In my historical thirteenth century novel “The King’s Jew” Crispin Bowman sets a riddle which goes a follows –
“What walks all day on its head?”
I am NOT going to give the answer here (and if you know it then please do not post it otherwise the characters in my book may find out!!!)
Link to book http://authl.it/2m5
During the Middle Ages—the years from 500 to 1500 A.D.—riddles were elevated to the level of art and prized as sources of entertainment and education. Unlike today’s easy word puzzles, medieval riddles relied heavily on metaphor and demanded ingenuity to solve.
I’ll start you off with an easy one –
1 – I share a common fate with the sea, spinning the months around in alternate cycles. When the glory of my light-flowing form wanes so, too, the sea loses its swollen flood tides.
Answer = Moon
Wandering performers pitted their wits in riddling contests to entertain court patrons. The challenging and often poetic language of these “riddles” was believed to help students remember names and facts. Sometimes they imparted lessons in morality.
2 – No one can see me or catch me in their palms. I spread the noisy sound of my voice quickly through the world; I can break to pieces the oak with my loud, crashing strength, as I beat against the high poles of the sky and traverse the fields.
Answer = Wind
3 – Formed in a marvellous way, born without seed I load my sweet breast with treasure from flowers; By my art the golden platters of kings grow yellow; Always I bear the small, sharp spears of cruel war And though I lack hands, my spear stings more cruelly than weapons forged by smiths.
Answer = Bee
4 – From the trunk of a willow and the scraped hide of a cow I am made. Suffering the fierce savagery of war I, with my own body, always save my bearer’s body, unless death takes the man’s life. What fierce soldier endures such a fate or receives so many deadly wounds in war?
5 – I am a faithful vigilant guardian, always watching the house. In the deep night, I walk through the unseeing shadows, for I do not lose the sight of my eyes, even in black caverns. Against the hateful thieves who ravage the stores of grain, I ambush, I silently set a snare of death. A roaming huntress, I invade the lairs of wild beasts, but I do not wish to chase fleeing herds alongside dogs who bark and bring cruel war against me.
Answer = Cats
Riddles were sometimes simple reflections on farming, cooking, and the basics of everyday life.
6 – Open-palmed hands formed me out of two substances. My inner core glows white, made of flax, or else shines bright, plundered from a slender rush, But when my outward body bursts into yellow flower, it pours forth, spewing flames, heat and fire as moist tears drop in profusion from my brows. Yet, in this way, I destroy the horrid shadows of night and soon my burned heart leaves behind only ashes.
Answer = Candles
7 – Who would not be amazed by my strange lot? With my strength I bear a thousand forest oaks, but a slender needle at once pierces me, the bearer of such burdens; Birds flying in the sky and fish swimming in the sea once took their first life from me. A third of the world is held in my power.
Answer = Water
8 – Black, curved, capacious and of beaten metal made, I hang, touching neither the sky nor the deep earth. Growing hot from fires and sometimes bubbling like a whirlpool, I suffer the twinned onslaught of a variable threat, As I endure the surging of water and the ferocious flames.
Answer = Cauldron
9 – Multi-coloured in hue, I flee the sky and the deep earth. There is no place for me on the ground nor in any part of the poles. No one fears an exile as cruel as mine, but I make the world grow green with my tears.
Answer = Clouds
10 – I come in dewy drops from the wet sky, And grow fat in my fall through the rainy shower, But no hand can touch me, as I swim in the limpid water, for my delicate interior bursts at once from the touch and my fragile breath departs into thin air. Once, through the watery ways, in a great crowd, I led the companions and many fellows who share my same birth.
Answer = A Bubble
11 – I have a heart that never beats, I have a home but I never sleep. I can take a man’s house and build another’s, and I love to play games with my many brothers. I am a king among fools. Who am I?
Answer = The King of Hearts in a deck of cards.
Monks used riddles in schools to instruct and test their students in biblical trivia.
12 – I killed one fourth of mankind. Who am I? –
Answer = Cain (who killed Abel).
13 – Some try to hide, some try to cheat, but time will show, we always will meet. Try as you might, to guess my name, I promise you’ll know, when you I do claim. Who am I?
Answer = Death
I find the next two particularly interesting. Don’t forget these riddles are being answered by uneducated people so what seems simple to our modern minds and oh so obvious would have been a bit like us trying to solve Fermat’s last Theorem!
14 – Which is the largest body of water, and the least dangerous to cross?
Answer = The dew.
15 – What is the distance from the surface of the sea to the deepest part thereof?
Answer = Only a stone’s throw.
16 – Which saints in the church do the most good?
Answer = The ones in the glass windows, because they keep out the wind which blows the candles out.
17 – I have put up with more than one body had to.
I had three souls all inside myself.
Two departed, and the third almost followed.
What am I?
Answer = A woman who gave birth to twins.
18 – “I am a wonderful help to women
The hope of something good to come
I harm only my slayer
I grow very tall, erect in a bed
I am shaggy down below
The lovely girl grabs my body, rubs my red skin
Holds me hard, claims my head.
That girl will feel our meeting!
I bring tears to her eyes!
What am I?”
Answer = An onion (Full of double entendres eh?)
19 – What kind of people get their living with most enjoyment?
Answer = Priests and fullers, because one sings and the other dances. Watch Tony Robinson of Time Team fame here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vb0V5NSgAo0
20 – In former days my father and mother, Abandoned me dead, lacking breath
Or life or being. Then one began, A kinswoman kind, to care for and love me;
Covered me with her clothing, wrapped me in her raiment, With the same affection she felt for her own. Until by the law of my life’s shaping, Under alien bosom I quickened with breath.
My foster mother fed me thereafter, until I grew sturdy and strengthened for flight.
Then of her dear ones, of daughters and sons, she had the fewer for what she did. What am I?
Answer = A cuckoo.
Yet riddles had a dark side for in some medieval tales, prisoners won-or lost-their freedom by stumping the judge with a riddle. In Viking lore, riddling contests became duels in which the loser lost his life. The god Odin defeated many a foe with riddles.
The wandering pedlar (known as a Ceopman in the middle ages) used his riddle setting talents to charm his way into the lives of villagers. Thus the skeleton (harbinger of bad luck) follows him around in this image.
In “The King’s Jew” such a man appears at the start of the book and creates mayhem in the village of Longhurst.
LINK To “The King’s Jew” – Book One
I hope you enjoyed your visit to medieval riddle school and, for a while, you can maybe reflect on how lucky you are to live in our modern times as opposed to the hard life of the medieval peasant.
Or maybe you’d like to live in those bygone days? If you do then let me know why and maybe I’ll join you there. Though having spent years researching my work I’m not too sure – maybe if I were a knight or a prince I’d happily relocate.