Background to the Dark Ages series
One of the things I discovered when I was doing research into people from history is that they are just that - people. Like us, they had their own personalities and emotions. Given the shockingly sad statistics on infant mortality, I used to think that people in the past did not grieve and did not laugh. Life was far too hard and brutal to find fun.
But I was wrong.
There is evidence that during the Dark Ages, Anglo-Saxon people enjoyed jokes and riddles. Some were clever rhymes of word play, some silly and childish and some were very rude. The topics covered everyday things like eating and working to politics and, yes, sex.
The Exeter Book (also known as Codex Exoniensis) is one of the four manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon period that survive. It was given to the Exeter Cathedral library by Leofric in 1072. Leofric was the bishop of Exeter although he was from Cornwall.
The book contains a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I have read many of these and I am always impressed by the humanity involved in the stories. It is as if they are, well, ordinary people like us. I can read Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), having studied it at university, but it is a greater pleasure for me to read a translated version because these professors do such a better job of it!
As well as the poetry, the book has a lot of riddles. I include some of these in my novel Teon. It is OK to do so because the copyright has run out now. The sad thing is though, we don't know the author/s of the poems or riddles because they are all anonymous. No royalties there then.
I have selected a couple of riddles to share:
When I am alive I do not speak.
Anyone who wants to takes me captive and cuts off my head.
They bite my bare body I do no harm to anyone unless they cut me first.
Then I soon make them cry.
Answer: an onion.
I am all on my own,
Wounded by iron weapons and scarred by swords.
I often see battle.
I am tired of fighting.
I do not expect to be allowed to retire from warfare
Before I am completely done for.
At the wall of the city, I am knocked about
And bitten again and again.
Hard edged things made by the blacksmith's hammer attack me.
Each time I wait for something worse.
I have never been able to find a doctor who could make me better
Or give me medicine made from herbs.
Instead the sword gashes all over me grow bigger day and night.
Answer: a shield.
My home is not quiet but I am not loud.
The lord has meant us to journey together.
I am faster than he and sometimes stronger,
But he keeps on going for longer.
Sometimes I rest but he runs on.
For as long as I am alive I live in him.
If we part from one another It is I who will die.
Answer: a fish in a river.
A curiosity hangs by the thigh of a man,
under its master's cloak.
It is pierced through in the front;
It is stiff and hard and it has a good standing-place.
When the man pulls up his own robe above his knee,
He means to poke with the head of his hanging thing
That familiar hole of matching length
Which he has often filled before.
Answer: a key.
I have heard of a something-or-other,
Growing in its nook,
Swelling and rising,
Pushing up its covering.
Upon that boneless thing
A cocky-minded young woman
Took a grip with her hands;
With her apron a lord's daughter
Covered the tumescent thing.
Often a goodly damsel, a lady, locked me close in a chest.
Sometimes with her hands she took me out and gave me to her lord,
A fine chieftain, as he commanded her.
Then he thrust his head well inside me, up from below,
Into the narrow part.
If the strength prevailed of him who received me,
Adorned as I was, something or other rough
Was due to fill me.
Guess what I mean.
Answer: a shirt.