Nothing like a riddle to challenge the brain. They are fun, exciting, confusing, and we always end up kicking ourselves when we don’t get it.
How about a riddle written down by some monks in the 10th century?
‘A curious thing hangs by a man’s thigh,
under the lap of its Lord. In its front it is pierced.
It is stiff and hard. It has a good position.
When the man lifts his own garment
above the knee, he intends to greet
with his head of his hanging object that familiar hole,
Which is the same length, and which he has often filled before.’
-Exeter Book Riddle 44 – translation as found in Treharne (2010).
Let me guess. You’re shocked. Disgusted perhaps. You just spat out your coffee in surprise. What on earth did you just read? I don’t know why you’re so astounded. The riddle is clearly talking about a key! Go on. Read it again. Clearly, obviously, unquestionably a key. Or a dagger sheath? Or – okay, fine, I’ll say it – a penis.
See this is the thing. All of these answers make sense – they fit. Plenty of scholars have spent a whole lot of time hotly discussing and debating their thoughts on the matter.
Who is right? Well, it turns out there isn’t a definitive answer. The original text actually does not have a clear answer.
As a believer in the freedom to choose for ourselves, how about I lay out some facts, and you can decide what you think the answer is?
This riddle comes from the Exeter Book, a handwritten anthology of texts believed to date from around the 960s or 970s C.E. It contains about 90 riddles that feature amongst an assortment of religious texts. Don’t forget, this was written by monks!
Monks were not really permitted to get involved in sexual activity. However, we know that some did, as well as partaking in hunting and getting drunk amongst other naughty, un-monkly things. Maybe the riddle is a case of these monks joking about their love of physical pleasures.
Medieval communities knew of some of the physiological dangers of promiscuity, so perhaps this riddle is a fun way of pushing a message to at least partake safely.
We know that riddles were a popular form of written language. They took a lot of time, effort, and money to write – as all things did – so they must have meant a lot to those reading, writing, or hearing them. It is also evident that innuendo and double entendre were common forms of entertainment. The Exeter Book itself contains more riddles with other possible sexual answers, it isn’t just this one.
So, what kinds of answers have people proposed? Some think it’s a key or a dagger, and the innuendo is just for a laugh. Possible, based on what we know.
Others think the same, but that the innuendo is to catch dirty-minded monks out. A monastic ‘gotcha!’ moment if you will. Possible too. Bit mean, if you ask me.
Some think that this riddle’s place amongst such revered pieces of old Christian literature means it must have a deeper meaning. Maybe it links to Song of Songs in the Bible and it fits in with Biblical references to Christ touching his followers through their metaphorical ‘keyholes’, touching the bowels, which in Hebrew culture were the organs of emotion and affection. Perhaps the sexual connotations are a warning about the dangers of carnal pleasures, and by extension the literal, ‘face-value’ reading of the text. I’m not convinced. I feel it’s a bit too overtly sexual for that. Not repressed enough.
Others do the inevitable. They drop the airs and graces. Sick of the attempts to muse like a proper scholar, searching for some profound, deeper meaning, they give into that guilty instinct we probably all had: It is a penis. The riddle is clearly about a penis. It is a joke, that is still being told, about a penis.
“Am I really just reading a blog about some medieval d*** joke?” you ask yourself, feeling confused and a little betrayed by your otherwise stimulating and intellectual School of English blog. Have we just played our part in a millenium-long process of overthinking a simple euphemism? Maybe the joke is on us for trying to be clever, denying the answer our salacious minds gave us in the first place.
Well, as I said, it’s up to you. I personally like the idea that the innuendo is wholly intentional, and may actually bring with it a sentimental view of sex and love, assuring the readership that there is a right person for everyone, whom we fit with, just as a key only fits one lock.
Mushy I know, but all these scholars have had their shout. Why can’t I? Why can’t you?
-Josh, English Language and Linguistics
Treharne, E., 2010. Old And Middle English C.890-C.1450: An Anthology. 3rd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, pp.84-85