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The Old English translation of Aldhelm's riddle 'Lorica.'

The Old English translation of Aldhelm's Lorica, 'The Corselet', illustrates how the Anglo-Saxon riddlic imagination could operate upon a Latin rhetorical base. It exists in two versions, Riddle 33 of the Exeter Book (35 in ASPR III) and its sister in Northumbrian dialect, the Leiden Riddle.(1) Because the Leiden Riddle differs in only two respects from Riddle 33 and has more often been the subject of study, I shall examine the latter. The Latin enigma turns upon a simple play on names, but in the Old English, a strange, sentient creature suddenly emerges. The iron corselet of Aldhelm's riddle is a dumb thing given a rhetorical voice. The Anglo-Saxon riddle-object by contrast has its own voice and thought. Riddle 33 has long been appreciated for its smooth rendering, but the extent to which it makes the original paradox wholly its own has not been recognized. Perhaps most remarkable is its use of double meaning to hint obliquely at the object's true function.

Aldhelm, interested in etymology and naming, based his riddle on an alternative term for the lorica.(2) The object states that it is not made as cloth or clothing is made, and yet it is called a coat, vestis, in the common speech, vutgi sermone:

Roscida me genuit gelido de uiscere tellus; Non sum setigero lanarum uellere facta, Licia nulla trahunt nec garrula ilia resultant Nec crocea Seres texunt lanugine uermes Nec radiis carpor duro nec pectine pulsor; 5 Et tamen en 'uestis' uulgi serraone uocabor. Spicula non uereor longis exempta faretris.(3)

(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.)

It is, of course, a coat of mail. Nicholas Howe believes vestis is a term for a corselet in colloquial Latin. I think it more likely that vulgi sermone refers to the English vernacular, and that vestis represents OE gewaed(e), which usually describes a garment or coat, but can also refer to a coat of mail, more properly called a byrne.(4) Aldhelm was not solely attracted by this paradox of names: he was equally interested in the processes of mining, weaving, and making silk, while he devotes only the final line to the 'life' of the lorica. The object speaks in the first person; it says that it was born, like a living creature, and that it does not fear. But it does not engage with the processes described in any active or imaginative way.

While puns and wordplay are normally untranslatable, here the Anglo-Saxon translator had only to change gewaede for vestis to preserve the conceit:

Mec se waeta wong, wundrum freorig, of his innathe aerist cende. Ne wat ic mec beworhtne wulle flysum, haerum thurh heahcraeft, hygethoncum min: wundene me ne beodh wefle, ne ic wearp hafu, 5 ne thurh threata gethraecu thraed me ne hlimmedh, ne aet me hrutende hrisil scridhedh, ne mec ohwonan sceal am cnyssan. Wyrmas mec ne awaefan wyrda craeftum, tha the geolo godwebb geatwum fraetwadh. 10 Wile mec mon hwaethre setheah wide ofer eorthan hatan for haelethum hyhtlic gewaede. Saga sodhcwidum, searothoncum gleaw, wordum wisfaest, hweet this gawaede sy.(5)

(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.)

The primary sense of gawaede, 'garment', which is often glossed vestimentum, was probably enough to mask the specialized sense 'coat of mail', especially when Aldhelm's rather obvious final line had been replaced by the taunting Saga sodhcwidum . . . hwaaet this gewaede sy.(6)

The translation doubles the original in length; every two of its lines corresponds to one in the Latin. The lengthening is appropriate and essential to what is new and particularly Anglo-Saxon in the riddle. We see this particularly when we compare Aldhelm's first line with the first two of the Old English. The line Roscida me genuit gelido de viscere tellus is a fine example of a Latin hexameter line: the rolling pace of the dactyllic feet draws us smoothly into the poem and the delayed subject tellus creates a suspension, especially with the nested adjectives and nouns: roscida . . . (gelido . . . viscere) tellus. There is also mild alliteration in genuit gelido, as later in pectine pulsor and vestis vulgi. The corresponding lines of the translation run:

Mec se waeta wong, wundrum freorig, of his innathe aerist cende.

The translation creates its own suspension: with the strong placement of mec, the object calls attention to itself, but does not complete its statement until the end of the second line. Instead of nested adjectives, we find waeta and freorig in variation describing wong. The rhythm is straightforward: it begins with a B-type half-line and follows with three A-type half-lines, which remains the basic rhythm throughout the fiddle, upon which more complex patterns are laid. The alliteration on 'w', which accounts for nearly half of the riddle's alliteration, is introduced here. There are also two new details: wundrum indicates a sharpened interest in the marvellous and aerist emphasizes origins.

