The Dream of the Rood: This is a joke, right?

So I’m reading The Dream of the Rood.  I don’t do it a lot. 

It’s the late seventh century. It’s possibly late enough to be the early eighth, but at this remove who knows?  It’s also possibly somewhere in the Kingdom of Northumbria, near Dumfries.  There’s a stone cross up there on which somebody carved in Anglo-Saxon runes some passages from the Rood’s speech, although the passages vary somewhat from the Old English version we have. 

This stone cross, the Ruthwell Cross, is dated to the early eighth century, so most early English scholars date The Dream of the Rood to sometime earlier.  This only works if you assume the runes are a translation from Old English.  What if you assume that some version or versions of The Dream of the Rood first existed in Anglo-Saxon, perhaps in the oral tradition, and that somebody eventually wrote or translated a version into Old English? That the runes are closer to the original poem?  How old is the poem then?

The Old English poem we have comes from a late tenth century manuscript (the Vercelli manuscript) from Italy. God knows how it got there.  Nobody else does.  Nobody knows who wrote the damn thing – Caedmon?  Somebody named Cynewulf whose work also appears in the Vercelli manuscript?  Bede?  Somebody else?  Guessing the author is sort of a parlor game among scholars, and it’s fun, but it doesn’t get us inside.

This poem is making me crazy in my off hours, so I want to get inside.  Here’s why.  It was once taught to me as a medieval propaganda piece for the Church.  Which it could be – but almost nobody outside of the Church (excepting a few members of the aristocracy) could read in the middle ages.  Unless you’re a Republican Party strategist, why write propaganda for people with little to no reading comprehension?

And yet, The Dream of the Rood is obviously, from one angle, a propaganda piece.  It promises a reward for suffering, and for quiet stoicism in the throes of torture. Perfect for the folks you want to be loyal to Church and State in a system where all wealth and opportunity belong to same.  The main character, a tree who is made into a rood, describes itself as able to kill all enemies.  Nevertheless, it allows itself to be hewn, wounded, bloodied, hewn again, and buried in a deep pit.  For suffering such a parade of horribles, it now towers in the heavens, gets top billing in the poet’s dream vision (higher than Jesus – it’s the dream of the Rood, not the dream of Christ), and gets to wear gold, jewels, and enjoy the rapt attention of angels.

Oh, this tree that can kill all enemies was also forced to kill God.  There’s that.   But for thus much favor rendered, it also gets the gold, jewels, angelic groupies, and center stage in the poet’s dream vision.  Not too shabby.

Every serious student of English literature learns about the fusion of Christian and Pagan elements in Old English literature, and how these works supposedly “resolve” these cultural tensions.  We all get thrown into Beowulf  that way, the cultural tension of Beowulf breaking off Grendel’s arm and setting it under the roof of the mead hall for his buddies to admire notwithstanding.  The Dream of the Rood has all the usual suspects in this line: a talking tree, Jesus, a nod to Mary as the world-mother, several nods to the Cross as the Germanic Pagan World-Tree, the Christian God’s followers who deck the talking tree in gold and silver are called the Lord’s thanes (that is, warrior followers of an Anglo-Saxon warlord), the list goes on.  It’s all wrapped in an improbable, contrived, hallucinogenic dream vision in which the talking tree assumes the character of an almost-human Pagan sacrifice in the form of a cross pierced with nails and gashes and drenched with blood and forced to kill God before being thrown in a pit. Its torture is set up by the poet to parallel the sacrifice of God’s son.

Read it.  It’s disturbing and dizzying.  And then, as a currently popular commercial has it, “Have a super sparkly day.”

And as the harried customer, or reader, sharply replies, “OK.”

OK.   What kind of world did the first speakers and writers of English live in?  You learn about the Church, but a lot of time also gets spent on Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, concepts of manhood, loyalty, social organization, warrior ethic, and those ever present cultural tensions between Anglo-Saxon Pagan and Christian world views. You try try try to live in that world and read through this unknown poet’s eyes who he’s writing for and why. 

Maybe, if you’re young and passionate enough about certain things, like where Anglo culture comes from, the fuzzy violence of the cultural womb that eventually produces the English-speaking world, there are moments it matters. You are fascinated by the beginnings of things.  And if you are taking any medieval survey course worth the name, you’ve already had your head twisted by the weird, slow resigned sadness of Caedmon’s Hymn, in which he too addresses the beginning of things.  There’s heaven, and then after that, like a divinely inferior afterthought, there’s earth.  Earth is for man.  Caedmon stops there.  Perhaps he’s said enough. Complaining about the system isn’t advisable.  Anyway, the more you look at this stuff, this dark origin of our literature, the more it unravels into something else.

Then everybody happily moves on to Chaucer because “The Miller’s Tale” is funny and people can start endless arguments over whether the Wife of Bath should get enshrined as a protofeminist heroine and the characters are more like people we know.

