The Ruthwell Cross and caution when analysing historical Christianity

North side of the Ruthwell Cross
North side of the Ruthwell Cross

I would like to share with you several thoughts about method. Because perhaps my blog has inspired you to set out and read more ancient, medieval, (‘counter’)Reformation, ‘modern’ Christianity. There are two important, and (I believe) valid ways of reading historical Christianity — one is a devotional quest that asks, ‘What does this writer/piece of art/piece of music speak to me?’ This need not know history — but it must never parade as history.

The other, which I am to address now, requires the careful study of historical methodology to bring out different treasures than the above, the treasures that represent the authorial intention of a piece, the realities it addressed in its specific context and time. These, if of use, can still often be applied to today, just as the above is automatically applied.

Both, I repeat, are valid as approaches to texts as pathways to the divine.

But only the second is worthwhile as an approach to historical theology or the history of Christianity.

One area where the first and second often blur is the study of early mediaeval Christianity in Britain, Ireland, and associated smaller islands in their vicinity (henceforth ‘Insular’). This is most often perpetrated in the guise of an imagined ‘Pan-Celtic’ form of Christianity whereby all the quite varied cultures and polities and Celtic languages of Britain are imagined to be united in a golden age that precedes a post-seventh-century ‘Romanisation’ of Insular Christianity.

That’s something I’ve dealt with briefly before, and will mostly put to the side in what follows, as I turn my attention to the varied Germanic-speaking peoples who settled in Britannia following ca. AD 410 and whom we (and, eventually, they themselves) call ‘Anglo-Saxons’.

The Germanic-speaking peoples of western, northern, and central Europe are also imagined to be culturally monolithic in much the same way Celtic-speaking peoples are. This sort of ethnography is not precisely helpful when trying to understand a particular object or moment of history. Let us turn now to the Ruthwell Cross, which is in modern Scotland (early mediaeval Bernicia-Deira/Northumberland) near the Solway Firth. It’s very awesome and worth a visit — I’ve blogged about it here.

Of interest to my discussion is the poem on the Ruthwell Cross. It is about Christ mounting onto the cross as a triumphant, warrior king. This description is said to reflect the martial values of ‘Germanic’ society — certainly it reflects the martial values of Anglo-Saxon society, values largely shared by other peoples of western Europe after the ‘fall’ of Rome (itself a confused historiographical issue). Here’s the poem:

God almighty stripped himself,
when he wished to climb the Cross
bold before all men.
to bow (I dare not,
but had to stand firm.)

I held high the great King,
heaven’s Lord. I dare not bend.
Men mocked us both together. I was slick with blood
sprung from the Man’s side…)

Christ was on the Cross.
But then quick ones came from afar,
nobles, all together. I beheld it all.
I bowed (to warrior hands.)

Wounded with spears,
they laid him, limb weary. At his body’s head they stood.
They that looked to (heaven’s Lord…)

My concern, to finally start getting to the point, is that some people apparently argue that this poem as well as the powerfully majestic ‘Dream of the Rood‘ are based on earlier, pagan versions. The evidence that they are based on pagan versions comes from the fact that in Eddic poetry of Scandinavia (Iceland and Norway, to be precise), Odin hangs from the World Tree Yggrdasil as part of his acquisition of Wisdom.

Now, if we wish to see all Germanic barbarians as the same, and especially Anglo-Saxons and their Norse cousins, this is a quick and easy interpretation to make.

But we can’t do this. It’s not historically viable. I’ve felt this for a long time, and Guy Halsall recently corroborated my concerns as I read some of his book Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West over a McFlurry today. He argues that we cannot use Eddic poetry as evidence for fourth-century Germanic-speaking peoples, given the fact that said Old Norse literature was recorded after the year 1200. To point out the fallibility of such uses, he writes:

One would make enormous errors reading central medieval christological ideas into late antique depictions of Christ. The Christ of the Saxon epic, the Heliand, is hardly recognisable as the Christ discussed by St Augustine 400 years earlier but the bishop of Hippo and the author of the poem would both have recognised a pictorial depiction of the crucifixion. These differences occurred even with written scripture, such as did not exist for ‘Germanic’ paganism, to anchor ideas. (p. 123; the Heliand is contintenal Saxon, not British)

All sorts of things happened between the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, when they would have parted company with the ancestors of the Old Norse writers of the Eddic lays, and the writing down of the lays. And all sorts of things happened in the two or three hundred years between the Anglo-Saxon peoples’ arrival in Britain and the erection of this cross.

