J.M. Stone.

Studies from Court and Cloister: being essays, historical and literary dealing mainly with subjects relating to the XVIth and XVIIth centuries online

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Cross, and it was he who first suggested that all the poems in the
Vercelli Codex, consisting of 135 leaves, were by Cynewulf, who like
Caedmon was a Northumbrian, and lived in the second half of the eighth
century. It was Kemble also who first gave The Dream of the Rood a
modern English rendering.*

* A translation of the fragment in Old Northumbrian had indeed been
attempted at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Mr. Repp and
also by a disciple of the great Fin Magnusen, Mr. J. M. M'Caul, but the
least said about these versions the better, both being wide of the
mark. Being imperfectly acquainted with Old English they made the most
absurd statements regarding the purpose the monument was supposed to
have served.

So far steady progress had been made, except one step which is now
stated by modern Anglo-Saxon scholars to have been a false one.
Professor Stephens following Haigh thought he could decipher on the top
stone of the cross the words Cadmon Mae Fawed, and inferred therefrom
that the Cross Lay of which fragments were inscribed on the Ruthwell
monument was the work of Caedmon, "the Milton of North England in the
seventh century." But according to the evidence of the latest expert
who has examined the cross, Caedmon's name has never been on it, and
both linguistic and archaeological considerations assign the
inscription to the tenth century, and probably to the latter half of
it. This critic declares that there is "no shadow of proof or
probability that the inscription represents a poem written by Caedmon."

Sweet, on the other hand* describes The Dream of the Rood, in the
Vercelli Book, as an introduction to the Elene or Finding of the Cross
which is unmistakably claimed as Cynewulf's own by an acrostic
introduced into the runic letters which form his name, and goes on to
assert that the Ruthwell Cross gives a fragment of the poem in the Old
Northern dialect of the seventh or eighth century, "of which the MS.
text is evidently a late West Saxon transcription differing in many
respects from the older one." He considers that The Dream belongs to
the age of Caedmon, and that the poetry of Cynewulf was an adaptation
of older compositions.

* Anglo-Saxon Reader, p. 154, 7th edition.

There can be now no possible doubt but that the poems in the Vercelli
Codex are by Cynewulf, the controversy henceforth being as to whether
The Dream of the Rood or the inscription on the cross is the older.
Cynewulf, being a Northumbrian, presumably wrote in the old
Northumbrian language such as is inscribed on the cross, but all his
poems as they have come down to us have passed into the West Saxon
tongue, and if the fragment on the Ruthwell Cross is, as modern
archxologists aver, later than the Dream in the Vercelli Codex it must
be a re-translation into the dialect in which it was first written. A
further difficulty lies in the fact stated by Haigh that runes had
passed out of date on funeral monuments as late as the year 1000, and
we can indeed scarcely conceive of their use at the very eve of the
Norman Conquest when the written language had long become general.

Nevertheless, as far back as 1890, Mr. A. S. Cook, professor of the
English language and literature in Yale University, suggested that the
inscription on the Ruthwell Cross must be as late as the tenth century
and subsequent to the Lindisfarne Gospels. "A comparison of the
inscription with the Dream of the Rood shows that the former is not an
extract from an earlier poem written in the long Caedmonian line which
is postulated by Vigfusson and Powell, and by Mr. Stopford Brooke,
since the earliest dated verse is in short lines only, and since four
of the lines in the cross inscription represent short lines in the
Dream of the Rood, it shows that the latter is more self-consistent,
more artistic, and therefore more likely to be or to represent the
original; and it shows that certain of the forms of the latter seem to
have been inadvertently retained by the adapter, who selected and
re-arranged the lines for engraving on the cross."*

* The Dream of the Rood, by A. S. Cook, p. xv., Oxford, 1905.

The theme both of the Dream and of the Elene, another of the poems in
the Vercelli Book, is the Cross, and Cynewulf, says Mr. Cook, is the
first old English author, of whom we have any knowledge, to lay
emphasis upon the Invention of the Cross, and Constantine's premonitory
dream. "If," he continues, "we consider Bede's account of Caedmon, we
are struck by one analogy at least: in each case a command is imparted
to the poet to celebrate a particular theme - in the first, the creation
of the world; in the second, the redemption of mankind by the death of
the cross. As the one stands at the beginning of the Old Testament, the
other epitomises the New. The later poet may have had the earlier in
mind, and may not have been unwilling to enter into generous rivalry
with him; but there is this notable difference, Caedmon does not relate
his own dream, while Cynewulf, if it be Cynewulf, does."*

* Ibid., p. lvii.

