Ivory in the Rust: Reading the Old English “Ruin” in South Bend

As a medievalist studying at the University of Notre Dame, I am afforded many luxuries. The university’s resources for research in my field are exceptional, and I can honestly say that from my personal experience both the Medieval Institute and my home English Department have proven to be places where intellectual curiosity flourishes and where the spirit of generosity pervades. It has been a wonderful place to pursue my graduate studies, and of course the campus is absolutely beautiful, as the university’s collection of scenic images affirms. But when I decided to move off campus my second year, out of the gilded bubble surrounding the university and into the rust belt of South Bend, I met with some starkly different and rather unsettling imagery.

University of Notre Dame’s Golden Dome and Main Building

The juxtaposition between the two spheres which I came to inhabit—between the gorgeous Neo-Gothic architecture that adorns the picturesque campus and the industrial ruins scattered throughout the cityscape of South Bend—became repeatedly reinforced by my regular journey between these worlds on each morning commute and then again each night as I returned home. Every evening, I would leave the Golden Dome behind and drive by boarded up houses and businesses, like this one on Sample Street, which I routinely passed on my way home.

Ruined Building on Sample Street, photograph taken and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Below is a closer view from the front of the building. I pause on this particular structure, because it became engrained in my mind over time—the beautiful green decay and broken bricks—the state of disrepair. To me, this building came to represent the rust belt ruins of South Bend. My wife—artist and graduate of Massachusetts College of Art & Design, Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey—photographed the rotting building and describes experiencing an overwhelming stench of mildew and mold wafting from the broken windows upon approaching the structure.

Sample Street Ruin, photograph taken and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

In my opinion, there is a certain beauty in the haunting imagery of this broken down building, which recalls a time before the place fell into ruin while simultaneously emphasizing its current dilapidation. This theme is well known to Anglo-Saxonists, as the question of ubi sunt “where are (they now)?” pervades the so-called Old English elegies, which reflect on the transitory nature of human existence, noting the decay of great civilizations passed. As I read these medieval poems in the ivory tower of Hesburgh Library, I found myself thinking about South Bend and the many other rust belt cities across the country, weathered by similar economic decay. More than any other Old English elegy, the Exeter Book Ruin prompted me to meditate on the industrial remnants of a former time in South Bend.

Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, f. 124r, all rights reserved Dean & Chapter Exeter Cathedral

The Old English Ruin is itself a ruin—appearing on fire-damaged folia in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501). Fittingly, the poem bears its own marks from the wear of time and circumstance, and at first sounds almost like a riddle—beginning with one of the lexical markers scholars have used identify riddles (wrætlic meaning “wondrous” or “marvelous”). Moreover, in its manuscript context, the Old English Ruin is embedded within the two major collections of riddles found in the Exeter Book, amongst some stray riddles and the more enigmatic “elegies” in the codex, including The Wife’s Lament and The Husband’s Message. The Exeter Book Ruin demonstrates an interest in contemplating the destructive and the inevitable—crushing—passage of time, particularly on monumental manmade structures.

As Rajuli and I were discussing the poem and pockets of dilapidation throughout the city, she suggested that we drive around the city and take a family tour to document some of the ruins of South Bend, which I use here to complement sections of my translation of the Old English Ruin.

Ruined wall-stones in South Bend, photograph by Richard Fahey and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Wrætlic is þes wealstan wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston brosnað enta geweorc
Hrofas sind gehrorene hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen (1-4).

“Wondrous are these wall-stones,
broken by fortune, the citadels crumbled,
the work of giants ruined.
The roofs are collapsed,
the towers tumbled, the pillars bereft.”

Ruined South Bend factories, photograph by Richard Fahey and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

wurdon hyra wigsteal westen staþolas,
brosnade burgsteall (27-28).

  “their fortification became deserted places,
their strongholds crumbled.”

Ruined factory near Western Ave, South Bend, photograph by Richard Fahey and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Forþon þas hofu dreorgiað,
ond þæs teaforgeapa  tigelum sceadeð
hrostbeages hrof (29-31).

