Was Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Ruin’, believed to be about Bath, actually about Stonehenge?

Was Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Ruin’, believed to be about Bath, actually about Stonehenge?

The 8th century poem, thought to describe the ruined Roman city of Bath, could actually be the oldest known surviving text in the world to describe Stonehenge, according to a medieval language scholar.

‘The Ruin’ was written in Old English by an unknown author and published in the 8th century in the Exeter Book (unfortunately, a large diagonal burn damaged part of the script).  It mournfully evokes the former glory of the ruins it describes by jumping from present to past.

The general consensus among analysts since the 19th century is that it depicts the city of Bath due to its distinct references to a hot spring, bathing halls, and a circular pool.  It was also written at a point in history when Bath had greatly decayed in the several centuries since its former imperial Roman heyday.

Medieval language expert Dr Graeme Davis, a research fellow at the University of Buckingham, has now provided a new translation of the famous poem.  He believes it actually describes Stonehenge, as well as an ancient spring recently discovered by archaeologists at nearby Blick Mead and Amesbury, the oldest settlement in the UK, having been continuously occupied since 8820 BC.

Dr Davis points to references to the stones as the “elders” or “old ones”, how “fate has shattered the wondrous, mighty stones” and how they have “fallen”, as well as the “hundred generations” passed since they were built.  He told the BBC: “it’s describing a ruin and Stonehenge.  There are so many references to curved beams, and a ditch around it, so it doesn’t appear to be Bath.”

The earliest known direct reference to Stonehenge was made by Henry of Huntingdon around 1130 AD in the Historia Anglorum (History of the English), when he wrote: “Stonehenge, where stones of extraordinary dimensions are raised as columns, and others are fixed above, like lintels of immense portals; and no one has been able to discover by what mechanism such vast masses of stone were elevated, nor for what purpose they were designed.”

If Dr Davis is correct, ‘The Ruin’ would pre-date this by around 4 centuries.  Read his translation and see what you think:

Fate has shattered the wondrous, mighty stones.  The city is broken, the works of giants has perished.  The top parts have fallen, the high rocks tumbled, the beams are bereaved, the mortar has failed, broken holes provide no shelter from the storms; the old ones are eaten away.  The worldly craftsmen, now decayed, now departed, are held in the clutch of the earth; they have rested in the grip of the grave while a hundred generations of their nation have passed away.  Only the wall, lichen-covered and stained red, has outlived one kingdom after another, and remains standing against the storms, its high curves fallen.

[What their] hearts knew, their craft expressed through zeal for circle building.  The foundations of the walls were wondrously supported and the surrounding earth-banks shone.  There were many {standing stones} with many pinnacles, full of the sounds of war and of much banqueting and of earthly pleasures.  Then swift fate changed all that.  Men perished everywhere; the day of pestilence came; death took all the host of men; the warriors were stolen.  The bulwarks decayed.  The site was in ruins because those who should have repaired it were dead.  Therefore these structures are mournful and these curved, red-stained remnants have fallen away from the circular beams.  In their downfall they sank down to the ground, smashed to pieces.  

Before in this place had been many men, joyous and splendidly adorned with bright gold, proud and drunk, shining in their armour, with treasure, silver worked gems, wealth, riches, pearls and the bright fortress with its wide dominion.  Near where the raised stones stand there is a warm stream with a wide spring.  A wall surrounds it all, and within its bright circuit were the baths, warm and ready, conveniently placed.  The flow…over the grey stone warm streams…the round pool…warm…where the baths were.


Stonehenge or Bath?
Stonehenge or Bath?

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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015