The two hundred years of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain included the embracing of Christianity and a potential Christianising of a potential Odin poem; it also included various encounters with the post-Roman inhabitants of the islands and the cultures of Celtic-speaking Britain and Ireland. But did they have this particular myth about Odin? We can never know. We know they worshipped a divinity called Wotan; a conspicuous number of Anglo-Saxon kings trace their lineage to him. Yet it is dangerous to assume that we know any of the content of Anglo-Saxon pagan religious belief, which was probably at least as varied as Bede’s alleged Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.

The Old Norse did have this myth.

But in the eight hundred years or so between the Anglo-Saxon departure from the Continent and the Old Norse writings, all sorts of things happened to the Old Norse — they became Vikings, developed complex kingship systems, settled Iceland and Greenland, explored Canada’s East Coast, founded Dublin, conquered Normandy, became Christians, traded with peopls in eastern Europe, visited Constantinople….

How can we say if this Odin story was the inspiration for the Ruthwell Cross?

We cannot.

I believe that saying as much is part of the ‘all Germanic peoples are the same’ myth of modern ethnography as well as the false idea that barbarian conversions were all necessarily syncretistic to some degree, and therefore succumbing to parallelomania — if a ‘Germanic’ or ‘Celtic’ Christian does something (or even has a name) that resembles some a ‘pagan’ ancestor did, this is evidence of syncretism. Which, quite frankly, it very often is not.

Did you know that the ‘Celtic’ abbey of Iona came stocked with the continental Fathers in Latin? (A very ‘Romanising’ thing for these free ‘Celts’ to do!) I have no evidence that they or Lindisfarne had access to Venantius Fortunatus (d. 609), but wouldn’t you say that ‘Vexilla Regis’ is as martial a predecessor as anything else? Alas, that he is so late and so classical! (Because, of course, no barbarian ever liked classical Latin.)

Here are some stanzas from ‘Vexilla Regis‘:

Abroad the regal banners fly,
now shines the Cross’s mystery:
upon it Life did death endure,
and yet by death did life procure.

O lovely and refulgent Tree,
adorned with purpled majesty;
culled from a worthy stock, to bear
those limbs which sanctified were.

Note that the ‘banners’ would better be translated as ‘standards’ — thus, martial. Written by a Latin Christian within a strong, classical tradition of Latin poetry. What can we do with that? The cultures of the ancient and mediaeval worlds are not simply ‘warlike barbarians’ and ‘civilised Greeks and Romans.’ None of it is so simple, as the above shows. The values we stereotype as ‘Germanic’ or ‘Celtic’ were very often also ‘Classical’, especially in this period.

My theory, since ‘Vexilla Regis’ is too late, is that there is a certain amount of cultural similarity throughout western Europe at this time regarding some aspects of the military in culture (that is to say, the rise of the warrior aristocracy), and that the Christians who live in a warlike age have warlike images of the crucifixion. The fact that Christ is hanging on a tree as a king in both cases requires no interference from Odin and Yggdrasil — for Christ is the king (very much so in the Anglo-Saxon hero-hagiographic poem Andreas) who hung on a tree.

These are the real origins of the similarities, if you ask me, not some shared primeval Germanic memory common to Anglo-Saxons in southern Scotland in the 600s and Scandinavians in Iceland and Norway in the 1200s.

Now, not all of you have read the Ruthwell Cross Inscription, ‘The Dream of the Rood’, the Prose and Poetic Eddas, and Venantius Fortunatus, let alone some of the secondary literature. So how can you be a discerning reader? I mean, you’re not doing PhDs (well, some of you aren’t).

Many good translations of sources come with good introductions. Unfortunately, while the Penguin Classics translation of documents pertinent to Alfred the Great comes with a good introduction, Letters from a Stoic by Seneca does not. So Penguins, though readily available, are hit and miss, both as translations and as introductions.

However, I would say that you can generally trust the introductions to the volumes in the following series: Oxford World’s Classics, Translated Texts for Historians, SVS Press’ Popular Patristics Series, Ancient Christian Writers, and the Classics of Western Spirituality.

Study is a spiritual discipline, so if you are really interested in, say, the devotional practices of St Cuthbert and other monks of Lindisfarne, be willing to take the time to verify how your sources are to be interpreted. For ancients, go to your local public library and see if they have Johannes Quasten’s Patrology or Hubertus Drobner’s The Fathers of the Church. Look up the author in The Dictionary of the Middle Ages or The Dictionary of Byzantium. In the case of Cuthbert, see what the Cambridge Companion to Bede may have to offer.

Seek and ye shall find.

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