Most commentators on Riddles 48 and 59 in the tenth-century Exeter Book relate them to church plate, the solution supposedly being a gold paten or chalice or pyx. Yet these answers are not compelling. Problems remain. Recent discussion of the Malmesbury Ciborium and other twelfth-century ciboria in London or New York now permits a fresh approach. The solution to both Old English riddles will be ciborium, a vessel of precious metal used to contain consecrated wafers or hosts at the eucharist. The Malmesbury Ciborium and similar pieces make this clear. Round and made of gold, they had a shorter and squatter outline than a chalice; they possessed lids, inscriptions, and representations of Bible scenes (the Crucifixion amongst them); they were yet larger than a pyx (used not in services but to carry a few wafers only, as on visits to the sick). These aspects parallel those of the object in the two riddles: a ring-like item of gold which is gazed upon and revered by people in a hall, which makes no noise and yet conveys a message of salvation, and which (in the second riddle) displays Christ’s wounds. If this analysis is sound, it deepens understanding of early English poetry. It also informs us on Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths, who produced magnificent works of art (as the literary sources prove) now lost, the gold having long been melted down for the purpose of exchange or as loot. Study of the two poems indicates as well how philologists and experts on material culture can work together, especially for the Exeter Book’s other riddles.
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