This essay explores a group of thematically related, enigmatic poems in Old English, Anglo-Latin and Old Norse that play with gender through their representations of violent textile production. The tenth-century Exeter Book’s Riddle 56, eighth-century archbishop Tatwine’s Enigmata 11 and 13, and the traditional eddic-style poem Darraðarljóð merge the highly gendered activities of textile production and warfare, questioning binaries and naturalized categories in the process. This process ends with the containment of gender play during the act of solving and interpreting the enigmatic, which restores the status quo. In analysing the space that enigmatic poetry provides for subversive gender play, this essay argues that both types of gendered labour feed into a culture of spectacle, making witnessing and sight essential to the way the texts navigate both domains. Exploring the visibility of both textile production and violence in early medieval England, it further emphasizes that the latter encompasses not only warfare, but also criminality and martyrdom, disability, and sexualized violence. Ultimately, the visceral and highly visual nature of the poetic representations reflects a cultural familiarity with both textile-making and violence that readers with temporal distance risk overlooking.
I am especially grateful to Irina Dumitrescu and Emma O'Loughlin Bérat for finding a home for this essay in their special issue, and for their comments, those of the reviewers and of Jennifer Edwards during the editorial process.
textiles; riddles; enigmatic poetry; Old English; Old Norse; Anglo-Latin; Exeter Book; Tatwine; Darraðarljóð
Cavell, Megan "Seeing Red: Visuality, Violence, and the Making of Textiles in Early Medieval Enigmatic Poetry." Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality 57, No. 1 (2021)