The translator's prosodic skill is evident throughout the riddle, but the following two lines are critical in introducing a new aspect of the riddle-object:

Ne wat ic mec beworhtne wulle flysum, haerum thurh heahcraeft, hygethoncum min.

Suddenly the object is aware of itself; it knows itself, wat ic mec, not to be made in a certain way. It has thoughts and a hyge, a 'mind' or 'heart', to have them in. This heightened self-awareness is emphasized elsewhere, such as by that initial mec and by the repetition of the personal pronoun in nearly every phrase.

The next four lines form a unit. Preferring perhaps to develop the suggestive workings of the loom as a whole, the translator postponed the worm couplet. The loom is depicted deftly and, with the wefle and the wearp, it is more technically detailed than the Latin loom. Several of the phrases are onomatopoeic: hrutende suggests the ring of the shuttle shot through the weft threads and thurh dhreata gethraecu thaed reproduces the sound and vibration it describes. Sound and sense also coincide happily with the clashing C type of half-line in

x / / x sceal am cnyssan. (8)

Within this unit, the phrase thurh dhreata gethraecu has long troubled translators and editors. The context demands that it refer somehow to weaving, but, according to Bosworth-Toiler, gethraec may be translated 'press', 'crowd', or 'tumult' and threat 'troop', 'band', or 'body of people'.(7) Some scholars associated the phrase with a specific part of the loom: Ekwall said that it referred to 'the pressure of weights', while Gerritsen preferred 'the system of leashes'.(8) Tupper connected it more generally with the operation of the loom, translating 'the force of many strokes',(9) and Erhardt-Siebold suggested the 'pressing of the crowded many'.(10) None of these solutions is very satisfactory, given the common association in poetry of threat with groups of intelligent creatures, whether angels, engla threat, or warriors, wigendra dhreat.(11) It is the latter association that Williamson recognized when he said that this is 'an explanation of the source of the sound . . . in terms of battle imagery'.(12) This statement is true, but it needs to be expanded. Lines 6-8 effectively describe a miniature battle, carried out on the loom itself (although always by negation). The threads are said not 'to resound' or, to use a more martial sense of hlimman, 'to clang', as in the clash of weapons.(13) Hrutan suggests the 'whizzing' of a weapon,(14) and cayssan, which completes the sequence, has such senses applicable to combat as 'strike', 'strike down', or even 'overcome (in battle)'.(15) All this would have little relevance were it not for the actual nature of the riddle-object. The list of things that do not 'clang' or 'whiz', 'slide towards' or 'strike' the object calls to mind the things that do. The translator has so infused the riddle with his imagination that, even in describing what the object is not, he begins to hint at the corselet's true environment.

In the Latin, the line Seres . . . vermes has an exotic feel. The Old English equivalent is even stranger: the worms 'decorate the fine yellow cloth with ornaments' and they weave 'with skills of fates', wyrda craeftum. This phrase has proved as vexing as thurh dhreata gethraecu. The sense appears to be 'with the skills accorded to them by providence (or nature)', or as Erhardt-Siebold said, 'with inborn skill'.16 This 'fate' is very similar to Aldhelm's use of fatum in his own 'Silkworm' riddle: Vt globulos fabricans tum fati sorte quiescam(17) ('So that I may then rest, by fate's lot, fashioning little balls'). Aldhelm used fatum broadly in his riddles to describe the laws of nature and the individual results produced by them. Yet he also used it to refer to the necessary ends of things, their destinies or fates.(18) We may likewise suggest an alternate meaning for wyrd. Suppose we understand it as 'fates' meaning the destiny of individuals, the warriors for whom the mail coat is made. Silkworms do not determine the fate of the one who wears a shirt, but the maker of a corselet does. Thus the coat is truly hyhtlic (12) - that is, 'delightful', but also, 'bringing cause for hope' - for in protecting it brings hope to haelethum, not simply 'to men', but also 'to warriors'.(19)

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 searothoncum 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'.(20)


1 The Exeter Book version appears as Riddle 33 in C. Williamson (ed.), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, 1977); 35 in G. P. Krapp and E. van K. Dobbie (edd.), The Exeter Book, ASPR III (New York, 1936), 198. The Leiden Riddle is printed in A. H. Smith (ed.), Three Northumbrian Poems (New York, 1968), 44-6.

