Group Identity and the Early Medieval Riddle Tradition

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: English Drama American and Canadian Stu


Several hundred poetic riddles -- composed and written down from the seventh- through tenth-centuries -- record the minutiae of daily life and worldly wisdom in early medieval England. They tell us that onions could be the butt of a rude joke, cats were then (as now) fiercely independent, and violence did not go unquestioned when swords were given the chance to speak. Because they exist in two languages, Old English and Latin, these riddles are rarely brought into conversation with each other and some are little known to any but specialists. This project will bring the entire early medieval riddle tradition to light, through a website that provides open-access texts and translations, alongside commentaries that unpack literary and cultural information, a discussion forum and competitions that invite members of the public to engage with the riddles in creative ways. If the early medieval riddles are a window onto life many centuries ago, this project seeks to throw it wide open.

In exploring the riddles, the project team also aims to gather information about their composers' group identity. The competitive nature of riddling and the use of these poems in the medieval classroom, along with what we know from the biographies of identified authors suggests a shared group identity of high-status men working in England and insular networks with strong links to England. Even so, the very tradition itself was founded on international collaboration, with North African and pan-European poetic material widely circulated, imitated and adapted. The popularity of the riddle tradition both within England and abroad emphasizes that the shared group identity of early medieval riddlers had a global outlook. The riddles themselves could also be deeply subversive, and provide empathic visions of what it meant to live a very different life to that experienced by the high-status, male riddlers whose names and works survive.

With all this in mind, the members of the project team seek to examine group identity in four ways:
- First, they will examine the networks of riddlers working in England and on the continent -- how did different riddle collections reference each other? Which ones were circulated together, and how can we map their relationships?
- Second, they will examine performances of identity within the riddles themselves -- how are high-status/masculine identities explored and reinforced through the subject matter of the riddles? Which riddles subvert these 'norms', and what cultural insights might we glean from them?
- Third, they will turn the lens on themselves, to ask how scholars working on the riddles replicate the tradition's policing of group identity -- how does verbal sparring in publications and an emphasis on finding the 'right' solutions mimic the competitiveness of the environment in which they were composed?
- Fourth, they will explore contemporary engagements with the riddles -- how might translations and commentaries open up opportunities for learning history through the riddles? How might they be channelled into museum/heritage activities and educational resources?

In short, the project seeks to investigate group identity in relation to the production of the riddles, the content of the texts, critical engagement with the riddles, and the reception of the riddles by various user communities outside academia.

The riddles have a great deal to say about all aspects of life in the early medieval period. Ultimately, they tell us that this world was much more nuanced than we imagine it when we think of weapons, heroes and battles. Alongside this warrior culture was a complex tradition of literary production, including bilingual riddling and reading communities, which spanned the entire early medieval period and produced hundreds of poems that continue to delight readers today.

Planned Impact

The project's beneficiaries include our partners, National Trust: Sutton Hoo (NTSH) and Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT), and a diverse range of participants in heritage and museum activities and users of educational resources. Our partnership with NTSH and BMT will be a mechanism for change, as we combine expertise to challenge misconceptions about the Middle Ages and inform debates about heritage, belonging and ownership of the past. The project will provide a range of audiences with deeper insights into early medieval group identities, as well as opportunities to reflect on contemporary society, through three impact streams: a website, medieval library-themed 'escape room' and curriculum-linked resources for KS2 and 4 History.

This project will build on the PI's highly successful website, 'The Riddle Ages'. The Old English translations and commentaries on the website are already used as teaching resources in higher education institutions around the world, despite having been designed by an early career scholar with no budget or institutional backing. One of the major outcomes of this research project -- a remodelled, professional website combining the original texts, translations, commentaries, bibliographies and interactive content for both the ninety-five Old English riddles and the hundreds of Latin riddles -- will build on existing web traffic to reach readers from around the world. The website will also include a discussion forum and opportunities for creative engagement with the riddles, such as original composition activities and riddle solving competitions.

Escape Room:
Hosted by our partners at NTSH during a school half-term, our in-person, medieval library-themed 'escape room' game will provide a gateway to early medieval riddles for new audiences of youths, adults and families with older children. This activity will subvert escape room expectations: rather than escaping, teams will be immersed in a 'library heist' scenario, solving puzzles in order to liberate secret knowledge from gate-keepers. Puzzles will be designed around translated riddles, medieval manuscripts and artefacts from NTSH -- the earliest and one of the important archaeological finds of the modern era. By participating in this activity, players will learn about early medieval linguistic, literary and cultural history in ways that are collaborative, exciting and memorable. A follow-up activity asking participants to compose their own riddles will be posted on the project website.

Curriculum-linked Resources:
Associated educational resources are aimed at younger audiences than the target demographic for the escape room. Playful, creative and engaging, riddles are ideal for school-age children, especially those studying the relevant time period in years 4 and 11 of the national History curriculum. With both of our partners and with the assistance of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, we will work with primary and secondary teachers to design curriculum-linked resources that focus on the global nature of this period. Using the riddles as case studies, we will highlight thematic interests that both engage with and move beyond the warrior culture so typically associated with this period and which Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard so thrillingly embody. Riddles that question the ethics of violence will be placed alongside weapons and other museum artefacts to provide new insights into this world.

Working collaboratively and with external partners to produce a website, escape room and curriculum-linked resources, this project will mobilize impactful work to make the riddles available to new audiences of all ages.


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