Contemplating the Evolution of Medieval Double-Entendre Literature
California State University, Long Beach. Published Online, February, 1 (1999)
Throughout history verbal jousts tested a participant’s creativity, knowledge, and mastery of language, thus catalyzing the evolution of so-called wisdom literature (Tupper xviii-xix). This literary evolution yielded several genres of merit in medieval Europe including the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book Riddles and the French and Chaucerian fabliaux. Both the riddles and the fabliaux demonstrate similar thematic and linguistic elements as evidence of an evolution of the double- entendre Anglo-Saxon riddles to the bawdy fabliaux and throughout this evolution runs a sense of familiarity about medieval society. This literature stands “as evidence for the history of medieval sensibility” (Muscatine 2).
While the Anglo-Saxon riddle tellers made direct borrowings from the Latin riddles of Symphosius and Aldhelm, there certainly are themes present in their riddles taken from the popular culture of the time. Although the recorders of the Anglo-Saxon riddles were most likely clerics, the riddles yet “reflect the views of people who may have been aware of fate and of God[…]but were in the end more concerned with crops than concepts[…]and, more than any other literature that survives from the period, this riddle collection is the song of the unsung labourer” (Crossley-Holland 15). Indeed, the riddles address the everyday, ordinariness of life (Tupper xxviii).