Category Archives: Exeter Book

Enigmatic riddle birds

Bit of a cheat post this one, but since I’ve recently published a general-audience post on the Anglo-Saxon riddles site The Riddle Ages, I thought I’d provide a link for readers of this site who might be interested. It’s taken and adapted from work I’ve produced on the Old English Exeter Book Riddles – an amazing collection of riddles written in Old English (the only ones we have – everything else is in Latin) and compiled in a huge manuscript given by Bishop Leofric in 1072 to Exeter cathedral, where it still resides. Many of the riddles involve a first-person speaker who describes themselves in typically riddling, paradoxical style and then asks that the listener or reader saga hwæt ic hatte ‘say what I am called’. Intriguingly, in this manuscript at least, there are no answers. It really is a guessing game! The natural world features well in the collection of 90+ riddles, and birds make up a noticeable portion of these. There is a swan, a nightingale, a cuckoo, a barnacle goose, hens and a jay. Riddle 57 is nearly always solved as one species of bird or another (crow, swift, swallow), but no scholar has ever settled on which species. So … here are my thoughts on why we should pay more attention to the anonymity of the birds in Riddle 57 then the possibility of a precise answer: see here for the translation, and here for the commentary.



The Seafarer and the Seabirds

Last year I posted on a particular chapter of my PhD thesis that I was re-writing at the time. This will now be published in the peer-reviewed journal English Studies, so if any readers enjoyed the summary I provided here and want more, then here’s the link to the pre-print manuscript version:

Pelagic Anglo-Saxon souls

I’ve spent the last couple of months devoted to re-writing the very first chapter I ever wrote for my PhD. In many ways, it’s been the hardest task. Returning to something I wrote five years ago was always likely to make me balk, but quality of writing and ideas aside, there is the accumulated mass of four other chapters to cohere with those original thoughts now, and all the developments in methodology and theory that come with  that body of work. Needless to say it’s taking a while, but here’s the basic nub (which I offer now as much to clarify it to myself among the mess of sections and paragraphs that currently exists!)

The two Old English poems I discuss in this opening chapter, The Seafarer and The Wanderer, both expound a traditional Christian vision of the soul’s journey on earth to reach home (OE ham); heaven. Technically it’s the body that does the journeying, of course, but it’s for the soul’s sake. Whether we are to read the journey literally or not has been much discussed, but either way, the speakers of both poems are involved in a maritime pilgrimage of sorts – they take to the sea, probably voluntarily, to seek the ultimate destination. It’s not so far fetched to imagine this literally; certain monastic individuals (see here, entry for the year 891) did, in fact, do precisely this – set sail in flimsy coracles on sea-bound wanderings (peregrinatio pro amore Dei ‘pilgrimage for the love of God’), often headed for remote, pinhead islands in the Atlantic from which to live out bleak, ascetic lives (Robert Macfarlane discusses this practice and visits specific locations in the first chapter of The Wild Places).

What I’ve been researching and writing about, though, is the role of birds in all of this. The convention of representing souls as birds certainly predates both of these poems in Latin, Norse and Germanic cultures (and post-dates; think Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner). It appears several times in scripture (as a sparrow [passer]), and almost certainly influenced one of the most famous instances of all time; Bede’s analogy of fleeting human life as a sparrow in his telling of the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria in the seventh century. The king’s councillor puts the case for converting thus:

“Such”, he said, “the present life of men on earth seems to me, king, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us: as if, while you were sitting at dinner with your leaders and ministers in the winter time, with the fire lit in the centre and the upper room filled with heat, with the raging winter storms of winter rains or snow everywhere outside, a sparrow were to arrive and fly swiftly through the house. As it enters through one door and soon exits through another, during the time when it is inside it is not touched by the winter storm, but nevertheless, after the briefest space of calm, when it has hastened forth, turning from winter and soon back to winter, it escapes your eyes. Thus this life of men appears for a moment; what follows, or what came before, we absolutely do not know.” (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II.12, trans. B. Colgrave)

Just to indicate the legacy of Bede’s description, here’s how the twentieth-century poet Louis MacNeice reimagines the metaphor:

This indoors flying makes it seem absurd,
Although it itches and nags and flutters and yearns,
To postulate any other life than now.
(‘Dark Age Glosses’)

Given the religious content, and the popularity of Bede’s text, it seems likely that the poets (or poet – it’s possible one person wrote both; they appear in the same manuscript) of The Seafarer and The Wanderer were influenced by the sparrow-soul image. Moreover, though, these writers specifically include real birds in their texts, which preface the implicit references to bird-souls later on. In The Seafarer, we actually get birds named:

Hwilum yflete song
dyde ic me to gomene,     ganetes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg     fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende     fore medodrince.
Stormas þær stanclifu beotan     þær him stearn oncwæð
isigfeþera;     ful oft þæt earn bigeal
urigfeþra … .

