Exeter Book Excerpts

Some fragments of Anglo-Saxon literature from the Exeter Book:  Excerpts from The Ruin, The Wanderer, and the collection of riddles

The following poems and riddles, all written in Old English, come from a manuscript known as the Exeter Book (c. 950-1000), which since 1072 has been preserved in the library of Exeter Cathedral.

The Ruin describes the ruins of a Roman city — probably Bath (Aquae Sulis), famous for its Roman baths — and laments the passing of its greatness and the desolation that has succeeded it.  The Wanderer describes the anguish of a warrior whose lord is dead and who lives the bitter life of a friendless exile.  The riddles come from a large collection at the end of the Exeter Book.

I. The Ruin

Bright were the castle buildings,     many the bathing-halls,
high the abundance of gables,     great the noise of the multitude,
many a meadhall     full of festivity,
until Fate the mighty     changed that.
Far and wide the slain perished,     days of pestilence came,
death took     all the brave men away;
their places of war     became deserted places,
the city decayed.     The rebuilders perished,
the armies to earth.     And so these buildings grow desolate,
and this red-curved roof     parts from its tiles
of the ceiling-vault.     The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds,     where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented     with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine     shone in war-trappings;
looked at treasure, at silver,     at precious stones,
at wealth, at prosperity,     at jewellery,
at this bright castle     of a broad kingdom.

Source: Excerpt taken from translation by Jack Watson, available online at The Anglo-Saxon Poetry Project
http://www.aspp.ca/cgi-bin/compare.cgi?file=The-Ruin_Watson_en.xml&origfile=The-Ruin.xml [seen 17 July 2008]

II. The Wanderer

Thus spoke the wanderer, mindful of hardships,
of cruel battles, of beloved kinsmen fallen:
“Often I had to bewail my cares alone
at the dawn of each day. Now there is not one of the living
that I would dare to tell my spirit openly. .  .
since in years of old my generous lord
was covered in darkness on earth, and thence I, wretched,
went desolate as winter over commingling of waves,
sad for the lack of a hall, sought a treasure-giver,
wherever I could find, far or near,
someone who might know my (people) in the meadhall,
or would console me, bereft of friends,
entertain with joys. He who has experience knows
how cruel sorrow is as a companion
for the one who has few very beloved close friends:
the path of an exile claims him, no twisted gold at all,
heart frozen, no wealth on earth at all.
He remembers retainers and receiving of gifts,
how as a young man his generous lord
entertained him in feasting. All joy has departed.

Source: Excerpt taken from translation by Jack Watson, available online at The Anglo-Saxon Poetry Project
http://www.aspp.ca/cgi-bin/compare.cgi?file=The-Wanderer_Watson_en.xml&origfile=The-Wanderer.xml [seen 17 July 2008]

III. Three ribald riddles

Click on this link to read three of the riddles from the Exeter Book. You will find the answers to the riddles at the the bottom of the page.