- The Plough's the Thing:A New Solution to Old English Riddle 4 of the Exeter Book
Previous solutions for Exeter Book Riddle 4 have been unsatisfactory because they could not accommodate at least one metaphorical "clue" in the poem. Craig Williamson has characterized the misdirections: "This riddle is in many respects the most puzzling riddle in the Exeter Book. With its plentitude of rings… its horde of ambiguous words… and its occasional anomalies… it has perplexed and will probably continue to perplex the proudest of solvers." 1 Solutions previously entertained for this riddle include "handmill," "bell," "flail," "well-bucket," "quill" and "watchdog," all of which yet lack the precise metaphorical correspondences implicit in the poem's ambiguous terms. 2 For this reason, Williamson himself listed the riddle as unsolved in 1977. As recently as last year, an article posited the solution "devil," but this answer also has certain weaknesses. 3 An exploration [End Page 301] of the poem's language will reveal the amphibolies that have made the riddle so unyielding to the previous solvers. I believe, however, that my new solution "plough team" easily satisfies all of the difficulties. Furthermore, Riddle 4 shares vocabulary and expressions with other Exeter Book riddles that have the accepted solution of "ox" or "plough."
While the following text (except where indicated by brackets) comes from Krapp and Dobbie's edition of the Exeter Book, I have translated the poem according to the interpretation I intend to present:
Ic sceal þragbysig þegne minum,hring[um] hæfted, hyran georne,min bed brecan, breahtme cyþanþæt me halswriþan hlaford sealde.Oft mec slæpwerigne secg oðþe meowle 5gretan eode; ic him gromheortumwinterceald oncweþe. Wearm lim ge[fehð] 4 bundenne bæg hwilum bersteð;se þeah biþ on þonce þegne minum,medwisum men, me þæt sylfe, 10þær wiht wite, ond wordum minon sped mæge spel gesecgan. 5
(Routinely busy, I must attentively hear and obey my thane, attached to wheels; I must break my bed [the earth] and reveal with a cry that my lord has put a yoke on me. Often a man or woman came to greet me, sleep-weary. Winter-cold, I answer the fierce-hearted. Warm mud grips the bound wheel. Sometimes, it bursts—yet a pleasure to my thane, a foolish man, and to me myself, if I could know anything and say my story successfully with words.)
The new solution I am proposing, "plough team," is specifically a yoke of oxen attached to a wheeled plough. Ploughing seems to have fascinated [End Page 302] the riddle authors, for Riddles, 12, 38, and 72 (W 10, 36, and 70) have the traditional solution of "ox," and Riddle 21 (W 19) may be solved by "plough." 6
In regard to Riddle 4, archaeology does not preclude my solution. As early as 80 C.E., Pliny the Elder documented the revolutionary use of a wheeled plough in his Historia naturalis: "Non pridem inventum in Raetia Galliae ut duas adderent tali rotulas, quod genus vocant plaumorati" (An invention was made not long ago in the Grisons fitting a plough of this sort with two small wheels—the name in the vernacular for this kind of plough is plaumorati). 7 Despite this very early, if continental, evidence, there is still debate among archeologists concerning the ploughs employed by the Anglo-Saxons at various times. The debate remains largely unresolved for the simple reason that evidence is scanty: wood quickly rots, leaving only coulters and share points. Nevertheless, in Farm Tools through the Ages, Michael Partridge explains, "The Anglo-Saxons… used heavy eight-oxen ploughs to form high ridges for corn and deep furrows for drainage. This heavy plough was featured in Strutt's Anglo-Saxon Rarities of the Eighth Century as the Saxon wheel plough." 8
Perhaps more conclusive than the archaeological evidence, further confirmation for some native familiarity with the wheeled plough comes from the Julius Calendar and Hymnal in London, British Library MS Ju-lius A.vi. 9 Most likely produced at Christ Church in the very early years of the eleventh century, the manuscript illustrates ploughing as one of...