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Literature of the “Wyrd”

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It can be challenging for contemporary individuals like ourselves to approach historical literature with enthusiasm. The past seems stagnant, even boring for many millennials who are accustomed to the instant gratification bestowed by 21st century technology. Historical texts, too, are often stereotyped in ways that seem, to a curious extent, resemblant of their authors themselves: mundane, long-winded, unrelatable. Perhaps a little dusty.

Please do be mindful of these labels. Contrary to popular assumption, historical literature can teach us many things – most evidently that people living in the Middle Ages were just as odd and immature as we are now. As you read on, channel your inner middle-school self; the following few lessons in literary history may suddenly make old-age literature feel peculiarly, eerily relatable.

1. The Exeter:

The Exeter is a wonderful old book, packed with cunning Anglo-Saxon riddles and poems. Yet its survival seems almost incidental, for after being relocated to the Cathedral Library in 1072, the anthology doubled as a beer mat and some sort of cutting-board. Scholars note that its front cover contains a multitude of liquid stains, knife marks and leftover cheese residue. The literary lesson here? Don’t judge a book by its cover.

As for content, The Exeter includes cultivated works of war, love, death and life. A small selection of its riddles, however, is where things become a little strange. One teaser in particular describes an object with “russet skin” that “[satisfies] women,” “grow[s] very tall” and becomes “erect in a bed.”

“What exactly is this object?” you’re probably asking. Historians claim an onion, for the bulbous vegetable grows tall in beds, has red-brown skin, and satisfies women, after all! Readers, on the other hand, wonder whether these scholars might just be trying to retain some dignity. Can you think of anything else that this “onion” might be?

2. The Ripley Scrolls:

Pictures are worth a thousand words, which perhaps explains why the Ripley Scrolls employ a series of images telling us how to manufacture the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. Dramatic inhale. According to folklore, the stone can do a myriad of charming tricks – turning lead to gold, for example – and supposedly contains, when mixed correctly, the very elixir of life.

For those not well-versed in the medieval sciences, or who haven’t read the Harry Potter books, do not fret, because the scrolls also contain some helpful written instructions: “You must make Water of the Earth, and Earth of the Air, and Air of the Fire, and Fire of the Earth.” Easy-peasy, right? Looks like baking day with grandma just got a little bit more exciting.

3. Sun-beams may be extracted from cucumbers, but the process is tedious:

Bearing the unwieldy title, “Sun-beams may be extracted from cucumbers, but the process is tedious. An oration, pronounced on the Fourth of July, 1799. At the request of the citizens of New-Haven. By David Daggett,” this work stretches the definition of “Middle-Ages” rather far. Yet such a stretch seems relatively reasonable given a) the length of its title and b) the content that it contains in relation to said title.

Far from the terrestrial gist its heading implies, “Sun-beams” was written as a reactionary statement to Thomas Jefferson regarding something he said that nobody seems to remember. Or, as one reviewer wrote, “[the text had] presumably little to do with cucumbers or sun-beams, which makes its extremely incongruous title all the more delightful.”

However, the text’s author, David Daggett, was a Federalist member of the Connecticut State Council in 1779 and served as mayor of New Haven prior to the paper’s composition. Why Daggett chose such a bizarre, long-winded heading, we truly cannot say, but perhaps his coffee was cold that morning, he stepped in a puddle on the way to work, a bee stung him or he was just having one of those days where he needed to yell, “YOLO!” at the top of his lungs, as his child drew cosmic cucumbers on the wall. Whatever his reasoning, the title’s sheer majesty – “Sun-beams may be extracted from cucumbers, but the process is tedious. An oration, pronounced on the Fourth of July, 1799. At the request of the citizens of New-Haven” – is probably enough to satisfy even the most inquisitive of individuals.

miller2@stolaf.edu