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Evolution of Christ and the Cross within Medieval Literature

Richard L. Matthews

Doctor Jane Guttman

LIT 506 Studies in Medieval Literature

September 19, 2015

Evolution of Christ and the Cross within Medieval Literature

            The figure of Christ presented in “The Dream of the Rood” is much different than the one presented in “The York Play of the Crucifixion.” Though the author of “The Dream” is unknown, scholars have found similar texts and attribute them to a single well learned author in eighth century Northumbria (Carpenter 365). “The York Play” dates to approximately 1425 and presumed revised by a “gifted playwright referred to by scholars as the York Realist” (Simpson and David 439). Though details concerning publication and authorship may not be available, both pieces show that during the intervening seven centuries the representation of Christ changed. Center to both pieces is the relationship between Christ, his cross and crucifixion. Between the two, however, there is nearly a complete reversal of how Christ is portrayed. In “The Dream,” Christ is silent and resolute, while the Cross is ornate and glorified. In “The York Play,” Christ is amplified, vocal and the cross is crude and poorly made.

“The Dream of the Rood” is a dream vision in which the narrator hears the story of Christ’s crucifixion from the Cross to which Christ was nailed. The poem was written in Anglo-Saxon and the island of Britain, at the time, was occupied by many minor kingdoms and warlords. With such being the case, it is natural that the author would ascribe to Christ characteristics of the nobility of his time. Christ displays bravery and almost arrogance as he approaches the ensign of his physical death. The Cross, also called a tree, reflects this sentiment as it states, “I saw the lord of mankind / coming with great haste so that he might climb up on me” (33, 34) and “Then this young man stripped himself – that was God Almighty – / strong and courageous; he climbed up on the high gallows, / brave in the sight of many, as he set out to redeem mankind” (39-41). In response to Christ’s warrior like attributes, the Cross wished to show homage, but was unable to do so. Three times the tree wanted to bow, but is unable: “I stood in place” (38), “I dared not bow down to earth” (42), and “I had to stand fast” (43).

After Christ’s death in “The Dream,” the Cross speaks adoringly of Christ. The Cross refers to him as “God of hosts” (51), “king” (56) and “sovereign” (58) and tells how Christ was laid in a sepulcher while those who buried him sing a dirge. These actions stand true to Germanic tradition. The Cross is then hewn down, thrown into a pit and buried. Interesting at this point is the transformation of the Cross itself.

The Cross in “The Dream” is unburied and becomes on object of worship. From line 78 until line 121, the Cross seems exultant, declaring how “the lord of glory, guardian of Heaven, / exalted me then over all forest-trees” (90-91). The dreamer is then commanded by the Cross to “tell others the events you have seen” (96). The burial and uncovering of the Cross may represent the resurrection of Christ, but that resurrection of Christ is never directly mentioned. At most, in line 101 we read, “the Redeemer arose” but then “he rose to Heaven” in line 103. Regarding judgment day, the tree re-emphasizes its importance:

But no one there need be afraid

Who bears the best sign on his breast.

And on this earth each soul that longs

To exist with its savior forevermore

Must seek His kingdom through that cross. (117-121)

This seems ironic as the Cross was a passive and meek figure during the crucifixion portrayed in “The Dream,” lamenting its role in the death of this warrior-lord named Christ. I agree with the assessment made that “By inflicting torture and burial on the Cross, and resurrecting it as a savior, the poet equates the Cross with Christ himself” (Carpenter 366). In this way, however, Christ seems to become less significant and the dreamer, in fact, “prayed to that tree” (122) and the Cross itself became the means to ascend to Heaven.

Considering that this poem was well known I found what could have been an actual occurrence which may have been inspiration for the author. In 634 A.D., King Oswald erected a cross before entering battle and ordered his army to pray to it. They did and King Oswald and his army were victorious. This cross was left intact and many reported miracles occurring at the location or if a splinter of the cross were dipped in water and administered to the sick (Bede 144-146). Considering the date of the reported incidents, a basis for “The Dream” may exist within this incident. Another possibility is that the basis for Christ’s characteristics in “The Dream” lies in an apocryphal text titled “The Passio Andreae” in which a follower of Christ willingly submits to crucifixion (Hill 23). The dreamer’s adoration of the Cross and belief that it would act as a psychopomp to deliver his soul to Heaven was not uncommon. Hill quotes a passage from a sermon by Caesarius of Arles concerning the phenomena:

What sweeter or more pleasant can be thought or expressed, than the mysterium of the holy Cross, by which not only do we merit to be called by from Hell, but even to be elevated to the heavens. For without any doubt where we believe our Head Christ to have ascended, we trust his membra [‘limbs’] are going to follow. (23-24)

