Wyrd-Cræft: Unearthing Ecological Activity in 'The Ruin'

By Joseph Burton

One of the many ways in which we can contemplate the nature of ‘transition’ is through ruins. That is to say, whether as poetry, archaeological finds, or topographical icons, the temples, bath houses, churches and sculptures of bygone ages are in-between states of construction and deconstruction. Yet while ruins showcase the fading achievements of human innovation, they also express the non-human ecological processes that create, as well as destroy, aspects of the human-built material landscape.

Relationships between human made objects, and the ecological forces that reshape them, formed the basis of my approach to the paper I delivered at the ‘Transitions’ conference held at the University of Bristol 2022. More specifically, I focused on the Old English poem known as The Ruin. For those unfamiliar with The Ruin, it is often regarded as elegiac in its tone, meditating on the ephemerality of culture, and the persistence of ancient architecture, by conceptualising the tantalising and often disruptive temporalities of materials such as stone and earth, in relation to the human lifespan. Describing a landscape that evokes real locations, such as Roman Bath, the poem includes vivid descriptions of storm shelters, frost damaged mortar, former luxurious hot baths, and the husks of once-joyful halls (fig. 1). In terms of its manuscript context, the poem is compiled towards the end of the famous tenth century Exeter Book, where it succeeds a number of vernacular riddles.[i]

Over the years, literary critics have indeed identified transitional elements in the poem’s descriptions of tumbling and decaying architecture. However, these treatments often interpret The Ruin in anthropocentric terms, or in other words, what the poem says about human beings, as opposed to non-human entities. For instance, C. W. Johnson explores the way in which The Ruin allegorically expresses the limitations and transitoriness of the human body compared to the vastly different timescales of stone ruins.[ii] More recently, Joshua Davies demonstrates how the poem’s transitional themes help us reflect on human society today, and how the mutable material remains of The Ruin’s dilapidated buildings form a type of cultural memory.[iii]Given the breadth of its scholarship, I was surprised that little attention had been paid to the transitional qualities of The Ruin’s architectural objects, which are in a state of ‘in-ruining’, that is, between human modes of ‘cræft’ (craft, power and skill) and non-human modes of ecology. By engaging with The Ruin’s fragmentary landscape as an expression of non-human processes, my paper introduces a dialogue between The Ruin’s human-built landscape and the ecology that redefines it.

This expression can be observed in one particular Old English word that appears twice in The Ruin. ‘Wyrd’ (meaning fate, chance, happening) is first introduced to us in the opening line of the poem: ‘wrætlic is þes wealstān, wyrde gebræcon’ (wondrous is this wall-stone, broken by fate).[iv] Here, The Ruin is explicit in its use of ‘wyrd’ as a mode of destruction, and this occurs again later in the poem where it is responsible for a deathly plague: oþþæt þæt onwende wyrd sēo swīþe. Crungon walo wide cwōman / wōldagas’ (until mighty fate altered that. Corpses tumbled all around, there came plague days, 24a-5b).[v] In order to move beyond this one-dimensional view of ‘wyrd’-as-destruction, I argue that contrary to its usual interpretation as a destructive and apocalyptic force, ‘wyrd’ also binds a diverse range of non-human ecological agencies, events and processes that contribute towards a ‘poetic animism’, in which the world of ecology moves us from ‘grief to reconciliation’.[vi] That is to say, while ecological phenomena in The Ruin are represented as a form of ruination, I contend that this human perception shuns a perspective that views natural forces as actively altering the form and matter of The Ruin’s crafted architecture in a way that is both creative and destructive.