“Therefore these houses have decayed,
and this gabbled structure sheds its tiles,
the roof of ringed-wood.”

Red’s abandoned business on Indiana Ave, South Bend, photograph taken and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Sadly, the descriptions of desolation and structural decay in the poem reflects a bit too closely the current state of disrepair which still plagues certain parts of South Bend. This deserted business located on Indiana Avenue, once both Red’s Appliance Repair Center and Southside Electric, still bears obsolete information etched on the brick wall, whispering to us from the past. Reminding us that things were not always as they are today, and begging for renewal. Nevertheless, the enduring dilapidation that decorates the city stands as a reminder of how South Bend, and places like it, became collateral damage—destroyed by the tides of economic fluctuation.

Greeting sign upon entering the city of South Bend

As the sign suggests, South Bend is a city on the rise, racing to catch up to 21st century, and doing quite well in this effort. During my tenure at the University of Notre Dame, I have seen the city of South Bend improve tenfold—drawing new and thriving businesses, expanding campus infrastructure, renovating depressed neighborhoods, and even beginning to cultivate and encourage artistic movements within the city. Many rust belt cities do not have the advantage of housing such a vibrant university community which generates innovation and economic growth, and those cities have far greater challenges to overcome. Both the campus and the city at large often seem as if they are one enormous construction site: demolishing, repairing and rebuilding. Still, amidst citywide growth and revitalization lies the skeletal ruins of the rust belt economy.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Text and translation of the Old English Ruin

Collection of images “Rust Belt Ruins of South Bend

 

Deor’s Dark Elegies

Panel Depicting Weland from the Franks Casket, an 8th century Anglo-Saxon chest made of whale’s bone and inscribed with runes, now in the British Museum.

In translating and reciting Deor, I took more artistic liberties than in previous translations of Old English poetry. Because the translation and recitation are their own discrete projects, I will discuss each separately, beginning with my translation.

Translation: “Deor’s Dark Elegies” by Richard Fahey

Tackling a translation of the anonymously titled Old English poem editors refer to as Deor, I chose to focus on a few features that mark this poem as unique in the corpus—especially the episodic structure and the operative elegiac mood of the piece.

In my translation “Deor’s Dark Elegies” I have adapted the structure of the poem, dividing each stanza both by a title and a refrain to emphasize the episodic quality of this particular Exeter poem, rather than simply the refrain. This required me to morph the syntax in places in service of enhancing the episodic structure of the piece.

Unlike the one other poem considered ‘heroic’ in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501), editorially titled Widsith—which is more of a list of heroes and peoples—Deor alludes to numerous legends, usually focusing on the tragedy befallen the tale’s protagonist. In a sense, Deor represents a series of subnarratives—a catalogue of heroic experience and existential crises, met ultimately with the grim realization that all earthly things fade into obscurity under the unrelenting passage of time. So proclaims the refrain: that passed away, may this too.

Fatalism is generally considered to be a familiar, even indigenous, concept for the pre-Christianized Scandinavian and Germanic peoples, it could alternatively be argued that the philosophy articulated in Deor may be drawn from the theology of Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae, which is translated by King Alfred into Old English before the compilation of the Exeter Book and remained intellectually influential in medieval England, eventually inspiring the famous Geoffrey Chaucer to produce Boece, a translation of the text, over three hundred years later.

Deor employs what might be described as an ‘elegiac mode’ operating in other Exeter Book poems as the narrator reflects on the transitory nature of human existence. In this way it reminds the reader of other so-called Old English elegies in the Exeter Book, such as The Wanderer (which Seamus Heaney translates and recites as does our own Maj-Britt Frenze) and The Seafarer (which Ezra Pound translates and recites) that likewise reflect on transitory life, but imply the final Christian consolation of heaven in line with Boethius and notably absent in Deor. Instead, a somber tone—pervasive throughout Deor—is one of the poem’s signature features. Therefore, in translating Deor, I attempt to preserve both the elegiac tone of lamentation and hardship as well as the darkening mood, which swells ultimately to include also the narrator, his own darkening days and personal tale of suffering and sorrow.

