The past’s not new.
For as long as people have been around, they’ve been thinking about the people who came before them.
I find this very interesting. It’s not something we really talk about often. I think it’s a bit too meta for everyday contemplation. We like to wonder what life was like in the Middle Ages or Ancient Egypt, for example, but we don’t really sit back and wonder what people in the Middle Ages thought of Ancient Egypt.
Spoiler: they didn’t like it very much. All they really knew about Ancient Egypt was that some guy called ‘The Pharaoh’ oppressed God’s chosen people in the Old Testament, so they were clearly evil. In fact, much of the Medieval idea of history looks like this and I find it rather boring.
The Anglo-Saxons, though, they were a little bit more relatable. Much of their literature was Christian, yes, but there are many Anglo-Saxon poems that have very little religious undertone at all.
They were big fans of melancholic literature, the A-Ss, probably because they were somewhat aware that they were living in the shadow of a more advanced civilisation. There’s a famous poem called ‘The Ruin’ that I want you to think about.
It’s an Anglo-Saxon poet being sad about the end of the Romans. It starts with a description of a ruined Roman town, imagines how grand it would have been at its height, and then dwells on how it has fallen. Very gritty, almost ‘woke’. It tugs on the heartstrings even now, over 1,000 years later.
In a somewhat wryly funny twist of fate, the only surviving copy of this poem is partly burnt, meaning we can’t read it properly.
Here’s a section of it, taken from here:
The strong-purposed mind was urged to a keen-minded desire
in concentric circles; the stout-hearted bound
wall-roots wondrously together with wire. The halls of the city
once were bright: there were many bath-houses,
a lofty treasury of peaked roofs, many troop-roads, many mead-halls
filled with human-joys until that terrible chance changed all that.
Days of misfortune arrived—blows fell broadly—
death seized all those sword-stout men—their idol-fanes were laid waste —
the city-steads perished. Their maintaining multitudes fell to the earth.
For that the houses of red vaulting have drearied and shed their tiles,
these roofs of ringed wood. This place has sunk into ruin, been broken
There once many men, glad-minded and gold-bright,
adorned in gleaming, proud and wine-flushed, shone in war-tackle;
There one could look upon treasure, upon silver, upon ornate jewelry,
upon prosperity, upon possession, upon precious stones,
upon the illustrious city of the broad realm.
Anglo-Saxon poetry can be hard to read: they liked to use ‘kennings,’ phrases that mean something else. Here we have ‘war-tackle’ (armour), ‘idol-fanes’ (temples?) and ‘wall-roots’ (who knows). But I think the core message is clear: this was a place that was once grand and is now destroyed.
There’s something interesting happening here: I don’t think they really understand the Romans. They talk about the ruin being a place where many warriors could come together and see great piles of treasure. This was how Anglo-Saxon society worked: warriors joined the warbands of successful leaders and were given gold and silver in return, which they could use to start their own warbands and increase their prestige. It was the lynchpin of their world and they blindly assume it was the same for the Roman inhabitants of the city. But we know, of course, that Roman society was entirely different.
There are like a dozen different ways to explain or interpret this and no-one knows the answer. Maybe they thought the city was an ancient Anglo-Saxon one. Or maybe they didn’t care who built it because they had a different conception of culture, ethnicity and countries to the one we have. Maybe the poet didn’t care and just wanted to write about this sad feeling he got when he looked at those red walls and roofs with the tiles hanging off (which I think is a beautiful image, well done poet.) Or maybe they knew about the Romans but had no understanding of how culture could change between places and over time. After all, the Romans are famously depicted in Medieval clothing in Medieval paintings of scenes from the Bible.
What it tells us for sure is that Anglo-Saxons were looking at these grand ruins and feeling a sense of loss. They were sad to see that civilisation had gone backwards.
They were thinking about the past.
But, just like we do today, they were looking at it through their own understanding of the world.
If you want more words from me, consider joining my email newsletter, ‘Dewi’s Dispatch.‘ It goes out every Saturday night! Expect exclusive writing, quality content from across the web and a sneaky glimpse behind the curtain. ❤