The Dream of the Rood

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.

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The Rothwell Cross dates to the 8th century, and was smashed in 1642 during a Protestant revolt. But the pieces remained in the churchyard and it was put back together again in 1823! Here, on the west side of the cross, you can see runes running along the sides. These runes form part of a quotation from the Dream of the Rood. Some historians speculate that these runes were added in the 10th century and were not original to the 8th century cross. Photo by Dougism, on WikiCommons.

 

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.

 

St. Patrick’s Breastplate

As you all likely know, St. Patrick’s day was celebrated yesterday, so I thought it would be appropriate to delve into his story on the blog today.

St. Patrick was an important person in the history of Ireland, and many know the legends surrounding him – that he brought the Christian faith to Ireland, that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, that he explained the Trinity to the people using the three-leaf clover.

But his story involves so much more than these legends, and it is actually a fascinating one which includes a small glimpse into the world of the British Isles in the 5th century.

First, a word about dates. There is nothing conclusive to fix the year of Patrick’s birth or death, so scholars disagree about when exactly he lived, other than that he lived during the latter part of the 5th century.

Interestingly, Patrick himself wrote a memoir of sorts, called the Confessio in Latin, meaning “Confession”. It begins,

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon, his father was Potius, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. 

There are several things to note in this remarkable introduction. First of all, Patrick was not Irish. There are debates about where exactly Bannavem Taburniae is, but most agree it is a Romano-Christian settlement in Britain. His father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest. Despite his disclaimer that he is a “simple country person” it seems that his family was probably a higher class family, by these references to his lineage.

We learn from this, secondly, that there was an established church in Britain, that continued even after the Roman troops were recalled away from Britain in 383 AD to defend the Empire on the continent from the barbarian hordes, never to return. During the Saxon invasions in the mid 5th century this Romano-British church (and the society it thrived in) was gradually eroded, replaced by the Germanic polytheism of the invaders. But the church was not completely destroyed, it was pushed out to the fringes in the west and north and continued to flourish among the Celts who were never really conquered by the Romans nor the Saxons, and it is during this period of relative isolation that the Celtic Church and it’s slightly different practices from Roman Christianity began to develop.

But back to Patrick. As the Roman troops left, lawlessness began to seize the island. Legend says the British warlord, Vortigern, invited some Saxon troops as mercenaries to help keep the peace, a plan that backfired as they liked what they saw and invited many more of their compatriots, triggering the Saxon invasions. And indeed, in the beginning of Patrick’s Confession we see an illustration of the lawlessness that was rampant at the time. The Irish swoop down on the unprotected Roman settlements and carry away many into slavery, 16 year old Patrick amongst them.

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Slemish Mountain, County Antrim, Ireland (photo on WikiCommons. This is the area associated with where Patrick was held as a slave. In his Confession he writes, describing his time as a shepherd for his master, Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in once day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. 

There are many other fascinating tidbits of Patrick’s life to be found in the Confession, including how this slave to the Irish eventually escapes and yet later decides to come back to be a missionary amongst them, but I will save that for perhaps another time.

Today I wanted to share with you one of the legacies of St. Patrick that is not often celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day, and that is the lorica (deer’s cry) or Breastplate prayer. There is a whole legend about why Patrick wrote this prayer which space doesn’t permit me to go into here, but if you are intrigued go look it up!

Now, it is possible that this prayer does not originate from St. Patrick himself. Like just about everything that might originate from this time period, it is difficult to say if Patrick himself penned it. There seems to be some agreement that the prayer actually originates from the 8th century, not the 5th. But wherever it comes from, it is a beautiful prayer that once again is a small window into the worldview of the Celtic Christians from so long ago.

Here is the prayer. It is long, so bear with me. I would encourage you to read it slowly, and let the phrases sink in. I will have a few comments at the end.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.


I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.


I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.


I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.


I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.


I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.


Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.


I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

There is much in here that relates both to the pre-Christian beliefs as well as the Celtic Christian worldview. It is in the style of a Druidic incantation, which of course would make sense as the Druids were powerful at the time of Patrick’s mission to Ireland. And you see in there the Celtic Christian’s love of creation (which also relates to their Druidic traditions), with the references to the sun, moon, lightning, wind, etc. And as I mentioned in a previous post, the repetitive phrases you see here are classically Celtic in style.

I also love the glimpse into the world of the author, whether it be Patrick or someone else. Surrounded by pagans, heretics, idolaters, false prophets, poisons, devils, spells of witches and wizards, and even his inward temptations, he seeks God’s protection.

Breastplate-Prayer-of-St.-Patrick

Ok, that made me laugh. From catholic company.com

But the heart of the prayer is the “Christ with me” section. Here you see a person who seeks to be surrounded by Christ, to see Jesus in every eye that looks at him, who implores Christ to be with him coming and going. This sense of the nearness of God, who permeates all, is also a classically pre-Enlightenment worldview. After the Enlightenment people tended to think of God being “up there”, in heaven. This way of looking at life as exemplified in the prayer is a very different one.

