ancient Exeter riddles highlight contradictions of men’s sexuality

The Exeter Book, an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) manuscript surviving from the tenth century, includes about ninety five riddles. These riddles describe a wide variety of objects and phenomena. The Exeter Book provides no answers to its riddles. The necessity of pondering the Exeter riddles gives them critical potential, particularly the riddles concerning men’s sexuality.

The literary context of the Exeter riddles is difficult for persons today to grasp. In the relatively liberal and humanistic culture of early medieval England, authors were permitted to produce outrageous texts. For example, Warner of Rouen early in the eleventh century wrote extraordinarily vibrant, diverse, and dynamic poetry. His poetry covered highly technical grammatical points while at the same time poetically abusing a fellow poet: “he knows more about his own goat’s cunt / than what force dialectic carries {nota magis proprie uesica capelle, / quam dialectica uis}.”[1] Medieval poets even criticized women. The medieval Latin poem Jezebel, which Warner probably also wrote, characterized Jezebel as a sexually voracious whore. Recent scholarly work indicates that Jezebel satirizes Ælfgifu (Ælfgyvu) of Northampton, the first wife of King Cnut of England and Denmark.[2]

Ælfgyvu sexually imagines cleric attempting to heal her

The Bayeux Tapestry, probably created in England in the 1070s, apparently represented a woman’s sexual objectification of a man. The woman is named specifically Ælfgyvu. The man is described generically as a single cleric. He touches her head with his outstretched hand. That’s a gesture associated with a cleric praying for a person’s healing. Underneath Ælfgyvu, in a mirror perspective of her viewing the cleric, is him reduced to a bare outline of a man with his genitals showing prominently. Ælfgyvu apparently had an earthy view of even a cleric ministering to her.[3] In interpreting gendered works, modern scholars have made elaborate claims about the male gaze, yet have resolutely ignored the female gaze. Medieval chroniclers had a less ignorant and bigoted understanding of gender. Readers today must consciously struggle to expand their understanding when pondering men’s sexuality in early medieval works such as the Bayeaux Tapestry and the Exeter riddles.

Some of the Exeter riddles are superficially rather straightforward. Consider:

I heard of something rising in the corner,
swelling and standing up, raising its covering.
The proud-hearted bride grabbed that boneless thing
with her hands. The prince’s daughter
covered with a garment that bulging thing.

{ Ic on wincle gefrægn weaxan nathwæt,
þindan ond þunian, þecene hebban.
On þæt banlease bryd grapode,
hygewlonc hondum. Hrægle þeahte
þrindende þing þeodnes dohtor. } [4]

A reader might readily figure that the “thing” being described is a man’s tumefying and then fully erect penis. Before the modern immiseration of erection labor, most men performed an enormous amount of erection labor. Women then highly valued men’s labor. A similar Exeter riddle makes explicit women’s joy in having men’s penises:

I am a wondrous being, a joy to women,
profitable to neighbors; I harm no one
in the town, except only my killer.
My base is steep and high, I stand in the bed;
underneath, in a remote place, I’m hairy. Sometimes dares
the very beautiful daughter of a peasant-farmer,
a maid proud in mind, to grab hold of me.
She rubs me to redness, ravages my head,
forces me into a stuck position. Immediately she feels
my meeting, the one who confines me,
the curly-haired woman. Wet is that eye.

{ Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wifum on hyhte,
neahbuendum nyt; nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra, nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah, stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle, þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on reodne, reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona
mines gemotes, seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc. Wæt bið þæt eage. } [5]

“Wet is that eye” apparently figures the penis ejaculating in the women’s vagina. Such sexual intercourse was highly valued in the early medieval period. Even if they didn’t feel like it, medieval husbands were legally required to perform sexually for their wives if their wives sought sex. Husbands didn’t have sex with their wives merely to provide their wives with joy. Husbands having sex with their wives was regarded as a matter of life and death for wives.

These Exeter riddles literally describe a woman raping a man and metaphorically evoke a fundamental riddle. A woman grabbing a man’s penis and sticking it under her skirt without any indication of his consent is rape. A woman grabbing a man’s penis, rubbing it with her hands to an erection, and then forcing it into her vagina is also rape. Literary scholars have declared many ancient and medieval stories to represent men raping women. Leading newspapers have recently declared nearly a quarter of men rapists using an extremely selfish and narrow-minded definition of rape. Yet the Exeter riddles’ representations of women raping men aren’t read to represent rape.[6] High-quality U.S. national surveys indicate that women rape men about as often as men rape women. While men raping women has been recognized as a serious crime throughout history, social concern about women raping men has been virtually nonexistent, even in our age of intense focus on gender equality. That is a profound riddle.