Christian liturgical texts and ceremonies were primarily conducted in Latin during the transitory period between “The Dream” and “The York Play.” Additionally, illiteracy was the norm among the majority of the population, so a situation presented itself in which most of what was written was composed of by “professional Christians for a primary audience of other professional Christians” (Fletcher 9). The Roman Church faced a challenge of normalizing what Christianity was and this task fell to the local pastors who were required to set “standards and expectations clearly before the laity” (63). The basic pattern used is that nobility was first converted and would then support churches which would then reach out to the local population. Christian expansion is outside the Roman Empire is best explained as follows:

Early medieval missionaries were firm believers in the ‘trickle-down’ effect. The most easily identifiable and consistently pursued element of strategy was the missionaries’ choice to work from the top downwards. If you can convert the directing elite then those who are subject to its direction will follow the lead given. Such was the hope, and it was frequently realized. (236)

As this religious union occurred, more of the common tongue and more expressive or dramatic means of presenting the liturgy resulted and many mundane acts required rituals and Tydeman explains this was understandable “in an epoch which feared keenly the outbreak of anarchy, the imminence of chaos, and the uncertainty of the future…this was an era which evinced a strong need for the concrete presentation of abstract ideas” (86).

In England, basic churches were constructed following the pattern of the old Roman basilica, which essentially resulted in a rectangular structure or a round structure in the cases where the building housed baptismal pools or baths (51). Complexity of liturgical drama kept pace with the expansion or relative church buildings (55). Processions became yet more elaborate and need arose for more space for the worshippers as well as for the participants. The largest procession or pageant was celebrated at the time of the Corpus Christi celebration and “The central feature of this great festive ceremony was a procession by the civic and religious leaders of the community in which the consecrated Sacrament or Host was paraded with great solemnity through the streets” (97). These processions likely gave birth to what ultimately became the mystery plays.

“The York Play of the Crucifixion” is only one portion of a complex festival presentation that lasted for days within the city of York. The York play is often studied because of how well it has been preserved; theatrical records date back to the late fourteenth to early fifteenth century (Twycross 112). As cities grew in population and resources, ritualism and theater became more and more elaborate and:

In York, for example, the theatrical space and time of this urban, amateur drama was that of the entire city, lasting from sunrise throughout the entire long summer holiday. The time represented ran from the Fall of the Angels and the Creation of the World right through to the end of time, in the Last Judgement. (Simpson and David 448)

With such a large civic event occurring annually, there had to be extensive organization and this was arranged by the City Council, who regulated the affair (Twycross 115). Guilds, also called a “mystery” from the Latin “ministerium,” (Simpson and David 448) each had their respective scene, which they would construct and perform or hire actors to perform.

The representation of Christ during “The York Play” is quite different from the warrior-lord in “The Dream.” This change occurs for various reasons. The sequence of plays leading up to the “The York Play of the Crucifixion” portrays a humble, mostly silent Christ who has been beaten, crowned with thorns, scourged and tormented by his captors (439). Within medieval theater, the audience did not only watch, but participated in the activity (Ramey 56). This interaction between the audience and players was critical to the performance of the plays within the mystery cycle. Players would speak directly to the audience and the audience was expected to “play along” in order to sustain momentum. This caused the audience to examine their respective, individual spirituality and are “less interesting for what they portray than for the range of potential reactions they may provoke” (55-56). Throughout the cycle of the play, the pageants, or participants, “turn to the spectacle of Christ’s bleeding body, asking those witnessing it what they see and feel” (68). “The York Play of the Crucifixion” portion is a graphic and detailed display of Christ at the hands of the soldiers nailing him to the Cross at Calvary. The Christ presented is a meek and humble man, mostly shielded from view. Twice Christ is raised upon the cross and addresses the crowd both times.

The main dialogue during “The York Play of the Crucifixion” occurs among the four soldiers performing the crucifixion. Throughout, the soldiers complain of the conditions in which they must work to accomplish their deed. Given that the audience was expected to participate, it is imaginable that the actors given these four parts received derisive shouts, jeers and may have even endured having items thrown at them as they performed. The very opening provides a call to the audience and issues a challenge:

1ST SOLDIER.     Sir knights, take heed hither in hie,

This deed on dergh we may not draw

Ye woot yourself as well as I

How lords and leaders of our law

Has given doom that this dote shall die.

2ND SOLDIER     Sir, all their counsel well we know.