There’s more.   There’s the obvious.   The poem is framed as a dream vision.  Remember dreams?   More to the point, remember what dreams meant to the seventh-century Church?  I didn’t either (if I ever knew), which is why I find the chapter “Christianity and Dreams” in Jacques Le Goff’s The Medieval Imagination so damn useful.  Le Goff doesn’t mention The Dream of the Rood. He does argue that the clergy considered the very act of dreaming – anything – subversive and deeply problematic.  The Church actively encouraged people to repress their dreams.  Dream divination was outlawed by the First Council of Ankara in 314.  The Church viewed all dreams with suspicion, in large part because it accepted that some dreams came from God, some from demons, and some from mere humans and it was simply not up to the task of distinguishing where a particular dream came from.  To avoid competing with the far more accessible village witches who had a lock on that sort of thing, the Church outlawed dream analysis and frowned on dreaming.

The provenance of this weirdness, according to Le Goff, can be traced back to differing schema regarding dreams in the Bible and among Pagan writers.   As the Church sought to convince people that it had a monopoly on contact with God, it also considered dreams as a way that people could bypass its authority and contact God directly.  Weren’t those heretical Christian sects full of troublesome mystics always having dreams of God?  The clergy were tolerated as dreamers, kings were given a pass, but the liturgy itself warned average folk against the dangers of dreams.  Everybody had dreams and everybody had to pretend that they didn’t.  At least around the authorities.  The psychological complexes this unnatural silence caused must have been exquisite.

So who is the poet writing for?  It’s not a propaganda piece about the rewards of suffering for (or as) the Cross that some monk wrote to keep the common folk content.  The folks the poet needs to convince of this can’t read.  He’s writing to stick it to the Church, in the form of a subversive dream vision that all but conflates Pagan sacrifice and the World Tree with the Cross, and Jesus with an Anglo-Saxon warlord.  I get why part of the Rood’s speech was carved in runes on a stone cross.  Ouch!  I also get why, 1300 years later, we still don’t know who wrote it.  Anonymous critics don’t get burned.

It’s medieval satire.  Once I realized The Dream of the Rood is satire, I read it again and found it hysterical – the over the top imagery, the self-conscious comparisons of the tree (world-tree) to Jesus, the Monty Pythonesque catalog of tree torture, Jesus as Anglo-Saxon warlord, the rhythms in the Old English (which sound stressed and punchy to my ears on the line endings – like jokes).  This is perhaps the funniest piece done in Old English, if read from this perspective.

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6 Responses to The Dream of the Rood: This is a joke, right?

  1. “And now for something completely different,” to quote Monty Python. See next post.

  2. MB says:

    This is ridiculous and unscholarly tripe. As if the church would have disapproved of this very fictional ‘dream’! Vision is crucial to the early church, to the apostles, to early English poets, to everybody! The Council of Ankara was talking about doctrines based on visions, not poems. I could go on forever, but I have more useful things to do. Oh, my favorite part is how the author of this “parody” remained anonymous for fear of persecution! How absurd. Why on Earth do you assume that this anonymous author, alone among the multifarious other anonymous author of the Early Medieval period, or the Classical period for that matter, somehow would be in danger if he had published it under his name?

    ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is a not a parody. It may be a bad poem, but honestly, why does it have to be any more than that? This long-winded attempt to make it more than it is strikes me as more fictional than the poem itself. This is the rankest pseudo-scholarship. No wonder English study is in such abject decline. No one wants to subsidize more of this.

  3. MB: Thank you for describing my piece as “more fictional than the poem itself.” It’s actually kind of cool of you to notice, although I sense you didn’t mean this as a compliment. You see, this piece is unscholarly, or should I say, nonscholarly. It’s a creative writing exercise that I intended as a personal essay on my individual response to this crazy, puzzling poem. Reading scholarship the same way one reads a personal essay, and vice versa, does produce strange results. But to your points.

    Jacques Le Goff is a highly respected scholar who has heavily researched and written about the medieval period. Although you disagree with Le Goff’s argument regarding the Church and dreams, you might find his book The Medieval Imagination, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1988) of interest as a model of meticulous research and scholarship into the mind and perceptions of medieval people. You might draw different conclusions than Le Goff, but his method is worth studying.

    As to why would I assume that a critic of the medieval Church might prefer anonymity? Uh, are you serious?

  4. MB says:

    Good point: this isn’t meant to be scholarly, in the sense of being academic, but to your credit this isn’t just an everyday blog post. You’re interacting critically with Le Goff’s book and with the poem itself, and so I thought of it as “scholarly” in some sense. More so than most blog posts, anyway.

    I’m writing a paper on the poem, and so I know a bit more from my research last night than I did when I made that comment yesterday. Let me share some of that with you and see what you think.

