Commentary for Bern Riddle 7: De vesica


Date: Mon 11 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 7: De vesica

The second of three container riddles, this is an interesting and rather tricky riddle, which describes an animal bladder used in two different ways. Bladders, usually from domesticated pigs, are excellently stretchy containers.

“Two Boys Blowing a Bladder by Candle-light (1773) by Peter Perez Burdett. From Wikipedia Commons (© public domain)

Lines 1 and 2 are all about stretchiness. They refer to the use of a bladder to carry water when used by humans. In line 1, the expanding bladder “follows” (sequi) the liquid that it hides when it stretches as it is filled. The beating of the liquid in line 2 probably refers to the water sloshing around during a traveller’s journey (cursus).

At this stage, the bladder still speaks in the first person. However, from line 3 onwards, the third person is used—and then it starts to describe an empty bladder. This is introduced with the apparent paradox of a thing that is both “filled” (impletur) and “empty of stuff” (vacua rebus). The problem of the vacuum was an ancient one, which had been debated by Plato and Aristotle. As Paul Winterfeld observed, we should not be surprised that the Bern riddler also found this scientific-philosophical problem intriguing (Winterfeld, p. 292).

The weightless citizen in line 4 is air, which the bladder holds for as long as it “endures” (permanet). Some manuscripts replace civem (‘citizen’) with cibum (“food, nourishment”), but the idea of a sausage or other food that is both empty and filled does not really work.

In the final two lines, we are told that the bladder floats when blown up with air, and it cannot carry anything when burst. The Middle Ages had balloons too!

“Balloons. Photograph (by Bigroger27509) from Wikipedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is amazing that six short lines about an ordinary container can hold so many extraordinary ideas. Riddle 7 begins with the bladder’s stretchiness, before taking in vacuums, the weight of air, and balloons. As I suggested in the previous commentary, riddles are perhaps the most fantastic containers of all.


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 6: De calice
Bern Riddle 7: De vesica
Bern Riddle 8: De ovo