To support my claims, my paper draws on other areas of the Old English corpus, such as the Exeter Book riddles, which often associates ‘wyrd’ with a diverse range of ecological agencies and events, both macro and micro.[vii] To help further conceptualise the macro and micro status of ‘wyrd’-as-ecology in The Ruin, I draw on aspects of object-oriented philosophy, in particular Timothy Morton’s ‘hyper objects’. Morton defines these vast entities as ‘things that are so massively distributed in time and space’ that they ‘appear to be everywhere and nowhere’ often ‘invisible to humans for stretches of time’.[viii] In The Ruin’s case, we can view, and interact with, the ruined objects ‘wyrd’has affected, but we cannot experience the totality of ruination, nor all of its subtle modulations, in which gradual processes of decay outlast the ephemerality of human beings, and are thus ‘invisible to humans for stretches of time’.[ix] Indeed, this ‘profoundly different temporality’ (being a key ingredient for hyper objects) is indicated in The Ruin itself, whereby the brevity of human life is contrasted against the seemingly perennial earth: ‘Eorðgrap / hafað / waldendwyrhtan, forweorone gelēorene / heard gripe hrūsan, oþ hund cnēa / werþēoda gewitan’ (Soil-grip holds owner-builders: lost, compost, the hard grip of earth, until a hundred ages of man have passed away, 7a-9a).

The above passage illustrates the temporal disparities between humans and the earth we inhabit. In addition to this observation, alternative contrasts are expressed by ‘wyrd’-as-hyper-object, whereby non-human ecological forces abound in its ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere’ status in The Ruin. For example, in line 10a, lichen colonises the walls of the city: ‘ræghār ond rēadfāh’ (lichen-grey and red-stained). As an agent of ruination (or ‘wyrd’), lichen can have significant impact on the integrity of architectural structures by slowly expanding and contracting, resulting in cracks and crevices.[x] However, when lichen’s ruinous qualities are translated into a broader, ecological framework, not only does lichen redefine the form of the crumbling edifices, it also provides food and camouflage for a variety of non-human entities, acting as a small hub of taxonomical activity that takes place on a level detectable by humans; but also, as the tip of an inconceivable hyper object that we define as ecology, or, in Old English terms, ‘wyrd’.[xi]

To summarise, the value of this paper lies in its expression of the transitory nature of ruination relative to the natural forces that continue to shape and redefine the human-built landscape long after we are gone.

Figure 1: Roman Baths and Abbey, Circular, Bath, England.[xii]

Joseph Burton

University of Manchester

Joseph Burton is a PhD student at the University of Manchester. He spent his MA at the University of York where he cultivated an interest in processes of craft, in particular the implications of tools and tool-use in relation to early medieval objects. He has now shifted this focus to include literature, which is the current focus of his doctoral thesis.


[i] The extant poem consists of forty-nine lines in the Exeter Book on folios 123b-124b between ‘Husband's Message’ and 34 preceding riddles. It is written near the end of the manuscript, on both sides of the leaf. [ii] C. W. Johnson, ‘The Ruin as Body-city Riddle’, in Philological Quarterly 59 (1980), 397-411. [iii] Joshua Davies, Visions and Ruins: Cultural Memory and the Untimely Middle Ages (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2018), pp. 18-64. [iv] All Old English quotes from The Ruin are taken from Richard Marston, The Cambridge Old English Reader: Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 371-4. Author’s trans. [v] Ibid. [vi] Matt Low, ‘“Hēard Grīpe Hrusan”’ (The hard grip of the earth): Ecopoetry and the Anglo-Saxon Elegy’, in An Interdisciplinary Journal 42 (2009), 1-18, p. 1. [vii] Greg Delanty, and Michael Matto (eds), The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (New York: Norton, 2011), pp. 273; Kevin Crossley-Holland (trans.), The Exeter Riddle Book (Chatham: The Folio Society, 1978), p. 56. For example, in riddle 35 (mailcoat) processes of weaving are sewed into a broader scheme of ecology that place emphasis on the animals involved in the manufacture of wool and cloth. This includes both ‘wyrd’ and ‘cræft’ in a single line: ‘wyrmas mec ne awæfan / wyrda cræftum’ (silkworms didn’t spin [me] with their strange craft, 9). [viii] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 2013), pp. 1-2. [ix] Ibid. [x] Jie Chen et al., ‘Weathering of rocks induced by lichen colonization-a review’, Catena 39 (2000), 121-146. [xi] Macria Shofner and, Darrell Vodopich, ‘Diversity in a Hidden Community: Tardigrades in Lichens’, in The American Biology Teacher 55 (1993), 418-423. [xii] Roman Baths and Abbey, Circular, Bath, England. [online] Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_Baths_and_Abbey,_Circular_Bath,_Bath,_England-LCCN2002696371.jpg [accessed 24th October 2022]

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