Aldhelm's cat

Medieval poets' assumptions about their audience have been on my mind a lot lately. Literary riddles (to which the Anglo-Saxons were addicted) seem like a good lens to look at those assumptions with—after all, there's not much point in a riddle only its author knows the answer to.

There has to be some way for the audience to get to the same place, even if they don't start out there.

So I was thinking about this riddle of Aldhelm's:

LXV. Muriceps

Fida satis custos conservans pervigil aedes
Noctibus in furvis caecas lustrabo latebras
Atris haud perdens oculorum lumen in antris.
Furibus invisis, vastant qui farris acervos,
Insidiis tacite dispono scandala mortis.
Et vaga venatrix rimabor lustra ferarum,
Nec volo cum canibus turmas agitare fugaces,
Qui mihi latrantes crudelia bella ciebunt.
Gens exosa mihi tradebat nomen habendum.

[I am a most faithful watchwoman, ever-vigilant in guarding the halls; in the dark nights I make my rounds of the shadowy corners—my eyes’ light is not lost even in black caverns. For unseen thieves, who ravage the heaped-up grain, I silently lay snares as fatal obstacles. Though I am a roving huntress and will pry open the dens of beasts, I refuse to pursue the fleeing herds with dogs, who, yapping at me, instigate cruel battles. I take my name from a race that is hateful to me.]

Perhaps not quite as charming as Pangur Bán, but most things aren't. Still, I like the classicizing heroic diction, that makes the cat a combination of Camilla and Actaeon. But you don't have to know Vergil to solve the riddle: what you have to know is that the odd, rare word muriceps is feminine and means "mousecatcher".

That's not to say there aren't a lot of embedded cultural assumptions. The solutions to the next two riddles (there are a hundred in Aldhelm's book) are Mola (millstone) and Cribellus (a late Latin word for a flour sieve). There's no linear principle organizing Aldhelm's Enigmata, but clearly the link between cats and grain was strong enough to spark off a chain of associations. Also, a hunter fearing dogs must have seemed absurd enough to make lines 6-8 something of a paradox. (Though that the dogs instigate crudelia bella does suggest that the first-person voice isn't just a conceit: Aldhelm was taking the point of view of the cat.)

Quite apart from the need for general food-protection, a person who allowed mice to eat the consecrated host had to do a substantial amount of penance: so presumably many churches and monasteries would have been equipped with a cat. But knowing about cats only gets you up to line 8 of the riddle. To solve it as the final line demands, you have to be the sort of person who breaks apart words and thinks about what the bits mean. Only then do you become the audience Aldhelm's riddle requires: not just ingenious, but literate.

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