Can you solve this riddle?
A moth ate words. To me it seemed
a remarkable fate, when I learned of the marvel,
that the worm had swallowed the speech of a man,
a thief in the night, a renowned saying
and its place itself. Though he swallowed the word
the thieving stranger was no whit the wiser.
This short verse was recorded in Old English in the tenth century Book of Exeter (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501).1 Riddles such as this likely served a host of functions in Anglo-Saxon culture, from educational to performative.2 In the case of our example, the riddle alludes to a problem inherent in the organic properties of medieval book-making materials (see previous post). Manuscript texts were vulnerable to wear or damage from natural processes and environmental factors, not to mention handling (see previous post).
The solution to this medieval riddle is a book moth, not unlike the creature embedded in the ornament on the Chi-Rho page in the Book of Kells (fig. 1). This tiny pest had the power to undo countless hours of human effort.
Even before a moth had the chance to nibble at a manuscript, there may have been difficulties with the raw materials. Quality vellum was laborious to produce (see previous post) so scriptoria had to find methods of working with inferior leaves. Common imperfections included holes in the parchment. Such irregularities may have been the result of over-scraping of the calf skin during production of the vellum or even hair follicles set deeply in the skin.
Figure 2 Book of Kells, TCD MS 58, f. 316v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015
Solutions to the problem of holes in the vellum were often practical. A defect on folio 316 of the Book of Kells was patched and is best seen on the verso of the leaf (fig. 2).3 Rather than avoiding that area, the scribe simply wrote over it.
Similar accommodation was given to a hole in our project manuscript, Codex Usserianus Primus (see previous post). The flaw in the vellum is fairly central and interrupts two lines of text (fig.3). The scribe was therefore required to work around it.
- P. F. Baum (trans.), Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (Durham, 1963), riddle 42. For the Old English text, see G.P. Krapp and E.V.K. Dobbie, The Exeter Book (London, 1966), riddle 47, p. 205.
- M. Nelson, ‘Four Social Functions of the Exeter Book Riddles,’ Neophilologus, 75 (1991), 445-50. B. McFadden, ‘Raiding, Reform, and Reaction: Wondrous Creatures in the Exeter Book Riddles,’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 50 (2008), 329-51.
- B. Meehan, Book of Kells (London, 2012), p. 221.