Further reading

Butterfield, Ardis. Poetry and Music in Medieval France: From Jean Renart to Guillaume de Machaut. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Daniel O'Sullivan

"RUIN, THE" Anonymous (before 1072) "The Ruin" appears in the Exeter Book, a late 10th-century manuscript, which is severely damaged in several places. Because of this, the existing text of "The Ruin" is difficult to read, with several missing lines.

The narrator of this elegy describes what he or she sees, an inexplicable and confusing ruined town or settlement whose builders were from a different time and culture. The speaker notes the unbarred gate and the unprotected town—a stronghold made vulnerable because its inhabitants, warriors "joyful-hearted and bright with gold" (l. 33), are all dead, probably due to some pestilence, and there remains no one who can repair or rebuild the "mutilated" towers and walls.

The text reveals Anglo-Saxon attitudes toward loss, helplessness, and loneliness. Echoing other elegies, particularly "the wanderer," the narrator of "The Ruin" notes the emptiness of a former mead hall, once filled with sound and celebration, but now quiet because of wyrd, or fate (ll. 22-24). Mourning a community he or she cannot interpret, the speaker considers social and natural disasters while pondering the former inhabitants. Based on his or her own culture, the speaker assumes it must have been nature that destroyed this society. The potential for natural disaster (disease, bad weather, destruction of crops) and the threat of annihilation was frequently embodied in Anglo-Saxon literature as an attack by a physical force, such as the monster Grendel in Beowulf.

Some readers assume the ruin being described in the poem is the Roman city of Aquae Sulis (now known as Bath), which was protected by an outer wall and contained bathhouses (burnsele), large temples, and great halls. Such a place might have been confusing to an Anglo-Saxon. If the city is Bath, then the poem may date as early as the mid-seventh century, when King osric of the Hwicce occupied the area. The ruins would have been at least two centuries old and similar to those described in the poem.

Other scholars view the poem as an allegory of the destructive nature of fate. In either case, the ruins depicted in the poem and the narrator's comments evoke the fear of human and cultural annihilation through natural or other means.

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