Elsewhere he says The Dream of the Rood, apart from its present
conclusion, represents Cynewulf (as we believe) in the fullest vigour
of his invention and taste, probably after all his other extant poems
had been composed. Admirable in itself and a precious document of our
early literary history, it gains still further lustre from being
indissolubly associated with that monument which Kemble has called the
most beautiful as well as the most interesting relic of Teutonic

And again, "So far from the Cross-inscription representing an earlier
form of the Dream of the Rood, it seems rather to have been derived
from the latter, and to have been corrupted in the process." *

* Ibid., p. xvi.

Thus the controversy remains in 1905. and until some further light is
shed upon the difficult question - for it is impossible to regard Mr.
Cook's solution as in all points satisfying - we must be content with
the results obtained.

Let us now consider the poem itself by the help of Professor Stephens'
admirable translation. Essentially a Christian composition, it
preserves all the Gothic strength and virile beauty of the old pagan
forms. The modern words, Saviour, Passion, Apostles, etc., do not once
appear. Christ is the "Youthful Hero," He is the "Peace-God," the
"Atheling," the "Frea of mankind." He is even identified with the white
god, Balder the Beautiful. His friends are "Hilde-rinks" or "barons."
In His crucifixion He is less crucified than shot to death with
"streals," i.e., all manner of missiles which the "foemen" hurl at Him.
The Rood speaks and laments; it tells the story of the last dread scene
of Christ's suffering, His entombment in the "mould-house," the triumph
of the Cross in His resurrection, and the entry of the "Lord of
Benison" into his "old home-halls."

The doctrine is as sober as an orthodox, theological treatise, though
the poem is essentially a work of the most fertile imagination, a drama
with all the rich accessories that tradition offered in the matter of
colouring and effect. And it is withal exquisitely simple, devout, and
noble, breathing a spirituality strangely at variance with the
semi-barbaric people with whom the poetry had originated.

Stephens' translation is full of poetry, the translator having retained
the lilt of the original, together with many of the old English words
which, if they need a glossary, is only because we have gradually lost
the meaning in the substitution of weaker terms.

It is interesting to compare the fragments still legible on the
Ruthwell Cross with the South Saxon rendering in the Vercelli Codex.
Where the lines are worn away or mutilated the MS. may supplement
them: -

Northumbrian version - - - - - - - - - - South Saxon version according
to the
on the Cross. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Vercelli Codex.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Girded Him then - - - - - - - - For the grapple then girded him youthful
hero -
God Almighty - - - - - - - - -lo! the man was God Almighty.
When He would - - - - - - - - - -Strong of heart and steady-minded
Step on the gallows - - - - - - -stept he on the lofty gallows;
Fore all Mankind - - - - - - - fearless spite that crowd of faces;
Mindfast, fearless - - - - - - - -free and save man's tribes he would
Bow me durst I not - - - - - - -Bever'd I and shook when that baron
claspt me
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - - but dar'd I not to bow me earthward
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -Rood was I reared now.
Rich King heaving - - - - - - - - - -Rich king heaving
The Lord of Light-realms - - - - - - The Lord of Light-realms
Lean me I durst not - - - - - - - -Lean me I durst not.
Us both they basely mockt and handled - - -Us both they basely mockt and
Was I there with blood bedabbled - - - - -all with blood was I bedabbled
Gushing grievous from . . . - - - - gushing grievous from his dear side,
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -when his ghost he had uprendered.
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -How on that hill
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -have I throwed
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -dole the direst.
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -All day viewed I hanging
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -the God of hosts
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -Gloomy and swarthy
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -clouds had cover'd
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -the corse of the Waldend.*
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -O'er the sheer shine-path
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -shadows fell heavy
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -wan 'neath the nelkin
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -wept all creation
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -wail'd the fall of their king.
Christ was on Rood-tree - - - - - Christ was on Rood-tree
But fast from afar - - - - - - - - But fast from afar
His friends hurried - - - - - - -his friends hurried
Athel to the Sufferer. - - - - - - To aid their Atheling
Everything I saw. - - - - - - Everything I saw.
Sorely was I - - - - - - - - Sorely was I
With sorrows harrow'd - - - - - - with sorrows harrow'd
. . . . . I inclin'd - - - - - - -yet humbly I inclin'd
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -to the hands of his servants,
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -striving with might to aid them.
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -Straight the all-ruling God they've taken
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -heaving from that haried torment
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -Those Hilde-rinks** now left me
. . . . . . . . . - - - - - -to stand there streaming with blood drops;
With streals all wounded - - - -with streals*** was I all wounded.
Down laid they Him limb-weary - - - - -Down laid they him limb-weary,
O'er His lifeless Head then stood they - O'er his lifeless head then
stood they,
Heavily gazing at Heaven's . . . - - - - heavily gazing at heaven's

