Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

A Riddle on the Three Orders in the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae?

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

A Riddle on the Three Orders in the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae?

Article excerpt

Vidi bipedem super tripodem sedentem, cecidit bipes, corruit tripes. (1) I saw a "two-foot" sitting on a "three-foot"; the "two-foot" fell, the "three-foot" collapsed.

This riddle occurs in the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae and in the recent and very useful edition of that important insular Latin miscellany, the editorial commentator solves the riddle as "a man sitting on a three-legged stool who falls over." (2) The bulk of the comment, however, is devoted to the literary history of the riddle and identifies it quite correctly as a very early instance of a well known set of riddles, concerned with different problems, but which identify their protagonists as one leg, two legs, three legs, etc. Since the commentator was primarily concerned with the literary historical significance of the riddle, she did not focus on some of the difficulties of her proposed solution. There are, however, at least two problems with the answer that she proposes. The first is that if a man falls off a stool, there is no necessary reason for the stool to fall down. Secondly, her solution does not explain the contrast between the verbs cado and corruo. A variant of the riddle found in Paris BN lat 2796 illustrates the point: "Vidi pipedem [bipedem] sedentem super tripedem; cecidit tripes corruit bipes." This version of the riddle accords with Garrison's solution much better in that the order of the final two clauses of the riddle is reversed. A stool does not necessarily fall over if a man sitting on it falls, but if a stool falls over a man sitting on it is thrown down. (3) I do not think, however, that her solution is wholly without merit and the solution which I would propose is in a sense an elaboration of it.

Solving or debating the solution of an Anglo-Saxon or what might better be defined as an "insular" riddle, might seem an exercise in scholarly hubris. The list of proposed solutions to The Exeter Book riddles which Donald Fry compiled in his bibliographical essay on this topic is at the same time fascinating, amusing, and a little frightening. (4) Quite good scholars can become obsessed with the validity of their "new" solution and the results can be absurd. The urge to solve a riddle, however, is enough to overcome scholarly caution. In this instance the solution I wish to propose is of particular interest in that if I am correct, this riddle is an early (and perhaps the earliest known) text referring to an important medieval social ideal, the theme of the three estates.

I would like to begin by looking closely at the language of the riddle and then to compare it with one particular expression of the theme of the "three orders" that we know to have been current in Anglo-Saxon England. The Latin riddle speaks of a two-footed person or object who is seated on a three-footed object (since there are no three-footed animals, persons, or mythological monsters known to the Anglo-Saxons and their insular neighbors, (5) we may tentatively presume that the tripodes is an object rather than an animate creature). The next clauses express the paradox of the riddle. When the biped fell, the tripod, which one would assume to be more secure, fell headlong down. The verb cadere essentially means "to fall"; corruere means "to fall headlong," "to collapse," or possibly in this context, there is a hint of its etymological meaning "to fall together"--con-ruere. (6)

Given this "reading" of the riddle, I would like to cite and compare a famous passage concerning the Anglo-Saxon understanding of kingship that has been cited repeatedly as an early and seminal expression of the ideal of the three estates.

IV. Be Cynestole

31. AElc riht cynestol stent on prym stapelum, pe fullice ariht stent.

32. an is Oratores, and oder is Laboratores, and dridde is Bellatores.

33. Oratores sindon gebedmen, pe Gode sculan peowian and daeges and nihtes for ealne peodscipe pingian georne.

34. Laborantes sindon weorcmen, pe tilian sculon, paes de eall peodscype big sceall libban. …

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