The Exeter Book – otherwise, The Book of Riddles

The Exeter Book – otherwise, The Book of Riddles

One of the most important collections of Anglo-Saxon poetry in existence, containing a quarter of the World’s existing writings, residing at Exeter Cathedral Library.

Despite the rise of the Kindle, tablets and kindle, many people still love their books and especially old books which often inform us on strange and intriguing subjects.  In Devon, we are particularly blessed by the fact that here, in Exeter, the cathedral library is the custodian of one of the oldest books in the UK.


Obelisk in Exeter High Street which displays ‘riddle’ extracts from the Exeter Book

Bishop Leofric relocated the bishopric from Crediton to Exeter and gifted the  Anglo Saxon Book to the cathedral’s library in the 11th century.  Dating back to approximately 970, the book has miraculously survived the Norman invasion, the Reformation, civil wars and in particular World War 2 when Exeter was heavily bombed by the Germans.  A little research has indicated to me that there might only be a few older books than the Exeter Book  in the UK.   A recent purchase by the British Library was St. Cuthbert’s Gospel, reputed to be buried with St Cuthbert in 698,  which only narrowly avoided the Viking raids on Lindisfarne.  In 2012, St. Cuthbert’s Gospel was secured for the nation at a cost of £9 million.  The  Exeter Book  must itself also be a  national treasure being a mere 300 years younger than St Cuthbert’s Gospel.

So when we met Peter Thomas, Exeter Cathedral’s  librarian, we asked how the Exeter Book had managed to survive for just over a 1000 years with relatively little damage (there are a few pages missing and some limited damage to a couple  of pages, also, the cover isn’t the original). First of all, the book isn’t written on paper (which wasn’t available until a couple of centuries later) but parchment.  Parchment was used for important documents because of its durability, in fact, there wasn’t really any alternative.  Parchment is actually animal skin, often calf skin, which is processed to enable it to accept ink.  Many religious, legal and parliamentary documents are written on parchment.  Also the size of the Exeter Book may have had something to do with its longevity as it languished round the library it was possibly used as a heavy press in the gold leaf process (fragments of gold leaf were found on some of the book’s inner pages); whilst the size of the book may have made it useful as a rest for cutting things on or maybe it was just used as a door stop !   At one point, I believe that some of Leofric’s books were handed over to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  However, the Exeter Book was kept in Exeter, presumably because it is not an ornately decorated or illuminated book and it was therefore somewhat overlooked.  However, it is now generally recognised that the Exeter Book is one of the most important old books in the UK as it is an important source of Anglo Saxon poetry.   Whatever the case, we are very thankful that such an old and interesting book made it to the 21st century relatively unscathed.

As you might imagine, the Exeter Book is written in old English which may as well be a foreign language as far as modern readers are concerned.  Peter kindly allowed us to view some of book and he explained that Old English had Germanic roots (as it was spoken by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors).  Looking at the text, there were several letters that weren’t even recognisable.  Nonetheless, scholars of Old English have been able to translate the text and indeed Peter obliged us by reading some excerpts from the Exeter Book in Old English which was fascinating.  One of the reasons this book is very rare is because it is a book of poetry.  In all, there are 131 pages of narrative poem, elegies, wisdom poems, prayers and riddles.  This is not really poetry as we would know it and doesn’t rely on rhyme, but was written  in such a way as to enable the reader to use rhythm and stress.  After all, I can imagine that many of these traditional stories had been recited and possibly chanted time and time again and passed down the generations.  The Exeter Book has captured a part of our ancient heritage for posterity.  Much  of the poems are actually known as riddles which were very popular and are probably the most loved parts of the Exeter Book  today.   The riddles are really brain teasers and since there are no official answers, they can probably drive you quite mad.

Some of the riddles are very short and others much longer.  I thought readers might enjoy trying to work out a couple of the riddles.  Bear in mind that the Exeter Book doesn’t provide answers and therefore answers are always open to being challenged.  Next month we will provide “answers” that have been generally agreed;  so you’ll have  couple of months to puzzle out your answers.  Good luck ! – Helen Jones

Many thanks to the Exeter Cathedral Library and Librarian, Peter Thomas.  The Exeter Book will be available to view at various times through the year.  You can take part in a group booking to enjoy a guided visit with an archivist/librarian.  Contact the library for more information by calling 01392 421423.

Several of the Riddles (translated)

Riddle 84
Not silent is my hall, nor I myself am loud…  for us two the Lord ordained our ways together.  I am swifter than he and at times stronger; he is more enduring.  Often I rest; he must run on.  With him is my home all my life long.  If we two are parted my death is destined.

Riddle 25
I’m a wonderful thing, a joy to women, to neighbours useful. I injure no one who lives in a village save only my slayer.  I stand up high and steep over the bed; underneath I’m shaggy. Sometimes ventures a young and handsome peasant’s daughter, a maiden proud, to lay hold on me. She seizes me, red, plunders my head, fixes on me fast, feels straightway what meeting me means when she thus approaches, a curly-haired woman. Wet is that eye.

Riddle 32
Beautifully made in many ways is this our world, cunningly adorned. Marvelous is its motion, I saw this devicegrind against the gravel, crying out as it went. This marvelous thing had no sight nor feeling, neither shoulders nor arms.  One foot only had this curious device to journey along on, to move over the fields.  It had many ribs, its mouth was midway.  Useful to mortals, it bears abundance of food to the people, brings them plenty and pays to men annual tribute which all enjoy, the high and the lowly.  Explain if you can, who are wise in words, what this thing may be.

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Nigel has been publishing magazines since 1995 (some 20+ years now). Passionate about our countryside and heritage, the magazines reflect this interest. Nigel's the Editor of the DEVONSHIRE magazine which he established in 2009 and founder of the innovative HUBCAST event promotion platform which launched in 2011