Alcuin of York (d. 804) is mostly remembered as the eminent Anglo-Saxon scholar and leading architect of the Carolingian Renaissance. To his contemporaries and friends at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen, however, Alcuin was first and foremost a writer and poet, whose elegant verse gained him the nickname of ‘Flaccus’. Alcuin’s surviving literary oeuvre indeed covers a wide range of forms and genres, and it comes as no surprise that he also composed a number of riddles, both in verse and prose, following in the footsteps of his compatriots and predecessors in the genre, Aldhelm of Malmesbury (d. 709/10), Tatwine (d. 734), Eusebius (8th c.), and Boniface (d. 754).
Compared to the latter’s dazzling collections of poetic Enigmata, Alcuin’s occasional verse riddles appear more limited, both in number and scope. Yet a fuller picture of Alcuin’s contribution to the genre can be gleaned from two of his didactic prose works, which place their author squarely within the Anglo-Saxon riddle tradition: the short Disputatio Pippini cum Albino, a witty dialogue composed for one of Charlemagne’s sons, and the related Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes, a collection of mathematical problems ‘to Sharpen the Young’, now generally attributed to Alcuin.
The Disputatio indeed contains a series of pithy riddle-questions, some of which can be shown to belong to the stock of early medieval enigmatography, going back as far as the late Roman poet Symphosius (4th/5th c. AD), whose century of hexametrical tristichs was already known to Aldhelm and his followers. What is more, both texts, the Disputatio and the mathematical Propositiones, not only recast and often playfully expand some of the established subjects and themes of Anglo-Latin riddling, but also deploy the very narrative strategies and stylistic formula that are characteristic of the genre, both in Latin and the vernacular. Typically, Alcuin’s own verse and prose riddles both echo and mediate this rich heritage, pointing forward to the Old English verse riddles of the 10th-century Exeter Book.