• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Long before there were commercial or university presses, or even printing presses for that matter, there existed a highly developed technology for making texts – that is, for making manuscripts and for combining manuscript pages into collective codices. Of course, every step of this process – from finding and preparing the basic materials through actually writing out and gathering the texts – required enormous labor and know-how, and as far as we’re aware there weren’t any help desks available.

In early medieval England manuscripts and codices were the products of monastic scriptoria, where clerical orders could devote the time and energy required to accomplish such an arduous task. With no manuals to guide them, medieval scribes presumably transmitted their craft person-to-person, in much the same way as apprentice musicians or carpenters still appropriate their trade from expert practitioners. In effect, and by default, book-building was taught and learned textlessly.

More than a simple enigma

One of the approximately 90 riddles of the Exeter Book manuscript “remembers” this process of text-making in an interesting way, and with a particular end in mind. See whether you can solve Riddle 24 below, which, as is customary for these enigmas, confers a human (and here a decidedly heroic) identity on a non-human object and process:

Riddle 24

A certain enemy robbed me of life,
snatched my world-strength, wet me afterwards,
dipped me in water, then took me outside,
set me in the sun, where I quickly lost
the hair I had. After that a hard-edged knife,
with impurities ground off, scraped me,
fingers folded me, and the bird’s joy*
overspread me with drops, made frequent trips
over my dusky surface; swallowed tree-dye,
a stream-share, then stepped across me again,
traveled in black tracks. Then a hero wrapped me
in protective boards, covered me in hide,
girded me with gold, so that the smiths’ splendid work
glistened on me, enveloped by wire.
Now my ornaments and the red dye
and my glorious dwelling widely honor
the people’s protector – let no fool find fault.
If the sons of men wish to use me,
they will be safer and more victory-fast,
braver in heart and happier in spirit,
wiser in mind; they will have more friends,
beloved ones and kin, true and excellent,
good and faithful, when their glory and prosperity
increase in bounty and in benefits,
they will be covered in grace, and will clasp love
firmly to their bosom. Say what I’m called,
helpful to people; my name is famous,
useful to heroes and holy in itself.

* The kenning “bird’s joy” means “feather”; here, a quill.

Solving the technology

Understanding the description as “constructing a manuscript codex,” the universally agreed-upon answer to the riddler’s closing challenge, gets us most of the way to the solution. Pity the poor sheep, whose skin the “enemy” took to fashion the vellum writing-surface. Soaking that skin and curing it in the sun then led to scraping and folding before it was ready to write on. A quill pen, the “bird’s joy,” absorbed ink made from tree-dye and laid down tracks across the page, configuring ideas in tangible textual form and in good tAgora style. Next came the hide-covered boards that protected the manuscript leaves, and the gold and eventually the coloring that together indicate a precious (and possibly illuminated) manuscript, an extremely valuable text wrought for some special purpose.

To this point (about halfway through), Riddle 24 follows what we might identify as a well-trodden oAgora pathway, a blueprint for the larger genre. Typically for the overall form, which derives from Anglo-Saxon oral tradition, it portrays an inanimate object and process through personification. Thus the text is made to speak of severe and challenging heroic tests: mortal combat against an enemy, immersion in water and sunlight, losing its hair to a sharp blade, and – more curiously – being covered by drops. Some “hero” (a companion in a fight?) then effectively arms the text for battle: he wraps it in protective boards, “girds” it with gold, and arranges the work of smiths (usually armor and weapons) to help secure the whole.

But at this juncture we reach a pivot-point, as the riddle moves from secular book-making to activities associated with Christian worship. Not just any book, this codex now discloses its special purpose: to “honor the people’s protector,” using heroic language that names the lord of all peoples, God. What’s more, the text offers a variety of beneficial effects for its users, their kin, and their friends. That unmistakably religious dynamic, along with the affirmation that “my name is famous,” has led almost all scholar-solvers to narrow the solution to “constructing a Bible codex.”

Merged marketplaces

So let’s summarize what Riddle 24 presents. First, we can plainly see that OT and textual technology are both in play. Transactions are taking place in both the oAgora and tAgora, as the poet employs the OT form of the riddle to describe a textual practice. What we probably have in the riddle-text that has reached us in the Exeter Book codex is an evolving cultural memory of “How to build a book,” a learned Biblical spin on a folk manual for book-making. This kind of syncresis – between oAgora and tAgora, and between secular Germanic learning and Christian knowledge – is common throughout surviving Old English poetry, providing a distinctive hybrid vigor to verbal art from the early medieval period. Like Riddle 45, this tale of text-making images not one but two communications technologies, thoughtfully portraying the contemporary situation in its full complexity.

So how do you build a book? Let me tell you, says the riddler. And while I’m at it, let me also tell you about what it can do for you and the rest of humankind.