This is a morning prayer –  “I arise today” – meant to be prayed in the morning as the person wakes up and faces the day ahead. Not a bad way to start the day, in my opinion!

So here’s to St. Patrick and his legacy of faith, missionary zeal, and devotion to Christ. He left a great impression on the society of his time, so much so that even all these centuries later we are still talking about him. That, if nothing else, tells me he must have been a most remarkable man.


 

Featured image: Statue of St. Patrick near Saul, by Albert Bridge, on geograp.ie

 

 

 

 

Bamburgh: Seat of Kings

Last year on the blog I  highlighted one of the major settings for my novel, that being Lindisfarne, and I thought it was time to  give you a glimpse at another one.

Bamburgh (pronounced bam-brah, not bam-burg) is located on the north-east coast of Britain, about a half-hour drive south of Lindisfarne, and in fact you can see Holy Island from the upthrust rock formation which mirrors the one at Lindisfarne, and upon which Bamburgh Castle sits. In between Lindisfarne and Bamburgh there are some spectacular beaches and coastline!

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Can you find Bamburgh there, on the upper right? That little axe-shaped island to the north is Lindisfarne.

Bamburgh was originally called Din Guardi, and was the seat of the British kings of Byrneich, from which the latter-day Bernicians drew their name. The invading Angles, led by Ida, conquered the kingdom in 547 AD. His grandson Æthelfrith renamed the fortress Bebbanburgh, after his wife Bebba, and eventually that name morphed into the present-day name of Bamburgh.

Bebbanburgh in the 7th century in some ways would have looked very different than it does now, and in others it is exactly the same. The landscape hasn’t changed, featuring the rocky dolerite outcropping which commands the magnificent view of the country all around it, the churning North Sea lapping at the sweeping beaches below the outcrop, the sandy dunes that line the beach.  The major difference, of course, would be the castle. Present-day Bamburgh has a castle on top of the rocky promontory that is the major feature of the area. The core of this castle was built during Norman times and expanded throughout the following centuries to become the fortress you see today.

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A good look at the rocky outcrop that Bamburgh sits upon. Photo by Glen Bowman, on WikiCommons

 

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Some of that spectacular coastline and beach around Bamburgh. Photo on WikiCommons.

But in the 7th century the building on top of the outcrop would have been an Anglo-Saxon hall, the seat of the king. We can have a good idea of what that hall would have looked like, as it would have been the typical “mead hall” of Anglo-Saxon literature such as Beowulf.

These structures were long, narrow buildings built of wood, with thatched roofs (or wood), two doors (one on either end) and perhaps some shuttered windows. The interior would have been dark, and smoky, with the hearth fire in the middle and perhaps a couple smaller fires inside. There were no chimneys, the smoke would filter out through the thatching, cough cough! There might have been a raised platform at one end, where the king and his family and retainers would sit separately from the rest, which might also included the king’s throne. There also might have been a separate room in the hall used as the king’s residence. You  note all the “mights” in my description – unfortunately since these halls were made of wood, not much archeological evidence survives to give historians really clear pictures of what they were like. But there are some hints in Beowulf and other places that give us a bit of an idea.

Bamburgh Castle today has a replica of an Anglo-Saxon stone chair, based on a 9th century carved stone fragment found on the grounds in the 19th century. This “chair” could be a throne, of a “gift-stool” where the king would sit to be presented with tribute, and it features the typical Anglo-Saxon design work of the times.

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Bamburgh’s stone chair. Thanks to author Matthew Harffy, who graciously shared his pictures of his trip to Bamburgh with me, including this one! 

Long benches lined the walls of the hall, where the king’s thegns and retainers would feast and drink, and even sleep at times!  Ale would be plentiful, and the more high-class mead (honeyed wine). It was a gathering place for the king and his people where battles and strategy would be discussed, victories would be celebrated, and tribute would be both given to the king and shared by him.

There is some discussion in historical circles about the presence or absence of a town or village at Bamburgh during Anglo Saxon times.  In my books I have placed a village there, at the foot of the outcrop, because Bede mentions the “town” being threatened by fire during an attack against it by Penda in 651 AD, saved by miraculous intervention by Aidan. So I feel justified in my imaginary village!

After the Viking invasions the Northumbrian kingdom was destroyed in 867 AD, but the Northumbrian kings still held this fortress as sub-rulers under them, until 993 AD, when the Vikings destroyed it, exactly 200 years after their first invasion at Lindisfarne.

All in all Bamburgh is a fascinating place, with a long and important history. I will definitely be visiting here the next time I go to Britain!


 

Feature photo by Michael Hanselmann, on WikiCommons