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A riddle on the three orders in the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae?

Vidi bipedem super tripodem sedentem, cecidit bipes, corruit tripes. (1) I saw a "two-foot" sitting on a "three-foot"; the "two-foot" fell, the "three-foot" collapsed.

This riddle occurs in the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae and in the recent and very useful edition of that important insular Latin miscellany, the editorial commentator solves the riddle as "a man sitting on a three-legged stool who falls over." (2) The bulk of the comment, however, is devoted to the literary history of the riddle and identifies it quite correctly as a very early instance of a well known set of riddles, concerned with different problems, but which identify their protagonists as one leg, two legs, three legs, etc. Since the commentator was primarily concerned with the literary historical significance of the riddle, she did not focus on some of the difficulties of her proposed solution. There are, however, at least two problems with the answer that she proposes. The first is that if a man falls off a stool, there is no necessary reason for the stool to fall down. Secondly, her solution does not explain the contrast between the verbs cado and corruo. A variant of the riddle found in Paris BN lat 2796 illustrates the point: "Vidi pipedem [bipedem] sedentem super tripedem; cecidit tripes corruit bipes." This version of the riddle accords with Garrison's solution much better in that the order of the final two clauses of the riddle is reversed. A stool does not necessarily fall over if a man sitting on it falls, but if a stool falls over a man sitting on it is thrown down. (3) I do not think, however, that her solution is wholly without merit and the solution which I would propose is in a sense an elaboration of it.

Solving or debating the solution of an Anglo-Saxon or what might better be defined as an "insular" riddle, might seem an exercise in scholarly hubris. The list of proposed solutions to The Exeter Book riddles which Donald Fry compiled in his bibliographical essay on this topic is at the same time fascinating, amusing, and a little frightening. (4) Quite good scholars can become obsessed with the validity of their "new" solution and the results can be absurd. The urge to solve a riddle, however, is enough to overcome scholarly caution. In this instance the solution I wish to propose is of particular interest in that if I am correct, this riddle is an early (and perhaps the earliest known) text referring to an important medieval social ideal, the theme of the three estates.

I would like to begin by looking closely at the language of the riddle and then to compare it with one particular expression of the theme of the "three orders" that we know to have been current in Anglo-Saxon England. The Latin riddle speaks of a two-footed person or object who is seated on a three-footed object (since there are no three-footed animals, persons, or mythological monsters known to the Anglo-Saxons and their insular neighbors, (5) we may tentatively presume that the tripodes is an object rather than an animate creature). The next clauses express the paradox of the riddle. When the biped fell, the tripod, which one would assume to be more secure, fell headlong down. The verb cadere essentially means "to fall"; corruere means "to fall headlong," "to collapse," or possibly in this context, there is a hint of its etymological meaning "to fall together"--con-ruere. (6)

Given this "reading" of the riddle, I would like to cite and compare a famous passage concerning the Anglo-Saxon understanding of kingship that has been cited repeatedly as an early and seminal expression of the ideal of the three estates.

IV. Be Cynestole

31. AElc riht cynestol stent on prym stapelum, pe fullice ariht stent.

32. an is Oratores, and oder is Laboratores, and dridde is Bellatores.

33. Oratores sindon gebedmen, pe Gode sculan peowian and daeges and nihtes for ealne peodscipe pingian georne.

34. Laborantes sindon weorcmen, pe tilian sculon, paes de eall peodscype big sceall libban.

35. Bellatores syndon wigmen, pe eard sculon werian wiglice mid waepnum.

36. On pyssum drym stapelum sceall aelc cynestol standan mid rihte on cristenre peode.

37. And awacie heora aenig, sona se stol scylfd; and fulberste heora aenig, ponne hrysd se stol nyder, and paet wyrd paere peode eall to unpearfe.

38. Ac stapelige man and strangie and trumme hi georne mid wislicre Godes lare and mid rihtlicre woruldlage: paet wyrd pam peodscype to langsuman raede. (7)

IV. Concerning the Royal Throne

Every legitimate royal throne [lit. Kingstool], which stands wholly aright, stands on three supports.

