CSI: Early Medieval – Exeter Book Riddle 26

I had the pleasure of giving a lecture at the British Embassy in Vienna on Thursday 13 March 2014, on the twin subjects of ‘barbarian law-books and early medieval book production’. The audience of a dozen or so were interested and, while new to the subject itself, asked enough thoughtful and insightful questions at the end to keep the conversation going for the better part of an hour after I had finished speaking. It was an excellent experience for the first presentation (of many, I hope) of my research to a ‘lay’ audience. The presentation dipped into the edges of my work overall, drawing on both the Anglo-Saxon and Lombard laws, and their respective legal contexts and manuscripts.

To bridge the divide between the laws and the law-books in the presentation, I used my own Modern English translation of the Anglo-Saxon Riddle No. 26 from the Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library MS 3501, I worked from the edition/transcription on the University of Georgetown website), framing it as a question for the audience to solve. Audience participation, check! However, wanting to obfuscate the solution a little, I segued in under the focus of the injury tariffs in the earliest of the Lombard Laws, Rothair’s Edictum (643 CE) and in Ælfred’s Domboc (890-901 CE). An exploration of the fines for murder and a deliberately grizzly focus on the compensation for cutting out another person’s eye. Delightful enough to set the scene for introducing the poem under the slight misdirection that it was a riddle about a murder and its consequences (hinting a little towards martyrdom and sainthood) and enquiring as to what might lie underneath the mystery.

The second piece of mild misdirection was to produce my own rough translation of the Riddle. When preparing for the lecture one thing I noticed in the extant translations that I checked was that much of the misdirection, multiple meaning and poetic terminology of the original is smoothed over. This is perhaps not surprising; when only able to employ one shade of a word’s meaning, the translator has to choose which. Where most of the translations that I checked have erred on the side of clarity, to show why Riddle 26 is a book or more specifically the Bible – oops, given the game away for those who did not already know – I opted to emphasise the violent crime.

In places the translation is a little rough, I admit, and I gave much less focus to the second part of the Riddle. What I ended up with though, I hope, has the feel of CSI: Early Medieval, with all the degradations of post-mortem trauma and decay hinted at in their gruesome detail. The murdered victim – long prior to being found and adorned in the trappings of a saint’s cult – having been dumped unceremoniously in the water. Then, having washed up on to the river bank, left to suffer the ‘blackened tracks’ of decay and natures encroach though the ‘useful drops of birds’ and the ‘stain of trees’.

 

Some foe deprived me of life

Took my worldy strength, then wet,

Submerged [me] in water, afterwards, from that place

Set [me] in the sun. There I was harshly deprived

Of the hairs which I had. Then, cruelly, I

Was cut with a blades edge, [my] blemishes worn away

Fingers folded, and the bird’s joy,

In useful drops, spread earnestly over me

Upon the murky bank some of the stream

Absorbed the stain of trees and came once more upon me.

Travelled forth with blackened tracks.

Thereafter, I was

Protected with wooden boards, furnished with leather

Decked with gold, skilfully adorned

With the ornamental work of smiths. Bound in metal threads.

Now the trappings and the red dye

And the glorious possessions, widely declare

The helm of the lord’s folk – by no means a presumptuous guard.

If my child of men wants to make use [of me]

They will be more favoured by that and the more secure in victory.

The heart the more determined and the spirit blither,

The mind the wiser, they will have friends

More special and closer, more just and more good

Braver and truer. Then their honour and prosperity

[Will be] gladly increased, and their graces,

Kindnesses arranged and they lovingly fasten

In firm embrace. Ask what I am called

To people beneficial. My name is famous,

Useful to men and myself, holy.

 

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