[Sometimes the swan’s song I did for my game, the gannet’s sound and curlew’s cry for man’s laughter, the gull’s singing for the mead-drink. There storms beat stone cliffs, there the tern answers them, icy-feathered; very often the eagle screams, dewy-feathered… .]

The Wanderer‘s reference is fleeting, and far less specific, but the birds are real and doing birdy things nonetheless:

Đonne onwæcneð eft     wineleas guma,
gesihð him biforan     fealwe wegas
baþian brimfuglas     brædan feþra
hreosan hrim ond snaw     haggle gemenged

[Then the friendless man wakes again, sees before him dark waves, bathing seabirds spreading feathers, falling rime and snow mingled with hail.]

What has particularly intrigued me is not just that the souls of humans might be depicted as birds, but that they are depicted as seabirds (brimfuglas). The type of birds may well have been suggested to the poets by the ‘life is like a tempestuous journey at sea’ trope, but both these poems, to me, draw their suitable metaphors for the wandering soul from wider Anglo-Saxon knowledge about birds, and seabirds specifically.


The huilpan has never been definitively identified by scholars, but cognates with other Germanic languages like Dutch suggest that the curlew is a very likely candidate. There is no doubt that this species’ haunting call must have attracted the attention of Anglo-Saxons as much as it does us today. (Source: Wikipedia Commons.)

The migrating or pelagic seabird provides the poet(s) of The Seafarer and The Wanderer with a potent image for the migrating soul partly because these species inhabit liminal, coastal territories, the uneasy boundary between the joys associated with the earthly splendours for which the speakers in both poems yearn, and the paradoxically desired hardships sought on the rough waters. Seabirds breed on terrestrial margins, but travel for vast distances to feed, often for huge spans of time. They inhabit realms that might seem, well, otherworldly. The religious journeys of both human bodies and souls, that is, are so well depicted not only by birds generally, whose most noticeable ability is flying, but by birds who master this skill over nonhuman habitats – mysterious and dangerous seas that stretch beyond the human eye. That Anglo-Saxon poets responded to the natural aspects of these richly suggestive locations as part of their poetic imaginings seems very significant. Seabirds, it seems, did feature in the cultural identities of coastal areas in Anglo-Saxon England. There is a series of coins dating from the eighth century, for instance, largely distributed in southern coastal regions, which portrays what appear to be tall waders. And zooarchaeological work on at least one coastal high-status site, has unearthed numerous sea or water bird species,  including herring gull, common gull, kittiwake, dunlin and curlew (see here).

The Anglo-Saxons were certainly aware of birds’ ability to migrate, in the sense understood in ornithological terms. Aristotle’s observations on birds were available to churchmen through Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century Etymologies (XII.7), the last of which comments, for instance, on how birds like the swallow and stork are ‘migratory and return at certain seasons’, whilst others ‘stay in the same location’. But the Anglo-Saxons, keenly aware of their own migrations over the ‘gannet’s bath’ (OE ganot’s bæþ; e.g., Beowulf, 1861) and wary of invasions from Nordic foreigners across the North Sea, must have understood and responded to birds’ migrations in the broadest sense, too, as creatures seemingly always on the move, soon to be gone and out of sight. In two riddles from the same manuscript of The Seafarer and The Wanderer, a swan is defined by its unreachable flights far ofer folc ‘over people’, and a barnacle goose is described according to the myth that its unfathomable disappearance is explained by its origin as a mollusc. They are equated with frightening but compelling territories outside human knowledge, like the ‘wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia’ to which Isidore links birds’ unknowable wanderings in his introductory passages to birds and which leads to their most characteristic quality, that which gives them their Latin name (according to Isidore; a lot of his etymologies are highly dubious or downright ridiculous!)): ‘They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways’.

Seabirds, at home on the pathless oceans that the speakers of The Seafarer and The Wanderer perversely seek out, best embody this marvel of avian behaviour, and provide the ideal metaphor for human souls pursuing a mysterious celestial destination beyond known lands.

Postscript: the ideas explored in this post are now to be published in an article submitted to English Studies. For a copy of the pre-submission script, see here.

‘When the woods wax green’ – nightingales in a Kentish wood

This morning we went walking in a local wood, intent on seing the fulsome signs of spring. It’s the perfect time to be out and we were content in the primrose-brilliance of it all. The undergrowth beneath the beeches was rich with white wood anemones and bluebells.

