The Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book
Simon Fraser University: Master’s Thesis (1992)
The Exeter Book contains six riddles with explicit sexual content. The consensus of opinion is that these riddles use the language of double entendre: that is, they point to two solutions at once, one sexual, the other non- sexual, or formal, as it has been called. The sexual solution, and the explicit content which pertains to it, tends to be viewed as secondary to the formal solution. However, I argue that there are not in fact two equally supportable solutions to these sexual riddles. Only the sexual solution is consistently sustained by the language and the content of the poems.
Following from this argument, I examine the information the sexual content provides. These riddles furnish models of sexual activity, and in so doing reveal attitudes of the attitudes rarely found in other Old English poetry. Further, the sexual riddles are valuable in the glimpse they provide of the connection between private and public life in Anglo-Saxon England: in the relations between men and women, the public consequences of those relationships, and the position of women in that society generally.
Introduction: Among the Exeter Book riddle collection there is a group more or less explicitly of riddles which deals sex. Though the number of such riddles varies with the individual editor or critic, this group invariably includes 23, 42, 43, 52, 59 and 60. These six are the most explicit, and no reader who acknowledges sexual content has ever had any trouble recognizing it here. Nonetheless, so-called formal solutions have been posited for all of them. These formal solutions – “Onion,” “Key, ” “Dough,” “Churn,” “Helmet/ Shirt,” and “Poker/Borer” respectively – are well established in the canon of criticism on this subject.