June 24, 2016
Unesco moves to protect Anglo-Saxon book of poems and ribald riddles
by Kait Howard
As everyone knows, the formative texts of European literature are replete with ribaldry. The Exeter Book, one of the oldest surviving Old English manuscripts, is no exception: the 1,000-year-old volume of poetry, which inspired a number of major modern poets, is full of dirty riddles that would delight any fans of Sterne or Rabelais.
Now, the Guardian’s Alison Flood reports, the Exeter Book has been added to Unesco’s Memory of the World Program, a register of important documentary heritage objects. Housed in Exeter Cathedral, the volume of around forty Anglo-Saxon poems and ninety-six riddles will join the Magna Carta, the Bayeux Tapestry, and the Book of Kells on Unesco’s list of the world’s “principle cultural artifacts,” which should be preserved, protected, and made “permanently accessible to all.”
“One of only four surviving major poetic manuscripts in the [Old English] vernacular,” according to Unesco, the Exeter Book was written around 970, and includes poems such as “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer,” which inspired later poems of the same titles by Auden and Pound, respectively. There’s also the poem “Christ I,” which gave Tolkien his “Middle Earth,” as well as “some of the only poetry from the period written in the voices of women.”
A large portion of the manuscript, however, is made up of riddles, which range from the everyday to the downright dirty. As Emma Cayley, a professor at Exeter University, told Flood, the humor of the obscene riddles relies on double meanings, so that each riddle essentially has a naughty meaning and clean one, like the following (translated by Paull Franklin Baum):
Splendidly it hangs by a man’s thigh,
under the master’s cloak. In front is a hole.
It is stiff and hard; it has a goodly place.
When the young man his own garment
lifts over his knee, he wishes to visit
with the head of what hangs the familiar hole
he had often filled with its equal length.
What is it? A key, of course! Why, what were you thinking?
Kait Howard is a publicist at Melville House.