Sen we are comen to Calvary,

Let ilk man help now as him awe. (1-8)

The 1st Soldier draws attention to the scene that is to take place. He is drawing the attention of the audience though he appears to be speaking to his fellow soldiers. The 2nd Soldier’s third line is a statement of defiance that no one may help Christ, but also challenges the audience to help him if anyone cares to try. Considering that there has been a series of plays leading up to the ultimate moment of Christ’s crucifixion, there exists and interesting parallel between a previous play in the cycle, “The Building of the Ark,” and the “Crucifixion,” “The soldiers’ physical werk involves some of the tools the audience has observed in ‘The Building of the Ark,’ only now, tools and materials are no longer employed in construction, but rather in destruction” (Boboc 255). Boboc explains that the term “werk” as used in the above quote is “closely associated with guilds- and craftsmen” (247-248).

The script of “The York Play of the Crucifixion,” presents 25 stanzas, and each stanza consists of twelve lines. Within these twelve lines, the rhyming scheme is “abab abab cdcd,” and the final four lines act as a call to the audience or to the other players on stage. The first stanza explains that the four soldiers are ready and call on spectators to pay attention:

3RD SOLDIER     We are all ready, lo,

This forward to fulfill.

4TH SOLDIER     Let hear how we shall do,

And go we tit theretill. (9-12)

The second stanza speaks of the soldiers’ desire for haste, but also how Christ shall endure a miserable death upon the Cross. In the third stanza, before Christ first speaks, the soldiers view the Cross on the ground and proclaim that it is ready to receive Christ’s body. Christ’s first speech opens with and invocation, “Almight God, my Father free,” he then proclaims obedience to suffer crucifixion in order to save mankind. The final four lines of his stanza, Christ asks God to defend mankind’s souls against the Devil and states he cares for nothing but mankind’s welfare (57-60). Christ obediently lays himself upon the Cross, but then the soldiers discover that the workmanship of the Cross was poor and they have great difficulty nailing Christ to the Cross. An irony here is that though the soldiers wish to do a good job, the work they are doing is not good at all (Boboc 255). The trouble and oaths the soldiers swear while trying to carry out their deed would be laughable if not for the gravity of the situation. This however, may have been the intent of the play’s author.

Once Christ is secured to the Cross, the soldiers have the task of lifting him and placing the base of the Cross into the hole which had previously been dug. When the soldiers finally accomplish this act, however, they find that the Cross does not fit snugly, so that it moves about after being planted. Another line which may be interpreted as mockery or actual pity is the 1st Soldier’s comment, “That falling was more fell / Than all the harms he had. / Now may a man well tell / The least lith of this lad” (225-228). Essentially, the jostling of Christ’s body, once nailed by hand and foot to the Cross, caused more pain than all other tortures he had endured to that moment. Again, this was likely a call to the audience, as the “final four” lines of each stanza seem to be. Such displays as Christ being nailed to the Cross, lifted up for all to see, then unceremoniously dropped into a hole “would likely cause a charged emotional response” (Ramey 72). The soldiers quickly set to work, wedging stones into the hole in order to more securely hold the Cross. Interesting here is that up to this point, the soldiers were generally above Christ. They were holding him or nailing him. At this point, Christ and the Cross are above them while they busy themselves below.

Once the Cross is securely in place, the 1st Soldier and 4th Soldier call out to him, asking Christ what he thinks of their work and how he feels now. Next comes the pivotal point of “The York Play of the Crucifixion.” Christ addresses the crowd:

All men that walk by way or street,

Take tent – ye shall no travail tine –

Behold mine head, mine hands, my feet,

And fully feel now ere you fine

If any mourning may be meet

Or mischief measured unto mine. (253-258)

These lines are solely meant to call to passers-by that they may behold what has transpired. With all attention now only on Christ, he pronounces the lines:

My Father, that all bales may bete,

forgive these men that do me pine.

What they work woot they nought:

Therefore my Father I crave

Let never the sins be sought,

But see their souls to save. (259 – 264)

Even non-Christians are familiar with the saying, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” which is what the Christ figure recited above. The soldiers in the following stanza provide foreshadowing for the next act, “The Resurrection,” when the 4th Soldier comments, “And, sirs, he said to some, / He might raise it again” (275 – 276). The play ends with the soldiers casting lots for the coat Christ wore.

