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Leiden Riddle

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Title: Leiden Riddle  
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Subject: Lorica, Riddles, Juliana (poem), The Rhyming Poem, Rune Poems
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Leiden Riddle

The Leiden Riddle is an Old English riddle. It is noteworthy for being:

  • one of our earliest attested pieces of English poetry;
  • one of only a small number of representatives of the Northumbrian dialect of Old English;
  • one of only a relatively small number of Old English poems to survive in multiple manuscripts;
  • evidence for the translation of the poetry of Aldhelm into Old English.


  • Origins and development of the text 1
  • Manuscript 2
  • Text 3
  • References 4

Origins and development of the text

The West Saxon aristocrat, monk, scholar, and poet Aldhelm (c. 639–709) composed, among many other works, a set of one hundred hexametrical 'enigmata' or 'enigmas', inspired by the so-called Riddles of Symphosius. The thirty-third was Lorica ('corselet'). This was translated into Old English, and first witnessed in the Northumbrian dialect of Old English as the Leiden Riddle; the language is of the seventh or eighth century.[1] Unusually, the riddle is also attested, in West Saxon, among the Old English riddles of the later tenth-century Exeter Book, where it is number 33 or 35 (depending on the edition consulted). Apart from differences in language caused by dialect and date, and damage to the Leiden manuscript, the texts are the identical on all but a couple of points.[2]

The translation has been praised for its complexity and wit. In the assessment of Thomas Klein,

The spirit behind this rewritten riddle may be best exemplified by a pun in the penultimate line of the Exeter Book version. In the manner of other riddles, the riddle dares us to find the solution, calling the reader searoþoncum gleaw, 'clever with cunning thoughts'. As a separate word, searo has several competing senses. It may designate either a 'device' or the intellectual power that created such a device. But more specifically, searo can mean 'armour'--so the pun reads, 'clever with thoughts of armour'.[3]


The Leiden Riddle is attested in MS Leiden, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, Voccius Lat. 4o 106, where it accompanies the Latin text on which it is based. The manuscript was described by Herbert Dean Merritt thus:

25 leaves, Riddles of Symphosius and Aldhelm, ninth century. At the end of the Riddles, folio 25v, is the well-known Leiden Riddle in Old English. On folio 10r, in a space [xviii] at the end of chapter headings, are written in the hand of the text the Old English glosses to nymph names.[4]

The manuscript was probably copied in western France, perhaps at

  1. ^ Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, Anglo-Saxon Studies, 8 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007), p. 79.
  2. ^ Thomas Klein, ‘The Old English Translation of Aldhelm’s Riddle Lorica’, The Review of English Studies, n. s., 48 (1997), 345–49 (p. 345).
  3. ^ Thomas Klein, ‘The Old English Translation of Aldhelm’s Riddle Lorica’, The Review of English Studies, n. s., 48 (1997), 345–49 (p. 349).
  4. ^ Meritt, Herbert Dean (ed.), Old English Glosses: A Collection, The Modern Language Association of America, General Series, 16 (London, 1945), pp. xvii-xviii.
  5. ^ M. B. Parkes, ‘The Manuscript of the Leiden Riddle’, Anglo-Saxon England, 1 (1972), 207–17 (pp. 210-17); DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100000168.
  6. ^ Fr. Glorie (ed.), Variae collectiones aenignmatvm Merovingicae aetatis (pars altera), Corpvs Christianorvm, Series Latina, 133a (Turnholt: Brepols, 1968), p. 417 (Riddle 33).
  7. ^ M. B. Parkes, ‘The Manuscript of the Leiden Riddle’, Anglo-Saxon England, 1 (1972), 207–17 (p. 208); DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100000168.
  8. ^ C. Williamson (ed.), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, 1977), pp. 88-89 (Riddle 33).
  9. ^ Thomas Klein, ‘The Old English Translation of Aldhelm’s Riddle Lorica’, The Review of English Studies, n. s., 48 (1997), 345–49 (p. 345).
  10. ^ Thomas Klein, ‘The Old English Translation of Aldhelm’s Riddle Lorica’, The Review of English Studies, n. s., 48 (1997), 345–49 (p. 346).


Aldhelm’s lorica The Leiden Riddle (dots indicating lost letters) Exeter Book Riddle 33/35
Roscida me genuit gelido de uiscere tellus;
Non sum setigero lanarum uellere facta,
Licia nulla trahunt nec garrula fila resultant
Nec crocea Seres texunt lanugine uermes
Nec radiis carpor duro nec pectine pulsor;
Et tamen en 'uestis' uulgi sermone uocabor.
Spicula non uereor longis exempta faretris.[6]
Mec se ueta uong     uundrum freorig
ob his innaðae     aerest cend..
... uaat ic mec biuorthæ     uullan fliusum
herum ðerh hehcraeft     hygiðonc.m
Uundnae me ni biað ueflæ     ni ic uarp hafæ
ni ðerih ðrea.un giðrae.     ðret me hlimmith
ne me hrutendo     hrisil scelfath
ni mec ouana     aam sceal cnyssa
Uyrmas mec ni auefun     uyrdi craeftum
ða ði goelu god.ueb     geatum fraetuath
Uil mec huchtrae suae     ðeh uidæ ofaer eorðu
hatan mith hæliðum     hyhtlic giuæde
ni anoegun ic me aerigfaerae     egsan brogum
ðeh ði n...     niudlicae ob cocrum.[7]
Mec se wæta wong,     wundrum freorig,
of his innaþe     ærist cende.
Ne wat ic mec beworhtne     wulle flysum,
hærum þurh heahcræft,     hygeþoncum min.
Wundene me ne beoð wefle,     ne ic wearp hafu,
ne þurh þreata geþræcu     þræd me ne hlimmeð,
ne æt me hrutende     hrisil scriþeð,
ne mec ohwonan     sceal am cnyssan.
Wyrmas mec ne awæfan     wyrda cræftum,
þa þe geolo godwebb     geatwum frætwað.
Wile mec mon hwæþre seþeah     wide ofer eorþan
hatan for hæleþum     hyhtlic gewæde.
Saga soðcwidum,     searoþoncum gleaw,
wordum wisfæst,     hwæt þis gewæde sy.[8]

The damp earth produced me from her cold womb; I am not made from the rasping fleece of wool, no leashes pull [me] nor garrulous threads reverberate, nor do Oriental worms weave [me] with yellow down, nor am I plucked by shuttles nor beaten by the hard reed; and yet I will be called a coat in the common speech. I do not fear arrows pulled out from long quivers.[9]

The damp earth, wondrously cold, first produced me from its womb. In my thoughts, I know that I am not made from the fleece of wool, with hair by high skill. No weft is wound in me, I have no warp, the thread does not resound in me through the tumult of the press, nor does the whizzing shuttle slide towards me, nor does the weaver's reed have to beat me from any side. Worms which decorate fine yellow cloth with ornaments did not weave me with the skills of fates. Nevertheless, widely over the earth I am called a delightful coat for men. Say with true sayings, you clever with cunning thoughts, wise with words, what 'coat' this is.[10]



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