The Exeter riddles depict an alternative to women raping men. Consider this riddle:

Often a beautiful woman, a wife, enclosed me
firmly in a strongbox, sometimes she drew me up
with her hands and gave me to her husband,
gracious prince, as she was commanded.
Then he stuck his head into the heart of me,
upward from beneath, fitted it into the tight space.
If the strength of my receiver was suitable,
something hairy surely satisfied
me, the adorned one. Advise of what I speak.

{ Oft mec fæste bileac freolicu meowle,
ides on earce, hwilum up ateah
folmum sinum ond frean sealde,
holdum þeodne, swa hio haten wæs.
Siðþan me on hreþre heafod sticade,
nioþan upweardne, on nearo fegde.
Gif þæs ondfengan ellen dohte,
mec frætwedne fyllan sceolde
ruwes nathwæt. Ræd hwæt ic mæne. } [7]

Can any man today imagine, without fear of punishment, that which is the subject of the riddle? Men readers, avert your male gaze: the subject is a beautiful woman’s vagina!

Some less obvious aspects of the riddle can be explained easily. When her husband was out risking death, a medieval princess who wasn’t interested in cuckolding her husband might lock herself within their castle, figured in the riddle as a “strongbox.” That’s particularly prudent wifely behavior when strong, young, handsome knights are marauding about the neighborhood. The reference to the subject of the poem as the “adorned one” doesn’t require imagining vagina rings or other such jewelry, or contraceptive devices in place.[8] The “adorned one” can be more naturally imagined as a vagina adorned with the beautiful woman’s body surrounding it. Many men appreciate much more than merely a woman’s vagina.

Careful scholarly analysis of the riddle reveals an inner meaning nearly incomprehensible today. The medieval author had a bizarre view of sex and marriage:

Riddle 61 recommends that a wife should restrict her sexuality to the pleasure of her husband, but be sexually available to him at his request; she should trust her husband and do as he directs. Yet a husband has duties and responsibilities to his wife in return: he should have courage and be worthy of his wife; he should satisfy and fulfill her, at least sexually. In these sentiments, the Exeter Book riddler echoes traditional Pauline doctrine: ‘‘uxori vir debitum reddat similiter autem et uxor viro’’ (let the husband render the {conjugal} debt to his wife: and the wife also in like manner to the husband) (1 Corinthians 7: 2–3), and also ‘‘ulieres viris suis subditae sint sicut Domino quoniam vir caput est mulieris sicut Christus caput est ecclesiae’’ (let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the church) (Ephesians 5:22–23). In his idealisation of marriage, characterised by sexual relations and wifely obedience, the riddler is doctrinally correct and reiterating biblical morality. [9]

That’s not biblical morality today. More importantly, present-day sexual doctrine is primarily concerned with rape and affirmative consent. In addition, many couples today regard sexless marriage as a natural state of relations, particularly after the first few years of marriage. Is it any wonder that highly learned medieval authorities such as Heloise of the Paraclete and Walter Map strongly advised against marriage?

Across thousands of years of human history, the wisdom of the eminent law-giver Solon wasn’t influential enough to dispel sexual inequality and the disparagement and suppression of men’s sexuality. Ordinary men and women coming to a new, existential awareness of reality is an alternate possibility for change. Ponder the Exeter riddles about men’s sexuality. Find answers for them in your own lived experience.[10]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Warner of Rouen, Moriuht, ll. 49-54, Latin text and English trans. McDonough (1995) pp. 74-5.

[2] Galloway (1999). See also my post on Warner of Rouen.

[3] The image on the Bayeux Tapestry includes the title, “Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva {When a single cleric and Ælfgyva}.” The missing verb allows the phrase to be completed as either “she was healed” or “she sexually assaulted him.”

Ælfgyvu was a relatively common female name in England prior to the Norman Conquest. Recent scholarly work suggests that the Ælfgyvu depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry is Ælfgyvu of York. She plausibly was the daughter of Thored of York, the first wife of Æthelred the Unready, and the great grandmother of Edgar the Ætheling. Edgar the Ætheling contended with William the Bastard for the English throne. The Bayeux Tapestry plausibly questions the bloodline of Edgar the Ætheling by representing Ælfgyvu’s strong, independent sexuality. Laynesmith (2012).

[4] Exeter Book, Riddle 45. In this and subsequent quotes of Exeter riddles, I use the riddle numbering from Krapp & Dobbie’s edition in Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. The divisions into discrete riddles is a matter of scholarly contention, hence numbering can vary slightly. Old English text and translations of the Exeter riddles are widely available. The translations above represent my best poetic sense of the riddles. In making those translations, I’ve drawn mainly on Baum (1963), Cavell (2013-), Hostetter (2017), and Williamson (1983), as well as the individual texts and translations within Heyworth (2007), Higl (2017), and Salvador-Bello (2011). For the full text of the Exeter Book and an English translation, Thorpe (1842).