32. One is the "Oratores," and the other is the "Laboratores," and the third is the "Bellatores."

33. "Oratores" are "prayer-men" who shall serve God and by day and by night eagerly intercede for the whole kingdom.

34. "Laborantes" are workmen who must work for that which all the nation shall live on.

35. "Bellatores" are fighting men, who must defend the realm valiantly with weapons.

36. On these three supports every royal throne must stand aright in a Christian nation.

37. And if any of them may weaken, straightway, the throne shakes; and if any of them breaks then the throne collapses and that is a disaster to the nation.

38. But one should support and strengthen and confirm them zealously with wise law of God and with just secular law; that will be a lasting advantage for the nation.

There are a number of examples of this metaphor in late Anglo-Saxon England (8)--three from the corpus of Wulfstan's vernacular writing, including the two versions of the Institutes of Polity and two from AElfric's works--and it seems to be a traditional and specifically a vernacular figure. Most of the discussion of this text, which I have seen, is concerned with the implicit social tripartition that it expresses, with the theme of the three orders, but this text actually envisions a four-fold social ordering. (9) The king is not the mightiest and the noblest of the bellatores; he is rather set over and apart from each of the three orders of society. The king is neither "prayer-man" nor "work-man" nor "fighting-man," but rather embodies and represents the totality of the peod, a term that I have rather tentatively translated "nation."

At any rate according to this figure, the three orders are the three supports or pillars of the royal throne--the normal meaning of stol in OE is seat or throne, and a gloss equating tripes with stol is recorded, and at least one other instance of stol as a three-legged piece of furniture. (10) The kingdom is thus a tripes or tripod upon which the king, a bipes, is enthroned. This association is in fact embedded in formal definitions of what it is to be human--thus Isidore's famous definition of homo: "homo est animal rationale, mortale, terrenum, bipes, risu capax." (11) ("Man is a rational animal, mortal, earthly, bipedal, capable of laughing.") Boethius' similar definition is, as one might expect in a work entitled Philosophiae consolatio, more succinct and less positive, but he too emphasizes our bipedality: "homo est animal bipes rationale." (12) ("Man is a rational bipedal animal.") The king is thus a bipes who sits upon a tripes, and the paradox the riddle master is exploring is that if the seated biped--the king--falls, the kingdom as a whole--the "tripod" (which might seem more secure)--also falls with him. It is true that in the Institutes of Polity the figure concerns the consequences to the state if one of the three orders fails in its role, whereas the riddle is concerned with the potentially tragic consequences of the fall of a king. But one does not have to search very far in Old English literature to find support for the conception that firm royal rule is essential for the well-being of the community--the opening and closing lines of Beowulf are concerned with exactly this problem--and the metaphor explicit in the Institutes of Polity (and elsewhere) corresponds exactly to the text of the riddle.

This solution fits the terms and the idiom of the riddle well and there are other "political" texts in the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae--notably an abridged version of the De Duodecim Abusivis Saeculi, and an interesting piece, "De quattuor ordinibus," which is concerned with the "four" orders of society. (13) A political riddle is certainly not out of place in this context.

There is thus a strong formal case for solving the riddle in the terms I have proposed. The chief problem with this solution is not that it does not accord with the language of the riddle or that it is intrinsically implausible. It is rather that the argument depends to some degree on the context in which the riddle occurs and its relationship to the instances of the three estates stol metaphor in OE legal and homiletic literature. If it were possible to ascertain the date and the provenance of the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae with certainty, my argument would be simpler. While all of the scholars who have worked with the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae are convinced that it is indeed an early medieval florilegium, the text is only preserved in the 1563 edition of Bede. (14) Again, it is particularly difficult to distinguish between "original" material and "interpolations" in a miscellany such as this one. For what it is worth, the editors of the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae distinguish between the original portion of the text (items 1-304) and the second later portion of it; the riddle with which I am concerned occurs in the older stratum of the text. And if the editors of the Collectanea are correct in suggesting the early ninth century as the date when the first portion of the collection was completed and the riddle I have solved was indeed part of the original collection of material, then this riddle is the first allusion to the theme of the three orders in medieval literature. And it occurs, as one might expect, in an insular context as one of the triads that Irish (insular) scholars imposed on the European imagination. (15)

