Exeter Riddle 'Ale'


The riddle is a no. 28 in the Exeter Book of Riddles. It is a predecessor of the ballad 'John Barleycorn'.

Although more usually this Anglo-Saxon riddle (dating from the eleventh century and perhaps earlier) has the solution 'beer', it should more properly be 'ale', since beer is not introduced into England until a few centuries later (the difference being that ale consists solely of water, malt and yeast, whereas beer has these ingredients plus hops - a distinction now lost). There is a translation at the end of it.


Biž foldan dęl fęgre gegierwed
mid žy heardestan ond mid žy scearpestan
ond mid žy grymmestan gumena gestreona,
corfen, sworfen, cyrred, žyrred,
bunden, wunden, blęced, węced,
frętwed, geatwed, feorran lęded
to durum dryhta. Dream biš in innan
cwicra wihta, clengeš, lengeš,
žara že ęr lifgende longe hwile
wilna bruceš ond no wiš spriceš,
ond žonne ęfter deaže deman onginneš,
meldan mislice. Micel is to hycganne
wisfęstum menn, hwęt seo wiht sy.


Exeter Riddle 'Ale' (translation)


The following translation of one of the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Riddles (11th Century, possibly earlier) occurs in John Bickerdyke's Curiosities of Ale and Beer, but he does not cite the source. It is clearly a predecessor to 'The Ballad of John Barleycorn'.


A part of the earth is
Prepared beautifully,
With the hardest,
And with the sharpest,
And with the grimmest
Of the productions of men,
Cut and . . . .
Turned and dried,
Bound and twisted,
Bleached and awakened,
Ornamented and poured out,
Carried afar
To the doors of the people,
It is joy in the inside
Of living creatures,
It knocks and slights
Those, of whom while alive
A long while
It obeys the will,
And expostulateth not,
And then after death
It takes upon it to judge,
To talk variously.
It is greatly to seek,
By the wisest man,
What this creature is.