The Exeter Book Riddles

History, transmission, typical features and the Exeter Cathedral

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

10 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The Exeter Cathedral

3. The Exeter Book

4. The Exeter Book Riddles

5. Riddle Nr.33

6. Sources

1. Introduction

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines riddles as an ancient and universal form of literature commonly consisting of a puzzle question.[1] There are collections of riddles in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Greek and Latin literature.[2] Well-known is the sphinx as riddling beast in Grecian mythology and literature. Western riddles collections begin with the Latin collections by Symphosius in the late antiquity followed by Aldhelm’s and Tatwine’s collections.[3] The earliest known English riddles are recorded in the Exeter Book. They originate from the 10th century. These riddles have a very special character. Craig Williamson describes them as “a metaphoric and metamorphic celebration of the life in the eye of the Anglo-Saxon.”[4]

The Exeter Riddles will be topic to this paper. First their history and transmission will the thematised by having a closer look at the Exeter Cathedral, its library and the Exeter Book. Then typical features of the riddles shall be discussed. Afterwards an example will illustrate these.

2. The Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral is one of the great cathedrals of England.[5] It is the seat of the Bishop of Exeter, in the city of Exeter, Devon in South West England. It was founded in 1050 AD by Bishop Leofric in the large Saxon minster church that stood a few yards from the present building. The construction of the Romanesque started in 1114 AD. It was completed around 1180AD. In the following centuries the Cathedral was constantly enlarge. Fires and wars destroyed party of the building but everything was rebuilt. Today the Exeter cathedral is a magnet for visitors from all over the world. It belongs to the most impressive buildings in Britain. It has the largest ripped vaulting in the world.

The Cathedral library and archives contain irreplaceable treasures of national and international significance from the 10th century onwards, including the 10th century Exeter Book of Anglo Saxon poetry, the Exon Domesday, and the Cathedral's Charter signed by Edward the Confessor.[6]

The library was founded about 1050-1070 when bishop Leofric presented the cathedral with 66 book.[7] Of them only one book still remains in the cathedral, the Exeter Book. The number of book and the space occupied by the library increased so that in 1506 the catalogue shows that the library owned 11 desks for books and over 530 titles, of which more than a third were service books. By 1752 the collection had grown considerably to 5,000 volumes, to a large extent by benefactions. In 1820 the library was moved from the Lady Chapel to the Chapter House. In the 19th century two large collections were received by the Cathedral. They were together more than twice the size of the existing library. So it was necessary to construct a new building to have room for the whole library. During the 20th century the greater part of the library was transferred to rooms in the Bishop's Palace, while the remainder was kept in Pearson's cloister library.[8] Library and archives are open to visitors. The Exeter Book is kept in the library behind glass for tourists to see.

3. The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book is the biggest known collection of Old English literature that exists today. The book is a varied collection. Besides the riddles the Exeter Book includes some long religious poems, a number of short religious verses and some secular Anglo-Saxon lyrics.[9]

It has been suggested by Bernard Muir that the book began to be written after 950 and before 968 AD.[10] It is unknown if they were composed by an author or if they were written down from an oral tradition. The dialect is West Saxon. So the manuscript could have been produced in a West Saxon centre of learning such as Crediton or possibly Exeter. The book was in Exeter at least from 1072, the death of Bishop Leofric of Exeter. This is known because in Leofric’s list of donations to the cathedral library one can find a title referring to the Exeter Book.[11]

The Exeter Book contains approximately one-sixth of the surviving corpus of Old English verse. There are three other codices of Anglo-Saxon verse: Beowulf and Judith (Nowell Codex, British Library), Junius (Oxford, Bodleian Library) and the Vercelli Book (Vercelli, Cathedral Library). The book contains 31 major poems, as well as 96 riddles.


[1] Cuddon,J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cook, Eleanor. Enigmas and Riddles in Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2006.p.235.

[4] Williamson, Craig . A Feast of Creatures. Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. p.3


[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Fabian, Bernhard. Die englische Literatur. Band1: Epochen, Formen. München: Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, 1991.p.267.

[10] Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press,2011. p.1.

[11] Ibid.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


The Exeter Book Riddles
History, transmission, typical features and the Exeter Cathedral
College  (Anglistische Literaturwissenschaft)
Riddles, Proverbs, Nursery Rhymes
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
468 KB
exeter, book, riddles, cathedral
Quote paper
Katharina Ochsenfahrt (Author), 2012, The Exeter Book Riddles, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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