Whatever date and provenance scholars eventually determine for the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae, I would observe that this text has been cited frequently as a source of parallels for relatively late Old English vernacular texts. (16) Again, the figures and ideals with which I am concerned could easily have circulated either orally or in written form for generations before they were embodied in the specific parable that AElfric and Wulfstan adapt. Neither AElfric nor Wulfstan would have been likely to invent strikingly new accounts of the social world or new metaphors to explain it, given the literary and generic context in which these ideas and figures were presented. This was not an age that valued literary novelty, and it is hard to exaggerate how deeply conservative (perhaps one might better say "traditional") Anglo-Saxon and early medieval social and political thought was. At the least, we can observe on the grounds of purely formal literary analysis that if these writers were presenting new ideas, they probably would have presented them more elaborately, more formally, and with more concern for possible objections.

Since one crucial aspect of this argument concerns the dating of this figure, I would like to offer one admittedly speculative observation concerning Alfred's usage in his translation of Boethius' Consolatio Philosophiae, which was written presumably during the later years of Alfred's reign. Alfred (or whoever was responsible for this portion of the translation) does speak of the three estates, but does not elaborate the figure of the throne resting on three supports. Instead he elaborates a metaphor that is as far as I know unique in the extensive literature dealing with the three estates: He speaks of the three estates as tools (OE tol) which the king needs to perform his craeft. (17) One wonders whether there might be some paranomastic association between Alfred's usage and that of the later Anglo-Saxon authors who deal with this theme. Alfred speaks of the three estates as the king's tools (cyninges tol); AElfric and Wulfstan, or some Anglo-Saxon predecessor whose work has not survived, perhaps a bit taken aback by Alfred's "workmanlike" metaphor, insist that the three estates both support and comprise the throne itself. The estates are thus not the king's tools (pa cyninges tol) but rather the supports of the throne itself as symbol of national unity (se cynestol). If this kind of associative word play seems at least a possibility, then it would be another bit of evidence for arguing that the link between the throne and the three estates might be older than the texts which make this association explicit.

The argument of this paper thus falls into two parts. I have attempted to solve a riddle and if my riddle solution is correct, it is important in that it gives us an early--indeed perhaps the earliest--allusion to the theme of the three estates in medieval Europe. "Two-foot" and "Three-foot" continue as characters in the ongoing tradition of English riddling. (18) In this instance, however, I would argue that bipes is the king, and the tripodem on which he sits is his throne, his stol, supported by the "three" orders that comprise and support the good Christian nation.

Cornell University


(1) Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae, ed. and trans. Martha Bayles and Michael Lapidge, et al. (Dublin Institute For Advanced Studies, 1998), no. 195, p. 144. I provide a somewhat more literal translation than the editors do. This riddle occurs in a group of riddles that includes an interesting parallel to Riddle 38 (Bull Calf) in The Exeter Book. A text of the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae is printed in Patrologia Latina, ed. J-P Migne (Paris, 1857-66), 94:539-62.

(2) Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae, pp. 243-46. The annotator is Mary Garrison.

(3) Paris BN lat. 2796, fol 56r. I am indebted to Professor Charles D. Wright of the University of Illinois for generously making available his transcription of this portion of the manuscript. Again, a variant riddle cited by Taylor, identical except for the concluding line which reads "cecidit bipes quia corruit tripes" (emphasis mine) would correspond to Garrison's solution more neatly. See Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae pp. 243-44 for references.

(4) Donald K. Fry, "Exeter Book Riddle Solutions," Old English Newsletter 15 (1981): pp. 22-33.

(5) One exception is the famous sphinx riddle solved by Oedipus. For an early medieval allusion to the riddle see Ausonius, "Griphus Ternarii Numeri," lines 38-41. Ausonius, ed. and trans. Hugh G. Evelyn White, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1918-19) 1:362. This riddle tradition is not relevant here for a variety of reasons, notably that the sphinx riddle says nothing about "sitting."

