The Dream of the Rood, edited by Michael Swanton, Manchester University Press, 1970


I keep coming across comments where people state their adversity to religious writing, specifically Christian. Some declare they cannot read an author because of his religious concerns, see Geoffrey Hill’s work. One commentator writing of a senior Buddhist called him ‘deluded’. I was appalled – here once again just slightly under the surface lurked Western cultural arrogance. And Christian writing? It would be like saying you could not read or appreciate anything earlier than mid 20th century writing. To lose any of that would be cultural suicide. And so I am making an effort to re-appreciate our religious history, the magnificent spaces of the psyche.

Note: none of my concerns are to do with the legitimacy of religion or religious belief. Those were and are facts of our cultural histories, and as such need to be treated fully. Religion has also afforded us with deep psychological insights, has cemented cultures over long periods of transition and change. Religious wars are usually cited as religion’s true heritage. Does anyone really think people would not have killed one another without religion?


The Cult of the Cross

In about 350 AD, Cyril of Jerusalem remarked upon the discovery of a cross. Prior to this the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, allegedly found the True Cross on a visit in 326 AD. There was a legend also that three crosses had been found, deep in the ground, together with iron nails, and also the plaque that had been placed above the head of Jesus. Fragments of this cross were sent out to different places across the Christian world.

These were legends, and yet were wholly accepted; the Western church of Anglo-Saxon England took on the legends, and Anglo-Saxon poem Elene relates the tale. There are also later prose homilies on the subject.

By the 7th century the cult of the cross had taken off. Bernicia/Northumberland proved to be a responsive centre. It was here near what is now known as Hexham that Heavenfield was established, the victory of Christianity over the last pagan rulers, as recorded by Bede in his history of the Church.

Out of possibly thousands there remain two magnificent stone crosses from the period, one at Bewcastle in Cumberland, and the other thirty miles away in Dumfriesshire, the Ruthwell Cross. Let us be clear about this thirty miles: at the time of construction of the crosses in the 7th century the region of both crosses was known as  Galloway, and formerly spoke a form of early Welsh.  The region became known as a conglomerate Anglo-Saxon area called Bernicia in the 7th century. As a united region Dumfriesshire shared a cultural heritage with Northumberland as far south as Newcastle.

The craftsmanship of both Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses is of a particularly high standard; it is accepted that both were carved by the same master craftsman’s team.


The Bewcastle Cross differs from the Ruthwell Cross in that though both are crosses with figurative reliefs, scenes from Christ’s life and death, and inscriptions, the Bewcastle inscriptions tend to be more commemorative.  Ruthwell Cross was originally 18ft high, tapered to the cross section. It also contains along its outer edges runic text. When this text was eventually translated it was discovered to be the text of a poem about the fate of the tree that became Christ’s cross. Only one other example of his text existed, on an 11th century cross fragment in Brussels. Text from the same source-poem.

The Ruthwell cross was dismembered as too Papist under the dissolution of the monasteries, and later the Commonwealth, and its parts embedded in the church floor, other parts left outside. Weathering and wearing became extensive over time.


In 1748 Guiseppe Bianchini of Verona transcribed extracts from texts he came across at the Cathedral of Vercelli in northern Italy. Some of this proved to be a fuller version of the texts found on the Ruthwell Cross. Further investigation brought out Anglo-Saxon texts stored at the cathedral. The Vercelli cathedral had been a staging post on the route to Rome, and travelled by all Western church officials. Upon closer examination these texts proved to be 12th century, in good condition, and containing a variety of matter. They also contained a full version of what is now known as the Anglo-Saxon alliterative poem, The Dream of the Rood.

The Ruthwell Cross and Brussels’ fragment contained excerpts from the central portion of The Dream of the Rood.


The poem is 155 lines in length, and is constructed in three sections: the first introduces the narrator, and his dream one night of the cross of the crucifixion. Part two begins (line 28) when the cross addresses the dreamer, and tells him its tale, from its being hewn down at the edge of a wood, to bearing the body and death of Jesus; then it was buried in the ground, and rediscovered and venerated by Christ’s followers. It ends with a demand that the dreamer tell the story. The last part returns to the sleeper (line 122), but is written in a different mode to the opening section; all there is veneration and glorification.

The first and last parts are only roughly of equal length, whilst the central section is substantially longer.

Michael Swanton in his Introduction to his book on, (original text, and translation of the Dream of the Rood) draws our attention to the opening and middle sections, and how they accord with Latin and, as we see in the Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon riddle-forms. The first is a ‘I see this, what is it?’ type, the other a ‘What am I?’ type. The answer to each has major repercussions. He writes of ‘(… )the popular type of (… ) riddle in which an enigmatic object is made to describe itself in oblique terms.’ Also, ‘The riddle genre seems to have been particularly popular in the seventh and eighth centuries.’ He also notes that there are Latin cross-riddles from 716 at Jarrow-Wearmouth. Several Exeter Book riddles, LIV ‘Battering Ram’, and LXXII ‘Spear’ follow the same life-history pattern as the cross of part two.

The text of the Dream of the Rood in Anglo-Saxon or translation was not publically available until the 19th century.


The questions now become: 1 – is the 12th century Vercelli version an expanded version of the 7th century cross-cult poem?

2 – Were the runic excerpts added later than the time of carving and erection of the Ruthwell Cross?

1 – Parts one and two are most definitely of a piece, composed together. Some commentators have found the last part of the poem ‘cruder’ than the foregoing. Indeed, the last part does rely a lot on expostulations of religiosity (‘almighty God’) rather than what we might term the examinations of faith of the foregoing. But then the last part is the culminative part, the expression of faith, after faith has been planted and established in the fore parts.

2 – The runes used were not the Futharc Scandinavian runes of later Viking settlers, but more of the type used in Britain previous to this.

Structurally there are a number of significant parallelings throughout the poem. Lines 12 and 82 repeat their phrasings to the letter. The centre/heart of the poem is Christ’s death upon the cross. This event transforms the cross’ self-identification as wood/tree, to that of venerated object, adorned in gold and silver. The transformative medium is the blood of Jesus on the cross as Jesus’ spirit left his body. The cross identifies with Jesus at several points, because the nails that pierced the flesh of the man also pierced the wood of the cross. They are both mocked together, and both are buried in the ground; both also are retrieved from their place of burial: Jesus in assuming his Christ role, and the cross by being dug up and venerated by followers.

The central section, as we can detect here in the transformative identity of wood/tree and cross, has a chiasmic character. At two points does the cross speak of being hewn down, firstly as a tree in the wood, and latterly as the cross on the hill. We see the tree growing at the edge of a wood, and the cross in stark company on the hill. It is upright in both places, and also felled in both places. What happens in between is the crucifixion, the joining of man and tree, and the veneration of spirit and cross. The ambiguities inherent in these positions are readily recognised in the text. Throughout the tree addresses itself as wood, that is a speaking tree, as a symbol, and later as a venerated symbol – venerated because it was present, indeed the vehicle, of the death of Jesus. Jesus’ blood is at one point termed sweat of the tree, and as the weeping of the tree.

There is of course an overall chiasmus: the two narrator parts 1 and 3 are changed by the central part, 2. In 1 the narrator addresses the reader/audience. He tells of a dream he had. This in itself is one narration encapsulated within another: addressing the audience, and describing the dream.

Do we find a similar construction in part 3? There is a two-part construction to part 3: the first part immediately after the cross has finished its address continues the theme of the cross and its role in the religion.  The latter part (line 131 onward) builds up to a vision of Christ’s entrance into heaven. As the central part, the cross’ recital states, Christ’s ascension will be followed by his appearance back on the earth on doomsday to judge the populace. It can be read then as a reiteration/paralleling.

The central section forms its own chiasmus, beginning with the tree being felled and stripped, and ending with it being resurrected as the follower’s cross/rood, and adorned. The two instances of Jesus climbing upon the tree in vigour, and being taken both in death parallel each other. There are also several instances where the tree says it’ durst not’ bend or break no matter what terrors it is to be a part of. The only time it does bend is the figurative one of letting down the body. The tree could have saved the crucifying man and killed his tormentors, but ‘durst not’ ie because it was part of a larger purpose/story that would result in the saving of all mankind.

There are two instances of the use of the term ‘speech-bearers’ for men, lines 3 and 98. It is an important  term: the tree instructs the dreamer to tell the tale of its experiences and fate. This poem is that instruction made manifest. We must also remember the importance of telling and speech for the majority of the audience of the time. And here we see another ambiguity: the Ruthwell Cross carried the excerpts of the poem in runes, written form. This would emphasise the purpose of the cross as a teaching device.

Also inherent in this phrase in the notion of the ‘witness’ of Christ: the tree is the obvious example, but to be a believer, devout, one must be witness to Christ, to declare oneself. The latter half of the poem is concerned with this, particularly the narrator’s part in part 3. In part 1 he confessed himself a sinner and unworthy of the vision, in part 3 he was witness to Christ’s entry into heaven – he had been ‘saved’ by the vision and dream of the rood. The speech the ‘speech-bearers’ bear, of course, is the Word of God.

This poem, in effect, is designed as vehicle for redemption: whoever reads it with diligence and attention becomes a witness, and so saved. The recitation of the poem, then, must have been important: the real time of recitation having a liturgical function. Was it to be a part of the Easter service?


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