Medieval/Renaissance Studies: Sample Writing
UH440–Domain of the Arts
February 2004 The Dream of the Rood and its Appeal to the Medieval Mind
The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest Old English religious poems, and dates back to somewhere between the eighth and tenth centuries. It is a poem about a dream in which a cross tells his story and the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. This dream vision poem was popular throughout the medieval era. Two different narrators tell the story, first the dreamer and then the cross. The cross tells a story of the humiliation he felt when he was taken from his stump, the humility he experienced when he bore the body of Jesus, and the exaltation he felt when Jesus ascended into heaven and saved all of mankind. The experience of the dreamer seems to parallel that of the cross, and the dreamer feels renewed hope after an initial feeling of despair. The ultimate moral of the story is to look to the Lord for hope. But how would this message have effectively gotten across to the Anglo-Saxon reader, or rather the Anglo-Saxon listener? The typical mead drinking, pagan warrior would not necessarily be interested in such a topic as the humble sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In a society centered around war and personal honor there does not seem to be a lot of room for Christianity. But the poem did gain much popularity in its time, so something must have worked. The Dream of the Rood cleverly uses several strategies that often differ from the original crucifixion story in the Bible to hook the medieval listener and ultimately allow him or her to glean the moral of the story.
The way in which the cross is personified serves to ease the audience into the story. Personifying an inanimate object is typical of the medieval tradition in which swords, mead and the like are personified in riddles. One example of a typical medieval riddle starts like this: “I am a wondrous creature, joy to women, / Useful to neighbors; not just any citizens / Do I injure, except my slayer.” While in this riddle an onion is being personified, it sounds similar to the way the cross is personified in the beginning. “It was long ago — I remember still — that I was hewn down at the wood’s edge, taken from my stump. Strong foes seized me there, hewed me to the shape they wished to see, commanded me to lift their criminals” (23). If only this much were read it could in fact be a riddle. Riddles were typically told in the mead hall as entertainment for the thanes. By using the cross as a narrator, the poet uses a common medieval technique that would help to appease and entertain the audience. For today’s Christian it may not seem appropriate to personify something as sacred as the cross. The Bible never implies that the cross is anything more than the instrument of Christ’s death. It is not different than the crosses of the two thieves who are being crucified with him (Mark 15: 27). Who is to say what the cross was feeling, if he was feeling anything at all? However, because of the time period and the intended audience the personification of the cross was not only acceptable, but an effective means of gaining the interest of the listeners.
The appearance of the cross and the way in which the cross’s experiences are told are strikingly different from traditional Christian ideas. Instead, the description in the poem is rather Anglo-Saxon. The rood is described elaborately by the dreamer as being covered in jewels and gold. “All that beacon was covered with gold; gems stood fair where it met the ground, five were above about the crosspiece” (23). The dreamer goes on to emphasize the extravagance of the cross by saying, “I saw the tree of glory shine splendidly, adorned with garments, decked with gold: jewels had worthily covered the Lord’s tree” (23). In the Christian tradition that preaches humility and deemphasizes riches, this description of the cross does not seem to fit. To the mind of the Anglo-Saxon on the other hand, this would sound appealing. The way in which the cross is described is similar to the way that swords were described in medieval stories. Often long passages were dedicated to the physical description of and origin of the sword. The rood is described much like a sword which would strike interest in the mind of the thane. In fact the story would not work nearly as well if the cross was undecorated. It was the medieval warrior’s job is to pillage and plunder and then to receive his booty in the mead hall. A plain wooden cross would not do much to entice its audience. By adding in a description of a cross decked with jewels, the rood becomes all the more appealing. The graphic depiction of the wounds that the cross endures also serves to appeal to the warrior mind. The poem contains an abundant amount of bloody imagery when it comes to the cross. As dreamer speaks about the rood he says, “Now it was wet with moisture, drenched with flowing of blood, now adorned with treasure” (23). The cross also describes himself in gory detail when he says, “They pierced me with dark nails: the wounds are seen on me, open gashes of hatred…. I was all wet with blood, drenched from the side of that Man” (23). He is made out to be quite warrior-like. This is something that the audience could relate to. The warrior comparison is made even more apparent when the cross says, “The warriors left me standing, covered with blood. I was all wounded with arrows” (23). Blood, arrows, gashes, treasure, and gold would all spark an interest to the Anglo-Saxon culture.
In addition to the cross’s warrior-like description, he also possesses another Anglo-Saxon quality. He possesses the ability to boast. This is something that is well known to the medieval warrior. Boasting is almost expected from warrior men. Take Beowulf for example. While he is portrayed as a fairly humble man, he is expected to boast about his past feats in the mead hall. Boasting is an accepted and encouraged practice. The cross does his fair share of boasting after he had bore the body of Jesus during the crucifixion. The cross says to the dreamer,
Now the time has come that men far and wide upon earth honor me — and all this glorious creation — and pray to this beacon. On me God’s Son suffered awhile; therefore I tower now glorious under the heavens, and I may heal every one of those who hold me in awe…. Behold the Lord of Glory honored me over all the trees of the wood, the Ruler of Heaven, just as also he honored his mother Mary. (24)
Comparing himself to Mary and demanding the honor and prayer of mankind is an incredibly haughty thing to say. Again this can be seen as rather unchristian, but for an Anglo-Saxon it is the norm and even respected.
