The Talking Dead

  • Mary Hayes
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


How could the talking objects in The Exeter Book riddles not impress their reading audience? Consider what happens in many of these riddles, a series of over 90 Old English poetic texts written down in the tenth century. An object or creature that normally cannot speak introduces itself in its own words, in its own voice. A tough audience (or, one that expected this enigmatic convention) might choose to overlook how marvelous it is that these objects should be able to speak, let alone speak in riddles. This prodigious talent, however, is not lost on the riddling objects themselves. Many of them self-identify foremost as sound makers, portraying themselves in terms of the curious means by which they use their voices. The Exeter Book’s nightingale (#8), for example, tells how it flaunts its wide vocal register: “Through my mouth, I speak in many voices, sing with modulated notes, often change my speech” (1–3a, “Ic þurh muþ sprece mongum reordum/wrencum singe wrixle geneahhe/heafodwoþe”).1 Less mellifluous yet equally engaging is the performance of the magpie (#24), which explains that it can modulate its voice to sound like other animals: “I vary my voice. Sometimes bark like a dog, sometimes bleat like a goat, sometimes shriek like a goose, sometimes scream like a hawk” (1–3, “wræsne mine stefne/hwilum beorce swa hund hwilum blætne swa gat/hwilum græde swa gós hwilum gielle swa hafoc”).


Oral Performance Christian Theology Textual Production Vocal Performance Bible Read 
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  1. 8.
    Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, 1982: “[A] literate person cannot fully recover a sense of what the word is to purely oral people,” 12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 12.
    Roberta Frank, “The Search for the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet,” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 75 (1993), 11–36, 15.Google Scholar
  3. 20.
    This definitive phrase (“quasi mundum animal ruminando”) comes from Bede’s account in Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum of Csdmon’s miraculous songs, produced by hearing and digesting written texts, a practice that lent a literate influence to his spontaneous oral performances. On the origins and use of this image to describe subaudial reading, see Philip J. West, “Rumination in Bede’s Account of Cædmon,” Monastic Studies 12 (1976): 217–226.Google Scholar
  4. 24.
    Various solutions to this riddle include ballista, an oven, a fortress, a forge, and a quiver. Marijane Osborn, “Anglo-Saxon Tame Bees: Some Evidence for Beekeeping from Riddles and Charms,” Neuphilologishe Mitteilungen 107 (2006): 271–83, offers “beehive” as a solution, saying that the “protector” is a human or a fort of some kind (277). Their terrible spears (4, sperebrogan) would be the bees’ stingers. Shook, “Riddles Relating to the Anglo-Saxon Scriptorium,” argues for “inkwell,” saying that the poem’s military references should be taken metaphorically (222). Additional evidence for Shook’s solution can be found in the other inkhorn riddles (#87, #92), which describe ink coming from their bellies as this inkhorn (#17) does weaponry.Google Scholar
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    Thomas D. Hill, “The Cross as Symbolic Body: An Anglo-Latin Analogue to The Dream of the Rood,” Neophilologus (77) 1993: 297–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 42.
    Jeremiah 23:16: “Haec dicit Dominus: “‘exercituum nolite audire verba prophetarum qui prophetant vobis et decipiunt vos visionem cordis sui loquuntur non de ore Domini.’” All Vulgate quotations are from Biblia Sacra Iuxta Vulgatam Clementiam, 5th ed., (Matriti, 1977).Google Scholar
  7. 47.
    The stomach’s role in the reader’s assimilation of the text is evident in the ruminative model. Medieval commentaries on reading also posit the heart as the seat of memory. See Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory, 44–9, and Eric Jager, “The Book of the Heart: Reading and Writing the Medieval Subject,” Speculum 71 (1996), 1–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Christopher A. Jones. “The Book of the Liturgy in Anglo-Saxon England,” Speculum 73 (1998): 659–702.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 53.
    For lines 11–12, I have used the edition found in The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, vol. 1, ed. Bernard J. Muir (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994), 326–27. Krapp and Dobbie render these lines: “dryhten dolgdon/swa þæs beages benne cwædon.” Inclusion of the word “don” (“to do”) makes more sense in context.Google Scholar
  10. 55.
    On Ælfric’s knowledge of and position on this Eucharistic debate, see Robert Boenig, “Andreas, the Eucharist, and Vercelli,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 79 (1980): 313–9;Google Scholar
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© Mary Hayes 2011

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  • Mary Hayes

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