We heard it before we’d gone fifty paces. The very thing we came for surprised us from the dense bramble – a secret nightingale out its tremendous song; a cry, as the poet Ted Hughes remarks, that ‘momentarily threatened the earth’. I think of my first nightingale this year, freshly arrived on the north Crete coast only two weeks ago; Homer’s nightingale – the bird that began centuries of thinking on just how that remarkable voice raises such powerful ideas of love and suffering, of yearning for the warm days of spring and the beginning of a year’s work in the fields. It’s a bird I seek every year in May.

This morning’s nightingale, though, is back here in a small but ancient wood near a tiny village in West Kent. It’s a bird intimately associated with our own landscape in its own special way – the oak, beech and hazel woodlands of southern England. And English poets, too, have always found something inspiring, even numinous, in  that disembodied voice. Of Keat’s ode most people have some inkling, can perhaps even quote the odd snatch about ‘shadows numberless’ and ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’. The Romantic poets generally were pretty keen on the symbolic potential of the bird. But the nightingale’s legacy in English poetry goes back much further. It’s as old as English poetry itself, in fact. The bird crops up in Latin lyrics from the British Isles in the early medieval period (the 7th cen. Bishop Aldhelm, for instance, who includes the nightingale in his Enigmata), but it’s first known appearance in English itself is in ‘Riddle 8’ from the Exeter Book Riddles (see here). Well, it’s first appearance as far as most Anglo-Saxon scholars agree, that is; the problem is that this collection, most unusually, has no answers, so it’s taken a good couple of centuries of academic guesswork to produce convincing solutions, and some are still heavily contested! ‘Riddle 8’ has generated a whole range of suggestions (mostly birds). To my mind though, the phrase eald æfensceop ‘old evening-singer’ points the way – a veiled reference, using other words, to the nihtegale, the Anglo-Saxon name for the bird that stuck.

In the later medieval period (influenced by the courtly poetry of French troubadours and trouvères), the nightingale becomes such a ubiquitous feature of love lyrics, it sort of just fades into the background of the stock ‘wodes that waxen grene’ when ‘lef and gras and blosme springe’ (see here). And then it finds its way into a run of bird debate poems (that’s right, avian poetic altercations were all the rage for the literary elite in late medieval England!): ‘The Thrush and the Nightingale’ (anon.); The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’ (Clanvowe); ‘The Clerk and the Nightingale’ (anon.). By far and away the best, however, and perhaps my favourite of all medieval poems is The Owl and the Nightingale (probably late 13th cen., but no one really knows). It forms a substantial part of my PhD thesis on birds in medieval poetry.

The Owl and the Nightingale. London, British Museum, M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX ff. 233-46. ll. 1-16 (Source: Wikipedia Commons; photograph by Jesse Fawn.)

What’s remarkable about this poem is how self-consciously it uses the nightingale as a character. In short, the whole thing becomes a parody of the overused bird symbol in the debate genre. With great humour that prefigures the trademark irony of Chaucer, this poet pulls the bird back off its literary high horse and back into its real scrub environment. This allows for some brilliant ornithological-based comedy through playing off the tendency to treat the bird as a symbol against neatly observed real bird behaviours. The beginning of the poem starts off in typical fashion, describing the woody scene in what’s known as a natureingang (basically a pretty nature scene). But this is no locus amoenus (‘beautiful place’ – medievalists’ speak for the natural world idyll). The nightingale sits right in the middle, unseen, in a ‘vaste þicke hegge’ / Imeind mid spire & grene segge’ (dense, thick hedge / Mixed up with reeds and green sedge’. Real, biodiverse, natural territory – just where you’d expect to find a nightingale, in fact. There’s a further description of the nightingale’s habitat to snigger at later on. Here’s the owl in full invective:

Wan ich flo niƷtes after muse,
I mai þe uinde ate rumhuse,
Among þe wode, among þe netle.
Þu sittest & singst bihinde þe setle:
Þar me mai þe ilomest finde –
Þar men worpeþ hore bihinde.

When I fly at night after mice
I can find you at the crapper
Among the weeds, among the nettles.
You sit and sing behind the toilet seat:
I will find you there most often –
Where men thrust out their behinds.

There’s more from the owl – when all is said and done, the nightingale is nothing more than ‘lutel soti clowe’ (a little sooty ball)! All of this makes me think of John Clare’s oft-quoted criticism of Keats’ fictive nightingales all those centuries later, takes issue with ‘nature as she appeared to his [Keats] fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described’. The owl doesn’t get off lightly either, but you’ll have to read the poem to find out more.

For more information on the poem, also see