Welcome to the sixth preview for the 2017 Medieval Book Club. For June we’re going to read a trio of Medieval poems, but these ones do not stem from the Bible. Of course, like many Medieval works, there may be Biblical allusions. The Dream of the Rood, in particular, is an overly Christian poem. This will be our last poetry month until the fall, so I hope you’ll join me in June with reading these poems! Read on for a short preview of each poem:
Author: Unknown, although many attribute the authorship to Cynewulf or Cademon
Date of Composition: Unknown
Link to read for FREE: (https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/judith/
Length: 348 Lines
Summary: Judith conveys a moral tale of heroic triumph over monstrous beings. Both moral and political, the poem tells of a brave woman’s efforts to save and protect her people. Judith is depicted as an exemplar woman, grounded by ideal morale, probity, courage, and religious conviction. Judith’s character is rendered blameless and virtuous, and her beauty is praised persistently throughout the poem.
Title: Dream of the Rood
Author: Unknown, but speculation includes Cynewulf and Caedmon
Date of Composition: Around the 8th century, based on the dating of the Ruthwell Cross where the poem is found in rune form.
Links to read for FREE: https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/dream-of-the-rood/
Length: 156 Lines
Summary: The poem is set up with the narrator having a dream. In this dream or vision he is speaking to the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The poem itself is divided up into three separate sections. In section one, the narrator has a vision of the Cross. Initially when the dreamer sees the Cross, he notes how it is covered with gems. He is aware of how wretched he is compared to how glorious the tree is. However, he comes to see that amidst the beautiful stones it is stained with blood. In section two, the Cross shares its account of Jesus’ death. The Crucifixion story is told from the perspective of the Cross. It begins with the enemy coming to cut the tree down and carrying it away. The tree learns that it is not to be the bearer of a criminal, but instead Christ crucified. The Lord and the Cross become one, and they stand together as victors, refusing to fall, taking on insurmountable pain for the sake of mankind. It is not just Christ, but the Cross as well that is pierced with nails. The Rood and Christ are one in the portrayal of the Passion—they are both pierced with nails, mocked and tortured. Then, just as with Christ, the Cross is resurrected, and adorned with gold and silver. It is honoured above all trees just as Jesus is honoured above all men. The Cross then charges the visionary to share all that he has seen with others. In section three, the author gives his reflections about this vision. The vision ends, and the man is left with his thoughts. He gives praise to God for what he has seen and is filled with hope for eternal life and his desire to once again be near the glorious Cross.
Author: Cynewulf, and the text is ascribed with his signature
Date of Composition: Likely sometime in the 9th century, although Cynewulf could have been around in the late 8th or early 10th century.
Links to read for FREE: https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/juliana/)
Length: 731 Lines
Summary: The story begins by illustrating the harsh life for Christians under the rule of Galerius Maximian, describing various acts of violence visited upon Christians. Juliana is introduced as the daughter of Africanus of Nicomedia, who has promised Juliana’s hand in marriage to Eleusias, a wealthy senator and friend of Maximian. Although Juliana was born a pagan, she has converted to Christianity, and so she vehemently resists being married to the pagan Eleusias, not wanting to violate the relationship she shares with God.
When she publicly voices her dissatisfaction, Eleusias becomes outraged and insists that he has been publicly insulted. Africanus, upon hearing of this, becomes similarly outraged, believing his daughter has embarrassed him by refusing the hand of a man of much higher status. As a result, Africanus declares that Eleusias is free to punish Juliana in whatever way he wishes.
Eleusias proceeds to have Juliana stripped naked, hung from a tree by her hair, whipped, and beaten with rods for over two hours. Then she is thrown into prison.
While in prison, Juliana is visited by a demon pretending to be an angel of God, who tries to trick her into blasphemy. Juliana, being the epitome of unwavering Christian faith, doesn’t fall for the charade and prays to God for guidance. A voice tells her to reach out and grab the demon, and Juliana obeys.
This point forward contains the bulk of the story, in which Juliana and the demon have a lengthy war of words, with Juliana clearly dominating. She holds the demon and forces it to confess all of its wicked deeds several times over, ostensibly humiliating him forever in the kingdom of Hell.
After her victory over the visiting demon, Eleusias comes back for Juliana and seems to offer her a chance to change her mind. Not surprisingly, Juliana refuses him once again, and just as scathingly as before.
Eleusias then attempts to have Juliana burned alive in hot lead. Yet, even though he has Juliana placed in the fire, not a spot on her body or clothes is touched by the flames. Angrier than ever, Eleusias finally resolves to have Juliana beheaded, for which she becomes a Christian martyr.
So there you have it. I’m excited to dive into some more Anglo-Saxon poetry. Come back on the 18th of this month for our discussion of Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, and then on June 16th for our discussion of these poems!
Lindsey Fitch said:
Hi David! Thank you for sharing this, I just finished Judith, what an awesome story. I love all the descriptive names that the author gives to God. I am interested to know when this was written.
David Wiley said:
You are welcome and I am glad you enjoyed that one! I haven’t had a chance to dive in yet, but I am sure you’ll enjoy Dream of the Rood (I’ve visited that poem before and really enjoyed it). These three poems were all likely written somewhere between 700-1000 AD, so very old poems!
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Andrea Lundgren said:
What a gruesome ending for Juliana! I wonder why it was better to be beheaded than burned? Or did she just have to die, somehow, to be a martyr, and the protection from fire was designed to show that God was with her until the end? Because I can’t think of a biblical example where God saved a person from one death attempt only to let them succumb to a different form of being killed, immediately thereafter.
David Wiley said:
It really does make you wonder, doesn’t it? I’ll be curious to read that poem and maybe do a little digging into the story of Juliana. Perhaps it was slightly exaggerated in order to make it appear more miraculous? We’ll never know for sure on this side of heaven, but it might make an interesting trail to follow!