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28 June 2012

Exe libris 1

Exeter working papers in book history ; 25
Exe-libris: gleanings from the shelves of Exeter Libraries
1. A book riddle

Where better to start this series of wanderings among the book stacks of Exeter’s libraries than with a riddle?

It is taken from the Exeter Book of Old-English poetry, one of the treasures of Exeter Cathedral Library. Written in the second half of the tenth century, perhaps in Exeter, perhaps in Glastonbury, it contains the largest compilation of Anglo-Saxon verse, one of only four such compilations to survive. Perhaps the best known section of its contents is a series of riddles which includes the following:

Double-click on the image to enlarge.
Below is a verse translation which attempts to reflect the alliterative metre with two sections to each line:

A foe came and felled me,     and fiercely he took
My worldly strength with him     then wetted me through,
Dipped me deep in water     and then drew me forth,
Set me in the sun     where soon I lost all of
The hairs that I had.     Then harshly my skin
He cut with keen edge,     cleaned me and scraped.
His fingers then folded me     and the fowl’s finery,
Dripping swift drops,     drew so deftly across
My brown burnished skin,     broke for more wood dye
Straight from the stream,     stole further across me
Trailing black tracks.     A true man came then
To bind me with boards     and bedeck me with hide,
To grace me with gold,     to grandly array me
With smith’s wondrous work     and to wind me with wire.
Now this royal richness,     the red of the dye
And all the fine features     bring fame everywhere
To the world’s mighty watchman     who wards us from hell.
If masters and men     took me in their hands,
They would fare well     and be first in the fight,
Hailer of heart     and more happy of mind,
Wider in wisdom     and wealthy in friends
Who, loving and loyal     long-lasting and true,
Noble and knightly     their name would enhance,
Granting great glory     with gladness of mind
And welcoming warmly     when homeward they wend
So ask what I am,     now all has been said
Well-known is my name     most needful to men
Of help to all humans     and holy indeed

The answer to the riddle is of course a book, most likely a gospel book. The text of the riddle reflects the sheer hard work required to produce a book. A herd of cattle had to be slaughtered, skinned and the hides treated. After writing and stitching the sections together firmly around cords, the carpenter was required to fell a tree and cut stout wooden boards to make the covers which were then covered with more hide. Metal workers then added gold ornaments and clasps. The result was a highly treasured object.

It is remarkable how the medium that conveys thought has become ever more insubstantial, from the clay tablet or stone monument to the scroll or codex. The codex itself diminishes from the stoutly sewn leather bound tome bound in wooden boards described here to machine sewn volumes in pre-formed buckram cases, then to paperbacks with prefect binding held together not by the stitching that joins the folded sections but only by the glue used to fix the individual leaves. And then to even more insubstantial media – recorded sound and now the digital book. So, is the physical book dead? Certainly not for anyone who appreciates that the medium is the message. The serried ranks of books on the shelves of Exeter’s libraries bear witness to the way in which ideas and creative works were made first available to the reader across the centuries. Even with digital facsimiles books will still remain part of the message.

The Exeter Book is also noteworthy as containing the earliest library catalogue in Exeter. Bound in at the front of the book it forms part of the list of donations made by Bishop Leofric in about 1080.

The list even includes the Exeter Book itself. The entry can be found two and three lines up from the bottom of the left page of the opening: i mycel Englisc boc be ge-hwilcum þingum on leoðwisan ge-worht (a large English book on various subjects written in verse). Double-click on the image to enlarge.

Copyright © Ian Maxted 2012
This page last revised 28 November 2018