Commentary for Lorsch Riddle 11


Date: Wed 30 Jun 2021
Matching Riddle: Lorsch Riddle 11

Today’s ox riddle is udderly brilliant and very amoosing too!

It is difficult to overstate the economic importance of cattle—and particularly oxen—in pre-Conquest England. Plough-oxen were perhaps the most important livestock of all, since horses were seldom used for ploughing during this period. In the Domesday Book", the standard plough team consists of eight oxen, but illustrations in manuscripts never depict this many animals drawing a single plough—it may be that smaller teams of two or four were typically used (Banham & Faith, page 51). Cattle were typically smaller than today, and they were probably horned (Banham & Faith, pages 89 & 91).

“A wheeled plough with two oxen, from the early 11th century Old English poetic manuscript, Bodleian Library MS. Junius 11 (“The Cædmon Manuscript”), page 54. Photograph from CC BY-NC 4.0)

When you live and work alongside cattle each day, and when you care for them and depend on them for your survival, it is natural that they also find an important place in your language and cultural imagination. For example, they were so important as a form of exchange that the Old English word feoh means both “cattle” and “money” or “wealth”—we get the Modern English word fee from it. Cows and oxen appear in many English place names, from the sedate Cowgrove (Old English, “cow-grove”) in Dorset and Neatham (Old English, “cattle village”) in Hampshire to the brilliantly named village of Crackpot (Old Norse and Old English “cow-hole”) in North Yorkshire.

Cattle also appear in written texts. They can be found in various law codes, which regulate cattle transactions and harshly punish cattle-thieves. They appear in wills, such as that of Ælfric of Abingdon, who left ten oxen to Abingdon Abbey (Whitelock, page 53), and the noblewoman Wynflæd, who gave six oxen, four cows, and four calves to Shaftesbury Abbey (Whitelock, page 14). They also appear in several medicinal texts, which prescribe concoctions and rites for bovine diseases (see Cockayne, pages 386-7 and 388-9), as well as this brilliant magical charm designed to be chanted when your cows go missing:

Garmund, godes ðegen,
find þæt feoh and fere þæt feoh
and hafa þæt feoh and heald þæt feoh
and fere ham þæt feoh.

[Garmund, God’s thane, find the cattle, and transport the cattle, and keep the cattle, and guard the cattle, and bring the cattle home.]

—"For Loss of Cattle,” lines 1-4, ASPR 6, page 126.

I can’t vouch for the effectiveness of this charm, but if any livestock farmers want to try it, please let me know how you get on!

It should be no surprise that medieval riddlers were also big fans of our bovine friends. As we will see, cattle riddles and puzzles can be found in a range of sources, including the Exeter Book Riddles, the riddles of Eusebius and Aldhelm, the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae, and the Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes (“Propositions to Sharpen the Young”) of Alcuin of York. Oh, and the Lorsch Riddles, of course!

”Cattle ploughing in Xigazê prefecture in Tibet. Photo (by Gerd Eichmann) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)”

Our riddle begins with a rather charming metaphor: it describes the teats of the young ox’s mother as four fountains (bis binis fontibus). Very similar descriptions can be found in several other medieval riddles. The closest is a riddle (No. 83) by the seventh century churchman and poet, Aldhelm of Malmesbury, which contains the line:

Bis binis bibulus potum de fontibus hausi.

[Thirsty, I drank from four fountains.]

Another analogue can be found in a prose riddle in the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae, an early medieval collection of 388 short texts of various kinds, which probably dates from the eighth century. This riddle tells us:

Vidi filium inter quatuor fontes nutritum

[I saw a son fed among four fountains.]

Something similar is mentioned in Exeter Riddle 38, which describes the cow’s udders as feower wellan (“four springs”) that shoot forth. And yet another analogue is found in Exeter Riddle 72, which refers to them as four brothers who dispense drinks. It is possible that these riddles all borrowed from an earlier source that is now lost. However, it seems more probable that Aldhelm’s riddle provided the inspiration for the others.

Lines 2 and 3 talk about cutting “mountains and valleys” (montes vallesque)—these are the ridges and furrows that the ox cuts into the field with the plough. But why is this “overturning the laws of nature” (evertens naturae iura rescidi)? I think the point is tongue in cheek. After all, an ox cannot create literal mountains or valleys without something going seriously wrong in the world of physics!

”Ploughing with oxen on the banks of the Ayeyarwady river, Mandalay, Burma. Photo (by Luis Bartolomé Marcos) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)”

Lines 2 and 3 are also very similar to those found in other riddles. For example, Exeter Riddle 38, tells how the ox duna briceð (“breaks the hills”). Two Latin riddles—a riddle (No. 37) by the pseudonymous 8th century English riddler, Eusebius, and the Collectanea riddle—also describe how the ox disrupit montes (“broke the mountains”). Again, they are all clearly part of the same tradition. However, it is much harder to work out who is borrowing from whom here, since the most obvious source—Aldhelm’s Riddle 83—describes ploughing in very literal terms in his riddle.

Sadly, no ox can live forever; lines 4 to 7 are all about the usefulness of the ox’s hide after it has died. The binding of arms and the “defences” (munumina) for human feet refer to the use of leather in clothing and footwear. You may have noticed that the mention of “fates” (fatae) is very similar to that of Lorsch Riddles 1 and 2–the human speaker of Riddle 1 tells us sunt mihi diverso varia sub tempore fata (“My fate changes at different times”), and the heart or soul of Riddle 2 ends with sic sunt fata mea diversa a patre creata (“in such ways, my father fashioned my various fates”). By describing the ox’s fate in a similar way in lines 4 and 8, our riddle might be hinting that we should feel a similar degree of sympathy for our bovine cousins. It would also suggest that all three riddles (and probably Lorsch Riddle 12 too) were written by the same author.

And so, that’s Lorsch Riddle 11, part of a long tradition of legendairy bovine riddles, and which also takes an interest in the various fates of creatures. This imaginative intertextuality is one of the great things about riddles—you might have herd some of the clues before, but they always manage to rearrange them in cunning new ways.


References and Suggested Reading:

“For Theft of Cattle.” In Dobbie, Elliott Van Kirk (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: A Collective Edition, Volume 6 (ASPR 6). New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.

Banham, Debby and Faith, Rosamond. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Cockayne, Oswald (ed.). Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England. Volume 1. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864.

Fulk, Robert D. A History of Old English Meter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Fr. Glorie (ed.). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

Whitelock, Dorothy (ed. & trans.). Anglo-Saxon Wills. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930.

Tags: latin 

Related Posts:
Lorsch Riddle 1
Lorsch Riddle 2
Lorsch Riddle 12