The most direct way that the Anglo-Saxon listener is drawn into this poem is through relating to experience of the dreamer. The dreamer is a man similar to those in the audience. He is an Anglo-Saxon who did not have much if any faith in Jesus. Through his experience he finds peace. The poet characterizes the dreamer as lonely man who is unhappy and without hope. “I do not possess many powerful friends on earth, but they have gone hence from the delights of the world,” he says toward the end of the poem (25). The Anglo-Saxon warrior can relate to this as it was not uncommon to live this type of life their culture. The dreamer is alone and has been greatly troubled for some time prior to his dream vision. His state of despair is similar to the state of the cross after he has been taken from his stump. Although the poem does not go into great detail on the experiences of the dreamer, it does tell us that he has “endured many times of longing” (25). The cross felt hopeless until he came to know Christ. As the cross told his story the dreamer came to embrace the message. He embraced the message so much so that the contrast in his speech before and after the dream is dramatic. The dreamer went from being “afflicted with sorrows” to praying to the tree “blithe-hearted and confident” (25). The feelings of the dreamer after he has had this experience are made apparent when he says, “And every day I look forward to when the Lord’s Cross that I beheld here on earth will fetch me from this short life and bring me then where joy is great, delight in the heavens, where the Lord’s folk are seated at the feast, where bliss is eternal” (25). The dreamer is now extremely optimistic and full of hope. The audience can connect to a man who could easily be a warrior in exile and is full of despair. Examples of this type of character can be seen in other medieval works such as The Wanderer, and would seem commonplace. For the audience to hear of a man similar to themselves being so transformed by the hope of Jesus would be a powerful way to help convince the listeners.
Perhaps the most convincing way in which the audience would be sold on the message of the poem is the way in which Jesus is depicted. Similar to the way in which the cross is described, Jesus is given warrior-like qualities. The way that Christ’s death and resurrection are described is startlingly different than the Bible. Instead of a depiction of Christ who humbly dies for the sins of mankind, Rood portrays Jesus as an aggressive warrior who courageously confronts and defeats sin. These qualities of honor and courage were highly valued in the medieval culture. The word choice describing Jesus’ preparation for his crucifixion portrays him as if he is preparing for war. “The young Hero stripped himselfthat was God Almighty — strong and stouthearted. He climbed on the high gallows, bold in the sight of many” (23). This is very similar to the way that Beowulf was depicted. The same words, young hero, strong and stouthearted could be used to describe the great warrior Beowulf. In biblical accounts Jesus is too weak to carry his own cross and is depicted as more of a passive participant in his crucifixion (Luke 23: 26). Rood also fails to mention Christ’s susceptibility to pain and his human weaknesses that are recorded in the Bible. The only thing that is said about the actual crucifixion is this: “They pierced me [the cross] with dark nails: the wounds are seen on me, open gashes of hatred…. I was all wet with blood, drenched from the side of that Man after he had sent forth his spirit” (23). All details of Christ’s pain and suffering are omitted. Instead the pain and suffering is transferred to the cross. The poem also says that Christ “sent forth his spirit” as if it was his willing intention, whereas in the Bible he was again portrayed more passively. In this rendition of Christ’s crucifixion certain details are omitted and words are changed in order to make Jesus into a more acceptable medieval warrior. The way that heaven is depicted is also given a medieval twist. Heaven is described as: “Where joy is great, delight in the heavens, where the Lord’s folk are seated at the feast, where bliss is eternal” (25). This sounds like a great mead hall in the sky. What more could the medieval warrior want? The poem creates a warrior-like Lamb of God and a strongly medieval afterlife. Although strange to Christianity, this works in Rood.
The very Christian story of The Dream of the Rood is successfully made into a tale that is acceptable in the medieval warrior culture. Jesus is a warrior, the cross sustains bloody gashes, an Anglo-Saxon is saved by faith in Christ, and an inanimate object is given warrior-like qualities. All of these aspects add up to a poem that is acceptable and convincing to the Anglo-Saxon warrior mind. Perhaps this poem had a large impact on the Anglo-Saxons. Maybe that is why it made its way into print. Literacy and written material were not popular. Warriors did not spend their spare time reading the Bible. Stories were shared in the mead hall, and these stories probably served as large part of the Anglo-Saxon’s knowledge of Christianity. By manipulating the point of view of the story and characterizing the narrators in a way more suitable to the culture, Rood succeeds in being a convincing tale with a Christian moral. Although the ideas of humility and selflessness may not fit neatly into Anglo-Saxon society, this poem finds a way to convince the audience of Christian values.
The Dream of the Rood. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. I. 5th ed. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1986. 22-25.