Several centuries after Aldhelm first brought Symphosius’ Latin riddle genre to England, we have a collection of 95(ish) riddles in the Old English language. These survive in a late 10th-century manuscript now known as the Exeter Book (Exeter Dean and Chapter Manuscript 3501), which has been housed in Exeter Cathedral Library since Bishop Leofric bequeathed it in 1072.

These riddles' original date of composition is more of a mystery, since one of the collection was clearly circulating well before the Exeter Book was penned. A mirror to Exeter Book Riddle 35 exists in the form of the 9th-century Leiden Riddle — one of just a few poems to survive in the Northumbrian dialect of Old English. Both are translations of Aldhelm’s Latin Riddle 33, Lorica (mail-coat or armour). The Leiden Riddle is preserved on folio 25v of a manuscript that also contains the riddles of Symphosius and Aldhelm: Leiden, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, Vossius Lat. 4o 106. Who knows how many other riddles had lives of their own before they made their way into the Exeter Book?!

The manuscript that houses this riddle collection contains a wide variety of other poetic works in Old English — from elegies to saints' lives and beyond. It also includes one Latin poem, Riddle 90. In fact, around 95 of the Exeter Book’s roughly 130 poems are riddles. I say "around" and "roughly" because there is quite a bit of debate about where some poems begin and end, and therefore how many riddles survive, due to the lack of titles in the manuscript.

Indeed, unlike in most of the Latin riddle collections, there are no solutions accompanying riddles in the Exeter Book. The solutions provided after each riddle on this website — which range widely across animals (especially birds), weapons, everyday objects and abstracts concepts — are, therefore, scholarly guesses. Riddle scholarship has had a lot of fun over the years coming up with competing theories for the solutions of each riddle. In a few cases, the riddles are translations or adaptations of Latin poems that do have solutions as titles. In other cases, debates have raged for years with little or no consensus. Where there is a lot of disagreement, we note as many solutions as we can and explain why a few are particularly good contenders in our commentaries.

The numbering system and Old English text that we use on this website draw on Krapp and Dobbie's edition (details below). Most subsequent editors have revised the numbering, so exercise caution when you encounter riddle numbers in scholarship!


  • Dobbie, Elliott van Kirk, and George Philip Krapp, eds. The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.
  • Muir, Bernard J., ed. The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry: an Edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501. 2 volumes. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994.
  • Orchard, Andy, ed. and trans. The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021, pages 296-419; and A Commentary on The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021, pages 317-489.
  • Smith, A. H., ed. Three Northumbrian Poems. London: Methuen, 1933, pages 44/46. [for the Leiden Riddle]
  • Tupper, Frederick, ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1910.
  • Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

You can also find all of the Exeter Book poems online here, in the original Old English.

Introductions to the Exeter Book Riddles

  • Cavell, Megan. "The Exeter Riddles in Context." On the Discovering Literature: Medieval website. London: British Library, 2018. Available here.
  • Cavell, Megan, Jennifer Neville, and Victoria Symons. "Introduction." 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 1-15.
  • Dailey, Patricia. "Riddles, Wonder and Responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon Literature." In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Edited by Clare Lees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. pages 451-72.
  • Wilcox, Jonathan. ““Tell Me What I Am”: the Old English Riddles.” In Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature. Edited by David Johnson and Elaine Treharne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. pages 46-59.

Select Studies of the Exeter Book Riddles (there are many!)

  • 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
  • Dale, Corinne. The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017.
  • Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.
  • Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.
  • Paz, James. Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Material Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017
  • 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 4.

Digitised Manuscript

  • Exeter Dean and Chapter Manuscript 3501. Available here.
  • See also the Old English Poetry in Facsimile website, which includes a digital copy of the Leiden Riddle's manuscript folio. Available here.

For Fun!

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