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by Emma Laws, Cathedral Librarian

“There were bright buildings, many bathing-halls,
plenty of tall pinnacles, a great noise of people, many a banqueting-hall full of revelry
– until Fate the mighty changed everything.
Men fell dead all around; there came a time of pestilence;
death destroyed the whole host of the people.
Their battlements became waste places,
the citadel crumbled to pieces.”

Appropriately, the part of the 10th century Exeter Book containing the Old English poem entitled ‘The Ruin’ is partially destroyed by a scorch mark. What is left of the poem tells the story of the decline of a great stone citadel – probably the Roman city of Bath which, in its heyday, could certainly have been described as ‘the work of giants’. 

The narrator describes how the bright buildings and many bath-houses have been destroyed by fate, or ‘wyrde’.  As multitudes succumbed to a plague that swept through the population, there was no one left to defend and maintain such a mighty city and, though it once stood firm against kings and storms, it lies now ‘crumbled to pieces’.  

Fate, the passing of time, and the transience of all that is manmade are common threads in Anglo-Saxon poetry. And yet, or so it seems to me, the emphasis of the poem is not perhaps so much on the ruins but on the wondrous world that we glimpse through them:

“where once many a man,
glad of heart and bright with gold, splendidly arrayed,
proud and flushed with wine, shone in his armour,
looked upon treasure, upon silver, upon intricate gems,
upon wealth, upon possessions, upon the precious stone,
and upon this bright city with its wide dominion.”

 The original text of ‘The Ruin’ will feature in our next showing of the Exeter Book in the Cathedral on 8 August between 10am and 1pm. Come along for some fun Anglo-Saxon themed activities for all ages! Advance booking is not required, and admission is included with the standard Cathedral entry fee.