In “The Dream of the Rood,” Christ was a silent, resolute warrior king. He obediently climbed the Cross, in accordance with his Lord’s direction. The resurrected Cross is what ultimately brings the dreamer to salvation. As stated in the introduction to “The Dream,” “Christ is both heroic in mounting and passive in suffering on the Rood, while the Rood is loyal to its lord, yet must participate in his death” (Simpson and David 33). The prosopopoeial attributes of the cross serve to enable early Anglo Saxons to more easily tie together the Christian concepts of ritual and salvation (Chaganti 65). When the abstract is given substance, it is much easier to understand. This has been historically shown through the Roman Church’s adoption and expansion of ritualism throughout its liturgy. Hill shares part of a document concerning the worship or adoration of relics:

“Amalarius of Metz raises the interesting question of why Christians venerate the cross, but not other objects or creatures who had physical contact with Jesus, such as the ass on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The answer is that the Cross is associated with numerous and extraordinary miracles.” (25)

In the early Roman Church, especially as it expanded in sphere and influence, the veneration of relics and religious articles was very widespread. At times, fraudsters used this practice for monetary gain, selling fake or questionable relics. The actions taken by the Roman Church to address this issue is well beyond the scope of this paper.

As the Roman Church became more established on the island of Britain, a more stable society arose. The Roman Church came to Britain with the Roman Empire, but as that empire waned, so did Roman influence. Expansion of cities and towns enabled more citizens to participate in the Roman Church’s liturgical celebrations. As this happened and the merchant class became more important, rituals gave rise to theater. Development of the Tudor stage can be directly traced back to the elaborate Church rituals and services conducted and, according to Tydeman:

the strong temptation…to over-embellish formerly chaste ceremonies and to create histrionic opportunities beyond those necessary for arousing devotion and it may have been a factor in the decision to transfer the more elaborate and ambitious religious plays to the open air where they might develop on freer and more naturalistic lines. (65)

Guilds orchestrated street pageants and processions that allowed even more of the laity to participate in and view more of the Christian rituals and common theatrical performances. With such expansion, the mystery plays became a central part of community activity.

The York mystery cycle provides one of the best preserved accounts of a medieval mystery play. Christ presents as a much different figure in “The York Play of the Crucifixion” than in “The Dream.” Though this paper examines only the Crucifixion portion of the entire mystery cycle, Christ calls upon worshippers to see him, witness what he has endured and prays for their souls. In this way, the Christ of “The Dream” has evolved from a silent participant to a blazon to sinners. The Cross has likewise evolved from a ritualized object of adoration in “The Dream” to a device used to gain the attention of onlookers in the mystery cycle. The linguistic differences between the two pieces accentuate the difference in the foci of the works compared in this paper.

Some may believe it necessary to have a physical object, other than just their physical body, to help them enter a place of peace after death. Others are confident that faith and works alone qualify them for such peace. Many deny existence of an internal spirit and thus have no concern one way or another as they perceive no afterlife. Despite the various opinions regarding religion, the different representations of Christ and the Cross between “The Dream of the Rood” and “The York Play of the Crucifixion” reflect changes in the degree of influence the Roman Church had upon the residents of early Britain.

Works Cited

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price, Rev. R. E. Latham. Penguin Books: New York. 1990. Print.

Boboc, Andreea. “Lay Performances of Work and Salvation in the York Cycle.” Comparative Drama. 43.2 (2009): 247-257. ProQuest. Web. 18 Sep. 2015.

Carpenter, William G. “The Dream of the Rood.” Sewanee Theological Review 57.3 (2014): 365,373,229. ProQuest. Web. 18 Sep. 2015.

Chaganti, Seeta. “Vestigial Signs: Inscription, Performance, and the Dream of the Rood.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 125.1 (2010): 48, 64, 65. EBSCOHost. Web. 18 Sep. 2015.

Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion from Paganism to Christianity. Henry Holt & Company: New York. 1997. 9, 63, 236. Print.

Hill, Thomas D. “The Cross As Psychopomp: The Dream Of The Rood, Lines 135–44.” Anglia-Zeitschrift Für Englische Philologie 128.1 (2010): 21-27. Humanities International Complete. Web. 18 Sep. 2015.

—.”The Passio Andreae and the Dream of the Rood.” Anglo-Saxon England 12 (2009): 1-10. ProQuest. Web. 18 Sep. 2015.

Ramey, Peter. “The Audience – Interactive Games of the Middle English Religious Drama.” Comparative Drama. 47.1 (2013): 55-83. ProQuest. Web. 18 Sep. 2015.

Simpson, James and David, Alfred, ed. “The Dream of the Rood.” Trans. Alfred David. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York” Norton, 2012. 32-36. Print.

—. “The York Play of the Crucifixion.” Trans. Alfred David. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York” Norton, 2012. 439-447. Print.

Twycross, Meg. “Records of Medieval English Theatre.” Archives 22.97 (1997): 112, 115. ProQuest. Web. 18 Sep. 2015.

Tydeman, William. The Theatre in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1978. 51, 55, 65, 86, 97. Print.


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