Recitation and Creative Adaption: Deor

Having collaborated with my twin brother, Boston sound artist and producer Thomas Fahey, my Deor ‘recitation’ became more of a sound art piece than a proper recitation of an Old English poem. The slow, methodic reading of the Old English alliterative meter and alludes to the tradition of Old English recitation, exemplified by Ezra Pound’s recitation of his Seafarer and intellectually grounded by the work of scholars such as Albert Lord and Miles J. Foley.

Nevertheless, many of the features emphasized in my translation were used to inspire the audio piece. As with the translation, structure and mood were organizing principles of the project. We placed emphasis on the refrain, and complemented the recitation of the Old English with samples and effects that create a shifting aural landscape—evoking the sound of an anvil-stroke, ravens, wolves, horses galloping, a woman moaning and a child crying—all of which corresponds with haunting imagery from various episodes of the poem.

While composing Deor, I decided I would expand the project and approach other recitations of Old English poetry in similar fashion in my future work. For this reason especially, any comments or feedback would be most welcomed and appreciated!

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

In Defense of Chaucer’s Astrolabe

Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe has not, historically, won the hearts of many academics—much less the hearts of undergraduates making their first forays into medieval literature. The text is a manual supposedly meant to explain the construction and use of the astronomical tool known as the astrolabe. Most interest in Chaucer’s Astrolabe has focused on its preface, where the author professes to write for his ten-year-old son “Lyte Lowys” (“little Lewis,” l. 1) but also speaks to a much more highly educated audience. In this preface, Chaucer makes claims about medieval education, science, and languages that help us piece together a medieval worldview. Few have ventured beyond these opening lines, however, to understand the mechanics of the astrolabe itself. The task is well worth the effort—Chaucer’s Astrolabe, for all of its technicality, can help us understand the role of science in more traditionally “literary” works like The Canterbury Tales.

The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum
The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum

The medieval astrolabe was used by teachers, students, travelers, and astrologers to locate themselves in time and space. The legendary (but likely spurious) story goes that Ptolemy’s camel stepped on his celestial globe and, seeing it flattened on the ground, the Greco-Egyptian polymath was struck with the idea that the celestial sphere could be mapped in two-dimensional terms (Hayton 4). In actuality, the astrolabe developed gradually over the course of centuries—it is a testament to the mixture of ancient Greek, Jewish, and Islamic thought that created the intricate texture of medieval Western science. The astrolabe made particular strides under the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, for instance, where it was used to schedule Islam’s five daily prayers. Using geometric principles, it can calculate the time, the date, the position of the sun, and the spread of constellations that the user can expect to see on any given night.

The last of these functions, I like to think, contributed to the intricate sequence of astrological references that threads through The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer frequently matches up a point in time he mentions in his text with the location of the corresponding zodiac sign. The most famous example comes in the initial lines of the Tales’ “General Prologue”: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (“At the time that April’s sweet showers have pierced March’s drought to the root,” l. 1-2). Chaucer gives us the approximate date, and follows up soon after with the time of day and the corresponding sign: “and the yonge sonne/ Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne” (“and the young sun has traveled halfway through the Ram [that is, Aries],” l. 7-8). One can imagine Chaucer using his astrolabe to map out the astrological scenes that matched up with the settings of his text.

The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r
The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r

The surviving manuscripts of Chaucer’s Astrolabe show that its early readers experienced it alongside not only scientific texts by astronomers like Abu’Mashar, but also intermingled with poems like the popular French Romance of the Rose—the Astrolabe therefore challenges us to reconsider the divide between the “literary” and the “technical.” In a future post, I will walk step-by-step through my students’ saga to build and use astrolabes this semester. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the experience helps the modern reader to imagine medieval texts within the spatial, visual, and cosmological terms with which their initial audiences would have understood them.

My thanks to Amanda Bohne and Juliette Vuille for their stellar insights and advice.

Erica Machulak
PhD Candidate
English Department
University of Notre Dame

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1926.

Hayton, Darin. An Introduction to the Astrolabe. © 2012

Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

North, J.D. Chaucer’s Universe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.