Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

By Guy Halsall | Go to book overview
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Alcuin's Disputatio Pippini and the early
medieval riddle tradition
Martha Bayless

The early medieval period saw a flowering of riddles and riddle collections, both religious and secular, both earnest and light-hearted. To date the greater part of scholarly attention has been focussed on the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book, on the grounds both of literary merit and of mystery–the text does not include the answers, an omission that has provided happy occupation for decades of scholars. These two features–literary merit and mystery–also appear in what is perhaps a yet more remarkable riddle collection, the Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico of Alcuin.1 The Disputatio is unusual in that it intermingles prose riddles with wisdom literature; that, unlike all otherexamples of the form, it puts the dialogue in the mouths of contemporary interlocutors (one Alcuin, the other Pippin, the son of Charlemagne), and represents itself as conversation between them; and that, to a degree rarely seen in dialogues, it is playful, teasing and genuinely witty. For the most part, however, scholarship has ignored the Disputatio, and the text has yet to claim its rightful place as a remarkable reflection of the strength a dialogue could obtain in the hands of a master craftsman such as Alcuin.

The early medieval tradition of literary riddling was inspired by Symphosius (or Symposius), a Late Latin poet whose exact identity is uncertain.2 Symphosius' hundred riddles, each consisting of three verse lines, circulated widely in the medieval period; later riddle collections frequently rephrased those of Symphosius or simply borrowed riddles from him wholesale. The earliest surviving medieval collection is the Bern Riddles, apparently written in the seventh century by one Tullius,

The Disputatio is edited by W. Suchierin L. W. Daly and W. Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi (Illinois Studies in Language & Literature 24) (Urbana, IL, 1939), pp. 137–43. It is reprinted below. For bibliography on the text see M.-H. Jullien and F. Perelman, Clavis des auteurs latins du Moyen Age: territoire français 735–987, vol. II, Alcuin (Turnhout, 1999), pp. 164–5.
For Symphosius' riddles, see Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis, CCSL 133A, ed. F. Glorie (Turnhout, 1968), pp. 611 –721.


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