The beech, pannaging, and the unexpected relevance of Riddle 40

The beech-tree, shedder of uncomfortable-to-lie-on mast

The beech-tree, shedder of uncomfortable-to-lie-on mast, and giver of minor inspiration

As seems to be becoming an annual inevitability, summer in the UK has been another overcast letdown. Luckily, I skipped these shores for a week at the start of the month for the altogether more hot and sunny climes of Switzerland (which at that point was in the grip of a heatwave). It was glorious, all that hot weather meaning there was little else to do than head for one of Zürich’s many schwimmbaden and take a dip in the clean, clear waters of the lake or river.

One of the most interesting places to take a swim is the Letten, the channel going into and out of a former waterworks. Zürich being Zürich, it’s been turned into two fantastic (and free) outdoor bathing facilities. The bathing is great – not least because the current is strong enough to pull you along without much need to move your arms, perfect for a weak swimmer like me! – and the gardens alongside the water blissful. Coming round from a mid-afternoon nap out of the heat of the Swiss sun, I realised I was lain beneath a mighty beech tree (and on its pointy and deeply uncomfortable mast or nuts shed by the tree); the way the sun was percolating through its branches and leaves spurred me to take the photo above.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been slowly plugging away at getting a draft of an article titled ‘Anglo-Saxon swine pastures and transhumance in the Surrey Weald’, written by the late Dennis Turner, fit for publication. Beech mast was one of the main things eating by pigs during woodland-based pannage grazing in the very late summer and autumn months (only in the Weald it was probably acorns from oak trees that were the main foodstuff). The link with what I’ve been doing (or meant to have been doing much quicker than I have!) was more to the fore in my mind at the time because of a blog post by Megan Cavell I had read not so long before on the always fascinating Riddle Ages site. This looked at some of the themes emerging from Riddle 40, not only a whopper length-wise but equally noteworthy for having an extant Latin version (found in the Enigmata 100 collection by my favourite OTT wordsmith, Aldhelm) as well as the more commonly-encountered Old English.

One of the points of divergence between the two texts concerns pigs in woods. The pasturing of swine in woodland environments is not well recorded, and attestations are largely limited to charters (often occurring lists of pascua porcorum found towards the end of diploma texts) and place-names containing Old English words like denn or hlōse. What I hadn’t expected was for the two versions of Riddle 40 to contain remarkable (and so far as I am aware previously unnoticed) details about Anglo-Saxon pig husbandry. I was chuffed to discover, therefore, that the contrast between the “swarthy boar” (bearg bellende) living the life of Riley in a beech wood (bocwuda) of the OE text, and the greasy sows (scrofarum) carrying themselves back (referunt) from beech trees with their “fattened flesh” (carne subulci) in the Latin original, seems to accord in the main with a model I tentatively constructed sometime last year to explain early medieval Wealden pig pasturing as part of a continuous year-round cycle.

I will need to look more closely at both riddle texts and what’s been written about them to check that it does indeed stack up (Aldhelm’s Latin can be a source of particular difficulty) and if this practical implication has been noted previously. Nevertheless, initial indications are certainly promising and, given Aldhelm died in 709, the Latin version could well constitute the earliest Anglo-Saxon-period reference to the pannaging of pigs. (There’s a reference to swine in woodland in Ine of Wessex’s law code of the very late seventh century, but this is about the shade provided to the animals by trees and makes no mention of their movement.)

By way of thanks for bringing this to my attention, I’m strongly recommending anyone who reads this post now goes on to check out the Commentary for Riddle 40 and all of the Riddle Ages’ many other delights. Meanwhile, I’ll be going back through all of the other riddles to see if there’s anything else of equivalent relevance to pigs, or to other topics within my research crosshairs.

About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Aldhelm, History, Language, Latin, Literature, Old English, Pigs, Riddles, Switzerland and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The beech, pannaging, and the unexpected relevance of Riddle 40

  1. Judith Jesch says:

    Must’ve just missed you in Zürich – great saga conference there (you should have dropped in) – heard about the great swimming but no time to try it out, despite heatwave. Delighted also to see people swimming in the Rhein in Basel, with their Wickelfische…
    Sorry, none of this is about pigs…

    • I’ll allow the off-topic comment this one time! From all the tweets and summary blogs about the conference, it sounded like a very enjoyable and successful few days. I had to shorten my holiday so was gone before it began, but I count 3 days of swimming out of 7 to be a holiday well spent (and a good deal warmer than the mountain river I swam in in Ticino the summer before!)

  2. Pingback: Pannage and the Disco: Reflections on Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016 | Surrey Medieval

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