of six lines each. Although they are little-known today, they were among the most popular riddles in the early medieval tradition. Riddles from the collection appear in at least 12 different manuscripts—and probably more.

Their author and their place and date of composition are a mystery. Their title in one manuscript (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Phillipps 167) ascribes them to a certain “Tullius.” A second possibility is found in Riddle 63, which spells out the acrostic “PAULUS” with the first letter of each line. The riddles first appear in a manuscript from the early 8th century, but they could easily have been composed a century or so earlier. Northern Italy is often suggested as a place of origin because various Mediterranean plants and foods feature in the riddles. However, this is by no means certain. Although they only appear in continental manuscripts, many scholars have noted a connection to early medieval England and the insular riddling tradition. The author certainly knew the late antique Latin riddles of Symphosius, and possibly had some knowledge (directly or indirectly) of the ancient Greek riddling tradition too.

The Bern Riddles are severely understudied, at least when compared to the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book or the Latin riddles of Aldhelm. Unlike the Exeter Book riddles, they provide their solutions, although these are sometimes incorrect, and having them does not always make the riddles easier to interpret. Their subjects are varied, and include tools, food and drink, plants and flowers, animals, weather, astronomy, among other things. They present these in ways that are often creative, sometimes bizarre, and always interesting. Frequent themes include procreation and childbirth, family relations, parts of the body, violence and retribution, and hiding and concealment. Unlike many other medieval riddles, they are not particularly religious, although they sometimes use biblical references in profane ways. They often use similar vocabulary and themes across several riddles, allowing the reader to draw surprising connections between the different riddle subjects.

Bern 611
“The grain riddle (Riddle 12) in Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 611, f. 74r. Image from E-codices (licence: CC BY 3.0.)

As of January 2021, there is no easily accessible English translation available, except for The Riddle Ages. This will change with the publication of Andy Orchard’s Dumbarton Oaks edition of the insular riddles, which is expected in late 2021. A German translation by Karl J. Minst is included in Glorie’s edition.

The most modern critical edition is:
  • Fr. Glorie (ed.). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968. Pages 541-610.
Another useful edition is:
  • Strecker, Karl (ed.). Poetae Latini aevi Carolini, Volume 4.2. Berlin, MGH/Weidmann, 1923. Pages 732-759. Available online here.
Other editions include:
  • Brandt, P. "Aenigmata Latina hexasticha." In Tirocinium philologum sodalium Regii Seminarii Bonnensis. Berlin: Weidmann, 1883. Pages 101-33. Available online here.
  • Meyer, Willhelm. “Anfang und Ursprung der lateinischen und griechishen rhthmischen Dichtung.” In Abhandlungen der Philosophisch-Philologischen Classe der Koniglich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Volume 17 (1886), 265-450, Pages 412-30. Available online here.
  • Riese, Alexander (ed.) with H Hagen (ed.). Anthologia Latina sive Poesis Latinae Supplementum, Volume 1.1. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner 1869. Page 296-304. Available online here.
  • An addendum to this edition is in Alexander Riese, ed., Anthologia Latina sive Poesis Latinae Supplementum, Vol. 2.2 (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1894), 376-82. Available online here.
  • Riese, Alexander ed., Anthologia Latina sive Poesis Latinae Supplementum, Volume 1.2 (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1894). Pages 351-372. Available online here.
This list includes a good deal of the scholarship available.
  • Cornu, Julius. ‘Beitrage zur lateinischen Metrik.’ Sitzungsberichte der philosophisch-historischen Klasse der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften 149 (1908), np (III), Page 69. [In German.] Available online here.
  • von Erhardt-Siebold, Erika. Die lateinischen Rätsel der Angelsachsen: Ein Beitrag zur Kulturgeschichte Altenglands. Anglistische Forschungen 61. Heidelberg: Winter, 1925. [In German.] Available here.
  • Finch, Chauncey E. “The Bern Riddles in Codex Vat. Reg. Lat. 1553.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Volume 92 (1961). Pages 145-155.
  • Klein, Thomas. “Pater Occultus: The Latin Bern Riddles and Their Place in Early Medieval Riddling.” Neophilologus, Volume 103 (2019). Pages 399-407.
  • Manitus, Max. “Berner Rätsel.” In Geschichte der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters, Volume 1. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1911. Pages 192-3.
  • Mogford, Neville. The Moon and Stars in the Bern and Eusebius Riddles. 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 230-46.
  • Röösli, Samuel. “The Pot, the Broom, and Other Humans: Concealing Material Objects in the Bern Riddles.” In Secrecy and Surveillance in Medieval and Early Modern England. Edited by Annette Kern-Stähler & Nicole Nyffenegger. Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature (SPELL) 37. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2020. Pages 87-104.
  • Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2015. Pages 250-64 and 466-467.
  • Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Nursemaid, the Mother, and the Prostitute: Tracing an Insular Riddle Topos on Both Sides of the English Channel.” 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 215-29.
  • Taylor, Archer. The Literary Riddle Before 1600. Berkley: University of California Press, 1948. Pages 58-9.
  • Winferfeld, Paul. “Observationes criticalae.” Philologus, Volume 53 (1899). Pages 289-95. [In Latin.]

Several manuscripts containing the Bern Riddles are available to view online. Note that the riddles appear in different orders in different manuscripts, and not all of them appear in the same manuscript.

View all posts for The Bern Riddles

<< Back to Collections overview