Riddle Me This, Solo Man (Mmm… Marginalia #18)

Just a quickie this week. The following image comes from the lower border of a leaf of a late thirteenth-century manuscript today called the “Ormesby Psalter.”  According to the catalogue notes, it illustrates a popular medieval riddle:


Roughly stated, the riddle asks, “What comes neither riding nor driving nor walking, neither clad nor unclad, bringing a gift that is not a gift?”

And here’s a closeup of the answer.  It’s this guy:



The riddle comes from the story of Marcolf and Solomon.  Marcolf (pictured above) is kind of the medieval version of Oscar Wilde.  He gets invited to all the best dinner parties because of his reputation for being clever, but his cleverness mostly manifests itself in making fun of his hosts.  Once he’s thoroughly annoyed Solomon, he is challenged to do impossible tasks, like the one above.

As you can see, Marcolf is wearing a cape, so he’s neither naked nor clothed; he’s riding a goat, so his feet drag on the ground, so it’s not exactly riding; and he’s carrying a rabbit, which he will give to Solomon, but because it’s a rabbit it’s sure to run away, leaving him with nothing.

This, by the way, is exactly why I hate riddles. You’re not answering a question, you’re trying to divine what bullshit rules the riddler has decided to apply in order to make their clever answer the right one. I mean, c’mon. It’s not ‘morning’ when the baby is crawling, Mr. Sphinx, and crawling is really not the same as ‘walking on four legs,’ now is it?

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  • Isaac

    This isn’t the only kind of riddle, y’know. I think this species, with the impossible-to-guess solution, is known as a “neck riddle.” There’s a really fine essay by Richard Wilbur (“The Persistence of Riddles,” I think) that might convince you of the importance of some of what you’re dismissing there. I mean, unless you’re basically coming out against metaphor, in which case your soul may already be lost.

  • Dr. Virago

    unless you’re basically coming out against metaphor, in which case your soul may already be lost.

    Yeah, I think they’ll kick you out of the lit club for that.

    Seriously, I find that Tolkien’s riddles in The Hobbit and some of the easier of the OE riddles good ways to teach young readers about metaphor. Heck, it’s probably a good way to teach college readers about metaphor. Hm…OK, off to add an OE riddle to my intro lit syllabus for next semester!

  • Karl Steel

    Is Marcolf wearing one ankle sock?

  • Got Medieval

    When Oedipus finally died and descended into the underworld, I bet that all the people who got eaten by the Sphinx before he solved the riddle came up to him to him saying, “Dude, you’ve got to tell us what the answer was. It’s been bugging us ever since we were eaten alive by that monster.”

    And when he told them the story, I’m pretty sure most of them didn’t say “Oh, now I get it! A metaphor! Hey, that’s pretty clever when you come to think of it.” Their reaction was probably more on the lines of, “Oh, come on! How was I supposed to know I’d be allowed to count arms as legs!” And rightfully so.

    (And I think that’s supposed to be a shoe that Marcolf is wearing, Karl. I imagine there’s a version of the story in which he’s also told to come neither shod nor barefoot.)

  • Wildcate

    If I’m allowed to nit-pick, he is not wearing a cape but a hood. Since a hood is somewhere between an overgarment and a headdress, this is even more “neither clad nor unclad” – a cape would definitely count more as a piece of proper clothing than a hood. Which is a glorious, utterly practical garment, by the way, and everyone should own at least one properly cut hood.

  • Got Medieval

    Nitpicking is strictly not allowed here. I’m sorry.

    But you are right, the illuminator did draw him with a hood and not with a cape, though I’ve seen it referred to in text as a cape.

    This reminds me of an argument I’ve had on and off with friends over whether it’s weirder to be naked with a hat on or naked with socks on.

  • Wildcate

    A hat, of course. You can forget to take off your socks when undressing, but if you strip off a t-shirt, you have to put that hat back on. And that is definitely weirder than forgetting to take off one’s socks.

  • Pseudoangela

    I distinctly recall a Grimm tale with a similar kind of challenge – king asks girl to do something similar… I think she was wearing, er, a fishing net. Now, you’ve gotta admit that a fishing net is weirder than either hats or socks. I know there’s people with fetishes for all kinds of stuff – but I can’t see the appeal in a fishing net. Unless it’s a predecessor of fishnets???

    Anyway, she does manage to solve the riddle/rise to the challenge set by the king. I think the king marries her.

    Beats me how these relationships can work out.

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