Commentary for Lorsch Riddle 7


Date: Mon 21 Jun 2021
Matching Riddle: Lorsch Riddle 7

This riddle is a puzzle about Latin spelling that conceals a hidden joke about female sexual promiscuity. And once you’ve solved it, you will say to yourself, “Ah, it’s that old chestnut!”

Chestnut riddles also appear in another medieval riddle, Bern Riddle 48—which I wasn’t very complementary about in my commentary on it! But the two riddles do not share much in common except the solution.

”Renoir’s Chestnut Tree in Bloom (1881). Photo (by Vassil) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC0 1.0)”

The riddle opens by telling us that “a tree of the forests” (silvarum… lignum) is “written with an eighth stroke” (scribitur octono… grammate). Spelling-related riddles occur elsewhere in the early medieval riddling tradition, most notably in Exeter Riddle 13, where the six + four chickens seem to represent the six consonants and four vowels of ten cic[c]enu (“ten chickens”).

The answer to this puzzle is “the chestnut tree” (castanea), which has eight letters. This is confirmed when we read lines 2 and 3, which say that “if you remove the last three strokes together… you would barely find one in many a thousand” (ultima terna simul tuleris si grammata… milibus in multis vix postea cernitur una). If we remove the last three letters from castanea, we get the feminine adjective form casta (“pure, chaste”). Thus, the misogynistic “joke” is that there are very few chaste women—one in a thousand.

But why would removing three letters make you demens (“mad”)? Paolo Squatriti (page 119) has suggested that this is because nea is a meaningless word in Latin. But I wonder whether this is a cunning bilingual pun. The riddle tells us to remove the “last” (ultima) three words. Perhaps the riddler wants us to think of the Old English word nea[h], which means “last”—although this presumes that the author was English, which is nut at all certain.


References and Suggested Reading:

Squatriti, Paolo. Landscape and Change in Early Medieval Italy Chestnuts, Economy, and Culture. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pages 117-8.

Tags: latin 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 13
Bern Riddle 48: De castanea