One of the earliest poems in English literature is The Dream of the Rood, written sometime before the 8th century. The word “rood” is taken from the Old English, “rod”, which means pole, or more specifically, crucifix. As it is a poem about the Cross of Christ, I thought it might be appropriate to tell you a little about it on this Easter weekend.
It is unknown who wrote the Dream of the Rood, but suggestions as to its authorship include Cædemon, a monk from the 7th century, who, according to Bede, was an illiterate herdsman who had a dream from God one night and became the first writer of Christian hymns and poems.
Fragments of the poem are found on the Ruthwell Cross, an eighth century Northumbrian intricately carved stone cross. The complete text of the Rood is found in the 10th century Vercelli Book, an anthology of Old English prose and poetry, kept in Vercelli, Italy.
The poem is an account of a dream of the author, in which he sees the Cross of Christ. It is broken into three parts; the first in which he sees the Cross covered with jewels, the second in which the Cross itself speaks of its own part in the Crucifixion, and the third section is the author’s reflection on all he has seen. Here’s a little excerpt from it, just to give you a flavour of the piece, taken from the middle section:
Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men,
When He intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
Fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.
A rood I was raised up; and I held high
The noble King, the Lord of heaven above.
I dared not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails;
The scars can still be clearly seen on me,
The open wounds of malice.
I have given you some idea in previous blog posts about the unique aspects of Celtic Christianity, which developed amongst the Celts of the British Isles between the time of the withdrawal of the Roman troops and the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury (not THE Augustine, a different one!), sent by Pope Gregory to Britain in 597 AD (along with a bunch of others) to be missionaries to “pagan” Britain.
What is interesting about this poem is that in it you can see some definite influences of the Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) culture, as opposed to the Celtic one. It’s hard to tease out from history too much information about how the Anglo-Saxons lived out their Christian faith, simply because they would followed the lead of whichever expression of the Church they had been converted under. So, Oswald, a Bernician King in exile amongst the Irish, embraced the Celtic Christian traditions. Whereas the Kings in southern and central Britain, for example Offa of Mercia, followed the Roman Christian practices and observances.
But what makes Northumbria in the 7th and 8th centuries so interesting is that these cultures all intermix and intertwine, resulting in a rich flowering of a unique expression of culture, art, and faith. This is best exemplified by the beautiful illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Kells and the marvellous Rothwell Cross.
You can see this intermixing in the Dream of the Rood. This poem fits into the “heroic poetry” tradition favoured by the Germanic tribes, ,of which Beowulf is a prime example. Christ is portrayed here as a heroic warrior-king, climbing willingly onto the Cross to do his work of redemption. And the Cross, too, is presented as a type of hero, doing its duty unflinchingly in the great work of the salvation of mankind.
Space does not permit me to include the whole poem here. But aside from the heroic poetry element, if you read it you would also see some other echoes of Anglo-Saxon culture in it, including their fondness for riddles. Some have speculated that it also hints of the legend of Woden/Odin being bound upon on the world tree of Saxon myth. Interestingly enough, the poem begins with the Cross as a tree being cut down. From what we can understand, the Anglo-Saxons likely worshipped certain trees, so again, you can see how tying the Cross to the tree it was fashioned from and making it the narrator of the poem in one section would have great significance to the Anglo-Saxons of the time.
As with so much of this era of history, it seems in some ways there is much more that we don’t know than what we do! But it is fascinating to get these little glimpses of this far-away time in the few artifacts and literature that have survived.
Featured image: Dream of the Rood, on WikiCommons. This is a photograph of a page from the 10th century Vercelli Book.