    Most scholars think the poem is c.750-800, and possibly written by Cynewulf (mentioned in Bede). It is not “Medieval propaganda” for the Church in any sense. You’ll notice it doesn’t entreat the reader to pay tithe or come to mass. It’s. Just. A. Poem. By someone who loved Christ and trees very much. I would guess it survived because it is quite lyrical and enjoined the audience, as you say, to seek the self-sacrificing life of its author—the life that thousands of people lived in Early Christian Europe.

    I still think the most egregious part of your post is your suggestion that the author remained anonymous for fear of the Church. The Church in Bede’s time was a gentler institution than it would become in the Middle Ages. Most of the blood spilt by the Catholic Church came later (the Crusades) or much, much, much later (Counter-Reformation, Inquisition). In Bede’s time and place, Christians solved their problems with synods and, if needed, wars. They burned very few people, and certainly they burned no one for poetry. Nor did they burn anyone for dreaming, as far as I have ever heard. That came much later.

    This poet, like almost every other anonymous writer from ancient times, is anonymous because of the vast distance that separates him or her from us, not because he or she wrote anonymously. By the time the full poem, which first appeared in fragments on the Ruthwell Cross (c.750-800) was written in the Vercelli Book (c.950), the name of the author had been lost. N.B. One scholar (Stephanson I think) reported that the poem as it appeared on the cross was signed ‘Caedmon,’ but because the cross was destroyed by Presbyterians, it is impossible to know. In short, people do not write anonymously for without reason, and no poet would have been afraid for his life in the Anglo-Saxon church during that period, and so this poet probably did not write anonymously, when first he wrote.

    I’m not sure why the poem struck you as a parody. It may be tedious to read it literally, but I’m sure you find that sort of spirituality tedious whether or not it’s meant seriously. I can’t come up with any arguments against that interpretation besides “It’s just not” because none of the books I’ve started reading have thought to deal with that hypothesis. I wonder why.

    I agree that there is a large dose of tree-veneration which may have pagan roots, but it would also have been very natural for Anglo-Saxons to revere the object upon which the ‘young hero’, as the poem says, made his sacrifice, without thinking of it in terms of the pagan ‘world tree.’

    This poem is so very, very old. It seems beautiful to me, but that’s because, to a certain extent, I believe in it. I can imagine how tedious it must be to someone without faith, and I sympathize, but I don’t think your assertions about it are particularly grounded.

  5. MB: Your post sent me to Tom Holland’s The Forge of Christendom (New York: Doubleday, 2008), another book I’m recommending to you (if you haven’t already encountered it in your studies). Holland only deals briefly with the Church’s treatment of heretics, as that isn’t his main concern, but I think, given your obvious passion for the era, you would simply enjoy this book as a fascinating scholarly study of how Europe happened.

    As to the burning of critics in the early Middle Ages. Leaving aside that I intended that line as hyberbole, your point deserves a response. There was that nasty business with the Orleans heretics in 1022, but that does place the first attested heretic burning later than the Rood. The torture of apostates did happen sporadically and locally throughout the early Middle Ages, often at the hands of mobs who thought they were defending the Church. Sometimes it was the state behaving as a quisling for the Church. Olaf I’s miserable treatment of Norse pagans who refused to convert to Christianity, which is closer in time to the Vercelli manuscript, comes to mind.

    I’m not ready to buy the view that the Church was inherently “gentler” although I understand where you are deriving your reading from, and some scholars would agree with you. A lot of (real) historians will have more insight into this, but I find the dearth of references to heresy from the 5th to 11th centuries troublesome. Either everybody in Europe happily agreed with Church doctrine (not likely in any situation), or people feared the consequences for speaking out, or the Church destroyed records of such things, preferring to keep the heresies of late antiquity (Arianism, Pelagianism, etc. – I’m sure you know the drill) a matter of the past to show clerics what errors to avoid. Sometimes widespread dearth of dissent speaks more loudly than dissent.

    I suspect that increased urbanization in the 11th century made it easier to find and deal with critics, and that the Church’s well-documented impulse of repression didn’t just emerge out of nowhere. We see it in the Church’s willingness to excommunicate people it didn’t like throughout the early period, a particularly nasty fate in the context of that culture, and one that any cleric who depended on the Church for his livelihood would be particularly eager to avoid. Excommunicated people truly believed they were in for eternal torture upon death, and had to suffer a kind of living death existence in a small, social, highly interdependent society in which nobody was allowed to speak or interact with them. Nasty stuff. Perhaps worse than burning.

    Good luck on your paper, MB. I suspect it will kick ass, because you clearly care about the Rood and how it gets read.

  6. MB says:

    Thanks for the good wishes, and I’ll see if I can get my hands on the sources you mention. I certainly hope the paper kicks all kinds of soft behind!

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