Exeter Riddle 21


Date: Tue 25 Mar 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 21
Original text:

Neb is min niþerweard;      neol ic fere
ond be grunde græfe,      geonge swa me wisað
har holtes feond,      ond hlaford min
woh færeð      weard æt steorte,
5     wrigaþ on wonge,     wegeð mec on þyð,
saweþ on swæð min.      Ic snyþige forð,
brungen of bearwe,      bunden cræfte,
wegen on wægne,      hæbbe wundra fela;
me biþ gongendre      grene on healfe
10     ond min swæð sweotol      sweart on oþre.
Me þurh hrycg wrecen      hongaþ under
an orþoncpil,      oþer on heafde,
fæst ond forðweard.      Fealleþ on sidan
þæt ic toþum tere,      gif me teala þenaþ
15     hindeweardre,      þæt biþ hlaford min.


My nose is turned downward; I travel flat
and carve out the ground, going as the old foe
of the forest directs me, and my lord
travels crooked, a watchman at my tail,
5     moves over the plain, moves me and presses,
sows in my path. I go nose forwards,
brought from the wood, skillfully bound,
borne on a wagon, I have many marvels;
travelling, there is green on one side of me
10     and my path is clear, black on the other.
Driven through my back, there hangs underneath
a skillful spear, another on my head,
firm and forward-facing. To the side falls
what I tear with my teeth, if he serves me rightly
15     from behind, he who is my lord.

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This riddle appears on folio 106r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 191.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 19: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 80.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 21 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 21


Date: Sun 06 Apr 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 21

Boy, we sure are plowing through these riddles, aren’t we? Get it? Get it? If not, you must have forgotten the solution to Riddle 21: plough or plow (depending on how you prefer to spell)! If you prefer to spell like someone from early medieval England, then you’d be spelling it sulh. There isn’t a great deal of debate over this riddle’s solution, which – I have to say – is kind of obvious. So instead of scholarly debate, I’m going to impress you with pictures. And also details and such-like.

Here is a reproduction of a plough drawing in an eleventh-century calendar now housed in the British Library (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, folio 3r):

Riddle 21 Anglo-Saxon plough

From The New Gresham Encyclopedia, available free online at Project Gutenberg. The original, in all its colourful glory, is digitized here.

The (quite lumpy-looking, though nonetheless smiley) team of oxen is nicely visible here, as are the various parts of the plough. These include the share (the bit that breaks up the earth) and the coulter (the bit that makes a groove for sowing seeds), which may be represented in the poem as the creature’s neb (nose), as well as the weapon that pierces the plough’s head (similar to the orþoncpil (skillful spear) driven through its back). Here’s a picture of an early medieval iron coulter from North Lincolnshire Museum:

Rusted coulter from several angles

Image from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (licence: CC BY-SA).

In addition to the specifics of actual ploughing (i.e. the description of the object laying horizontally and being pushed along, the sowing of seeds, the churning up of earth to make a path and the elements that pierce the object’s body), this poem provides useful information on an important aspect of the early medieval world: slavery. Whether born into it, taken in warfare or punished for criminal activity, slaves were common in this period. Despite the widespread nature of slavery at this time, few slaves are given voice in Old English literature, which is one of the reasons Riddle 21 is such an important text.

“Why the plough?” you might ask. “Surely there are all sorts of objects and animals that could have been chosen to represent an enslaved person in early medieval England.” That’s true, of course, and there are other riddles that give evidence of slavery. However, the fact that ploughing was a common role for slaves (according to the Domesday Book) goes some way to explaining the riddler’s choice. The unhappy conditions of slavery are also expounded in the Colloquy that Ælfric of Eynsham wrote in order to help his students learn Latin. It introduces a variety of figures who are quizzed about their roles and responsibilities. In a particularly empathetic passage, the enslaved ploughman cries: O! O! magnus labor. etiam, magnus labor est, quia non sum liber in Latin, or Hig! Hig! micel gedeorf ys hyt. / Geleof, micel gedeorf hit ys, forþam ic neom freoh (34-5) (Oh! Oh! The labour is great. Yes, the labour is great, because I am not free) in Old English (at page 21, lines 34-5). This is a rare example of a slave having a voice at all, let alone one that demands empathy.

Oxen grazing

Dexter cattle at Bede’s World in Jarrow. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.

Riddle 21 is another example of a metaphorical slave describing her/his condition. In fact, this riddle provides us with information about the type of slave the poem depicts: this slave has been brought from the forest, bound and borne into the settlement (brungen of bearwe, bunden cræfte, / wegen on wægne). The implication of the half-line har holtes feond (the old foe of the forest) is that the ploughman or ox responsible for clearing the land takes slaves during battle, an idea driven home by the weapon-imagery toward the end of the poem.

This context of slavery makes the poem’s innuendo pretty disturbing, if you ask me (Murphy talks about this innuendo at pages 175-6 of his book, cited below). All the riddle’s references to the prone speaker being aggressively pushed by its master (class/status implications are also clear when the poem refers to the plough’s hlaford (lord) twice) who sows seed are brought to a head by the final lines’ description of being served from behind. It doesn’t take an especially pervy imagination to see how this could be read sexually, particularly given the connotations of “plowing” in Modern English. Of course, the reference to the speaker’s steort (tail) and tearing teeth (ic toþum tere) may introduce a bestial element that only makes things worse.

All in all, Riddle 21 presents us with a creature forced to perform hard labour for its captor. I’d like to think that this image is a sympathetic one, but the introduction of innuendo may imply that the enslaved victim is the butt of the joke. Or maybe the fact that we’re dealing with an object rather than a person can ease our discomfort. I haven’t decided yet.


References and Suggested Reading:

Ælfric of Eynsham. Ælfric’s Colloquy. Edited by G. N. Garmonsway. London: Methuen, 1939.

Bintley, Michael D. J. “Brungen of Bearwe: Ploughing Common Furrows in Riddle 21, The Dream of the Rood, and the Æcerbot Charm.” In Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World. Edited by Michael D. J. Bintley and Michael G. Shapland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pages 144-57.

Cochran, Shannon Ferri. “The Plough’s the Thing: A New Solution to Old English Riddle 4 of the Exeter Book.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 108, (2009), pages 301-9. (although this article deals with a different riddle, its discussion of the plough is relevant here)

Colgrave, Bertram. “Some Notes on Riddle 21.” Modern Language Review, vol. 32 (1937), pages 281-3.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Neville, Jennifer. “The Exeter Book Riddles’ Precarious Insights into Wooden Artefacts.” In Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World. Edited by Michael D. J. Bintley and Michael G. Shapland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pages 122-38.

Williams, Edith Whitehurst. “Annals of the Poor: Folk Life in Old English Riddles.” Medieval Perspectives, vol. 3 (1988), pages 67-82.

Editorial Note:

The image of a different plough coulter was replaced and some text edited on 14 January 2021.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 21 

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