* Wielder, Lord, Ruler, Monarch,

** Hero, from Hilde the war god. Battle brave, captain

*** Anything strown or cast-a missile of any kind.

Kemble's rendering of the poem, wonderfully correct and conscientious
as a translation, is inferior in poetical merit to that of Stephens,
who, as we see, instead of choosing modern words, is careful to retain
many of the picturesque old rune equivalents. This we perceive at once
if we compare Stephens' four lines, beginning "Christ was on Rood tree"
with Kemble's:

"Christ was on the Cross
but thither hastening
men came from afar
to the noble one." *

* Poetry of the Vercelli Codex.

The runes are sharply and beautifully cut into the margin of two sides
of the Cross, the inside spaces being filled with sculptured ornaments,
representing a conventional, clambering vine, with leaves and fruit.
Entwined among the leaves are curious birds and animals devouring the
grapes. On the southeast and south-west sides are figures taken chiefly
from the Bible, with Latin inscriptions instead of runes. In the middle
compartment of each of these sides is the figure of our Lord with a
cruciform halo. On the south-west side of the Cross He is represented
as treading on the heads of two swine, His right arm upraised in
blessing, a scroll being in His left hand. Around the margin is a
legend in old Latin uncial letters, "Jesus Christ the judge of equity.
Beasts and dragons knew in the desert the Saviour of the world."

In the corresponding panel on the south side, St. Mary Magdalen washes
the feet of our Lord, who is standing nearly in the same position. The
remaining subjects are - a figure which has been sometimes described as
that of the Eternal Father, and again as St. John the Baptist, with the
Agnus Dei; St. Paul and St. Anthony breaking a loaf in the desert; the
Flight into Egypt; two figures unexplained; a man seated on the ground
with a bow, taking aim; the Visitation; our Lord healing the man born
blind; the Annunciation; and traces almost obliterated, of the
Crucifixion, on the bottom panel of the south-west side.

On the top stone is a bird, probably meant for a dove, resting on a
branch with the rune which Stephens took to be Cadmon Mae Fawed. On the
reverse side of this stone are St. John and his eagle, with a partly
destroyed Latin inscription, In principio erat verbum. All the subjects
are explained by a legend running round the margin, but which is in
parts scarcely legible.

Sir John Sinclair, in his account of the parish of Ruthwell, mentions a
tradition, according to which, this column having been set up in remote
times at a place called Priestwoodside (now Priestside), near the sea,
it was drawn from thence by a team of oxen belonging to a widow. During
the transit inland the chain broke, which accident was supposed to
denote that heaven willed it to be set up in that place. This was done,
and a church was built over the Cross.

But opposed to this story is the fact that the obelisk is composed of
the same red and grey sandstone which abounds in that part of
Dumfriesshire, and it seems far more likely that the Cross was here
hewn and sculptured than that it should have been brought from a
distance after having been adorned in so costly a manner and with a
definite purpose. It was held in great veneration till the middle of
the sixteenth century, and being specially protected by the powerful
family of Murray of Cockpool, the patrons and chief proprietors of the
parish, it escaped the blind fury of the iconoclasts till 1644. Then,
however, it was broken into three pieces as "an object of superstition
among the vulgar."

For more than a century the column apparently lay where it fell, on the
site of what had once been the altar of the church, and was made to
serve as a bench for members of the congregation to sit upon.

