Thursday, September 25, 2003

"The Ruin" and Edgar's Coronation at Bath

In between the six million other projects I'm involved in (and the giant pile of letters of recommendation requests that students have dropped on my desk in the past week -- all with a deadline of October 1), I try to snag time to work on a wacky idea I've been working up. Thought I would run it past you.

The Anglo-Saxon poem "The Ruin" seems to describe a ruined city with hot baths. The poem (which I blogged about below) is found in the Exeter Book, which dates from between 950 and 975 (and Pat Conner says between 950 and 970). My argument is one of those incredibly complex mish-moshes that either is wonderfully convincing or too hard to follow (like Mechthild Gretsch's The Intellectual History of the English Benedictine Reform, which I find brilliant but which others violently disagree with. But I digress).

On May 11, 973 a second coronation was held for King Edgar in the city of Bath. This is a highly unusual event, unprecedented in Anglo-Saxon England. There is a lot of speculation as to why Edgar was re-crowned. The leading theory is that the Anglo-Saxons were trying to make an emperor of him. And this is in some ways the highwatermark of the Benedictine Reform, so it might make sense to say that they had imperial aspirations, thus explaining a second coronation: for the first, he's a king. Now he's an emperor.

The location of this second coronation in Bath is fairly anomalous. Bath wasn't a particularly major city, unlike Winchester, the seat of the West Saxon kingdom and home of the dynasty, or Canterbury or London or Worcester. Even Crediton and Exeter may have been as important. I could be ignorant, because I'm just starting my research, but thus far I've found no convincing explanation as to why Bath.

Now Bath is famous for the natural hot springs there, the only ones in England. These were made into Roman baths, which, by 973, were apparently ruined.

The next bit of evidence was pointed out to me by the brilliant young Spanish Anglo-Saxonist (and my friend) Mercedes Salvador: there are a number of continental, Latin sources from this time period that wax poetical about ruined monasteries, etc. There's also a passage in the poem Christ (also Exeter Book) that can be interepreted as being related to ruins.

So it could be a coincidence that there's an Exeter Book poem that mentions Bath, and ruins, that there was an anomalous second coronation at Bath (where there were ruins), and that the theme of ruins was popular at the time period. And of course any two of the three could be related but not the third.

There are a number of ways to try to solve this puzzle (if puzzle it is), and I'm running long and late, but let me leave you with a sketch. If Pat Conner is right about the date, then the Ruin is written down before the coronation. Therefore we can argue that the coronation ends up at Bath because of a general interest in ruins (and in particular in Roman ruins) that can perhaps comes from the continent. Ruins become popular in the Benedictine Reform and no ruin is more interesting than that of Bath. There's also a section in the Life of Charlemagne that depicts him in a large bath giving out laws, etc., so that's another possible connection (the Benedictine Reformers liked the Carolingians)--i.e., to baths. And what could be better, then, than a ruined bath (I'm being facetious here).

The other option is that the Ruin is written right after 973, but the tone of the poem doesn't seem right to me (though we're missing parts of it. In an irony that a postmodernist would love, the manuscript of the Ruin is badly damaged) for it to be a celebration of the coronation.

Oh, and there's a will from the Reform group that is associated with Bath; I need to deal with that, too.

So I probably haven't enlightened you a great deal, but you do get to see the kinds of interesting literary/historical puzzles that Anglo-Saxonists get to deal with.

No comments: