The crucifixion of Christ is treated differently within the bodies of Old English and Middle English literature. The values of each era’s society are superimposed on the descriptions of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Christ is depicted either as the model of the hero, prevalent in Old English literature, or as the embodiment of love and passion, as found in Showings by Julian of Norwich.Old English literature establishes the elements of the heroic code, to which its society ascribed. A man must live, or die, by his honor. In The Dream of the Rood the crucifixion of Christ is depicted as the ultimate symbol of heroism, as all mankind bewailed Christ’s death and prepared a gilt cross for him.
“This was surely no felon’s gallows, but holy spirits beheld it there, men upon earth, and all this glorious creation. Wonderful was the triumph-tree, and I stained with sins, wounded with wrongdoings. I saw the tree of glory shine splendidly, adorned with garments, decked with gold, jewels had worthily covered Christ’s tree.
” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Ed., p. 19) Christ is not rendered as a figure of pathos. Christ is identified with the other glorious warriors of Anglo-Saxon times, such as Beowulf, in this rendering of the cross. It was tradition during the Anglo-Saxon period to bury the honored death with all of the adornments of wealth that they had gained in the earthly life.The Dream of the Rood treats the death of Christ as the culmination of His glory. As the Rood itself speaks, “Disclose with your words that it is the tree of glory on which Almighty God suffered for mankind’s many sins and the deeds of Adam did of old.
He tasted death there; yet the Lord arose again to help mankind in his great might.” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Ed., p. 21) Julian of Norwich, an anchoress of Saint Julian, received great visions of the crucifixion of Christ, on what was thought to be her deathbed.
According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Ed., her revelation of these visions, Showings, is colored by her experience and temperament as an individual woman. Julian’s depiction of the crucifixion describes Christ’s love for humanity upon his crucifixion. “This I took it for that time that our Lord Jesus of his courteous love would show me the comfort before the time of my temptation; for me thought it might well be that I should by the sufferance of God and with his keeping be tempted of fiends before I should die.
” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Ed., p. 294) His choice to die upon the cross seems to be the necessity for the salvation of mankind, not as the manifestation of His inimitable honor and glory.
The thanes of the heroic code are bound to their lord by honor. The Dream of the Rood affirms this powerful obligation as the author writes that when God visits us on judgment day, He will ask who would stand fast, unafraid, for Him, their real leader: “Before his host he will ask where the man is who in the name of the Lord would taste bitter death as he did on the cross.” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Ed., p. 21). In addition, the lord is bound to his men.
This ideal is continued within the chivalry of the Middle Ages. As a passage of Showings tells the reader: “It is the most worship that a solemn king or a great lord may do a poor servant if he will be homely with him; and namely if he show it himself of a full true meaning and with glad cheer both in private and openly.” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Ed., p. 296)However, Julian’s mystical visions imbue a more feminine idea to the crucifixion than does The Dream of the Rood.
Showings tells us of Christ as the figure of the trinity left on the cross, but also relates a singularity of motherhood upon his actions. Would not any mother die for her child? Christ died for the lambs of his fold. The lofty ideals of the chivalric code: love, humility, and perfection, are evidenced in Christ’s actions.
The Dream of the Rood obviously depicts Christ as the masculine hero of his band of retainers, as shown by the passage “The Son was victorious in that foray, mighty and successful.” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Ed., p. 21) In a manner similar to leaders of Old English literature, Christ endowed gifts to his followers upon his death. Herein is a similarity between Showings and The Dream of the Rood: his gifts were not of gold and treasure to be found on this earth. Christ’s death enabled man’s everlasting life.Perhaps the most striking contrast between the Old English text of The Dream of the Rood and the Middle English text Showings is the depiction of Christ’s actual death upon the cross.
The Dream of the Rood does not allude to the odious suffering Christ endured for days as he hung upon the cross. However, Julian of Norwich tells us in Showings that Christ died upon that cross as all blood drained from his body and he became withered and beset by the pallor of death, with his final words begging forgiveness for his persecutors. The Old English hero would never beg for forgiveness; the heroic code mandated that his thanes avenge his death. Because Middle English society developed the chivalric code, in which love is a central theme, Showings is able to depict Christ’s honor as a form of love: “For he is the endlesshead and he made us only to himself and restored us by his precious passion, and ever keepeth us in his blessed love” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Ed., p. 296)Both The Dream of the Rood and Showings are depicted as visions.
Yet, Julian of Norwich is referred to as a “mystic” in literature. The society of the Middle English period did not readily accept women as powerful beings. A woman could not be expected to write with any authority, unless there was something “supernatural” about her subject matter. The author of The Dream of the Rood is given authority by way of his masculinity. The obvious distinction being that, as he is a man, he is to be trusted upon his word. Neither had Old English society become so firmly entrenched in Christianity. The Dream of the Rood seems to have been a method to convert heathens to Christianity by immersing Christianity in the extant value system of the time.
This does not seem to be the case with Showings. In all likelihood, Julian intended for the reader to come away with a sense of beauty and the knowledge of the extreme sacrifice of Christ. The conversion to Christianity is not the ultimate motive of Showings. The reader is supposed to engage in a greater understanding of the passion of Christ and his desire to suffer so that all mankind did not have to suffer for eternity. In both works Christ emerges as a powerful being that will stoically suffer for us all, and reward us, for the price of our piety.
The seeds of Christianity that had been planted during the time of Old English literature prospered within the texts of Middle English literature. Even as Christianity managed to flourish in medieval times, the ideal of Christianity changed with the period in which it lived, meshed in the ideals of the society to which it implored conversion.Whereas honor is the prevailing theme of Christ’s crucifixion in The Dream of the Rood, love becomes the dominant subject in Christ’s sacrifice for humankind in Showings. “Thus was I learned, that love is our Lord’s meaning. And I saw full surely in this and in all, that ere God made us he loved us, which love was never slaked ne never shall.
And in this love he hath done all his works, and in the love he hath made all things profitable to us, and in this love our life is everlasting.” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Ed., p. 297) This change in the integral ideal of the subject matter is perhaps indicative of the ensuing social changes that occurred during the Middle English period. Julian describes Christ’s gift as the fulfillment of his love for all creation. It is not for honor that Christ gave his life.
Of course, during the Old English period, the lord’s retainers certainly experienced “love” in some fashion for the man they willingly gave their lives. Certainly that “love” was not to be construed as a display of femininity, for these men were warriors. Changing social values helped to transform the Old English heroic code to the Middle English chivalric ideal. The literature of each of the periods offers the examples upon which to base this conclusion. Old English honoric ideals are complemented by Middle English concepts of love and beauty.Bibliography: