Commentary for Bern Riddle 20: De melle


Date: Thu 28 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 20: De melle

This riddle is, to quote everyone’s favourite 90s Scottish noise-pop band, The Jesus and Mary Chain, “just like honey”—mainly because it is all about honey! It is the second of three bee-themed riddles (see Riddle 19 and Riddle 21).

Beekeeping was an important and very profitable economic activity throughout the European Middle Ages. Honey was a sweetener for food, it was a medicine, and it was fermented to produce mead; beeswax was used to make candles, adhesives, waterproof clothing, and paints, among other things.

In Italy, the ancient Roman culture of beekeeping continued into the early medieval period, albeit affected by the general decline in trade of the fifth and sixth centuries. Beekeeping was enthusiastically adopted by many monastic houses. The image below, taken from a late eleventh century Easter scroll (known as an “exultet roll”) from Monte Cassino gives us an idea of what these monastic beehives might have looked like—here, a beekeeper is harvesting wax from the hive.

“Beekeeper removing wax from a hive, BL Additional 30337, fol. 10. Photograph from The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (licence: CC0 1.1)

Bees were also kept in pre-Conquest England. The Rectitudines Singularum Personarum, an English manual of estate management from c. 1100, mentions that a freeman who keeps bees (a beoceorl) should pay a tax to the landowner of 4 sestels (about 10 pints) of honey per year (Rectitudines, 6). Other English texts mention fines for theft from beehives (Attenborough, pages 68-71), and what to do if bees kill someone by stinging them—kill them and eat their honey (OE Scrifboc, CCC MS 190, fol. 382)! Bees and honey also feature in Old English poetry: Exeter Book Riddle 27 and the brilliant Old English metrical charm, For a Swarm of Bees.

Bees 2
“Bees and beehives from a 14th century French bestiary, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 151, f. 69v. Photograph from Digital Bodleian (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)

Bern Riddle 20 begins by describing honey that is dripping “from the bright home” (lucida de domo) and scattered in a mysterious way. Reading this for the first time, you might think that the “bright home” is the beehive. But the riddle seems to be alluding to something much more interesting—the idea that honey is a form of dew created in the heavens, which falls upon plants and is collected by bees. If this is the case, then the “bright home” would be the sky. Several classical and medieval sources mention this belief, including Virgil and Isidore of Seville. Perhaps the most memorable description is found in Pliny the Elder’s encyclopaedic Natural History:

Venit hoc ex aere et maxime siderum exortu… sublucanis temporibus. Itaque tum prima aurora folia arborum melle roscida inveniuntur, ac si qui matutino sub divo fuere, unctas liquore vestis capillumque concretum sentiunt, sive ille est caeli sudor sive quaedam siderum saliva sive purgantis se aeris sucus.

[Honey] comes from the air, and largely from the rising of the stars… shortly before dawn. Thus, at first light, the leaves of the trees are found moist with honey, and if someone who has been under the morning sky, they feel their clothes are damp and their hair is matted, whether this is the sky’s moisture, or some kind of saliva of the stars, or the juice of the vomiting air.]
—Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book XI, page 450. (translation mine)

Pliny was writing this in the 1st century AD, but his work continued to be influential throughout the early medieval period—Isidore of Seville used it when writing his own encyclopaedia, as did Bede. Interestingly, the riddle’s reference to the uncertain nature of celestial honey (line 2) also agrees with what Pliny says here. Perhaps the riddler was familiar with Pliny’s work? After all, the use of encyclopaedia-knowledge is very common in medieval riddles (see Mercedes Salvador-Bell, Isidorean Perceptions of Order).

The rebirth in lines 3 and 4 returns to the religious motif of rebirth and resurrection that appears in Riddles 6, 12, 13. But it also describes how the bees collect the nectar from the plants and then regurgitate it into the honeycomb. We saw in Riddle 19 that the honeycomb was a “womb” (venter). Likewise, here it is a “womb” (uterus), within which the honey “grows.”

Bees 3
“Bees and beehives from an early 13th century bestiary from Peterborough, Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, Folio 75v. Photograph from Digital Bodleian (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)

In the final two lines, the thousands who seek honey are the humans who crave its sweet taste. The “flyer” (ales is, of course, the bee. Since bees create their honeycomb cells using regurgitated wax, it can be said that they “paint” their “golden home” (aureum domum) using their mouths.

Like many works of medieval literature on the natural world, Riddle 20 is a mix of curious myths and detailed observational truths. On the one hand, it mistakes pollen-collecting with celestial honey-collecting. At the same time, it recognises how bees build their honeycombs. It is a mixture of nature documentary and an un-bee—lievable story!


References and Suggested Reading:

“Charm for a Swarm of Bees.” In Robert E. Bjork (ed. and trans.), Old English Shorter Poems, Volume II.Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014. 216-7

“Laws of Alfred.” In Frederick Attenborough (ed. and trans.), The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922. Pages 62-93. (The text is also available in the original and with a German translation, in Felix Liebermann (ed.), Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, Vol. 1. Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1903. Pages 46-87. Available at

The Old English Scrifboc (or The Confessional of pseudo-Egbert) in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 190, folios 387-413. Available at Parker Library on the Web.

Rectitudines Singularum Personarum. Early English Laws, IHR/King’s College London. Website.

Banham, Debbie. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pages 104-5, 135-6.

Kritsky, Gene. “Beekeeping from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages.” Annual Review of Entomology, Volume 62 (2017). Pages 249-264.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Volume IX: Books 33-35. Loeb Classical Library 394. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, Mass.: harvard University Press, 1952.

Price, Helen. “A Hive of Activity: Realigning the Figure of the Bee in the Mead-Making Network of Exeter Book Riddle 27.” Postmedieval, Volume 8 (2017). 444-462.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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