I HAVE a spine, but I don’t have a face; I am not clothing, but I’m stored in a case. What am I? Answer: A book of riddles.
Now, Exeter Cathedral is appointing a Riddler in Residence to interpret its own 1000-year-old book of riddles for a young audience of today. The Exeter Book, as it is known, was compiled by tenth-century clerics and includes saints’ lives and 95 euphemistic riddles — some bawdy — about the human condition in Anglo-Saxon England.
The Riddler could be a poet, writer, storyteller, spoken-word artist, or lyricist. During their seven-week residency, which starts on 31 January, the person appointed will lead workshops with young people to explore topics in the book which are still relevant today.
“The Exeter Book contains universal human themes which remain as relevant now as they were at the time of its creation, over a thousand years ago” Exeter Cathedral’s community-outreach and -partnership officer, Bryher Mason, said. “We will be asking our Riddler to explore those themes with young people, and together to look at their contemporary resonance. From nature to climate change, the search for identity, home, and new experiences — the themes are all in there, just waiting to be released.”
The project is funded by an Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grant, and developed in partnership with the Plymouth charity Literature Works.
Exeter has held the book since soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is one of four manuscript volumes thought to preserve almost all surviving English Anglo-Saxon literature.
Written exclusively in verse, it brings together poems as short as one line and as long as 25 pages. “Topics vary widely, from religious praise poetry to musings on obscene vegetables, from the highest of high art to the lowest of the low,” Dr Megan Cavell, an authority on Old English literature at Birmingham University, said. “Whether read or recited aloud, riddles were clearly a popular form among the monastic communities producing manuscripts.”
One describes the biting of a bookworm as thoughtless thievery, which, Dr Cavell said, provides a lesson about the dangers of consuming knowledge without understanding it. “Despite it being written down over 1000 years ago, the poem contains a timeless message that I am sure we can all appreciate.”