Cross and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England

An Interdisciplinary Conference in Durham, England
August 3-4, 2001
St. John's College, University of Durham

Summary Report

delivered at the Manchester "Place of the Cross in Anglo-Saxon England" seminar July 2002

The “Cross and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England” seminar in Durham last summer, held in honor of Stanford Professor George Hardin Brown, drew together twenty-six participants, including eight distinguished speakers, to discuss the social, religious, literary, and artistic significance of the cross as an artifact, gesture, and concept in Anglo-Saxon culture. This interdisciplinary conversation included a visit to two cross monuments, Bewcastle and Ruthwell.

Several threads wove through the discussions over the course of the two days. Some of the key words and dialectical concepts that repeated themselves included:

The eight speakers raised a series of interconnected questions that generated much discussion in the concluding session of the seminar; many of these questions have contributed to this Manchester seminar and the Winchester plans for next summer. Out of the rich feast of ideas presented by our presenters, let me highlight three interconnected issues: the image-shifting nature of the cross; its physicality; and the performative aspect of this sign.

First, in the opening session our honored guest George Brown (“The Venerable Bede and the Cross”) gave us the phrase “image-shifting” to indicate the complexity of ideas contained in the cross. Brown focused on odd combinations of images in Bede’s writing—wood, pomegranate, red and white symbolism. Éamonn Ó Carragáin (“Theology and English Poetry: The Case of Maximus Confessor”) followed that with another example of image shifting, “heroic humility” in the cross as both incarnation and passion. Likewise, Joyce Hill (“Preaching the Cross: Texts and Contexts from the Benedictine Reform”) examined the monastic versus secular contexts for sermons on the Invention and Exaltation of the cross and thus noted the shifting meaning of the cross from spiritual to practical experiences, a gray area also noted in Roy Liuzza’s presentation on “Prayers and/or Charms Addressed to the Cross” in the next session.

Thus a second angle emerged in the second session in discussions of the physicality of the cross. Fred Orton’s presentation examined “The Bewcastle Monument, Rome, Bede, the Reckoning of Time, Sundials and the Renewal of Science,” a talk that was followed up by a physical visit to the monument itself the following day. The physicality of the cross is connected to its practicality, as Liuzza pointed out in his discussion of the cross as a “portable contact relic” that expresses a “somatic (as opposed to affective) piety” in the prayers/charms of Cotton Tiberius A.iii. Bill Schipper’s discussion of “Rabanus Maurus’s In honorem sanctae crucis and Tenth-Century England” demonstrated the connection between seeing and reading, the physical structuring of text and image that reveals an underlying ordo of the world in the early medieval mentality.

Third, the cross not only unites in text and image, but is expressed in performance and sign. Sarah Keefer, in “Tracking the Veneration of the Cross Synaxis,” explored how individuals became identified with the cross through ritual performance and private devotional practice. Catherine Karkov pointed to the role of color and symbolism in images that preface devotional texts in her discussion of “Abbot Aelfwine and the Sign of the Cross,” a discussion that returned us to Brown’s notion of the image-shifting cross.

The concluding session tied these themes together by addressed four questions. These questions in turn raised others as the discussion progressed.

  1. How, within our specific disciplines, do we see ways in which the Anglo-Saxon mind equated the specific shape of the cross with a larger, aesthetic meaning?
  2. In what ways do superstition and ritual meet or become contiguous in Anglo-Saxon England?
  3. What are the implications of the tension represented by the dual aspects of the Cross as objective symbol and the Cross as personal gesture?
  4. How do various Anglo-Saxons identify with the cross: through ritual performance, in private devotional practice, in public worship, and in specific/practical use?
The shape of the cross, and its shaping power, ran through much of the session dialogue. Opening the discussion, Joyce Hill highlighted the “cosmic cross uniting heaven and earth,” while at the conclusion George Brown and Helen Damico pointed to the human shape of the cross evident in ritual prostration and in the poetic shaping of the Dream of the Rood.

In the context of discussing the “Anglo-Saxon mind,” David Pelteret challenged us to consider the dynamic of changes over time in the image and uses of the cross, and David Rollason echoed this concern that we recover some kind of chronology for the cross, focusing on material culture as the best clue. Art historian Karkov and archaeologist Rosemary Cramp pointed to the changes in aesthetic and representation over the centuries, while liturgical specialists Keefer and Ó Carragáin pointed to the liturgical changes with reform that show an aesthetic selection process.

Not only questions of change over time, but also questions of audience and context came up over and over. Richard Buchanan asked about shared meanings across aristocratic, peasant and clerical audiences. Ó Carragáin noted that the object of the cross changes meaning according to time, ritual, and season, as well as audience. George Brown and Carol Farr remarked on the complexity of thought evident in this multivalence of the cross, while Orton questioned the problems we have using modern aesthetic terminology at odds with the cognitive structures in early medieval allegorical and typological thought. Correlating material culture and ritual practice, for example liturgy and architecture, offers a way of addressing both questions of change over time and differences in context. Hence the need for interdisciplinary and collaborative research became clear to all participants in the discussion.

At the end of the seminar, the field trip to Bewcastle and Ruthwell brought home the physicality and power of the cross. Most of the participants were able to come along on the journey. After a delayed and anxious start in the morning (thank you, David Rollason for your patience and your mobile phone!), we traversed along Hadrian’s Wall to Bewcastle, where Fred Orton was able to engage us directly with the problems of the monument as a sundial and its possible monastic time-keeping purposes. Passing through rain—and remarkably even some hail—we arrived at Ruthwell where Éamonn Ó Carragáin in particular evoked for us the liturgical resonances in this monument and the Dream of the Rood. A digital picture of the group gathered around the Ruthwell Cross is available at the seminar website (with Éamonn sneaking off behind).

Overall, the seminar proved that the cross is a dynamic concept that gives insight into many layers of Anglo-Saxon culture. The flexibility of the cross allows it to be personalized individually in relation to communal or shared uses and meanings. Its portability and adaptability allow the cross to be used by all sectors of society for a range of spiritual and practical purposes that are not mutually exclusive. The interdisciplinarity of the cross suggests that a shared typology links word, image, and performance: the cross is a metaphor, an image, an allegory that links the physical and mental landscapes of Anglo-Saxon society across time and place.

In conclusion, I would like to add a personal note of thanks to those who made the seminar possible: St. John’s College, Durham and the University of Hawai`i Conference Center for the facilities and registration; Professors David Rollason and Rosemary Cramp of the University of Durham for hosting us so ably; Professor Joyce Hill (and David Rollason) for supplemental transportation on our excursion; all of our distinguished speakers as well as our participants; and last but not least, my two project collaborators, Catherine Karkov and Sarah Keefer. Thank you for your inspiration and hard work!