In 1722, Pennant saw it still lying inside the church, but soon after
this, better accommodation being required for the congregation, it was
turned out into the churchyard to make room for modern improvements!
Here it suffered greatly from repeated mutilations, the churchyard
being then nearly unenclosed.

In 1802, the weather-cock of opinion having again veered round, the
then incumbent, Dr. Duncan, desiring to preserve this "object of
superstition," now become a precious relic, had the main shaft removed
to his newly-enclosed manse garden where it remained till 1887, when an
apse being added to the church, the Cross was again enclosed within the
building. Meanwhile two other fragments had entirely disappeared. The
cross-beam has never been recovered,* but the top-stone suddenly
reappeared in the following curious manner:

* Transverse arms were supplied in 1823. A. S. Cook, The Dream of the

A poor man and his wife having died within a few days of each other, it
was decided to bury them both in one grave. For this it was necessary
to dig deeper than usual, and in doing so, the grave-digger came upon
an obstacle which proved to be a block of red sandstone with sculptured
figures upon it. This block was found to be the missing top-stone of
the Cross.

One point still needs explanation. When Pennant saw the Cross in the
early part of the eighteenth century, before the buried fragment had
been excavated, it measured 2o feet in height. At the present day,
although the top has been replaced, the height of the column does not
exceed 17 feet 6 inches, a circumstance that can only be accounted for
by the supposition that the obelisk may have sunk several feet into the
ground in the interval.

The spirit that breathes in The Dream of the Rood is strongly imbued
with national elements. The doctrine and sentiments are strictly
Catholic, but the poem is at the same time an epitome of what St.
Cuthbert and the monks of Lindisfarne, the royal Abbess Hilda, Caedmon,
and now it appears Cynewulf also had been long doing for Northumbria,
in taking what was grand and heroic in the old heathen traditions, and
leading up through them to Christianity. But if this influence can be
distinctly traced in the runes on the Ruthwell Cross, yet another
element is seen in its ornamentation, which carries us back to the
Christian tombs in the Roman catacombs where its prototypes are to be

On the Bewcastle Cross there is less of the national element and more
of the Roman, fewer runes and more of this kind of sculpture. A few
feet from the parish church, and within the precincts of a large Roman
station, guarded by a double vallum, stands the shaft of what was
formerly an Anglo-Saxon funeral cross of most graceful shape and
design. This column, 14 feet in height, is quadrangular, and formed of
one entire block of grey freestone, inserted in a broader base of blue
stone. The side facing westward has suffered most from storm and rain.
It bears on its surface two sculptured figures, and the principal runic
inscription. The lower figure, that representing our Lord, has been
much mutilated by accident or design. He stands as He is seen on the
Ruthwell Cross, with His feet on the heads of swine, as trampling down
all unclean things. His right hand is uplifted in blessing, in His left
hand is a scroll,

Above is St. John the Baptist holding the Agnus Dei, and near the top
are the remains of the Latin word Christus.

The runic inscription has been translated thus:

"This slender sign-beacon
set was by Hwoetred,
Wothgar, Olufwolth,
after Alcfrith
Once King
eke son of Oswin
Bid (pray) for the high sin of his soul."

Beneath these runes is the figure of a man in a long robe with a hood
over his head, and a bird, probably a falcon, on his left wrist. This
figure is supposed to represent Alcfrid himself. Immediately below the
falcon is an upright piece of wood with a transverse bar at the top,
possibly meant for the bird's perch. On the east side there are no
runes, but a vine is sculptured in low relief within a border. Dr.
Haigh observed that the design on this side was the same as on the two
sides of the Ruthwell Cross.* The north and the south sides are in a
state of good preservation, and are covered with a beautiful design in
knotwork, and alternate lines of foliage, flowers, and fruit. On the
north side there is a long panel fitted with chequers, which have given
rise to a good deal of controversy among antiquaries. Camden thought
them to be the arms of the De Vaux family, and when this theory was
exploded, Mr. Howard of Corby Castle reversed it, and suggested that
the chequers on the De Vaux arms were taken from this monument. But the
Rev. John Maughan, B.A., rector of Bewcastle, in a note to his tract on
this place, cites instances of chequers or diaper-work in Scythian,
Egyptian, Gallic, and Roman art, and proves from the Book of Kings that
there were "nets of chequered work" in the Temple of Solomon. After
remarking that this is a natural form of ornamentation he calls
attention to the frequent use made of it in mediaeval illuminations.**

* Archaologia Aeliana, p. 169.

