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The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition

The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition

Edited and translated by Andy Orchard

ISBN 9780674055339

Publication date: 05/11/2021

What offers over seven hundred witty enigmas in several languages? Answer: The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Riddles, wordplay, and inscrutable utterances have been at the heart of Western literature for many centuries. Often brief and always delightful, medieval riddles provide insights into the extraordinary and the everyday, connecting the learned and the ribald, the lay and the devout, and the familiar and the imported. Many solutions involve domestic life, including “butter churn” and “chickens.” Others like “the harrowing of hell” or “the Pleiades” appeal to an educated elite. Still others, like “the one-eyed seller of garlic,” are too absurd to solve: that is part of the game. Riddles are not simply lighthearted amusement. They invite philosophical questions about language and knowledge.

Most riddles in this volume are translated from Old English and Latin, but it also includes some from Old Norse–Icelandic. The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition assembles, for the first time ever, an astonishing array of riddles composed before 1200 CE that continue to entertain and puzzle.


  • A comprehensive new collection beautifully edited…Riddles represent the whole of Anglo-Saxon life. These short pieces range about as widely as possible in tone and form, from ribald cracks to grammar lessons to ornate religious puzzles by the archbishop of Canterbury. For perhaps the first time, Orchard’s collection gathers these early medieval riddles from across centuries and languages.

    —Adrienne Raphael, New York Times Book Review


  • Andy Orchard is Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and a Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Oxford.

Book Details

  • 928 pages
  • 5-1/4 x 8 inches
  • Harvard University Press