From Swifan to Swyved: Contemplating the Evolution of Medieval Double-Entendre Literature
By Jennifer Smith
Published Online (1999)
Introduction: Throughout history verbal jousts tested a participant’s creativity, knowledge, and mastery of language, thus catalyzing the evolution of so-called wisdom literature. 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”.
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”. Indeed, the riddles address the everyday, ordinariness of life.
The linguistic composition of the Exeter Book Riddles supports this, and in fact, the genre became a refuge for contemporary colloquial speech which was seen as coarse and lower class within the ideologies of Christianity and Germanic heroism. The same folkloric themes and colloquiallisms are later found in the fabliaux, such that “ has always been with us, living a scurrilous underground life in the bawdy joke and the tavern tale”.
Although early critics have classified the double-entendre Anglo-Saxon riddles as low, artless, and crude, especially when the use of idioms and proverbs gives way to so-called rough language and double meaning, they agree as do modern critics that one constant exists in both these double-entendre riddles and the fabliaux: for the humor to be effective “ the laugh must come at the right place, and all elements of the narrative must be subordinated to this end”:
Fabliau humor is often complex and its climax artistically prepared. Humor is achieved by conscious ploys on the author’s part […] by the openly parodic and burlesque. The ironic vision that fableors give the audience is a device to arouse laughter[…and] they demonstrate the sophistication of the comic devices and rehabilitate the genre to place it on an artistic level equal to other medieval works.