** Archaeological Journal, vol. xi.

Above this panel are the words "Myrcna Kung," and over the next piece
of knot-work is seen the name "Wulfhere" (King of the Mercians). Then
follows another vine, and above all are three crosses and the holy name
"Jesus." On the south side runs a runic inscription thus:

In the first year
of the King
of ric (realm) this

The last line of the inscription is so broken that it can only be
guessed at.*

* Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society.
Bewcastle and its Cross, by W. Nanson, p. 215.

Fine as this obelisk is, we should be at a loss to make out that it was
ever a cross, but for a slip of paper which was found in Camden's own
copy of his Britannia (ed. 1607 now in the Bodleian Library. On the
slip of paper was written this memorandum: "I received this morning a
ston from my lord of Arundel, sent him from my lord William. It was the
head of a cross at Bucastle: and the letters legable are these on one
line, and I have sett to them such as I can gather out of my
alphabetts: that like an A I can find in non. But wither this may be
only letters or words I somewhat doubt."

Neither Camden nor any one else got much further than this for many
years; and the general ignorance of runes is the more to be deplored
since it led to a carelessness and want of interest in the preservation
of priceless relics, even among antiquaries. The stone which thus came
into Camden's possession has utterly disappeared, and the inscription
which he tried in vain to decipher, and which might have thrown light
on a mysterious subject, is thus lost to us.

In conclusion, we may, for the sake of clearness, recapitulate, first:
that although there can no longer be any reasonable doubt that the
runes on the Ruthwell obelisk are by the Northumbrian poet, Cynewulf,
it has by no means been satisfactorily proved that these runes are of a
subsequent date to the West-Saxon version of the poem in the Vercelli
Codex, but that probability seems rather to point to an earlier date
than the second half of the tenth century; and secondly, that so close
a resemblance between the two Crosses does not necessarily imply that
they date from absolutely the same period. The royal obelisk at
Bewcastle must have been a famous monument in its day, known and
celebrated far and wide, and it would not be unlikely that even a
hundred years later it might be called upon to serve, to some extent,
as a model for that Cross which was to immortalise the Dream of which
Northumbrians were naturally proud. If, however, the runes on the
Bewcastle Cross fix its date as the latter part of the seventh century,
those on the Ruthwell Cross cannot be earlier than the eighth century.

Had the zeal, directed nearly four hundred years ago against our
national treasures, been bestowed on their preservation, we should have
reason indeed to congratulate ourselves on the beauty of many of our
public monuments. Instead of mutilated remains, we should have works of
art which, but for the gentle hand of time, would be as perfect as when
they left the master's hand.

But there has never been a period when the intelligent study of the
past, whether in palaeography, philology, or history, has been so
highly cultivated as in the present day. If we have lost the
inspiration that creates, we have, at least, learned to venerate and
cherish the noble works of our progenitors.


Although the Norte d'Arthur was one of the first books printed in the
English language, the great semihistorical figure of Arthur, together
with his Knights of the Round Table, and all their romantic exploits,
had wellnigh died out of the memory of the English people when Tennyson
published his Idylls of the King

The Morte d'Arthur was translated, according to Caxton, by Sir Thomas
Malory, who took it "out of certain books of French and reduced it into
English." But it is no mere translation of the older romances, which
Malory rather adopted as the basis of his work, moulding them to suit
his more refined taste and fancy, much as Chaucer used Boccaccio's
tales, and Shakespeare a century after Malory adopted the plots and
outlines of inferior playwrights.

Placed midway between the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, the book,
which has been aptly described as a prose-poem, is one of the happiest
illustrations possible of the language, manners, modes of thought and
expression prevalent in England in the fifteenth century. Chivalry was
not yet dead, ideals were still cherished, the feudal system still
obtained, Gothic architecture had not yet said its last word,
Englishmen were papal to the backbone, and religion was a potent factor
in their live, in spite of much that was harsh, crude, and violent.
"Herein," said Caxton, "may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity,

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Online LibraryJ.M. StoneStudies from Court and Cloister: being essays, historical and literary dealing mainly with subjects relating to the XVIth and XVIIth centuries → online text (page 17 of 28)