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The Role of Riddles in Medieval Education

The Role of Riddles in Medieval Education

By Jean Lauand

Revista Internacional d’Humanitats, Vol.16 (2009)

Anglo Saxon RIddles

Abstract: This paper presents a selection of medieval riddles and discusses the various roles they play in Middle Ages education: from ludus to the relations between aenigmata and the omnipresent religious mentality.

Introduction: All children love riddles and in every society, guessing games have their place in education, but in the Middle Ages riddles play a special role in Pedagogy. Besides the usual educational importance of riddles – as a ludic and highly motivational activity – in Middle Ages they are involved with religious values. And religion education is – if we want to use the pedagogical terminology of today in many countries – the great “transversal theme” in medieval education: every subject is deep down religious; beneath Arithmetic, Biology or whatever you will find messages of God. One of the main purposes of the medieval study of the liberal arts is that they are not, after all, considered profane: like everything in this world they are allegorical messages from God. In this context – as we will see – the aenigma is specially appreciated.

The allegorical mentality, that had been strong already in the Christianity of the Ancient World – for example in Alexandria or in an Augustine -, threw deep roots in the Middle Ages: for a medieval teacher – mainly in the early centuries of that era – a thing in the world is not only that thing that it is, but it is first of all a sign from God, a hint for better understanding the revelation of God, the Word of God: like a riddle to be solved.

A short explanation of allegory is given by Augustine:

It is called an allegory when something appears to sound one way in words, and signify another in the understanding. In this way, Christ is called a lamb, but is He a cattle? Christ a lion, but is He a beast? Christ a rock, but is He hardness? Christ a mountain, but is He a swelling in the earth? And so, many things appear to sound one way, but signify another. This is called allegory. 

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