2 See N. Howe, 'Aldhelm's "Enigmata" and Isidorian Etymology', Anglo-Saxon England, 14 (1985), 51-4.

3 Fr. Glorie (ed.), Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis, CCSL cxxxiii (Turnhout, 1968) (Rid. 33), 417.

4 M. Keller reported, 'In simplex waed and gawaed have the meaning of "dress, garment" . . . In compound, however . . . waed has the meaning of "battle garment"', Anglo-Saxon Weapon Names (Heidelberg, 1906), 269. However, Beowulf provides an example of the 'battle garment' meaning for the simplex gewaede: Gewitath fordh beran | waethen ond gawaedu (Fr. Klaeber (ed.), Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd edn. (Lexington, 1950), 11. 291-2). See also (2a) of the gewaede entry in Toller's An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Supplement (London, 1921): 'the garment of a soldier'. For the use of byrne, see Keller, 255-9.

5 Williamson, Old Englirh Riddles, 88-9 (my italics).

6 Here the Leiden Riddle departs from the West Saxon version in translating Aldhelm's last line: Ni anoeghn ic me aerighfaerae eghsan brogum | dheh dhi numen siae niudlicae ob coerum ('Nor do I fear, with terror of peril, the arrow-flight, though it be seized eagerly from quivers') (Smith, Three Northumbrian Poems, 46). The only other significant variation is the Leiden Riddle's use of scelfath ('shake, quiver') in line 7.

7 J. Bosworth and T. N. Toller (edd.), An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (London, 1898).

8 E. Ekwall, review of Three Northumbrian Poems in Modern Language Review, 29 (1934), 80, and J. Gerritsen, 'Exeter Book Riddle 35 and the Leiden Riddle', English Studies, 35 (1954), 259-62.

9 F. Tupper, The Riddles of the Exeter Book (Boston, 1910), 152.

10 E. von Erhardt-Siebold, 'The Old English Loom Riddles', in T. A. Kirby and H. B. Woolf (edd.), Philologica: The Malone Anniversary Studies (Baltimore, 1949), 13.

11 See J. B. Bessinger, Jr. and P. H. Smith, Jr. (edd.), A Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (Ithaca, NY and London, 1978).

12 Williamson, Old English Riddles, 247.

13 See Judith, 204-5: Dynedan scildas, hlude hlummon (Beowulf and Judith, ed. E. van K. Dobbie), ASPR IV (New York, 1953), 105).

14 Both Bosworth-Toller and C. Hall (A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 4th edn., Medieval Academy Reprints 14 (Toronto, 1960)) suggest 'whiz', although in Latin-Old English glossaries the word often glosses L. sterto, '(I) snore'. Note however the martial context in Rid. 1, 81-2: thonne blace scotiath | scrithende scin scearpum waepnum (Williamson, Old English Riddles). The Leiden Riddle uses instead the verb scelfan, 'to quiver', which we could read, 'the whizzing shuttle does not quiver within me', i.e. in the manner of a penetrating arrow.

15 The Dictionary of Old English on microform (Toronto, 1986 -) cites Beowulf, 1323-8: deadis AEschere, | Yrmenlafes yldra brothor . . . dhonne we on orlege | hafelan weredon, dhonne hniton fethan, | eoferas cnysedan ('"whenever we struck the boar images" or perhaps "whenever we struck down the helmets".'). For the particular sense of 'to overcome' with gecnyssan, see King Alfred's Orosius: swa oft swa Galli widh Romanum wunnan, swa wurdon Romane gecnysede (H. Sweet (ed.), EETS OS 79 (London, 1993), p. 142, 11 5-6).

16 Erhardt-Siebold, 'The Old English Loom Riddles', 13.

17 Glorie, Collectiones Aenigmatum (Rid. 12, Bombix), p. 395, I. 4.

18 Both senses are found in this example: Credere quis poeterit tantis spectacula causis | Temperer et fatis rerum contraria fata? (Ibid. (Rid. 54, Cocuma duplex), p. 445, II. 1-2.)

19 See B. Huppe's discussion of the Leiden Riddle (Doctrine and Poetry: Augustine's Influence on Old English Poetry (New York, 1959), 75-7) in which he recognizes many of the same subtleties. Instead of contrasting the translation with the original, Huppe uses the translation to stand in lieu of Aldhelm's vernacular poetry, no longer extant.

20 See in Bosworth-Toiler the alternation between abstract and physical senses in another compound formed with searo-/u, searucraeft: 'a treacherous art', 'a cunning art', or 'an engine' or 'machine'.
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Author:Klein, Thomas
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Date:Aug 1, 1997
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