Commentary for Exeter Riddle 31


Date: Wed 17 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 31

How do you solve a problem like a bird who sings through her foot? That, my friends, is the question on my mind.

Riddle 31 is a riddle (obv) about an object living her best life. What, precisely, she is…well, that’s up for debate. Most editors of the Old English riddles solve Riddle 31 as Bagpipes. They reckon that the multiple references to a creature singing and showing off mad skillz in the hall means this is a musical instrument. And they reckon that the fantastic form of the object – with her downward beak and musical foot – suggests the chanter and drones of the bagpipes. The guarding of treasure in line 21 becomes the breath of the performer, which the instrument takes in, controls and releases to musical effect. It’s quite common for birds to be associated with musicality in the riddles – I’m thinking here of Riddle 7’s swan and Riddle 57’s crows or swifts – but bagpipe tunes are perhaps less bird-like in their song than many other types of music.

Here are some very un-bird-like bagpipes being butchered:

Other musical instruments have also been mooted (I love the word mooted, btw…we should all use this word way more often) as the solution, partly because evidence for the use of bagpipes in early medieval England is, shall we say, lacking. But, as Jonathan Wilcox reassures us, this instrument was widespread in agricultural societies and there are plenty of later medieval references and drawings to suggest that early medieval bagpipes were probably a thing (pages 138-40).

In fact, even though there isn’t much evidence for their use in early medieval England, it is very possible that the protruding drones and bird-like feet in the early 11th-century image below could depict the instrument (Wilcox, page 144, note 41):

Bagpipes in Junius Manuscript

Image from the famous Junius Manuscript (p. 57) Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (licence: CC-BY-NC 4.0).

So, we could have a case of the ol’ bagpipes here in Riddle 31.

The other, non-musical instrument option is a Quill Pen and Fingers. Yes, Donald K. Fry grappled with the birdy imagery in this riddle and its references to songs, treasure and flying-not-flying, and decided this is clearly another riddle about the scriptorium. Unfortunately, I can’t get a hold of this article right now (#pandemic), but I’ve written myself a note to follow up on this later.*

Still, I imagine that to read the riddle as a quill pen, we’d assume the riddle’s birdy imagery stems from the feather used to create the quill, with the downward beak as its pointed tip. The references to the bird’s foot could perhaps point toward a feathery wing and line 8-9’s description of the object’s eagerness to perform despite being unable to fly or walk should make us think of feather pens furiously scribbling across a page. All those songs – well those are the words that the pen delivers, a veritable treasure-hoard of ideas.

Hand holding quill pen

Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

While we might imagine the hall setting with its music and feasting as a literal location for the use of the bagpipes, in order to solve the riddle as quill pen, the hall is probably best interpreted as a metaphor for the scriptorium. Songs are still appropriate in this setting if they’re words read out from the page. But the feasting? I don’t really know what to do with that, unless we imagine a scene change that moves us back into a literal hall where a written document is read out to frolickers. Hmm…not sure about that. Give me a shout if you have better ideas.

All in all, I prefer the bagpipes reading myself, in part because Jonathan Wilcox has made such a good case for interpreting the incongruity of this riddle as humorous. The monstrosity of this object with all the wrong sorts of body-parts could be priming us for humour, while the bagpipes attract humour because of the instrument’s “lack of subtlety as an object built on a literal windbag. Bagpipes can encode the windiness of unrestrained speech or the flatulent pouring forth of an unrestrained body” (page 140). The fact that the instrument is compared to bird-like song is all the funnier if you imagine a real bird letting out the sound of a bagpipe.

As a final gift to you, I’d also like to note that Wilcox’s essay led me to a range of truly brilliant medieval images including this fabulous late 11th-century Spanish musical duo:

Drawing of men playing instrument and bird

Illustration in Beatus of Liebena’s Commentary on the Apocalypse from London, British Library Add MS 11695, folio 86r (Photo: © British Library).

A work of genius. Truly, my life is now complete.

*Editorial Note (22 February 2021): I have now tracked down Fry’s article and it chimes with what I said above. Fry notes lots of examples of riddles in both Old English and Anglo-Latin that play with the following motifs: “banquet, bird, inability to speak, and words as treasure” (page 236). He points to a few instances where the tasting of wisdom or words might explain what the feast hall is doing in this riddle. I don’t personally think that any of the examples given are close enough to Riddle 31 to fully explain its scene of feasting, but feel free to read the article and judge for yourselves!


References and Suggested Reading:

Fry, Donald K. “Exeter Riddle 31: Feather-Pen.” In De Gustibus: Essays for Alain Renoir. Edited by J. M. Foley, C. J. Womack, and W. A. Womack. New York: Garland, 1992, pages 234-49.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “Humour and the Exeter Book Riddles: Incongruity in Feþegeorn (R.31).” 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 128-45.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 31 

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