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  • Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata by Mercedes Salvador-Bello
  • T. A. Shippey
Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. By Mercedes Salvador-Bello. Medieval European Studies Series, 17. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv + 530. $44.99.

The chief claim of this major study—at once exceptionally wide-ranging and extremely detailed—is that “major Latin riddle collections and the Exeter Book Riddles were organized according to structural criteria deriving from encyclopedic tradition, more specifically from Isidore’s Etymologiae” (p. 2). It should be said [End Page 270] immediately that it is highly appropriate that Professor Salvador-Bello should make the claim, for she is a professor at the University of Seville, and so in a sense a successor to Isidore. But one might counter by asking why, if such a claim could be made, it has not been proposed before? To this question there are two answers.

One is that while Isidore’s work was arguably the most influential textbook of the early Middle Ages (more than a thousand copies surviving), it has a poor reputation in modern times, being remembered all too often for the phrase lux a non lucendo. Isidore’s idea of “etymology” was not ours, and to philologists, etymology on historical principles was the key discipline. By contrast, etymologies based on mere similarity of sound and fancied semantic connections were anathema.

Moreover, and in a less prejudicial way, mastery not only of Isidore but also of the extended riddling tradition from Symphosius on is something not readily gained. Consideration of the Exeter Book does not figure until more than halfway through this study, but all students of the Exeter Book must feel grateful to Professor Salvador-Bello for providing them with vital context.

The study opens with a “general overview of the riddling genre” from the seventh to the eleventh centuries, together with a brief account of Isidore himself, which makes the further point that enigmata can be seen as a branch of the encyclopedic tradition of which Isidore was a prime example. The core of the study is then a detailed consideration of the layout of Isidore’s “Second Decade,” that is to say his Books XI–XX. This will be returned to again and again, often in tabular form, to show how Isidore’s topics were remembered and used as a basis for the organization of riddle collections.

This is followed by a long third chapter, which studies all major medieval riddle collections, starting with Symphosius’s Enigmata (the date of which is uncertain), and going on to Aldhelm, Tatwine, Eusebius (whose Anglo-Saxon name was Hwætberht), the Bern Riddles, the Lorsch Riddles, and the Vatican Collection, the last three of which, in spite of their immediate provenance, likewise had Anglo-Saxon connections.

Some general conclusions of importance emerge from this chapter. One is that there was clearly an attempt to reach round numbers. Symphosius’s and Aldhelm’s collections are both one hundred items long. Tatwine’s forty was made up to the same number by Eusebius’s sixty. The authors were also careful to provide satisfactory and wide-ranging codas, like Aldhelm’s riddle “Creatura,” or openings, like Tatwine’s “De Philosophia” and Eusebius’s “De Deo.” Harder to trace, but nevertheless vital to the argument, are the ways in which riddles are grouped. Several organizing principles appear to be at work, all of them traceable in Isidore. One might work hierarchically, as Eusebius did in moving from God to angel to demon to fallen man. Or, more obviously, by grouping together (very clear in Symphosius) zoological motifs, such as birds, quadrupeds, plants, and “instrumental” motifs, tools, and artefacts.

So much is apparent, but early medieval organizing principles were not always the same as ours. Classification of animals, for instance, might be affected by Old Testament rules on clean and unclean beasts. A diptych principle can also be seen at work. Aldhelm’s collection differs from that of Symphosius “in the presence of an underlying comparative pattern in which small or great objects, made...


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pp. 270-273
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