Riddle 26, an otherwise-unnamed poem in the 10th-century Old English collection known as The Exeter Book, suggests tension and interplay between its physical form and its meaning. Scholars accept that the riddle’s speaker describes the creation of a religious manuscript, but while physical processes drive the poem’s narrative structure, the speaker ends by focusing on the knowledge that the described religious text contains. As John Hines summarizes, the Old English riddles “demonstrate a keen eye for and dramatically imaginative appreciation of the real world in which the authors and readers lived: both its natural and its manufactured components” (974). In other words, the riddles can show how individuals thought about the physical world around them. How, then, does knowing about the physical process of manuscript creation affect our understanding of the poem? To investigate this, I copied ten and a half lines of Riddle 26 onto parchment using hand-made oak gall ink in a script approximating that of The Exeter Book. This process has given me a more detailed understanding of the time and effort required to create a single line of text—which has, in turn, changed my understanding of the poem. In Riddle 26 specifically, the content of the riddle is reinforced by its physical form. The focused, spiritual nature of writing is embodied by an object, advertising value to the reader while reiterating and implicitly validating the system that allowed for its creation.
McCumber, Corinne, "Physicality and Spirituality in Riddle 26" (2019). Honors Capstone Projects. 14.