[5] Exeter Book, Riddle 25. Megan Cavell’s translation of this riddle has provided the wonderfully specific, bodily double-entendre for sexual intercourse (from the penis’s perspective): “my meeting.” Within the starvation-level living conditions for most persons in the Middle Ages, getting some meat was cause for joy indeed. “Profitable to neighbors” plausible refers to the market-expanding benefit of increasing population. The sentence, “I harm no one / in the town, except for my killer” figures the penis as creating a love wound and the bodily reality of penile detumescence. With respect to the former, love wounds have long been associated with Cupid shooting arrows. With respect to the latter, women are fully capable of horrific interpersonal violence, including killing men. But here, the figure of “killing” the erect penis is associated with the woman stimulating the penis to ejaculation.

[6] Cavell makes clear the extent to which scholars have read the Exeter riddles without any concern for women raping men. With respect to riddle 25, Cavall comments:

the poem also hands us a pretty interesting picture of a sexually assertive woman. LOTS of people have written on this topic (see Davis, Hermann, Kim, Shaw and Whitehurst Williams, for example), so of course there’s disagreement about whether or not the poem judges the woman’s assertiveness – perhaps even aggressiveness, given how grabby those hands seem to be.

The riddle author has thus been tried for the crime of “judging the woman’s assertiveness.” Cavall refers to the woman in the poem not as a rapist, but as a “grabby-handed woman.” Literary scholars pretend that sexual harassment of men isn’t possible. Prominent academics have recently spoken out forcefully to question sexual harassment allegations against a female professor. That action doesn’t seem to be a result of enlightened reason, but merely crude gender bigotry.

[7] Exeter Book, Riddle 61.

[8] In her commentary on Riddle 61, Cavell states:

This very brief reference to adornment is what reminds us we’re dealing with a constructed object instead of a sexual encounter. This was before vajazzling, after all. Though Sarah Higley suggests the text may be hinting at contraceptive items (and reminds us that we don’t know an awful lot about such things in early medieval England (pages 48-50)), I think it’s safe to say that it would be pretty impractical to adorn whatever sorts of things were used.

Cavell seems to me to read “adornment” too narrowly and too literally.

[9] Heyworth (2007) pp. 180-1. Exeter Riddle 20 promotes marriage:

In Riddle 20, then, marriage is a joy and a delight and something to be longed for by the individual participants, the bride, the wife, the would-be husband sword. Further, marriage is semantically associated with sexual activity in this riddle, and part of the joy of marriage comes with its inherent association with sexual intercourse.

Id. p. 177.

[10] Don’t be afraid to play with different ideas and different perspectives. That’s a vitally important aspect of the Exeter riddles:

{Andrew Higl} explores what it means to play the riddles in their original context, making the individual reader the riddle hero (hæleþ) whom the text calls on to construct playful worlds of imagination and language. He examines how the Old English riddles demand to be played and how they oscillate playfully between the mundane, the sacred, and the obscene.

Higl (2017), from Abstract. Scholars in their own work on the Exeter riddles should strive to come closer to them.


Baum, Paull F, ed. and trans. 1963. Exeter Book: Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Cavell, Megan, ed. 2013-. The Riddle Ages: An Anglo-Saxon Riddle Blog (online).

Galloway, Andrew. 1999. “Word-play and political satire: solving the riddle of the text of Jezebel.” Medium Aevum. 68 (2): 189-208.

Heyworth, Melanie. 2007. “Perceptions of Marriage in Exeter Book Riddles 20 and 61.” Studia Neophilologica. 79 (2): 171-184.

Higl, Andrew. 2017. “Riddle Hero: Play and Poetry in the Exeter Book Riddles.” American Journal of Play. 9 (3): 374-394.

Hostetter, Aaron K., trans. 2017. “Exeter Book Riddles.” Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry (online).

Laynesmith, J. L. 2012. “The Bayeux tapestry: A Canterbury Tale.” History Today. 62 (10): 42-48.

McDonough, Christopher J. 1995. Warner of Rouen. Moriuht: a Norman Latin poem from the early eleventh century. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. 2011. “The Sexual Riddle Type in Aldhelm’s Enigmata, the Exeter Book, and Early Medieval Latin.” Philological Quarterly 90(4):357-385.

Thorpe, Benjamin, ed. and trans. 1842. Codex Exoniensis: a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, from a manuscript in the library of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter. London: Society of Antiquaries of London.

Williamson, Craig. 1983. A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs. London: Scolar Press. (online texts and translations)

8 thoughts on “ancient Exeter riddles highlight contradictions of men’s sexuality”

      1. It was Rome. Catullus talked about it. And insinuating anal rape is just what a MRA chud like you would do when challenged.

        1. Aristophanes suggested that men suffered anal rape with a radish as punishment for adultery in ancient Athens. Radishing was much less likely to have occurred in ancient Rome. P.S. – You won’t have any further comments approved here. I urge you to seek professional help for your bitterness and hate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *