When considering the defining features of the Anglo-Saxon period, sex tends to come fairly low down the list. Pious monks and powerful monasteries? Naturally. Interesting lumps in the ground containing ships and battle helmets? Of course. Rapey, pillagey Viking raids? Plenty. Cakes burnt by royal culinary ineptitude? Any number of them. But it’s a little harder to imagine famous Anglo-Saxon figures such as Edward the Confessor sporting a pair of primitive nipple tassels and giggling under the sheets, or chasing his wife Edith around the room armed with a feather tickler and a riding crop. Indeed, through his determination to remain a virgin (despite being married), he scored something of an own goal: he had no direct heirs to succeed him, which led to the slight unpleasantness of 1066 and the end of the Anglo-Saxon era itself.
In a similar vein, more than one scholar of Old English literature has noticed a degree of asexuality in much of the corpus of poetry and prose works written by the Anglo-Saxons. Take Beowulf, that most famous of Old English poems: all those muscle-bound warriors with their big swords and shiny armour, and not a single decent warrior-wench encounter in 3,182 lines of monsters and mead halls. The closest Beowulf gets to any rumpy-pumpy is being straddled by the mother of the monstrous, man-eating Grendel as he grapples with her in her underwater lair, although the encounter hardly reads like a scene from a Mills and Boon novel:
Desperate of mood, she tripped the man fighting on foot, strongest of warriors, so that he was prostrated; then she pinned down her hall-visitor and dragged out her broad, bright-edged knife… (Beowulf, ll. 1542–1545)
So unacceptable was this state of affairs in our modern, sex-saturated times, that when the poem got the Hollywood treatment in 2007, the powers that be saw fit to embellish the film with scenes of wanton Beowulfian nakedness (cue oiled, rippling pectorals and strategically placed helmets), add a wide-eyed, heaving-bosomed serving wench named Ursula, and cast as Grendel’s mother that bee-sting lipped, smouldering matriarch of a Benetton commercial, Angelina Jolie. (Of course, the potency of her voluptuous nakedness was by no means dampened by the fact that she sported a long, snaky hairy-tail thing throughout the proceedings.)
Elsewhere in the Old English prose corpus, we may often suspect the presence of straight-laced, prudish writers such as Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955–1010), lips pursed in righteous horror and quill trembling as he translated and adapted biblical stories for an Anglo-Saxon audience. In Ælfric’s version of Judith’s seduction and murder of the tyrant Holofernes, her sexual potency is reigned in: the scene of her bathing and anointing herself with oils before the feast is cut, and it is the king’s own lust that is held entirely responsible for the fate that befalls him. Similarly, in Ælfric’s retelling of the story of Esther and King Xerxes (otherwise known as Assuerus), her role as his concubine and her use of sexual blandishments are played down, despite their fundamental importance in the plot. In light of Ælfric’s reworking of such episodes, the scholar Mary Clayton has suggested that he held ‘a deep-seated anxiety with regard to women using their bodies in ways which had been firmly repressed by centuries of Church prescriptions’.
However, just when the diligent student of Old English literature is starting to despair of ever finding a hint of slap and tickle to brighten his hours of toil in the library, he turns the page of his anthology and discovers…a little brain-teaser. He skims the words, idly. Then, swallowing, he re-reads the text, his pallid brow furrowed with the effort of scholarly exertion. Surely not…?
RIDDLE 25: ‘I am a wondrous creature: to women a thing of joyful expectancy […] My stem is erect and tall—I stand up in bed—and whiskery somewhere down below. Sometimes a countryman’s quite comely daughter will venture, bumptious girl, to get a grip on me. She assaults my red self and seizes my head and clenches me in a cramped place. She will soon feel the effect of her encounter with me, this curly-locked woman who squeezes me. Her eye will be wet.’
(Answers please on a postcard to Æthelstan the Monk, c/o some monastery in the West Country, AD 962.)
He turns the page:
RIDDLE 44: ‘A curiosity hangs by the thigh of a man, under its master’s cloak. It is pierced through in the front; it is still and hard and it has a good standing-place. When the man pulls up his own robe above his knee, he means to poke with the head of his hanging thing that familiar hole of matching length which he has often filled before’.
Finally, suspicion mounting (pardon the pun), his eye wanders down the page:
RIDDLE 45: ‘I have heard of a something-or-other, growing in its nook, swelling and rising, pushing up its covering. Upon that boneless thing a cocky-minded young woman took a grip with her hands; with her apron a lord’s daughter covered the tumescent thing’. Finally! Evidence that after the Anglo-Saxons had sailed over the water from their Germanic homelands, converted to Christianity and battled bands of marauding Vikings, they still had energy to do something other than sit in front of the telly watching X-Factor! More than that, it seems that those holy men weren’t all so pious either, as it was in their scriptoria (writing rooms) that monastic scribes would copy manuscripts and compile texts such as the Exeter Book, in which the riddles are preserved. The riddles embrace a rambunctious, red-blooded attitude to sex that might seem initially at odds with the somewhat priggish culture of monks such as Ælfric, and yet in their witty sophistication these riddles are playing with these very conventions of sexual restraint and suppression. Returning to our pimply undergraduate in the library, if he were to be brought face to face with the writer of these riddles, and tentatively offer a less-than-wholesome solution for riddle 25, the monk would be within his rights to clip him around the ear and exclaim, “Filthy child! The answer is of course an onion!” Clutching his throbbing lughole, our bookish hero tackles riddle 44, only for the riddler to recoil in horror: “Ungodly wretch! What else could it be but a key?” A glutton for punishment, common sense withered by weeks spent buried in books without adequate sun or air, Mr Spotty ventures his thoughts on riddle 45. The monk produces a smiting stick from beneath the folds of his robes and brings it down repeatedly upon the head of his sinful young friend, punctuating every blow as he bellows: “The! Answer! Is! Dough! The! Answer! Is! Dough!”
Devout violence raining down upon him, the poor unfortunate scuttles off, determined to switch to a degree in Mathematics by the end of the day. The monk, wiping righteous beads of perspiration from his brow, returns to his own time and his seat in the scriptorium. He picks up his pen, and muses on the best way to combine the image of a leather washcloth with the concept of a drunken Welsh slavewoman pleasuring herself by the fire: proud warden of the smutty, toilet-humoured underbelly of the Anglo-Saxon world.
See Magennis, H., ‘“No Sex Please, We’re Anglo-Saxons!” Attitudes to Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry’, Leeds Studies in English 26 (1995), pp. 1–27.
Translations taken from Bradley, S. A. J., Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London and North Clarendon, VT, 1982).
Clayton, M., ‘Ælfric’s Judith: Manipulative or Manipulated?’, Anglo-Saxon England 23 (1994), 215–27, at p. 225.
For more on solutions to this unusual riddle see Higley, S. L., ‘The Wanton Hand: Reading and Reaching Into Grammars and Bodies in Old English Riddle 12’, in Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England, eds. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (Morgantown, WV, 2003), pp. 29–59.