Commentary for Bern Riddle 9: De mola


Date: Mon 11 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 9: De mola

Riddles are usually fun, but this one really grinds you down—because it is about millstones!

Three Bern riddles describe the process of processing cereals into flour. Riddle 12 describes how it is reaped and threshed, and Riddle 17 describes how the flour is sieved. In this riddle, the grain is ground into flour—and this process described in a charmingly bizarre fashion.

“A video showing the milling process in a late eighteenth century mill in Maryland, USA. The technologies are not medieval, but the basic principles are similar. ”

Millstones always come in pairs. In larger, water-powered mills, a runnerstone would rotate and grind against a static bedstone. In smaller handmills, a pair of quernstones would be placed together and the top stone would be rotated by hand—this could be a laborious process. Animals could also be used, as demonstrated by the Old English word esolcweorn (lit. “donkey-millstone”). Grain was poured through the hole in the centre of the stone, and, once ground into flour, found its way out to the millstone’s outer edge through furrows cut into the stones. Although windmills did not arrive in Europe until the 11th century, watermills and handmills were both common across Europe from ancient times. Because of its economic and cultural importance, milling is a common theme in all kinds of medieval documentary and literary texts, from Gregory the Great in the 6th century to Chaucer and Boccaccio in the 14th.

Now back to the riddle! It is easy to overlook the poetic form of the Bern Riddles, simply because the content is so interesting. But this riddle begins with a great example of how these riddles can use alliteration and assonance within and across lines. The word “Eva” alliterates and assonates nicely with the previous riddle subject, ovum (“egg”), as well as the words aevum (“age”) and ego (“I”) in the same line. The first line also contains two-fold alliteration on s- (“senior,” “sum,” “senior”).

“The author, very excited about an abandoned millstone at Two Bridges, Dartmoor.”

Line 1 also contains an intriguing sub-riddle: why is the millstone older than Eve? It could simply refer to the hard-wearing limestones, granites, and sandstones that were typically used for milling. Or it could allude to the fact that, according to Genesis, God created the earth on the first day, and dry land—including rocks—on the third day, three days before he fashioned Adam and Eve. But it also seems to be drawing on wider associations of millstones with cyclic time and aging—the stone’s hardness and heaviness, circular shape, and associations with work naturally lent itself to this. For example, in Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule, a reference to the millstone in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 18:6) is said to represent “the cycle and labour of this worldly life” (secularis vitae circuitus ac labor) (Gregory, PL77:16B). When viewed in this way, the riddle seems to be playing with the idea that the millstone is as old and unstoppable as worldly time itself.

Line 3 relies on the extended sense of vita (“life”) as “sustenance.” The millstone takes the “many” dead grains and transforms them into flour for everyone. Line 4 continues this theme, by explaining that the millstone destroys or humbles (prosternere) thousands, i.e. it crushes thousands of individual grains. It does this without striking or punching them, since the process is one of crushing and cutting.

Line 5 alludes to a very real problem. When turned without grain, millstones could create dangerous sparks, and when combined with combustible flour in the air, this was a serious hazard for millers. Thus, the millstone makes food when fed, but fire when “hungry.”

Riddles like this one rely on a whole host of cultural and intertextual references, and we have only touched the surface here. We often imagine of writing as a creative act, but we do not often think this about reading. This is one of the great things about the Bern Riddles—you get to be a really creative and imaginative reader, trying out all kinds of associations and seeing if they fit. Even if you know a riddle’s solutions straight away, it is only the beginning of the game. If I wanted to put it into puns, I might even say that the best riddle-readers go against the grain and leave no stone unturned. If you can do that, then riddling is sedimentary, my dear Watson!


References and Suggested Reading:

Gregory the Great, Liber regulae pastoralis. In Sancti Gregorii Papae I, opera omnia. Edited by J.P. Migne. Vol. 3. Patrologia Latina 77. (Paris: Ateliers Catholiques, 1862), 7-126, pages 17-18.

Rahtz, P. & Bullough, D. “The Parts of an Anglo-Saxon Mill”. Anglo-Saxon England. Vol. 6, (1977), pages 15-37.

Squatriti, Paolo. Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400-1000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pages 126-159.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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