Commentary for Bern Riddle 43: De vermicolis siricis formatis


Date: Mon 01 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 43: De vermicolis siricis formatis

This is the second silkworm riddle in the Bern collection. Silk was one of the most lucrative commodities in medieval Europe, brought there along the Silk Road from China—you can read a bit more about this in my commentary for Riddle 28. Unfortunately, I also used my one and only silkworm joke for that commentary, so I don’t have any more puns or yarns to spin.

The riddle begins with the childbirth trope that we find so often in Bern. The creature that is speaking throughout the riddle is clearly the silkworm, but Lines 1 and 2 are quite obscure and there are several tricky cruxes. This obscurity could be because the riddler was not familiar with all the details of silk production—although lines 5 and 6 seem to contradict this (see below). Alternatively, it may be that they disguised the meaning very well, or it could be that the lines are corrupt in some way.

“Silkworms. Photograph (by Małgorzata Miłaszewska) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

The first problem is how to understand the word concepta. The usual translation would be “born” or “conceived” (see Riddles 38 & 44), but you could also argue for something more irregular, such as “made pregnant.” However, none of these translations are particularly helpful when it comes to working out what is going on. Secondly, who are the innumeros (“various,” “countless”) creatures who are sent out from the creature’s nest (de nido), and should we translate volatus literally as “fliers,” or figuratively as “swift ones?” Thirdly, how does this all relate to the “huge body” (corpus inmensum) of line 2?

Although Lines 1 and 2 are difficult, we can assume that they refer to one of the transitions between the insect’s life stages: (1.) the silk moth laying silk eggs, (2.) the eggs hatching into larvae, (3.) the silkworm spinning itself a cocoon, or (4.) the cocooned pupa transforming into a moth. None of these explanations seems to be an exact fit, but my feeling is that stage 4. is the most likely—the “nest” and the “huge body” are the cocoon, and the “flying creatures” are the moths. But I am very open to suggestions—what do you think?

“Silk cocoon. Photograph (by Gerd A.T. Müller) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

The remainder of the riddle is far more straightforward. The “shining garment” in Line 3 is the silken cocoon, which the silkworm weaves silently in line 4. The riddle then explains that the discarded woollen garment cannot easily be “cast off” (excussum). This refers to the gluey sericin of the cocoon, which glues the silk fibres together to create the cocoon, making it sticky to touch. This level of detail suggests not only that the riddler knew quite a bit about the silk-making process, but also that they expected their readers to know this too. However, modern day readers may struggle to follow their thread.


References and Suggested Reading:

Winterfeld, Paul. “Observationes criticalae.” Philologus vol. 53 (1899). Pages 289-95.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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