ABOUT THE EXETER BOOK

The late 10th-century manuscript now known as the Exeter Book (or Exeter Cathedral Library, MS 3501) has been housed in Exeter Cathedral Library since Bishop Leofric bequeathed it in 1072. It contains a wide variety of Old English poetic works — from elegies to saints' lives and beyond — and just one Latin poem (a riddle!). Around 95 of its roughly 130 poems are riddles: "around" and "roughly" because there is quite a bit of debate about where some poems begin and end — and therefore how many riddles survive — what with the lack of titles in the manuscript! The numbering system and Old English text that we use on this website are from Krapp and Dobbie's edition (details below). Most subsequent editors have revised the numbering, so be careful how you go when you encounter riddle numbers in scholarship.

There are no solutions in the manuscript, so you should also bear in mind that the solutions provided after each riddle are scholarly guesses. In fact, riddle scholarship has had a lot of fun over the years coming up with competing theories for the solutions of each riddle. In some cases, the riddles are translations 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.

Recommended Editions

  • 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.
  • 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.

Useful Introductions to the 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." 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.

The Exeter Book's Background

  • Conner, Patrick. Anglo‐Saxon Exeter: A Tenth‐Century Cultural History. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1993.

For Fun!


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