Runic abbreviations, logographs, runica manuscripta, Old English poetry, scribal practice, riddles, Bede
Runic abbreviations appear sporadically in a number of Old English manuscripts, including three of the four major poetic codices. A convincing rational for the apparently erratic deployment of these unusual abbreviations has yet to be proposed.
In this article I identify the immediate literary context as an important factor influencing the distribution of Anglo-Saxon runic abbreviations, noting in particular that the runic brevigraphs often appear in passages which deal with unlocking. To illuminate this association, I turn to Bede's story of the prisoner Imma, whose chains become unlocked each time he is bound. His credulous captors believe this miracle to be the work of litteras solutorias, or 'releasing letters', the Old English translation of Bede's work referring explicitly to the alysendlic, or 'unlocking', rune. This episode may help to explain why runes appear in a riddle about a lock and key, in the context of Elene's prayer to open a hoard, and in a passage in which Saturn asks how he may unlock the doors of heaven. If such an association indeed exists, it has implications for our understanding of the perception of the runic script in late-Anglo-Saxon England, and it also suggests that the rationale for the use of runes in the Exeter Book riddles may be connected with revealing rather than concealing information.