(6) On the contrast between cado and corruo see Proverbs 24:16, "septies enim cadet iustus et resurget impii autem corruent in malum" (emphasis mine).

(7) Wulfstan, Die "Institutes of Polity, Civil and Ecclesiastical," ed. Karl Jost, Swiss Studies in English 47 (Bern: Franke Verlag Berne, 1959), pp. 55-56. I quote the text of "II Polity," the second and somewhat fuller version of this text. See also Wulfstan, Homily 50, "Larspel" ed. Arthur Napier, Wulfstan Sammlung der ihm zugeschriebenen Homilien nebst Untersuchungen uber ihre Echtheit (Berlin: Wiedmannsche Buchhandlung, 1883), p. 267. Wulfstan repeats the crucial paragraph about the three orders in this composite homily.

(8) For other versions of this motif see AElfric, AElfric's Lives of Saints, ed. W. W. Skeat EETS 76, 82, 94, 134 (1881-1900; rpt., London: Oxford U. Press, 1996), 2:120-25; AElfric, The Old English Version of the Heptateuch, AElfric's Treatise on the Old and New Testament and His Preface to Genesis, ed. Samuel J. Crawford, EETS 160 (Oxford U. Press, 1922), "Libellus de uetere testamento et novo," p.71.

(9) On the issue of the orders of society see Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (U. of Chicago Press, 1980), and for discussion of the theme and related tripartite patterns in an insular context see Thomas D. Hill, "Rigspula: Some Medieval Christian Analogues," Speculum 61 (1986): 79-89. See also Timothy E. Powell, "The `Three Orders' of Society in Anglo-Saxon England," Anglo-Saxon England 23 (1995): 103-32.

(10) For instances of stol and stool in OE see The Dictionary of Old English: Old English Corpus sub verbum. The Corpus is available online at o/oec/ or at That a stol has or could have three supports is, after all, implicit in the language of AElfric and Wulfstan about kingship.

(11) Isidore, Etymologiae, ed. W. M. Lindsay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), 2.25.2.

(12) Boethius, De consolatione Philosophiae, (5, prosa 4, 35) Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 94 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1957):97.

(13) Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae no. 118 (pp. 134-35); no. 379 (pp. 182-83).

(14) The edition is that of J. Herwagen, Opera Bedae Venerabilis, 8 vols in 4 (Basel, 1563); For discussion see Peter Jackson, "Herwagen's lost manuscript of the Collectanea," Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae, pp. 101-20. The PL text is simply reprinted from this edition with a few corrections. I am indebted to Professor Susan E. Deskis, currently of Northern Illinois University, for finding and photocopying the text from the 1563 edition. A copy is available in the Harvard Law School Library.

(15) See for example Patrick Sims-Williams, "Thought, Word and Deed: An Irish Triad," Eriu 29 (1978): pp. 78-111.

(16) See for example The Prose Solomon and Saturn and Adrian and Ritheus, ed. J. E. Cross and Thomas D. Hill, McMaster Old English Studies and Texts I (U. of Toronto Press, 1982), p. 7, et passim and Thomas D. Hill, "Saturn's Time Riddle: An Insular Latin Analogue for Solomon and Saturn II, lines 282-91," RES 39 (1988): 273-76.

(17) King Alfred's Old English Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiae, ed. W. J. Sedgefield (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899), p. 40. Alfred's definition of kingship as a craeft, thereby associating himself with the laborantes, may entail a definition of kingship in which the king embodies the characteristics of all of the estates, being hallowed to kingship and thus in a sense a sacerdos, and being a leader in war and therefore a wigman and as a man laborans who professes the craeft of kingship.

(18) See Archer Taylor, English Riddles from Oral Tradition (U. of California Press, 1951), nos. 461a-68; pp. 163-64. As an example I cite 461b: "In cums two legs an' sets hisself down/Upo' three legs, wi' one leg in his hand. / In cums four legs, an' throws three legs after four legs, / An' got his own leg again." The suggested solution is "A man sits on a three-legged stool in a butcher shop, with a leg of mutton in his hand, which a dog snatches and runs away with."
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Author:Hill, Thomas D.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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