I am a dweller on the edge of steep stream banks, and not lazy at all, but warlike with the weapons of my mouth. I sustain my life with hard labour, laying low huge trees with my hooked axes. I dive into water, where the fish swim, and immerse by own head, wetting it in the watery surge. The wounds of sinews and limbs foul of gore I can cure. I destroy pestilence and the deadly plague. I eat the bitter and well-gnawed bark of trees.
Answer: the beaver.
Aldhelm, Enigma 56 ( trans. Nancy Porter Stork, 1990, p. 170-171)
Reading Cameron’s Anglo-Saxon Medicine this afternoon, I came across his short discussion of Aldhelm’s riddles (Engima) having the earliest mention of Anglo-Saxon medical practices. Aldhelm includes the medicinal use of the beaver (above) and also of the leech in this riddle on each. Aldhelm’s riddles were part of a manuscript sent to his good friend, then king Aldfrith of Northumbria (r. 685-704), probably early in his reign. Michael Lapidge has argued that Aldhelm was a relative of Cuthburgh, wife of Aldfrith and sister of King Ine of Wessex. She is mentioned in another of Aldhelm’s poems (On Virginity) as one of the nuns of Barking. In the letter linked to the text including the riddles, Aldhelm reminds King Aldfrith of their youthful training together and which would have had to have been in the early 660s. We know that Aldhelm later trained under Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus who arrived in Canterbury in 672. Archbishop Theodore is credited by Bede with being well versed in the medicine, but none of his or Abbot Hadrian’s teachings or texts have survived. Having recently arrived from the Mediterranean where plague was common, it is possible that Theodore or his friend Hadrian the African brought plague treatments with them to their new post in England.
Aesop’s Fables, Pliny the Elder and Isidore of Seville all mention that the testicles (actually inguinal glands) of beavers are used in medicines.The 13th century bestiary in Harley MS 4551 illustrates the story in Aesop’s Fables, Isidore and Pliny that beavers will castrate themselves in order to escape hunters (shown to the left). These glands were the source of an oil called castoreum. However, at least Isidore does not say what the medicines are used to treat. Cameron notes that Aldhelm’s use of beaver as a component in a remedy is not found in any Anglo-Saxon medical text. I’ve consulted three translations and they all say that the beaver is used to treat plague (Latin text). It makes some sense from their point of view to include castoreum from the inguinal gland in a remedy for a bubo that is usually found in the inguinal or thigh region. If anyone knows of other plague remedies that use any beaver parts, please leave a comment!
Ironically if Aldhelm and Aldfrith were together as students on Iona in the mid-660s they may have been safe from the plague of 664 that Adomnan of Iona claims did not reach Iona. According to Bede, Aldfrith was on Iona when his brother died in May 685, keeping him safe from the plague of the mid 680s until he took the throne. (Adomnan claimed that neither plague epidemic that struck Britain in his time reached Iona, which he credited to St Columba’s protection.) On the other hand, Aldhelm would have been in Wessex during the plague in the mid 680s and if he sent the riddles to Aldfrith shortly after he came to the throne in 685/6, then the plague was still circulating in England at the time. From what is know of King Aldfrith, he was high educated for a secular man at the time and enjoyed cosmology, and so animal lore is not far removed. Lapidge argues that Aldhelm read and studied Virgil on Iona. So it follows that Aldhelm would have known some of classical literature Aldfrith had learned. (Though it also has to be noted that Bede knew of Virgil’s works and had Pliny’s Natural History and he certainly didn’t study on Iona so these classical works may have been found in the better libraries in England.) Either way, Aldhelm may have included this clue in the riddle to make it harder to solve and allow Aldfrith to show his cleverness to his court.
M.L. Cameron. Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 7. Cambridge, 1993 (repr. 2006)
Lapidge, M. (2009). The career of Aldhelm. Anglo-Saxon England, 36, 15. doi:10.1017/S0263675107000026
Nancy Porter Stork, trans. 1990 , Through a Gloss Darkly: Aldhelm’s Riddles in the British Library MS Royal 12.C.xxiii. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Onterio. (Latin text also found at this link)