A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside Anglo-Latin Aenigmata

Since you last heard from me, everything has changed on the mezzanine.

Well, maybe not everything—our basic job is the same, but my recent projects have breathed new life into my DOML internship (and our recent discovery of musical Latin renditions of nursery rhymes and Elvis Presley lyrics have at times made it feel a bit like an alternate universe).

The first of my projects has frequently given me flashbacks to mornings on a school bus telling riddles to pass the time.  This is because I have been editing a volume of Anglo-Latin aenigmata, or riddles.

Many of the riddles, written by several different authors, are based on a sort of medieval encyclopedia by Isadore of Seville, which gives insight into how the world was viewed in medieval times.  Some of the more puzzling riddles provided me with the most fascinating windows into legends that were widespread during the era of the riddles’ authors.

For example, there was a rich tradition of legend surrounding salamanders.  A riddle by Aldhelm, a 7th century poet, assumes this knowledge, describing a fireproof animal that could not be destroyed by flames.  I was, of course, stumped by this, having gained no enlightenment about this trait from observing my elementary school class pet, a salamander.  Perhaps some people are still aware of the supposed mythical qualities of the animal, but I’d always thought of them as rather ordinary amphibians.  However, they were widely seen as magical creatures strongly associated with fire, sort of like dragons, in the Middle Ages.


A fireproof salamander in a 14th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library.

I tried to solve the riddles as I went along, and it proved to be more difficult than the editing itself.  My success rate was something like 25%.  And that’s even counting the riddles that give away their solutions acrostically.  I’d like to think that my lack of knowledge about the minutia of medieval folklore is to blame for my dismal solving performance, but I’m a little embarrassed to report that I incorrectly guessed the answer to three riddles in a row, all of which had “furnace” as a solution.

Try your hand at solving one by Aldhelm:

Nunc mea divinis complentur viscera verbis

totaque sacratos gestant praecordia biblos;

at tamen ex isdem nequeo cognoscere quicquam:

infelix fato fraudabor munere tali,

dum tollunt dirae librorum lumina Parcae.

Now my insides are filled with divine words,

and all my vitals bear sacred books;

but nevertheless I can’t learn anything from them:

I, unlucky, am cheated by fate with such a duty,

while the dreadful Fates take away the light of books.

The solution is arca libraria, or book chest, in which libraries were stored at the time.


A manuscript of Aldhelm’s aenigmata, showing the riddle told above.

I am currently working on editing parts of Carmina Burana.  They are not the same poems that I am used to from my days of horribly mangling Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on the clarinet in high school band.  A good portion of them focus on corruption in the Church, and how money can buy you anything—including salvation or a “not guilty” verdict in court.

Outside of my work at DOML, everything has continued to be amazing.  The Dumbarton Oaks community has grown steadily, with new fellows and interns arriving.  I am more and more grateful for the grounds and the people that populate them.  I’ve had an inspiring summer so far, and a significant portion of that invigoration has been drawn from DO.  I look forward to savoring my last month here.

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