Mimicry, Subjectivity, and the Embodied Voice in Anglo-Saxon Bird Riddles

  • Robert Stanton
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The riddles of Anglo-Saxon England offer a rich field in which to explore the nature, operation, and function of voice as a fundamental aspect of language. The notion of voice was central to ancient and early medieval theories of cognition and language, and the same people who composed and compiled Anglo-Saxon riddles also drew on the grammatical tradition to write about human communication in its various linguistic, grammatical, and literary forms. Riddles entered the Anglo-Saxon tradition through the work of the shadowy late-antique writer Symphosius; were popularized by the scholar, churchman, and virtuosic poet and prose writer Aldhelm (ca. 639—709); and continued to be in vogue through the eighth century, with collections by the ecclesiastics Boniface, Tatwine, and Eusebius. Aldhelm himself wrote extensively on poetic and rhetorical forms, while Boniface and Tatwine both wrote grammatical treatises as well as riddle collections.1 The 90-odd Old English riddles in the renowned Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library, ms. 3501) were probably written by various people; although they were most likely compiled sometime around the date of the manuscript (ca. 965–975), there are indications that some may date from as early as the eighth century.2 The creators of the Old English riddles very likely worked in a monastic milieu, as did the Anglo-Latin riddlers; numerous sources, as well as generic and stylistic features, connect the Old English and Latin riddles. We can thus be confident that a shared vocabulary and core ideas were held in common by those creating the riddles and those writing about voice.


Nonhuman Animal Human Speech Human World Eighth Century Natural Talent 
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© Irit Ruth Kleiman 2015

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  • Robert Stanton

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